Well, the first thought that comes to mind is probably "what'n the hell
does one have to do with the other," right? It's not too long a story,
so try and enjoy it. And remember that although I've had to change a few
names to protect the guilty, it's all true enough.
It was the summer of '79 and I was working out of St. Thomas, diving lobster for market and playing guitar at the Indies House, when I was approached by Baron von Ball in the kitchen of Hotel 1829. While unloading a couple of sacks of lobster for his chef, Vernon asked me if I could help him out with a very sticky situation. It seems that he had the power of attorney over a boat that was owned by some eccentric. The boat was in Virgin Gorda and just like the owner, who had had a heart attack while watching the antics of his all-girl, alternate-sex crew, Sappho II was dead at the dock in Spanish Town.
Now who in the hell would be so irreverent as to name a boat Sappho and carry on like that? I guess the owner found out the hard way, and I wanted no part of a hoodoo ship that was the talk of the islands. "Sea don' make no joke m'son." I told Vernon that my boat couldn't handle towing Sappho back to St. Thomas, but that he ought to get Pat Boatwright's Thumper to do it. He thanked me and paid for the lobsters. I thought that was the end of it, but little did I know.
In September I got a call from Vernon as Hurricane David was bearing down on St. Thomas. Sappho II was at Yacht Haven, still dead at the dock. Skippers didn't want anything to do with that boat, but Paul the dockmaster wanted all the boats off the docks, and no exceptions, so would I please take her out, put her on anchor and batten her down? I tried to plead that my boat was already in the racks at Shoreline Marine so I couldn't tow Sappho out to anchor, but Vernon said that Sappho's Whaler had a 40-horse Johnson so "would you please, and how much do you want?" People didn't usually say no to Vernon. Well, in those days lobster was bringing US$4 a pound and skippers might make US$50 a day, so I asked for US$25 an hour, sure that he would never agree. Boy, was I astonished when he did, saying that after all it wasn't his money. I'd painted myself into a corner and my pride wouldn't let me out. With a heavy heart, under darkening skies I took Sappho II on the hip with the Whaler and eased her out of the slip at Yacht Haven, not liking this at all.
St. Thomas harbor was pretty full of boats but most of them were
on moorings just west of the docks at Yacht Haven. Not wanting to have
to dodge all the boats that were sure to drag their moorings in the surge,
I anchored Sappho 250 feet southwest of the Coast Guard wharf. There was
35 feet of water and real good holding ground, but pretty exposed. I set
a 100-pound plow on 7/16 inch chain 'cause that was what there was. I ought
to explain that Sappho II was a Chow Tai 54-footer, a type of boat commonly
referred to in those days as a "Taiwan turkey". I'd rather have had more
chain, but then again I'd rather not have been there at all, money or no.
I put a devil's claw on the chain with a nylon snubber to the samson post, pipe-furled the sails and started getting loose gear secured above and below. I was still hoping to get off the boat before the storm hit and pull the Whaler ashore at L'Escargot in Sub Base. There was a beach there and Jean-Pierre would help me, I hoped.
Did I say this boat was jinxed? Luck was really not with me. Quickly the winds began to blow hard from the northeast. As the barometer fell, the Whaler got asthma and refused to start, then the battery died. I pulled the gas tank and battery and put the tender on a 40-foot painter and pulled the plug. I managed to reach Vernon on the VHF but there was no one who could take me off Sappho. He told me, "Don't worry, you're still on the clock." That really made me feel good. Money was the least of my worries. Here I was married to a whore without a heart, facing a storm that no one knew anything about, in a boat I knew nothing about. Then it really started to blow.
The first thing that I thought I ought to do was to try the engine. Well, the start battery was dead so I tinkered with the genset, got it going and turned on the battery charger. I figured there wasn't much else I could do so I checked the main engine for fuel, purged the air from the lines with the lift pump and turned out to check the ground tackle. I'd say that it was blowing steady 75 mph 'cause I cheated and looked at the instrument panel. Surge coming in the harbor mouth was making the old whore dance a very lively tune and the bowsprit was shaking loose. I mean the whole effing framework was wobbling 5 inches as she fetched up short on her chain and the roller screeched. Not good, not good at all.
As I racked my brain for a solution I looked out and saw a boat go by, dragging her mooring on her way to death on the shores of Hassel Island. Fighting off morbid thoughts, it struck my eye that she was shackled to her mooring at the waterline. There was my answer: let out more scope and drop the load lower, but how? I was sure I had enough rode out 'cause there wasn't any more. I hung over the side of the pulpit and saw that the bobstay chain was shackled to the end cap on the bowsprit, so I hunted up a wrench and another shackle. I secured the bobstay to the rode and cut the snubber. The effect was dramatic. The old girl stopped doing the jitterbug and picked up a lively waltz instead. What a relief! Back to the engine room. I wasn't thinking about running, but maybe I could avoid the boats that were dragging by in larger numbers.
When the start battery was charged it was about midnight and the wind
was moaning in the rigging. I checked the electrical leads, replaced a
bolt someone had left out of the starter and tried to turn her over. She
ran! Success! I put the her into gear and she started shaking herself to
pieces. Water started flooding in at the stuffing box, the bilge pump came
on, and I shut down the engine; so much for that. That's when I noticed
that "Mitchell", not her real name but the previous captain nevertheless,
had replaced the engine. There were just a couple of problems: the new
engine was smaller and her mounts couldn't straddle the bed so Mitchell
had sistered a 2x6 and bolted it up. Right? Wrong! The alignment was out
and the shaft was tearing up the stuffing box.
Defeated and left at the whim of fate I tried to go to sleep in the master stateroom but rain driven through the "teak" plywood reminded me that this was where the owner croaked during the circus. I crashed in the main salon with a life jacket for a pillow as the wind reached 90 mph. Enough is enough.
I didn't sleep very much that night and I won't bore you old salts with the details. The wind blew harder, I got tireder, etcetera, etcetera. When I finally woke up it was about 11:00AM and a hot, sunshiny day! Talk about changes. I used the radio to get hold of my buddy Kurt Glansdorpf. He had been minding Sandy's sportsfisherman during the storm. Kurt picked me up and I helped him recover his ground tackle. I then went over to Shoreline Marine to see if David Pearsall would put my boat back in the water. There was work to be done and the lobster always moved into the reefs after a storm. Sappho II was locked up and Vernon could wait. I was off the clock forever, or so I thought.
It was only 10 days later when Hurricane Frederick came roaring up to St. Thomas. Sappho II was still on her anchor and I had been selling lobster like crazy, with the lion's share going to Hotel 1829. I got a call at Shoreline from Vernon: "It doesn't look like a big storm. The insurance company says a captain has to be on the boat. There's nothing wrong with the money. You've already done this." Vernon is a very persuasive man and I'm a pushover... and I wanted to keep selling him lobster. Anyway I knew that anchor was really well set! "Okay, I'll do it, but only 'cause it's you." Here we go again, jinx or no jinx.
The engine still doesn't work but I have another anchor rigged for when the wind backs, lots of food and drink, a good book, and hope that the old gal will hold together. Frederick is a repeat of David, same storm track, same final wind intensity at 95 mph, and blows through just as quick. More boats go up on Hassel Island. The sun comes out, life goes on, I punch out, Vernon cuts me a check, and I go back to diving, while Sappho II goes back to the boatyard for engine work.
Around the end of November Vernon calls me and says how would I like
to have some fun?
Okay, what's it this time? It seems that These People had prepaid for a charter on Sappho II and if they don't get it they might put a lien on the boat, but they are really fun people and they're in the entertainment industry. I try and protest that the boat really isn't in any kind of shape for a charter; for starters the mizzen mast is completely rotten. Vernon says he knows that, but what is he supposed to do? And can his 16-year-old son come along as cabin boy?! Sappho II starts over with an all male crew: yours truly, cabin boy Mike Ball, and Glen Higgins, a great windsurfer and Hobie Cat sailor from Magen's Bay, who is mate/cook.
The big day arrives and our charter party arrives - Ernie and Thom, "That's Thom with an H" - not exactly flaming but smoking for sure. The three of us guys look at each other; here we go. We set out from Charlotte Amalie, but because I don't think that the mainmast or rigging will stand the strain - forget the mizzen - we motorsail, flapping down the channel with slack sheets on our way to 10 fun-filled days in the BVI. We "motorsail" all the way up to the eastern end of St. John when I spot a line squall just the other side of Ram's Head. With a foul bottom we're only making 5 knots and I can't turn quickly enough, so we do a flying gybe, break a spreader on the main, almost throw the guests overboard, lose some cushions, douse sails, and tuck into Lameshur Bay, St. John. There we stay for the first night.
By the morning of the second day our guests tell us they really don't care about sailing all that much, but really do want to do all the "high spots" and really do have excellent drugs. What can I say? "So be it." Of course nothing works on the boat worth a damn (it seems that the only thing working properly is the jinx), but by this time our guests couldn't care less. They play all day then retire to the master cabin. The rest of us stay in the pointy end and everyone is happy in spite of the constant equipment failures. We brought lots of tapes, there's lots of food, they even take us to dinner and we take them to Brother B's at Spanish Town, but if there's too much wind the old girl complains when we move.
We finally get to Cane Garden Bay where we stay for 5 days. I figure, what can go wrong if we don't move this unhappy boat? Young Mike loves driving the tender, which is called Magic Dancer, and takes our guests waterskiing every day until we have to go get Stanley Hodge to take us to Road Town in his bus for more gas. The second day there the crew climbs up Storm King Mountain and gets enough magic mushrooms to keep the party spinning until it's time to go home. The crew gets tipped nicely and everyone goes home happy that the boat didn't sink.
I'll bet you think this is the end of the story, right? Wrong. Sappho II spent some years withering as a boatyard queen while the lawyers fought over the estate. Now what has all this got to do with Cap'n Ron? We're just getting to that part. There's still a lot of life in this mistreated old gal, you'll see soon enough.
Sappho II became the centerpiece in the "Cap'n Ron" movie! If you haven't
seen it, rent the video. This is a hilarious movie about a family that
escapes to the Caribbean, buys a mistreated old boat sight unseen, and
hires a can-do pirate, played by Kurt Russell, to show them the ropes.
Of course, just like real life everything that can go wrong does just that.
Co-incidence or deja vu?
BUT there's still a Cinderella ending for the boat. The Carr sisters, Irene and Geraldine, who once ran the restaurant at Shibui and later The Twins on Garden Street in St. Thomas, resurrect this tattered old girl. They break the hoodoo and rename the boat Kiva, paint her a beautiful dark green and sail away from St. Thomas.
That's the whole ball of wax. I wasn't involved with the movie but for
a short, intense period of my life I sure was intimately involved with
Sappho II and it seemed like anything that could go wrong with that boat
did go wrong, until Irene and Geraldine changed her name and her luck.
It's like the song says, you've got to "Treat Her Like A Lady" - 'cause
boats have feelings too.
Copyright© 2001 Compass Publishing