Down Island with ‘Big Ti’
By TD Matzenik
I lost my job when the S&S schooner So Fong was laid up. So, I shouldered my seabag and headed south. Classic sailing yachts had been my passion, even before they called them classics. It was late 1973 and there I was in Antigua, on the quay in Nelson’s Dockyard, looking at the fanciest sailboats in the charter fleet. It would be my third winter in the Caribbean, back in the days when 50 bucks a week was good money for a deckhand.
Trouble was, most every classic sailing yacht arrived here fully crewed, but I accosted a few likely lads until I got a tip. “Yeah, I think there’s a job going on Ticonderoga, but no way would I work for that guy!” I had not met “that guy,” but I knew his hire-and-fire reputation.
I saw him coming down the gangway, Captain Ken “Fourteen Knots” MacKenzie. He was a tall, ruddy-faced Yankee about 12 years my senior, and he shut me up fast: “If you want to sail in Ti, there are three ways to do it: the right way, the wrong way, and my way. Guess which one it’s gonna be.” I guessed right, but part of doing it his way, he told me, was to make sure the fridge was full of beer at all times, and not bother him if I wanted to crack one.
Ken liked to brag that Big Ti could make 14 knots, and it was not just the beer talking. Ticonderoga is a 73-foot ketch by L. Francis Herreshoff, launched in 1936. Her clipper bow and raked masts give her tangible links to the earliest days of American yachting. But her lines are so long and easy that she could still win major ocean races in the 1960s.
On our first charter we cleared English Harbour leaving placid waters that gave no hint of what was to come. We sailed out from under Shirley Heights into a brisk tradewind with the big cresting seas of the open ocean. The uninitiated would hang on with white knuckles for the 25-mile reach across to the French island of Guadeloupe. Big Ti would fairly romp over the swells, tight sailcloth all-a-thrum. This is what I lived for, and most of our cruises in the lower Caribbean were much like this.
Deshaies Bay, at the northern end of Guadeloupe, was our first and last stop out of Antigua. Fran Mackenzie, our chef and second in command, usually got a well-deserved break there. It was a sleepy fishing village with only a few lights at night. In the evening we would run the dinghy up onto the sand and walk into the only restaurant: a ramshackle tin roof on posts and table legs settled in the sand. Madame Racin was a little turbaned Creole woman who held sway over the staff — her husband and boy. There was no menu, just whatever was on that day, usually spicy fish, and it was always good after a long day of sailorizing.
After several weeks on charter farther south, Ti returned to English Harbour with her main engine a total write-off. It was a financial disaster for a charter yacht in mid-season, and it looked like a month at the dock. But to my surprise MacKenzie did not cancel any charters, and when he came on deck with a mask, fins, and a wrench he said, “If we are going to sail, no reason to drag the propeller.”
And sail we did. With two days until our guests arrived down-island in Martinique, we got underway and slipped out under short sail through the anchored yachts. That season turned out to be the heaviest in my ten years in the West Indies. It rarely blew less than 25 knots, and often well over 30 with rainsqualls.
We carried the reefed mainsail while we had daylight. Under the lee of Guadeloupe, the reinforced tradewind drove down the ravines from storm-clouded jungle peaks. We could see the williwaws coming down through the bending trees, but the flat water allowed us to drive Ti for all she was worth. The lights of Basse Terre were just coming on to port while we put the mainsail to bed. West of les Iles des Saintes, the last of the sun set in an angry smear of yellow and grey.
Ti was under mizzen and headsails and we were unlikely to see any traffic crossing the channel to Dominica, but that did not make the loss of visibility any more cheery. It was all soon blotted out in torrential rain. The old sailing instruments were long unserviceable, but I learned to sail without them anyway. I guessed wind strength by observing the sea state, and by how the spray stung my face. Thirty knots seemed a suitably conservative estimate. My crewmate Cathy and I took one watch, Ken and Fran the other, but Ken was around most of the night. Ti bucked her way across the 20-mile passage, with the wind backing and veering with each squall.
Dominica is a wild island with a history of war and conquest. The first headland is named in French for the devil and brimstone. We swept in under the lee close by the village of Plymouth. At the Spot Light Bar, of stewed frog fame, they would be hoping the weather would bring in a passing yacht or two, but we were “dead-heading” all the way to Martinique.
The wind backed and blew enough to shimmy the rigging. Was this really the Caribbean? The heavy rain made my teeth chatter when it fell down the mountain slopes from peaks of 3,000 feet. When the wind began to come ahead, we knew we were close to the southern end of the island. Pointe des Fous is where the mountains tower over the sea like the eerie ramparts of Skull Island. Apparently the French did not care for the place too much either. Even in good weather you can expect some powerful gusts to come licking around the near-vertical cliff faces. It was too dark to see what was coming until the wind blustered and came ahead. Soon I was fisting the working jib out on the end of the bowsprit.
We had not seen the end of the island, except for a weak light in the vicinity of Soufriere, but Dominica was not done with us. The wind and rain howled around the headland, close to gale force. Ticonderoga forged on under mizzen and a reaching staysail, the wind backing as we came out from under the cliffs. We certainly hadn’t missed the engine so far. I took the helm in heavy bursts of spray that carried all the way from the weather bow to the mizzen boom.
Sometime after midnight I had taken my position at the lee side of the wheel, with MacKenzie standing to windward. The wind was about 35 knots, boat speed maybe 10 or 11, when she shouldered into a big one. The spray shot up like geyser and seemed to pause, and then it pelted down on us. Ken turned away as it hit like hail and hissed into the sea. I must have voiced some complaint, because Ken leaned over to me. I made out his dripping nose in the glow of the compass light. He put his hand up to his hooded face to help carry his words. “Didn’t go to sea to keep your ass dry, did yeh?”
No, I did not, and I wouldn’t exchange the memory of that night in the Martinique Channel for the prettiest day in paradise. Ti was snugged down, close reaching on the top of the breaking seas. At times she would gather momentum beyond her natural boat speed.
Like many clipper-lined vessels, Ti had a habit of settling by the stern when driven hard. The Golden Eagle on her transom would get a regular dunking. “Drowning the chicken,” Scotty the rigger called it.
A sea would gorge the deck, water spewing over the rail, and then I’d hear the freeing port slam shut as she rolled to leeward again. Steering in those conditions was work. You had to pay attention, but I was slightly disappointed when the wind backed and eased a bit. First light caught Ticonderoga running in under the lee of the sleeping volcano at St. Pierre, Martinique. I’d been up all night. But hey, no problem, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
For the next two weeks Ti worked in and out of every anchorage and berth under sail without incident. Ken was a born seaman and I was fortunate to see his deft handling of Ticonderoga without an engine. They were feats I would attempt to emulate in coming years, with less than spectacular results. But those adventures could wait. In the meantime, I knew that when we got back to English Harbour and the Admiral’s Inn, MacKenzie would swear Big Ti had touched 14 knots that night. Who knows? Maybe she did.
Down Island in Big Ti is an excerpt from an unpublished memoir by TD Matzenik, author of the South Seas romance Song of the Mokihana.
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