My Captain

The last time I saw him I was standing at the end of a lonely pier watching him disappear over the horizon. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t cry easily in those days, unlike now, some 45 years later. He wasn’t my father, or necessarily a father figure. He was my Captain and was always addressed as such. Sure, I called him “Cap” and “Skipper” sometimes, but never Art or Mr. Kimberly.

Cap, a Marble Head, MA native, was short and slight, the wiry sort, and even in his early 40s could scoot up the rigging like a frightened monkey. He had unusually smooth skin on his face, deeply tanned that gave him the complexion of a polished western saddle. One blue eye sparkled and could drill a hole in you. The other one, the glass one, never looked quite right. The eye, his face and his lack of a sense of smell or taste were the result of a runaway winch on a sailboat that tore half his face away. That little adventure cost him his Masters License and job as an oil tanker captain. The only job he could get was captain of a charter boat… with foreign registry, of course.

If he ever regretted it, he never said so. On the other hand, he never said much of anything unless he was giving orders or had had a couple of rum swizzles, a vile concoction he drank because he could nearly taste it. We usually stood the 4 to 8 watches together. Coming on deck for the morning watch, I would take the wheel and sail the Yankee through the darkness while he paced the deck quietly humming and singing to himself in his gravelly voice. In foul weather or beneath a brilliant star filled sky, he never varied his rolling gait up and down the slick teak deck. Unless it was something to do with the course or trim of the sails, we hardly ever spoke.

As dawn approached the Skipper would take the wheel while I dashed forward to the galley to grab a cup of Frank’s thick coffee. Quickly back on deck, I would retake the helm while the Captain went below to shave and clean up. For the next hour I would have the Old Girl to myself. Keeping the sails full and drawing, surging through the waves, she responded quickly to light touches on the big spoked wheel. I would stand silently awed by the magnificent kaleidoscope of the Caribbean dawn. With a fine ship beneath my bare feet, a strong coffee near at hand and a beautiful day aborning, all was right with my World.

The Yankee had started life before World War I as a North Sea pilot schooner named Loodschooner 4. Steel hulled and nearly 100’ long; she sported high bulwarks and a raked clipper bow, a perfect design for the nasty weather of the North Sea. Irvin Johnson of National Geographic fame acquired the ship in 1932 and renamed her Yankee. He refitted her foremast with yardarms in a classic Brigantine rig making her a true “square rigger”. After five circumnavigations of the globe, Johnson sold her to Mike Burke of Miami Beach in 1959. Mike planned to use Yankee and her sister ship, the schooner Polynesia, on 10-14 day “barefoot cruises” in the Bahamas.

I signed on the Brigantine Yankee in 1960 as an 18-year-old deckhand following my freshman year at Cornell. It was my year off to grow up and earn some money to return. I came with little real sailing experience but it was clear I wanted to learn and was willing to work. So Cap taught me. First I learned the skills of a deck hand; the names of the sails, their parts and the various lines that control them, rigging, splicing and helmsmanship. Then, he showed me how to be a topmast man. How to safely climb the rigging, work on the footropes and set and stow the topsails.

As you might expect, the Skipper had an aversion to winches. The only winch on board was the anchor windlass. Everything else was hoisted and hauled by hand. Each deck hand was expected to find the proper line immediately in the pitch dark. No flashlights either, thank you. It was no easy task. The foot of each mast was a maze of lines; clew lines, buntlines, sheets, braces, downhauls and halyards. The safety of the ship depended on quick reaction for the squalls in the Caribbean came quickly and with ferocity. We were often roused from our bunks with the cry of “All Hands on Deck!” Rushing topside we would clew up the topsails, scamper up the rigging and hurry out on the footropes to lash the flapping sails to the yardarms. It was hard and dangerous work, unsuited for the faint of heart, especially agoraphobics.

Turnover was high on Mike Burke’s Windjammer Cruises ships. At $2.00 per day, a bunk and board plus $10 or so a week in tips it was a lot of work for what amounted to beer money in Nassau. But, I loved it. Whether sailing quietly at night with stars blazing overhead and phosphorescent waves curling off the bow or perched high in the rigging under a brilliant sky, sails full and the white hull charging through the waves like a spurred stallion beneath me, I ate it up.

The weeks passed quickly and Cap discovered I had other useful skills. When anchored, I’d swim off to a reef and spear a grouper or two for Frank, our perpetually cranky cook. Before long, I became the only person on the ship besides the Captain who dared cross the threshold of Frank’s galley when I found places where I could gig enough lobsters to feed both passengers and crew. I started taking guests out on snorkel and SCUBA trips when we visited various islands on our way to and from Nassau. “Damned expeditionists”, Cap called them, although he was clearly pleased for the Yankee had no organized activities for them.

Mike Burke was starting to talk about organizing an around the world trip for the Yankee. The previous owner, Irving Johnson had done it five times, all with hand picked college students. Burke was looking for paying customers and Cap was worried that the group that showed up with the coin might not have many hearty sailors among them. So, Cap started grooming me to go as First Mate. He started teaching me piloting, celestial navigation and the rules of the road. At dawn and dusk we’d be out on deck, sextants in hand, shooting stars and plotting our results. At noon we’d take our sun shots. When we started getting pretty much the same positions on the chart, he would simply nod in approval. Not big on praise was Cap. In fact, I can only remember one time that he gave me a real compliment.

On that day the Yankee and Polynesia happened to end up at the same anchorage off Gt. Abaco Island and we were both ferrying guests back and forth to the shore. Art, Frank’s assistant, and I were returning to the Yankee empty after dropping off a load of guests. A straight line back to the two ships would take you across a shallow sand bar where the waves were breaking now that the tide was going out. The coxswain of Poly’s launch had foolishly tried the direct route over the bar fully loaded and had swamped the boat dumping all the passengers in the drink. They were hanging onto the boat as it bumped and dragged on the bar while the waves washed over them. To pick up the guests who had already been in the water awhile without swamping our own launch would be tricky. I had Art ready the anchor of our double-ended launch, slid past them, dropped the anchor and backed down until we were abeam of the floundering guests. We carefully took them aboard and cautiously worked our way through the surf-like waves and off the bar. We left to Poly’s crew the unpleasant task of recovering their own damn launch and coxswain. After we dropped off the wet but happy guests at the Polynesia and returned to the Yankee Cap said, “Nice piece of seamanship, Dick”. I was stunned, as if I had just been awarded the Presidential Citation.

I learned a lot more than knots and seamanship from My Captain… like leadership. He demanded much of his crew, but he worked as hard as any one of us. Gruff and taciturn, he none-the-less looked after us, taking money out of his own pocket to see that we were adequately fed in port.

On one trip he taught me a lesson in courage. We were trying to beat a hurricane back to Miami and as we crossed the Gulf Stream during the night, were losing the race. With only the staysails set we were bombing along before the wind, solid waves coming over the high bow and sweeping the deck from bow to stern. Cap and I spent the night using our combined strength at the wheel to keep the Yankee on course while the water swirled aggressively around our legs. The guests and crew hunkered below with hatches battened. He remained calm and controlled even when we seemed on the verge of broaching and rolling her over. As the dawn broke grey and ugly and the rain washed the crusted salt from our eyes and ears, I could finally see the enormous waves that towered over our stern and threatened to “poop” us. If Cap was at all worried, he never showed it.

In the end, after nearly six months, I decided to leave the Yankee. Burke didn’t want to pay me much of anything for the round the world trip… not enough to go back to Cornell anyway, and, I feared, if I stayed away two years, I might never go back. On my final trip we dropped off the guests at Port Everglades. I was leaving the ship there while Cap and the rest of the crew sailed her back to Miami Beach. Cap called me down to his cabin when they were ready to get underway. He poured each of us a drink of the powerful rum we bought for $2.60 a case in Freeport and said, “Well, what are you going to do now?” He interrupted my rambling explanation which amounted to “Hitch hike to California” with “I guess you really don’t know do you?’’ He said, “I hope you figure it out.” We finished our drinks, shook, said our “good lucks” and I went over the side to tend the dock lines as they shoved off.

The slip where Yankee was tied up was not much wider than she was long and they needed to turn a 180 to get out of there. It would be a tight maneuver using the engine and spring lines. Instead he did the near impossible. Using the sails alone he backed the jibs and then the forestay- sail swinging her around as neat as you please. Now THAT was a real piece of seamanship! Normally Cap would have motored out of the harbor before hoisting the sails. But, as I tossed off the last line, he waved and started shouting orders. Before he passed the bell buoy he had every sail on her full and shining like gold in the slanting sunlight of evening. It was a thing of beauty. I stood there on the pier alone, duffle at my feet without another soul around to see it. I knew that he did it as a parting gift to me. It was a gift without price.

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2 Responses to My Captain

  1. Daniel

    That night out on the Gulf with you and Cap sounds like quite the experience! Some men have a hard time showing emotions or sharing feelings, and often it is these men who have the most to give. It sounds to me like you both learned from one another and I think in life, that is sometimes the most important part. Thanks for sharing this story, much enjoyed 🙂

  2. Linda Zemler

    Wow! loved it.
    what a great adventure (and well written)
    Thanks Dick

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