Your Watch, Carolyn
In Praise of a Watery Relationship
Copyright 2001 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander
I love the night watches, especially thousands of miles offshore in the middle of the Pacific. The air is so pure, the stars so impossibly close. Everything seems in perfect harmonic balance: the chuckling bow wave, the creaking mainsheet, the dove-wing flutter of the genoa leech. I achieve an almost mystical state of grace during such salt-stained moments of intense introspection. Sometimes I have to be careful to take small breaths so I don’t hyperventilate: I am one with Mother Ocean, I am sailing through God’s own cathedral. I am so incredibly lucky, so amazingly blessed.
But eventually my eyelids droop. I stumble below, check the red-glow of my nav instruments, make a faint tick-line on the tattered chart. Then I crouch beside her. “Your watch, Carolyn.”
She stirs, faintly at first, then surfaces. “Hi,” she says as she smiles away her drowsiness. “Any ships?” She always asks this—even though there has not been a single ship for the last twenty days we’ve been pointing towards French Polynesia.
I look down at her ensconced so comfortably within the lee cloth of the windward bunk—a bunk which I built with my own calloused hands. I wonder how many times on how many oceans over how many years I’ve awoken her like this. I know every physical detail about her—I have seen her at her absolute worst—and yet a part of her is still The Eternal Mystery Woman to me.
It is difficult to know the precise moment Cupid drew his bow. It was around the time of the Summer of Love, I know that—say, 1968, in Chicago. It was not love at first sight. Carolyn and I were high school friends. Then we started spending more and more time together on Corina, a 1932 wooden Atkins 22-foot double-ender I’d purchased the year before the ripe old age of 15.
I’d point at a chart, and trace my dreams over the horizon. She’d smile, but she’d also ask, “How many days at sea would that be? How much water would you carry? How many cans of Dinty Moore would you have to take?”
She was always practical, matter-of-fact. I purchased a guitar; she heat-sealed the spare strings in plastic bags—and advised me to rub the strung strings with candle wax to lengthen their lives. I complained about how much denatured alcohol my galley stove drank, she bought me a pressure-cooker.
Once I laughing told Carolyn I was sailing to the Milky Way, and she calmly responded that, in that case, I’d need “...the appropriate charts and a new light list too!”
At some point I just stopped thinking of ‘me’ and started thinking of ‘us.’
“Don’t plane that deck beam any more,” I told my father, “I’m scared it’s gonna break.” He was hand planing down a high spot on the main elm deck beam I’d steamed into place a few days previously. He’d often join Carolyn and I on the week-ends at the height of the rebuild of Corina. I relied on his advice heavily as he’d rebuilt a number of sailing vessels pre-WWII.
“Seriously,” I warned him again, “there’s a lot of force on that one.”
“For gosh sakes, son,” he said, exasperated, as he took a particularly vicious swipe at it. “I think I know when to...”
He stopped in mid-sentence as the deck beam split with a horrible ‘crack!’ All of us just stared at it for awhile—as if within its jagged core were the answers to many generational questions. Then Carolyn sighed, scratched her head, and walked over to the pile of extra beams I’d steam-bent for just such an eventuality. She picked one up, hefted it, and slowly squinted along its full length. Then another, and yet still another—until she found the one with the straightest grain and fairest curve.
My father watched her the whole time, the smile gradually covering his whole bashful face. “You did good, son,” he said, and I knew he didn’t mean the boat or the beam.
The year was 1970. We were anchored in Lake Peoria, just outside the channel. Visibility was almost zero in heavy fog. I was finally on my way down the Mississippi River, finally sailing towards my horizon-chasing destiny. And Carolyn had decided to come along for the first week or two.
Fat drops of gray condensation dripped off the main boom onto the deck. Drip, drip, drip. It was chilly outside, wonderfully cozy below deck. The soft glow of the kerosene cabin lamps looked lovely against the varnished mahogany. We’d spent the day in bed: telling stories, cracking jokes, playing Scrabble.
I didn’t know what I was hearing at first. It confused me. I thought she’d drifted off asleep. “Why are you crying?” I said.
“Because I love you,” she said.
We both agreed our relationship was doomed: I was the unschooled bad boy, she the valedictorian with the merit scholarship to Northwestern University. I had traveled all my life under sail, she’d never left Chicago nor set foot on a boat. I had a cast-iron stomach, she got car-sick. My family were penniless sea gypsies, her father owned homes, stores and apartment buildings.
“We’re oil and water,” I said.
“Perhaps,” she said, “Or maybe we’re ying-and-yang, opposite sides of the same coin.”
A few months later we were in a full gale off the coast of Mexico. The immense strain of the large seas on our outboard rudder caused its iron-fastened horn timber to spit out it caulking and our garboard seam to open up—and Corina began to leak. Our floorboards floated. Our batteries shorted out. Both electric bilge pumps stopped working. Carolyn and I started taking half hour watches, and manually pumping the bilge for 15 minutes of our ‘off’ watch. I became fatigued. My brain seemed as waterlogged as our boat. It was like I was swimming in molasses.
Then the manual bilge pump clogged—and the clock really started ticking. I had to take apart the pump and clear it’s interior flapper valves—but now the pump was underwater, and getting more so every second.
It was not easy. I was up to my hips in sloshing seawater. If I dropped a piece of the pump—well, we were literally sunk.
While I worked, I glanced up at Carolyn at the tiller in the cockpit. She was completely exposed to the elements—we had no storm curtains nor cockpit dodger back then. Blowing spume was everywhere—large waves were occasionally exploding right over the heavily-laden boat. It was her first major ocean passage. The wind was literally shrieking through the rig. The motion of the small, low-freeboard vessel was extreme. Occasionally Carolyn would be illuminated harshly by a bolt of lightening—and I could see the look of fierce determination on her wet, rain-streaked face.
Once, she stuck her dripping face below and said with a smile, “Don’t worry, Fatty. You’ll get it! It’s gonna be okay...”
It wasn’t until the following day after the storm abated that I had time to think about that smile. She had smiled to encourage me. She had smiled to reassure me! A young city-girl who a few months ago didn’t know the difference between a gentleman’s bow tie and a sailor’s bowline-on-a-bight had comforted ole salty-dog me at the height of an offshore gale!
The following year, we were anchored off a small deserted island in Tampa Bay. The sun was setting—on many different levels. We were no longer children. Our bodies, minds and hearts had melded together—stronger for every ocean mile sailed. And we both now realized that we’d need a completely different vessel for offshore cruising—Corina was too small, too old, too heavy, and too slow for our future needs.
“I’d like the new boat to be around 36 feet long, and ketch-rigged,” I said. “Flush-decked forward, with a raised doghouse aft.”
“I’d want a big stove with a large oven,” said Carolyn. “And a galley table which could seat four easily—and six in a pinch.”
It was one of our favorite subjects: planning our dream vessel. But we had a problem: well-found offshore cruising vessels are not inexpensive objects.
“Why don’t we just build one?” Carolyn.
“Well, we don’t have any money,” I said. “And it’s a huge commitment—just huge!”
“If you set your mind to it, you could build a boat,” she told me. Our eyes locked. “If we sold Corina, we’d have some cash. You could do it, Fatty—I believe in you,” she said.
I didn’t say anything, so she added. “I do!”
“My palms were sweating. This WAS a big commitment. I felt dizzy. It was difficult to swallow. But I plunged on regardless.
“And if I was to hire a guy with a backwards collar to mumble the ‘death-do-us-part’ stuff—would you repeat that last statement... especially the ‘I do’ part?
“I would,” she said without batting an eye.
We were in Boston, and Carolyn was sitting cross-legged on the cement floor of a giant empty warehouse (B Street and Congress) we’d just rented. She’d already accomplished one goal: getting a library card and withdrawing a thick tome entitled “Lofting Small Craft.”
“Weeelll,” Carolyn said with a distracted squint as she flipped through the pages, “we have to, basically, draw a life-size picture of the boat on the floor.”
“How?” I said.
“It’s complicated,” she said—and truer words were never spoken. Most amateur boat-building projects end in failure, or worst (bankruptcy, divorce, suicide). The skill-sets of an offshore sailor and a shipwright are vastly different. Offshore vessels, especially 36 foot, 20,000 pound ketches, are very sophisticated, complicated, expensive purpose-built machines.
Luckily, we were still too young to allow logic and commonsense to dissuade us. I just decided that every single day I’d do something/anything on the project to nudge it towards completion.
We divided up the jobs into brawn and brains: basically, I did the physical stuff and Carolyn concentrated on the mental. She oversaw the lofting process, I cut the temporary frames for the ferro-cement armature. She estimated materials, I sprung the battens over the frames to shape the hull. She researched paint systems, I speckled my face with a roller.
But money was the big problem: we had to earn massive amounts of it and spend almost all of it on the boat. So Carolyn got a very lucrative job humping tables at Nick’s No Name restaurant on the Boston fish pier—but she had to work 12 hour shifts to keep it. I got a part time job at Marine Hardware on Atlantic Avenue—so I could purchase everything for the boat at cost.
For the first few months of the project we couch-surfed with old friends—but that got old quick. “Where are we gonna live,” asked Carolyn. “Apartments in Boston are incredibly expensive.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean—you take care of it. We’re already renting the warehouse, so there’s a possibility. Buy a tent or something... pitch it next to the boat. Damn it, Carolyn... I’ve got to concentrate on building the boat, not dicking around with crap like this...”
This was grossly unfair. Life often is. Ditto relationships. Carolyn built a giant tent of 6 mil plastic (layered, with trapped air spaces) next to the boat—which we promptly labeled The Plastic Palace.
Unfortunately, our landlord arrived unexpectedly one chilly January day—and spotted the tent. Since ‘living on premises’ was against our lease, we had to take it down—and he returned the following day to ensure we did.
What he didn’t know was that we’d simply moved into the large industrial bathroom of the warehouse—used the stalls to make a bed on top of the toilets—and dubbed it Headquarters. “But he’ll know we’re still
living here when it snows...” Carolyn said.
“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I have a plan!”
A few nights later we arrived back at the warehouse just at the end of a large snowfall. “What now?” Carolyn asked.
“Give me a kiss,” I said. She turned back towards me and did so. “Now,” I told her, “walk backwards into the warehouse. All the tracks in the snow will be leading away... because nobody lives here, right?”
Exactly three years after checking out the book about lofting from the Boston library, I handed Carolyn a champagne bottle on the banks of the Fort Point Channel. The floating crane I’d sweet-talked into the task pulled up—and lowered its thick straps. Carolyn grinned. “Now,” I said as our vessel ‘floated’ in the slings. “I christen thee ‘Carlotta!’” Carolyn shouted with joy as she shattered the bottle of Mumm’s against the stem with a mighty blow.
That moment, that single vivid almost-surreal slice of time, is the most important instant I’ve ever experienced on land. Ever since I’ve believed that, with Carolyn’s help, I can do anything.
We were 22 years old. Finishing up the project wasn’t nearly as difficult as starting it. I butchered up some wood for the interior, put a rebuilt Perkins FOUR-107 on lay-away, purchased a dented mast section from a nearby shipyard.
Within weeks of sailing Carlotta passed Deer Island, we were heading down the East Coast, exploring the Bahamas, touring the Virgins, broad-reaching through the Lesser Antilles. Years streamed by. South America loomed up over the bows: I remember the steel pans of Trinidad, those crazily-painted buses in Venezuela. We danced and danced atop the rim of own personal horizon, and we sang a lusty song of joy. Yes, we kissed life full on the lips, drank in every new sensation, tasted every fresh fruit offered. Yes, we were unabashed hedonists, and, yes, it was almost continuously fun!
During this time I realized that love was only one aspect of my feelings for Carolyn: there was a growing admiration and respect—envy, even.
I could not have become what I am without her. She is, in many ways, MY role model. When I think of grace under pressure, when I think of being macho, when I think of ‘big balls,’ I think of her.
Once we were hit by a rogue wave during an early winter storm off Hatteras—while smack dab in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Carolyn was below and I’d been handing the staysail—when I heard it coming. It sounded like a freight train. I looked to windward, and my jaw dropped. It was a solid wall of water, a mini-Niagra Falls, rushing towards us at twenty knots. I barely had time to clip my safety harness to the mainmast, and wrap my arms and legs around its base. By this point the giant wave was curling, towering, looming over us. I saw the crest begin to break above our mast’s spreaders—thirty feet above the surface—and then the wave was exploding everywhere around me. We were suddenly plunged underwater—I and the boat and Carolyn inside it.
“I heard a roar,” she told me later. “And things got darker inside—there was a strange sort of blue-gray light coming through the ports. At first it didn’t make sense, then I realized, ‘Oh, my God! We’re under water!’”
As the boat righted itself and popped to the surface—I could hear/sense/feel heavy things shifting below. (At that point I didn’t even noticed our smashed dinghy chocks, bent stanchion or trailing lifelines outside.) I ran aft, screaming, “Carolyn!” as I shoved open the companionway hatch.
I didn’t see her at first. It was horrible jumble below: the galley table had been ripped from its base, the book shelves had emptied, and the crockery had leaped over its fiddle-rails.
“Carolyn!” I shouted again, and saw the pile of broken glass and debris in the leeward corner of the cabin start to quiver and shift. Suddenly, Carolyn sat upright amid the rubble, waved a broken-glass-bristling arm, and said in wonderment, “What the HELL was that?”
We were anchored in Admiralty Bay, Bequia, in the upper Grenadines—when we both felt a subtle change in the weather. We were getting older still—already we’d been together for more than half our lives.
“Do you hear anything?” Carolyn asked me, “...something ticking?”
“No,” I said, “am I missing something?”
“Maybe you are,” Carolyn said. “Maybe we both are.”
That sounded pretty heavy to me—so I didn’t say anything.
“Are you happy, Fatty? Do you have any... unfilled dreams?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty happy,” I said. “I’d like to stop working for other people and start earning my living with my pen... and someday I’d like to sail across the Pacific... but, yeah, generally I’m happy. How ‘bout you?”
“Well, I hear my biological clock ticking, Fatty, and it ain’t gonna tick forever. We’ve been practicing for years... what do you say we do it for real for once?”
Wow. This was the Ultimate Commitment—marriage and boat-building was nothing in comparison. But I’ve never ducked a challenge—if it was from Carolyn. And I knew good crew was hard to find. “Okay,” I said.
Fourteen months later, we were running southward from Bermuda to St. Thomas. We’d just picked up the Nor’east trades, and it was great to be heading back to our beloved Caribbean.
“Want me to take her,” I asked. “That must be awkward balancing her.”
“Naw,” said Carolyn, kneading the bread dough with her right hand on the maple galley table while dark-eyed Roma Orion gurgled on her left hip. “We’re fine.”
“How come your bread’s so good,” I asked her idly. “What’s your secret?”
“There’s no secret,” Carolyn said. “Just hard work and patience—like most everything else.”
I’d been blessed with being raised aboard, and now I was doubly blessed with being able to raise our own child aboard. In fact, Roma Orion added another whole dimension to our cruising life—we were able to see life anew through her young eyes. She was no trouble—she was (and is) all joy.
Roma Orion had twenty stamps in her passport on her first birthday.
Yet despite all of the above—despite our closeness, love and admiration... despite all those ocean miles sailed—we are vastly different people, Carolyn and I. I love sailing; she enjoys traveling to foreign shores. I think of our vessel as a fluid poem; she thinks of it as a sturdy method of watery transportation. I think of myself as an ocean rover; she modestly describes herself as a ‘floating homemaker!’
And she doesn’t make a big deal about anything. On September 17th, 1989 when Carlotta was breaking up on the rocks at the height of Hurricane Hugo—Carolyn was cool as a cucumber as I ordered her to stay aboard. “I’m gonna jump into the surf with Roma,” I told her. “You pay out the heaving line attached to her life-jacket harness—and if she disappears under the surf... gets jammed into or caught up in the mangrove roots... and doesn’t pop back up right away.... well, count to 30 and give a tug with the winch.”
“Okay,” Carolyn said.
Roma is twenty years old now, and is currently in Africa working on a project to get more parental involvement within the Ugandan school system—on her Junior year abroad from Brandeis University. She remembers Hurricane Hugo with great fondness. “That was so cool when mom kicked in the door of that condo so we could get out of the rain!”
Is there guilt? Yes. Some. Sometimes I want to cry when I think off all the stuff I HAVEN’T given Carolyn: she has seldom had a bedroom door, running water or refrigeration— since she met me over 30 years ago. Ditto 110 volts. Telephone. Indoor shower. We often lug our own water; occasionally we go years without tying to a dock.
Our current vessel, an S&S-designed Hughes 38 named Wild Card, is a modest craft that I purchased for $3,000 after it had been holed and sunk by Hurricane Hugo.
And we’re usually broke. “We don’t have much money, because they pay my husband what he’s worth,” she jokes.
But I look at it a different way: our bank accounts are empty, but our passports are full. The whole world is truly our oyster, our private love-nest, our vast old-age home.
“Oh, I don’t know, Fatty” says Carolyn as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea... attempting to go through menopause and across the Indian Ocean at same time!”
Me—I can barely wait to get to sea again. I look forward to being asleep in my cozy bunk and being lovingly awakened by the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Your watch,” she’ll whisper. “Any ships?” I’ll ask.
Oophs! A nasty mid-ocean wave puts a frown on her face!
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