The Last Cruise
Copyright 1984 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander
Carlotta ghosted along at dusk in the Gulf stream. The wind had gone down with the sun, and it was that quiet time between the death of the day and the rebirth of night. Carolyn, my wife and fellow sailor for the past 14 years, puttered at the galley sink. Roma Orion, our three year old daughter (who had twenty stamps in her passport on her first birthday), sat beside me in the cockpit. She waited expectantly for her nightly bedtime story.
I took a deep breath and began. “When I was a child, I lived on Elizabeth with my mommy and my daddy and my two sisters. And if I was good, my daddy would let me sit in the cockpit at night, and he would tell me stories about fishing and sailing and swimming. And about how the stars tell you where you are and how each ocean wave contains answers to many questions...”
“Your dad...” she said.
“Yes. My dad, your grandpa Jim. Remember? In the hospital?”
She said nothing, but I could tell that she remembered. She had been afraid of the thin palsied hand that had reached out between the white sheets to embrace her.
Carolyn stood framed in the companionway, back lit by the soft glow of the kerosene cabin lamps. “Give your dad a hug-kiss, Roma,” Carolyn said. “I’ll tell you a story below. Your dad’s... tired.”
I steered all night, not bothering with the electric autopilot or the windvane. Sleep never entered my mind. Carolyn came up a few times and offered to take a watch, but I turned her down. I wanted to be alone with only my boat and my thoughts. I wanted to talk to my father one last time.
“Listen to the boat, son,” he had told me long ago. “Ask the boat what she wants. Fools command ships, sailors guide them. A good boat is smarter than you’ll ever be. The Art of Sailing is one of listening, asking, understanding. Never fight the boat; never attempt to ‘beat’ the sea. Accommodate them. Cooperate. Learn from them...”
His nickname was “The Guru.” I remember when he earned it. During one of our annual haul-outs, Elizabeth, a 52 foot schooner, was next to an old yawl that had just been purchased by some college kids. A whole gang of them were working on her furiously. They were bringing her down to bare wood. It wasn’t until they had her all primed and ready for the finish coats that they realized that they had ground off the boot top stripe and had no idea where the waterline went.
They came to my father for advice. “No problem,” he said. “Give me the paint...”
He started at the bow on the starboard side, working his way aft. By amidships, they were concerned. “It has to be level from side to side,” said one.
“And straight as an arrow, or it will look awful,” said another.
“And, of course, it has to join up at the bow...” said a third.
My father said nothing. A commercial artist and sign painter by profession, his very eye was a straight edge. Around the other side of the boat he went, and when he reached the bow, the lines joined perfectly.
“The Guru,” one of them said and jokingly fell to his knees. The name stuck. And the fact that I’d secretly helped him mark the waterline before they had ground it off didn’t make him less of a “Guru” in my book, but more of one.
He wasn’t famous. He never circumnavigated. He never wrote a best-selling cruising guide. But he was well liked and respected wherever cruising boats gathered in the Gulf and along the East Coast, the Mississippi River, or the Great Lakes.
Elizabeth, designed by Alden and built by Morse in 1924, wasn’t in yacht-perfect shape. He preferred sailing and playing with his kids to endless maintenance.
He bought his first boat at 16 years of age. It cost more to hire a team of horses to drag it to his backyard than to purchase it. His own father said, “It will never float.”
It did. And I have faded pictures of them smiling together in the cockpit as she sailed along with a bone in her teeth. My father, looking at the camera from the tiller, looked as happy as any man can be.
A few years before his death, a wonderful thing happened to him. Walking down a dock, he spotted a boat that he had owned. He hadn’t seen her in over forty years. She looked better than when he had sold her.
A young man was wiping down her varnish and noticed him staring at the boat. “Hello,” my father said, “I used to own her.”
“I don’t think so,” said the young man kindly. “She has been in my family for almost 50 years. The only man that ever owned her besides us was her builder, James E. Goodlander.”
“You can call me Jim,” said my father. “May I come aboard?”
When Carolyn and I built our 36-foot ketch, Carlotta, over the course of five long, hard years, we often called him for advice. “Dad, how long should I make the chainplates?” I was 19 years old when I started.
“Have you ever sailed on a boat with chainplates that were too long or too strong...” he asked. He was like that, often answering a question with a question, allowing you to come up with your own answers. He forced you to think it through.
All of his life was spent upon the sea, learning from it, listening to it, seeking always to understand it better. When we cruised as a family in the 1950's, we were an oddity. Newspapers wrote stories about us, radio stations interviewed us, magazines sent reporters.
The same question was repeated over and over. “Where are you headed next?”
And my father’s answer was always the same. “See there,” he’d say, pointing out to sea. “See the horizon? Well, just over the horizon, just a little further than we can see, is something so beautiful and pure, that I will spend my whole life traveling to see it...”
Once a reporter, missing the point entirely, asked, “And when do you expect to arrive?”
“Never,” my father said. “I hope.”
He never sailed his last boat. He was too ill to even consider it. But even so, she was his main interest in life after his family.
Near the end, he fell overboard and didn’t have the strength to pull himself back aboard. For hours he hung on a dockline, yelling weakly until someone came to rescue him. Everyone thought it was terrible that his family didn’t stop such a dangerous practice by such an obviously ill man. We didn’t dare. And wouldn’t have even if we could.
Finally, while attempting to nail some small item to a bulkhead, he realized that he didn’t have the strength to lift the hammer.
“Sell her,” he told my mother that evening. And he never saw his beloved Marie again.
Growing up on the Elizabeth was like growing up in a fairy tale. The world was our oyster, the boat safe harbor, the family our universe. The world was a simple and just place. People were good and true and faithful. The laws of Mother Nature were fair, if unforgiving. There was a time to joke and a time to reef, a time to soak up the sun and a time to endure the frigid North wind at the helm. A very good time.
And now I am raising my own daughter aboard, attempting to give her at least a taste of the wonderful childhood with which I was blessed.
I suddenly sat upright in Carlotta’s cockpit. Off the port bow was a misshapen orange disk like a molten deformed dinner plate. It was dawn. Everything was perfectly still—as if the sea was holding it’s breath. Waiting.
I rushed below and grabbed the urn.
His ashes were surprisingly heavy. Multi-colored and textured. I said some words—words too private to repeat in print. I poured him into the deep blue waters of the Gulf Stream to voyage endlessly and eternally. I set him free on his last cruise.
And as I poured his ashes into the sea, for an instant the world shifted and I saw the future. And it was not my hand pouring my father, but my child’s hand pouring me into the ocean. I was over-come with a feeling of wholeness and goodness such as I had never experienced before.
As I watched the ashes disappear astern, a gentle wind heeled Carlotta. She started chuckling along, heading for the Lesser Antilles a thousand miles away.
The world was still a true and just place. Mother Nature was still fair, if unforgiving. People were still good.
And I was blessed with a fine sailing breeze.
“Good-bye, Dad,” I whispered into the wind.
Mother and father in dinghy 1930s
Another Guru rebuild
I still carry his sextant on Wild Card
This entire web page (except where noted) is copyrighted by Cap'n Fatty Goodlande