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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Ocean Vagabonding Part 1: Connecticut to the West Indies, 1980-81

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

[ To set the scene, we were young. I was 21 and David 33, and we had known each other for barely a year. Casting our lot together, we were searching for a boat to sail in - in this case it was to be, literally, a lifeboat, although we didn't know yet how apt that metaphor would be. Ronald Reagan was about to be elected President, and John Lennon was about to be assassinated, and although we couldn't foresee those bleak events, we knew we were fleeing a brand of insanity that was lying in wait like a baited trap: western society as we knew it. The dread of a global nuclear war laying waste to the landscape also played into the decision to flee. Postponing our reentry into the proverbial doomed and dooming rat race, we scouted the waterfront, and took the adventure that befell us. ]

Sept. 21

We're up in the neighborhood of Mystic, on the Connecticut shore, looking for boats. Yesterday we spent most of the day at the renowned Mystic Seaport, gawking at the numerous craft. Slept the first night in a pleasant field, the second at the home of old friends of David's. Today is hot and breezy, hazy, a good day for the beach where we will repair once we exhaust the surrounding marinas and boatyards as sources of the ideal cruising boat. Or, more likely, exhaust ourselves.

(Later the same evening. Sunset at Napatree Point. Salt on the skin, taste of sour apples. It's a fine place out here, the tip of the point, nestled between boulders and goldenrod. Monarchs and gulls flying and a sky full of mare's tails. The sound of the water is the best thing: the rhythm, the inexorable steadiness, like the heartbeat we hear while still in the womb. The sun is staining the water. For a long time now, I have not been denied these sunsets. A bee is embracing the goldenrod and the cormorants fly past with homely urgency. I cry a bit too often now. Here, out on this point with no one but us, save the remote boats: I feel at home out here. Here is a pink granite boulder, and the sun's crimson boulder disappearing. As I stand I see, over my shoulder and the dune, that the moon is rising, the waxing moon is in the sky.

Sept. 29

We're almost in limbo again. Tomorrow the tipi [ which we had pitched in a suburban Fairfield County backyard ] comes down, we sail on "Clearwater" as relief crew and then on the sloop "Woody Guthrie" for awhile. Then we do not know, but there's an exhibit of Viking stuff at the Metropolitan, and the weather is getting cold. I ought to pack up some food. We do not know where we are going.

Oct. 22

We're sitting in a Greek diner by the highway in Croton. For the past week and a half we have been living on the "Woody Guthrie", first doing some scraping, painting, replacing the halyards. Then sailing up to Rhinecliff for a rendezvous with "Clearwater" and then back down the Pumpkin Sail route. Sailing at night, rowing, reefing, becoming peevish, eating roast goose, singing. It's good. The "Clearwater" is in fine fettle with many musicians, and Peter Seeger is skippering the Woody with us. Beautiful boat; beautiful, varied weather. Tomorrow is the full moon of this month, the vine month. It's necessary to chew on ivy buds until one falls into a frenzy and forgets that winter's coming.

We are scheming for rides to Norfolk, Puerto Rico, or Wesr Palm Beach. Boat rides. Sad to be leaving the well known nest of "Clearwater" where we're both known and welcome. But it's getting COLD. Living on the Woody is the "Outward Bound experience" slightly modified. Quite livable, actually, and not even crowded right now. "Clearwater" is crowded, crawling with old hands, the pumpkins, the stringed instruments mating in the transom. The rides south do exist, and we have our names in the pot. The rides may or may not include Jimmy Kricker, the "Charlotte Anne" (old Delaware Bay schooner duded out for the charter trade), a 36' Colin Archer gaff rig cutter. Wooden boats going south, where parasites and ultraviolet rays prowl. Last night David and I sang "Bankers and the Diplomats" [an antiwar ditty by leftist songwriter Malvina Reynolds] in a bar to an appreciative audience of our friends and compadres. Squalls hit us a we were reaching down to Verplanck yesterday afternoon and a perfect rainbow arched in mockery with one end on the Indian Point nuclear plant.Captain Cate Cronin hands me a note with the name of the guy who wants crew on the cutter. I put on a pumpkin costume and am tickled by children. David, tireless stoic angel, does dishes and deckwash and leaps out of bed when the tender is banging into the hull in the middle of the night. I cry or am bossy, lazy, vain. But the Tarot didn't say anything too bad about us going south, just that our goal is perhaps inappropriate. Last night we were square dancing in the bar, exhausted and laughing. Another night, enebriated and wired, we read King Lear aloud with the "Charlotte Anne"'s crew, at anchor in New Hamburg. Cook Maggie feeds us. We take people for boat rides for free. We're sitting in a Greek syndicated diner in Croton NY.

Oct. 25

Snuggled up in "Clearwater"'s engine room. Outside is a howling gale and we are at South Street. Transited here from Yonkers last night, bidding the Woody farewell. Bob Killian has some hashish. We're hoping Alan Aunapu will show up and enlighten us or at least let us stay in his apartment. [ Alan, "Clearwater''s first captain, was a legendary figure, a Floridian of Seminole heritage who led an adventurous life as a pilot of light aircraft and boat skipper. His rumored exploits included having to scuttle his own craft after being approached by a Coast Guard vessel, which picked him up as he and numerous bales of marijuana were bobbing around in the the Gulf of Mexico. He advised us when he heard of our desire to head south, to "Take your duffel bags and go on out to the end of the pier at City Island. You'll find a boat that needs delivery crew." And he was right.]

Driving rain out on deck, foam and garbage racing by on the ebb, warm east wind. Good day to find a laundromat but it's also pretty comfortable right where we are. Mike the engineer knows of a boat in Boston. Yesterday we took people out on a sail from Yonkers- Yonkers a wild jungle, the waterfront crawling with dilapidated wharves, eroded cement, worm eaten sheet metal. Sewage dripping from the culverts, feral dogs in the streets at night. Here at South Street are two Vikingskibbet ships and an ultra moderne French three masted staysail schooner.

Oct. 30

Lulled by music and dope and steam heat we sit in Rachel [Ziesk]'s apartment on East 10th Street [Rachel, a childhood friend of mine, was an artist who lived in a dodgy and dangerous part of Manhattan.] Outside it's clear and cold, remote from us but for the open window. Winter. New York City brews around us. Bad air. Lots and lots of cynical people. Out on the street below me another lowlife tragedy unfolds. Candy, a young heroin dealer, out on bail, is wailing and haranguing down there with people she knows. Her husband was shot in this building last year, her two children taken from her Two nights ago she was escorted away in handcuffs, tonight she is back. With the stereo going, I can't hear her anymore.

Nov. 17

In the marina shower at the Annapolis boat basin, waiting for David to fork over the shower accoutrements. We got a boat ride from City Island to Baltimore on a 35 foot all wood gaff rig cutter, sturdily built but not well designed for sailing. The "Renegade", owned and operated (marginally) by a megalomaniacal merchant marine named Bertil Haney, took us on as crew. Bert was incompetent but occasionally funny. He, his courageous and innocent wife Nancy and their bouncing baby boy were our companions for the past week. The baby was superhuman- cheerful, eating nonstop, learning to walk in the pitching cabin. He couldn't have been less distressed by his surroundings. After three days of sitting out a gale in Manasquon, New Jersey and 24 hours of bouncy, tortuous upwind motoring from Manasquon to Cape May and then up the Delaware Bay, we finally got two pleasant days of sailing in, and saw the family safely to their winter home in Baltimore. We made it to that fair city without murdering the captain or meeting a watery end. We had been living with, and becoming, maniacs. Babysitting. Getting sick with sore throats and needing penicillin, which costs money. It's sleeting out, and we are scrounging for boat rides and/or a place to stay. It's a seaport town. Yachted out. The "Whitehawk", which we met at South Street, is here sans bowsprit. Last night we wandered around Baltimore and this morning took a bus to Annapolis, home of the alma mater of Dave's pater familias H. Hval. We are now sitting in "Marmaduke's", a waterfront bar. The life of a barmaid. When will it be mine? Not soon, I hope. It's a gray day. I need to write letters and not spend money, be outgoing and get us a boat ride. Our things are stashed at the Community Recreation Center. We're in the south and are waifs, so people are nice to us.

Nov. 26

Waiting on the weather in Beaufort NC. We've been here several days, after a three and a half day motor-sail on the Intracoastal Waterway from Annapolis to here. Living on a green 47' x 24' green trimaran, "Free Lance", which resembles a horseshoe crab in shape, or maybe the Batmobile. Built of fiberglass and plywood in Tokyo, it is captained by Alex Medawar, a Brit, with his mate Michael and Michael's friend Daniel. They're from Syracuse. The boat is moderne: enclosed pilot house, Greenwich time chronometer, fake wood paneling, about seventeen radios, linoleum, showers, a TV. It is comfortable, roomy, fast, equipped with good food, good company, and a kitten. The kitten went overboard the morning we were leaving Annapolis harbor; we quickly motored round to pick her up. She looked like the proverbial drowned rat but we all coddled her back to health and seems to have now forgotten all about it. Alex, the skipper, has done a transatlantic crossing in a 24 foot boat with one other person. He "knows about electronics" and the boat is bristling with radios, fathometers, and various gadgets. Although this boat does not delight the eye, it can apparently sail very fast in the right conditions- namely, in calm waters.

Migrating south is the one priority at the moment. As soon as we heard the election results we concurred that it's a good time to leave the country. Hurricane Carl is the latest weather problem. Several contingents of boat people are anchored or moored in the vicinity, people we met in Manasquon with boats like the "Northerly", "Zina", "Ahaluna",and "Katrina", waiting for the weather to like us. We will go to Bermuda or St. Bartelemy, whichever seems most conducive at the time. I am full of energy which will be used up in seasickness and lack of sleep. Embroidering, doing some cooking, half-heartedly familiarizing myself with the boat, as David is doing most of that. I do not feel passionately compelled to learn about this boat and its radios, as I did on "Clearwater", only that it is my duty. The air here is warm some days. Chilly today, and wild horses are on the sand dunes.

Nov. 29

We're on the move again today, not offshore as we had assumed but chugging further down the waterway. We had the sails up and stuck our noses out of Beaufort Inlet, but the sea over the shoals there was messy enough to make Alex turn around, and we're motoring into the wind towards Wrightsboro Inlet. it's almost December. I'm feeling ready for "the Islands". New territory. The voyage there will be the longest passage I've made so far.

Terns are dive bombing for fish and the porpoises escorted us again at the inlet. All's right with the world.

Dec. 6

We are in Bermuda! [The passage was not without incident. There were stormy days and nights with fifteen to twenty foot seas. Some ribs in one of the outer of the trimaran's three hulls were cracked when the plywood hull flexed when smacked by a big wave. David clamped the ribs together and stabilized the situation, and we took on no water. Due to heavy seas we "lay a-hull" at least one night, not attempting to sail or motor on but just drifting with the storm, very glad to see the dawn. Getting closer to Bermuda we attempted to sail, but two of the sails blew out. Motoring onward we had engine trouble, the engine was disabled and we ended up being towed into the harbor by a rescue vessel.

Excerpt from letter to Virginia Sands describing the voyage: " The ocean passage was wild. It took us a week to get here from North Carolina. Big waves, seasickness, dreading the night. I was usually comatose except when steering. For awhile I didn't eat, to avoid the nausea, until I blacked out at the wheel."]

Dec. 13

Today David and I went to the beach in Bermuda, dipped in the chilly water, bought greasy meat sandwiches and sweets and ginger beer. Our status here is uncertain. David and Alex are clashing a little, but we have two other boats we might be able to leapt onto if need be. We eat and sleep a lot, still recovering form "the Trip" over here, which was indeed a trip. Nothing major is shaking now except that this boat needs repairs: sister ribs to the two cracked ones in the port hull; two sails are at the sailmaker's and one of the shrouds is messed up, nearly parted. A lot of screws are out of the mast and a bilge pump needs help. I could ask the sailmaker if there are any jobs available next time I see him. Meanwhile I futz around, get a new passport, read trashy paperbacks. Little man-of-war jellyfish and sargasso weed float by in the clear, transparent blue water. People are friendly. Everything is expensive. Bad news filters in from the rest of the world. I think I'll take the dinghy and row around. Maybe offer to do the crew's laundry, or snoop around the little community of boats here. We are unemployed. Money going out, not coming it. Watch out! As I used to tell myself around age eleven or so: when the Beatles start dying, watch out!

Dec. 15

Another day in Bermuda. I'm feeling extremely fat after being so skeletal after the sea sickness. We've been going to the beach; it's warm here now. David is busy carpentering. The moon is waxing. The cat is sleeping under my bunk. Last night we befriended the crew of a luscious old Sparkman and Stevens sloop. They said we could sail with them. But they are going to St. Thomas, and we'd rather go to an island a bit more off the beaten track. Soon we'll be out on the ocean again. I have to laugh when I think of going out there. I did not enjoy it, I endured it. Yet of course I wouldn't dream of not going out again.

(Late) Just was "befriended" by one Sinclair, a local guy who took me on a walk up to the park to buy a minuscule nickel bag of reefer from the local supplier in the jungle infested ruins of an old outdoor amphitheater. Came back to the boat, told the crew, and they immediately sent me out to get some more.

Dec. 21

We're hiding out on this gray evening, which is the full moon and Solstice, from the scene in general. The "Free Lance", now renamed "Acamar", is supposedly within two days of leaving and so far our status remains the same: we're going too. Our other possibility, the exotic Tasmanian-built, bronze framed Sparkman and Stevens "Mistral", is still here, but going to St. Thomas. David repaired- "sistered"- the two cracked frames, for which Alex says money is forthcoming. There have been rowdies next door recently on the schooner "Clione", which is haunted by lost Bermuda Triangle ghosts. David and I befriended the crew, Alex and Mike did not. One of them pushed Mike into the water. If we can leave, if we can actually go the day after tomorrow, if the weather's right, if the gods show mercy... Nothing matters when we're out there. We're either OK or we're drowning.

I'm writing in a flea infested apartment that we boat folk are allowed access to while the owner , also a sailor, is away. Boxes of scum covered cans of food and bottles of juice are on the floor, evidence of the apartment dwellers' recent boat catastrophe. Their boat, which was being delivered here by someone else, was knocked down, lost the mizzen mast and had part of the cabin top stove in- only one of the many horror stories from the storm that we were feeling the effects of on our trip over here. [ The vessel which had fared badly in the storm and was now docked at the same wharf with us, was the Canadian sloop "Berlu". The crew described being "pitchpoled", a mishap in which a boat will be flipped over by a wave so that its mast becomes submerged. Luckily, the boat had managed to right itself, minus the mast. One of the female crew members showed me a memento of the incident, a lump of solidified bread dough in which an entire box of toothpicks had impaled themselves as objects had been tossed around in the cabin. It resembled a chaotic abstract hedgehog.]

We are on the outskirts of the North Atlantic and it's winter time. The Tarot cards hinted that I'm pregnant and that a catastrophe awaits us, but the final omen was a compassionate one. A quick death, maybe. Shouldn't even joke about it!

I feel depressed. Depressed because the moon is full, on this longest night of the year? Thinking bitterly that you feel a second heartbeat in your belly, always a fugitive from that inevitable fruitfulness, the faithful, cheerful ability of your body to nourish young, while the rest of you goes broody, refuses to eat, thinks only of drowning in the immense waves, shudders in doubt at the seaworthiness of the vessel, this hopeless bastard offspring of the Polynesian stargazer's ships made of logs, and the hand of technology - the stupid, rational, inescapable desire for speed and luxury? Wringing my hands at the gambling we're doing. I could easily despair about any boat we decided to sail on tonight.

Last night I was wandering around in the rain, crazed and half naked, calling the cat. Last night it stormed as we slept. Earlier, David and I sat in a restaurant and he read aloud to me descriptions of a hurricane. We were the center of our own personal storm which swirled counter clockwise in the quiet air and dim light of the room.

My embroidery , a lion rampant on the back of David's brown wool shirt, is done. I can no longer sit demurely stitching away at it, selfless, or rip parts of it out like Penelope. I have not worked on the trimaran to repair it, was neither invited nor wanted to work with its turnbuckles or stainless steel stanchions or frozen pumps. Instead I am asked to do laundry or scolded for not cleaning up the dishes after myself after cooking a meal.

Dec. 26

Day after a quiet, uneventful Christmas. The boat is ready to go, except for the engine cooling system, and the weather, which is sounding like northeast gales for the next few days. We're all anxious to leave for various reasons. Alex and Mike in a hurry, with obligations and the charter season slipping by. Daniel already overdue back at work. And us just wanting to get out of here before the weather deteriorates more or we spend all our money or both. Meanwhile, no one seems to have anything good to say about trimarans.[Especially ones designed by Piver, as this one was. He was lost at sea in one of his own boats. Seems that once they flip over, there's no righting them. One had to be prepared to saw a hole in the hull to get out.] The locals commend us for our "bravery" in venturing out on one this time of year.

Christmas Eve we all went to the sail loft and had a party with the sailmakers and other boat people. Later we were all fed on board the "Christian Venture", a huge traditional Bermudan meal with cassava pie.

Cabin fever is definitely setting in. The two maintenance projects for the day, revamping the wall to wall carpeting or converting the engine's cooling system to salt water, fail to capture my imagination and appear to be adequately staffed. It's chilly and gray out. I'm glad we're still safe in the harbor.

Dec. 27

Still here. All kinds of bad weather happening and approaching. All the maintenance is done, all the food is bought, and we are all waiting.

Dec. 30

Quintessential limbo. Today is the only day we can leave to get down in time for their charter. The weather is fair now, and has been today, but was rotten yesterday and is supposed to return to that condition tonight, tomorrow, for the next three days. Alex wanted to leave this morning. I did not, as there's no high pressure on the horizon, and we'd be going to weather. Providentially, so far we have been unable to clear customs due to a delay in the transfer of funds needed to register the boat here. So we're hung up on a technicality as the weather holds out for who knows how many more hours. We have to either go out in shit or renegotiate the charter. I am growing more and more prejudiced against multi-hulls, my terror and reluctance on the upswing. Everything is wet from the torrential rains and the cat has roundworms.

Jan, 12, 1981

At anchor at St. Maarten, French West Indies. We left Bermuda on New Year's Day, all of us in various conditions of frazzle or hangover. A few hours out, Alex, feeling nauseous himself, asked us all if we thought we should turn around and can the whole trip.

The first two days I was seasick and wished for death. Gradually my body adjusted, however. The weather was fair after a thunder squall just as we were leaving. We motored the first four days, then had wind. Hot sun; swimming over the side in afternoon calms; watching the flying fish scatter before us like sparrows. Mike and Alex saw whales one morning. We sighted them occasionally, hearing their inhalations near the boat at night. One day three of them followed us closely. I think they were right whales or minkes, plankton eaters, about fifteen to eighteen feet long. We got a really good look at them surfacing. They were curious and friendly. Somehow we just let go of the helm and the boat hove itself to and stopped. The whales stayed, circling and whooshing, very near. Alex donned mask and snorkel and, clinging to a line, entered the whales' element while we watched him and them excitedly. The whales didn't run, much less attack. They were polite and inquisitive. We all took turns in the water with the mask as the whales hovered around the boat with a grace unimaginable from the surface. I looked at the whales underwater, at the huge, calm, kindly whales. Their expressions radiated benevolence and calmness. There was no hint of fear or aggression. They were happy to be living in that warm, clear water.

After we got underway again they followed us for awhile, effortlessly, and that was the last we saw of them.

Dolphins played with our triple bow wave that night. As we got closer to the islands we saw kingfish or tuna jumping or spotted an occasional frigate bird. It took many days to get here. One day of squalls and torrential rain. We were about 1200 miles off the Florida coast. We all got a taste of celestial navigation, taking sun sights and using the tables: a moon sight for latitude, position lines twice a day for longitude. David and I learned the names of some stars whose names roll off my tongue like an incantation: Bellatrix, Alnilam, Rigel, Saiph, Mirzam, Adhara.

The engine was low on oil and without an alternator, and with a questionable cooling system,so we didn't use it for many days. Our progress slowed down, we tacked, we stood still, we fished with no success. Alex and Mike were late for their charter, Dan late back at his job. Finally yesterday afternoon when the wind died and we knew we were less than a hundred miles from our destination, Alex started the engine. It couldn't be shut off or it wouldn't start again. Last night we sighted a tiny blip of rock on the horizon- one of the Prickly Pear Cays off Anguilla. This morning St. Maarten was in sight, and we anchored here early afternoon. Haven't been ashore yet. Many interesting boats here, a beautiful looking island, and our fate is uncertain as ever. This boat is nearly out of food, Alex is out of money and owes us a little money. His charter guests are ostensibly on this island somewhere, miffed at having to wait two days, tour mail has been sent to St. Bartelemy .We caught two fish this morning, kingfish, but don't dare eat them without consulting the locals for fear of siguatera disease.

It's good to be here. And it was also good to be out on the ocean, the wet untouchable desert.

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