The Choy Lee 50
– Nonfiction by Pete Caldwell –
It was a time in my career as a commercial fisherman when I found myself between fishing boats and rented a house on Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay for the summer. It was an America’s Cup year and friends in the sailboat charter business had an operation down the road in Newport. I picked up a little work there as a bareboat skipper for folks who didn’t know how to drive sailboats. Once, it was for folks who showed up with a captain who didn’t know how to drive one.
The call came mid morning.
I recognized the voice from the charter company. “Terry.”
“Hey, man. I got a charter for you. That fifty-foot Choy Lee ketch you’ve wanted to sail.”
“Ah, the flush deck. Cool. When’s the booking?”
“Well, that’s the thing. Right now. The captain who booked her failed the sailing test. Couldn’t even get her away from the dock. He’s upset, but he’s not the money man. You might want to come down here and check these folks out before you commit. There’s a gaggle of ‘em. They want to visit Martha’s Vineyard on a week-long charter.”
“Now I’m curious. Nice morning for a ride on the scooter. I’ll see you in a half-hour or so.”
The scooter was an old 650cc TR6 Triumph, a fun bike for just tooling around. I parked in front of the charter office and got my gloves and helmet off. The wind rumpled my generous beard and I was fiddling with that when Terry came out the front door.
“The customer’s inside,” he said. “All I’ve told him is that you might be interested.”
A little head nod and I followed him inside.
“Henry,” Terry said, “This is Cap’n Pete, the guy I told you about. As a commercial fisherman, he probably has more sea time than all our other captains combined. Most of his sailing time with us has been moving our boats back and forth to the Caribbean in the spring and fall. That trip takes him to Bermuda first, before he gets into the trade winds. From there it’s due south to the Virgin Islands. We’re lucky he’s available.”
I chuckled at the intro. “Did you work on that speech the whole time it took me to get here?” Turned from Terry and stuck my hand out for a shake. “You won’t see any fish on the deck of this sailboat, Henry. It’s teak, stem to stern. And, you’ll be sitting on it for the next week as she is a flush deck design. There’s plenty of room to sit, but rather than in a cockpit with a back rest, you’ll sit on the deck with your feet down in a well. If you’re after an up-close sailing experience, a classic style yacht like this is a great choice.”
The frown on his pink, chubby face told me was processing the ‘up close’ tag. “You must understand experience counts in this business because what we can’t control is the wind. The only way to get good at dealing with that nuisance is practice. That’s why Terry insists on passing a sailing test. Or hiring a competent captain to take the responsibility for putting you all safely back on the dock. Especially for the vessel you’ve chosen. She can be a handful in a stiff breeze.”
I took a breath to let that sink in. “So, tell me about the guy who wanted to be your captain. Is he still on the passenger list?”
“Well, yeah. He organized this whole thing.” Henry shook his head a little. “I thought he knew what he was talking about.”
“I’m sure failing the sailing test was a pretty good sting. Am I going to have any trouble with him about being shut down like that?”
That seemed to get Henry’s attention. “No, he won’t be any trouble. He’s one of my employees.”
“OK. My fee. If I decide to take this charter, it’s $100 per day. The charter company will collect that at the same time you pay for the charter. I do it this way on purpose, and you need to know there is a reason how come. I cannot be fired at sea because of any decisions concerning the safety of the boat and crew. You can ask to end the charter and I will bring you back to land as quickly and safely as possible. But I will not be told how to go about it.”
“OK,” Henry said. “I get the whole captain thing, but you’re charging way too much for sitting on your ass steering the boat.”
“That’s what you think you’re paying me for? Steering the boat?” I was ready to walk, but couldn’t hold my tongue. “You think they pay your airline pilot for steering the plane? It steers itself for Christ’s sake. He’s paid for what he knows. Like what to do when an engine fails and it all turns to shit.”
“That may be so, but we aren’t getting on a plane. I won’t pay more than $75 a day.”
I looked over at Terry. Shook my head back and forth slowly a couple times, turned and headed for the office door. But I stopped when I had a grasp on the doorknob. It was that curiosity. Released my grip and turned around to face Terry.
“You know what? I’ll take this charter. Just because I want to find out what kind of person tries to short-change the man he’s about to trust with his life.” Turned my head enough to make eye contact with Henry. Held it for a couple of heart beats. He won’t be much help on the deck, and it looks like he’ll put a pretty good dent in the groceries. I turned back to Terry. “Where’s the boat now? On its mooring or still at the dock from the non-sailing test?”
“She’s still at the dock.”
“What about provisions?”
“Standing by. We don’t load them until all captain issues are resolved.”
“And the passengers? And how many, by the way?”
“Total of two couples plus the would-be captain. They’re hanging out down at the dock.”
Took a few seconds to scratch at my beard. “I make one more mouth to feed, but I think we can stretch the groceries. Chances are, at least one of those five isn’t going to feel much like eating once we’re under way.”
If it’s Henry, I’m good to go.
“It won’t take me long to get back to the house and pack my sea bag. But I want to visit the boat first. Take a quick inventory and stake out my berth. Call me when you’ve collected my fee.”
“Last chance to bail,” I said to Henry.
His answer was to show me his palms by raising both hands and shaking his head, “No.”
“OK, then. I’ll see you on board in a little bit. We’re going to start the trip with some night sailing. That’ll get us to where we can anchor between a couple of the islands in Vineyard Sound that run northeast to Woods Hole. No traffic there and it’s protected from the weather.
The Triumph lit off on the first kick, and I tooled over to the dock to meet the rest of my crew. I knew the people part of this job could be tricky. I was just hoping for that stiff breeze so I could see how this lady went with her rail buried in white sea foam.
We cleared Newport harbor under a light breeze as the sunset colors began to fade. The Choy Lee ghosted along under full sail. She had two masts, a main mast at the front and a smaller mizzen mast on the tail end. Each mast supported a major sail attached it and a boom at the bottom. Two more sails flew forward from the main mast down to the front of the boat or bow. All were properly trimmed, doing their jobs.
Our course at the beginning of the trip was over open water until we reached the Buzzard’s Bay Light. It was a massive affair, a tower with lights that were 67 feet above the water. Once we cleared the eastern mouth of the bay, we would navigate via dead reckoning, estimated time, distance, direction and speed, until the tower, 16 nautical miles distant, came into view. From that point onward it would be classic piloting with chart and 7-50 binoculars by my side to help find the buoys in the darkness.
By the time we raised Buzzard’s Bay Light I began to be concerned by the changing horizon. It was starting to look like we had some weather coming that was not mentioned on the VHF marine radio weather channel. The pit of my gut signaled it was coming online. Shorten sail?
With no warning, a gust of wind out of nowhere heeled the boat over so far, the folks below got scrambled around a bit in those small spaces. Soon we were back upright, but it didn’t sound good down there.
“Charlie,” I hollered through the companionway at the non-captain. “Get your ass up here on deck. Right now.” Until I knew better, that gust was a dire warning. We needed to shorten sail, and in a hurry. I punched the starter button and the engine came to life. Put her in forward and felt the rudder take authority as I brought the rpm’s up.
“Come take the wheel,” I said, as Charlie appeared at the top of the ladder. “Keep us headed into the wind. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“Just keep an eye on the main sail. Keep it luffing (flapping in the wind), even if you have to zigzag to do it.”
I raced to the main mast and spilled the jib halyard, (untied the rope) which allowed the jib, or front/main headsail, to fall to the deck. Then to the bow to gather up the fabric as the sail slid down the head stay (cable). When that was just about under control the next gust hit us, and it was a doozie. Tried to rip the jib from my arms and as I watched, it blew the leech line clean off the staysail, the smaller sail behind the jib. In a matter of minutes, the torn fabric turned fuzzy as it began to rip and unravel. It was a goner.
Next was to secure the jib and then get the main down. The wind was now fairly steady. Back at the mast, I could hear the screaming below. No time for that yet.
The main sail came down in a hurry. Then I bundled up what was left of the staysail and turned my attention to the racket the folks below were making. “You’re doing great, Charlie,” I said on my way to the companionway. (He could have done a lot worse.) “Just keep her heading into the wind and we’ll be fine.” Opened the hatch to the companionway.
“Take us to the dock,” one of the women screamed at me before I had a foot on the cabin sole. “Right this goddamned minute, you asshole.”
If only I could.
“Y’all need to understand that we are in survival mode. All we are going to do until this squall passes is keep the boat safe. There is no need for alarm. She’s fine and so are we. We just have to do what the weather dictates until it moves on. So please, calm down. We may bounce around a little but you are in no danger. And it won’t last long.”
My eyes turned to Henry. Offered him a big snarky smile. “Now I have to go steer the boat for a while.” Turned and headed back up the ladder to the deck.
“Good job,” I said to Charlie as I approached the wheel. “I’ll take it from here.”
“What are we going to do now?” as we traded places.
“We’re just going to hang out right here for a little while. That tower over there is our reference point. We’ve got plenty of water under us as long as we stay southwest of it. When the squall passes, we’ll start up Vineyard Sound to where we’ll spend the night. This is a local event. It won’t last long.”
Getting anchored was routine.
As a commercial fisherman, getting up before the sun was also routine. As soon my hand slid the companionway hatch cover open before dawn, it was obvious we were in the soup. The anchor light at the top of the mast was a pale fuzzy glow. We weren’t going anywhere until this notorious New England maritime fog lifted. I slid the hatch cover closed and went back below to get a pot of coffee going.
Shortly after dawn, heads began to appear in the companionway as folks migrated to the deck where I worked on my coffee. We were close enough to one of the islands to make out the sand of a beach.
“Is that land?” said Patience, the woman who called me an asshole.
“I have to get off this boat. I demand you take me over there.”
“Are you sure? That’s a small uninhabited island. If I leave you there, you’ll soon die of thirst.”
“I don’t give a shit about that. I just need to get off this goddamned boat.”
“Patience, the only way you can leave that island is by goddamned boat. Which means I’ll have to wrestle you back aboard before we leave. I don’t think we want to do that.”
She went back down the ladder, hollering for Albert, her husband, and then screaming at him to make me listen to her. I could hear her just fine from the deck.
Soon, Albert came up the ladder. I motioned him to me. “Albert, you have to calm that woman down. We’re stuck here until this fog lifts. Her hollering and screaming isn’t helping matters. If she wants off this boat, the nearest dock is Woods Hole. I’ll be happy to drop y’all off there, but I will not put this vessel and passengers in peril by driving around in the fog.”
Albert took a breath. “So… when will that be?”
“Maybe by ten o’clock we’ll have enough visibility to get started. Come on, man. She can sleep in her own bed tonight. Screaming at me won’t speed that up a bit. And it’s pretty rough on the rest of us. Take charge down there.”
He took a bigger breath, turned and started back down the ladder.
By ten o’clock the fog had barely let up and Albert wasn’t having much luck with Patience. She started screaming again. Then Albert started screaming back at her to shut up.
The fog thinned a bit. I studied the charts. We could get to Woods Hole by following the depth curve northeast along the islands. Never let us get any shallower than 50 feet and there would be no surprises. We could idle along, dinging the ship’s bell, knowing conditions would steadily improve. By the time we reached the channel into the docks, we would have all the visibility we needed.
“Charlie,” I said. “Can you help me pull the anchor? I think we have enough vis to get under way.”
Boy, did that crew ever perk up. It was like they got into some of those little white pills the truckers love so much. And off we went on our crawl up the sound to Woods Hole.
So now, it was just me, Charlie, Henry the money man and Charlene, his companion. Albert and the screamer, I reckoned, were hunting for a rental car or standing by the road, Albert with his thumb out or Patience screaming obscenities past both upraised middle fingers at every vehicle that passed them by.
“So folks,” I said. “What now?”
Henry stuck his hand out for our second shake. “You done good, Captain.” Never thought I’d hear that. “And we’re ready to party. Take us to the Vineyard.”
A new beginning. And plenty of groceries for all.
“All righty, then. Everyone on deck to cast off the lines.”
Henry paid me my $100/day fee. And, he gave me a $100 bonus. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next time he flew he slipped the captain a fifty as he disembarked.
The best part? I got paid $100/day to party with those folks in Vineyard Haven.
Henry was a pretty good dancer. He jiggled a lot.
So did Charlene, come to think of it. Not so much… but better.
About the Author – Pete Caldwell
Back in the days when there was one computer in the State of Vermont, Pete Caldwell quit his job as a programmer/systems analyst, gave his suits and ties to the Good Will and bought a raggedy old southern shrimp trawler. The life of adventure at sea suited him. He never settled down to marry and raise a family.
These days, Cap’n Pete lives with his British Lab in NE Florida’s maritime forest where it meets the marsh grass and you can smell the salt water. He writes creative nonfiction about a life at sea and the characters that populate that world, as well as misadventures when not afloat. A recent octogenarian, reality has urged him to begin publishing some of his stories before he’s one more dead author. He never understood how much fun it was to see your efforts validated. He gets it, now.
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