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Excerpt from Schooner Third Sea
Written by Administrator    Wednesday, 17 October 2012 15:18    PDF Print E-mail
That's all I wanted, my own schooner, a big dream for a farm boy who had never even seen an ocean. But why a schooner? What's so special about a schooner? Why not other sailing vessels — cutters, sloops, yawls, ketches? Why? They just don't have the same romance about them as schooners do. I guess that I have always wanted my own schooner, as far back as I can remember. I pictured myself at the helm sailing off in search for the rainbow's end. For a farm boy raised in Middle America far from the sea this certainly was an anomaly. There were no seafarers in my family, no grandfather or wayward uncle with a

sea chest hidden in the attic. My only connection with the sea was through reading. As a youth on the farm, without other kids to engage in sports and play games, I did find solace in reading adventure books. I have no doubt that's what spurred my imagination. I recall in vivid detail reading about two brothers who sailed their yacht Discoverer to the far South Pacific. I can't remember their names, nor the name of the book, but I do remember their photographs in the book...standing on the quay at Papeete in Tahiti. Oh how I longed to be there with them.
A name I do remember, and the books he wrote, is Jack London. What schoolboy doesn't know him! Reading London was like driving spikes into my heart, and the only way to heal the wounds was to follow his footsteps and go to sea, to the South Seas. The Cruise of the Snark — I was twelve when I read it — became part of my subconscious thoughts. Jack London built his own boat; I had to build my own boat. Jack London made an impossible passage from Hawaii to the Marquesas; I had to make the same passage; Jack London sailed to the remote corners of the South Seas; I had to follow suit.
And so as the years passed I continued to dream about sailing boats, about owning my own boat one day. I remember when I was in the Marines in China, still in my teens, standing guard duty at night . . . I paced out in the sand the outline of my imaginary ship, and then I would walk the deck. I began to plan seriously about my boat. . . . I wrote to all the brokers listed in the yachting magazines. One schooner in particular caught my fancy;. The only thing that held me back was money. Big money! On a marine sergeant's pay, it would have taken me — provided I gave up cigarettes, beer and liberty — some sixty-two years to save up enough money to buy that schooner.
But dreams don't go away just because they seem impossible. And wasn't it Joseph Conrad who wrote in Lord Jim "take away a man's dreams and you have nothing left." Over the intervening years I did the next best thing: I crewed on boats whenever possible. I went so far as to travel to Tahiti and there I sailed among the islands on trading schooners, and when the HMS Bounty sailed into Tahiti for the remake of the "The Mutiny on the Bounty" I managed to get hired as a crewmember and bit actor, as stand-in for Marlon Brando..
But all this wasn't like sailing my own boat. The dream wouldn't go away.
Then one day a minor incident changed everything. After graduating from college, rather than climb the corporate ladder to success, I turned to writing –– travelling and writing about my adventures. I was in Honolulu doing a story for Argosy about a Canadian adventurer, Stan Rayner, who had found an old hull on the docks, rebuilt it and turned it into a romanticlooking trading schooner. It had taken him more than two years of hard labour:
"Was it worth it?" I joked. "If I had to do it all over again," he said, "I'd build in concrete."
Build in concrete! Was this his joke? But Rayner was dead serious.
And that I did. I built my own schooner. I won't go into the merits of building in ferrocement, for that I wrote in The Voyages but I will say here, after building the hull in Singapore, the finished product was as fine as a porcelain teacup. It was beautiful. With a bare hull and a second-hand Perkins engine we motored to Bangkok to have the final construction completed.
I pick up the narrative again.
We were anxious to reach the mouth of the Chao Phraya River where we were to rendezvous with Bob Stevens, the owner of the yard to where we were heading.
"We have to wait until it's dark," Bob said when he came aboard.
"Dark! Why do we have to wait until it's dark?" I asked.
"Because we can't bring an unfinished boat into Thailand without a lot of papers and red tape."
"Then what do we do?"
"We sneak in!"
And so it began, Third Sea's first real adventure. Under the cover of darkness we slipped silently up the Chao Phraya River into the forgotten world of Joseph Conrad, past government patrol boats, around a Thai Navy check point guarding the river entrance, and in that darkness we somehow found the entrance to the canal. We then slowly motored up the narrow congested waterway to our final destination and our home for the months to come.
Much of the work was tedious and took a great deal of patience. For example, deadeyes, the wooden blocks along the sides of old sailing ships that held the rigging in place, had to be made by hand. . . .weaving a net at the bowsprit and lacing rope ratlines to the shrouds required endless hours. But gradually everything began to fit into place. I did manage to keep her in traditional design, with chain plates, channels, a fife rail and jutting bowsprit. . . And I did my best to keep the operation simple, with mechanical pumps and windlass rather than going electrical. Our lighting was by oil lamps as well as battery powered, in case of generator failure.
At last, masts went up; carved dragons were fastened to the sides of the hull; and trail boards with the name THIRD SEA on one side and HONOLULU on the other were bolted securely into place on the bow.
The day for our departure was nearing. Third Sea was completed and stores were brought aboard. Excitement had built.. . . and then Bob Stevens, looking up at the masts that towered nearly eighty feet above the klong, said, "I hope you can get under the wires."
"Wires, what wires?" I asked.
"The high voltage power lines that cross the klong down at the entrance. You must have seen them." I hadn't seen them. How could I have? It was dark when we sneaked in. Immediately I took our dinghy and went down the waterway to investigate. Sure enough, at a village near the entrance, high voltage wires crossed the klong. The clearance couldn't have been more than fifty feet. In desperation I went to the village and looked up the headman. I explained the predicament, and asked if he could possibly remove the wires so that we could pass the next morning. He pondered it for a long time. I handed him five-hundred baht notes, worth about one-hundred U.S. dollars. He nodded and assured me I could pass.
The next morning, with everyone aboard, we cast off the mooring lines, and glided gently down the klong, waving farewell to those who had worked and watched us for the past year. The tide was going out and we began to pick up speed. My heart was in my mouth. I should have checked that morning. What if the headman hadn't removed the power lines? I could electrocute everyone aboard. I hadn't told a sole aboard about the power lines.
We drifted around the last bend, and ahead was the village. The power lines were gone! The headman had kept his promise. I looked again, and did a double take. The power lines hadn't simply been removed. The poles had been blown up. Stubs of splintered wood poked upwards. The headman stood on the bank in front of the village and waved as we passed.
We entered the mighty Chao Phraya River. The river here is wide as a lake with traffic of all sorts — tramp steamers, weather-beaten freighters, salt junks, Bugis traders and tugs pulling long strings of heavyladen rice barges. It was real now; we were part of Conrad's world. . . sailing the same river he had sailed — and wrote about.
We had to clear customs, a concern, and a worry. . .Bob Stevens had registered the schooner as a Thai-built vessel. Then came the question I was told I would be asked.
"Who's your captain?" the officer asked sternly when I went ashore to get our clearance. He was dressed in a white naval uniform. His gold epaulets sparkled.
"I am," I replied, rather proudly.
"Your papers," the officer then said.
"Papers, certainly," I replied.
I handed him my papers. He checked them over and slid them back across the counter. The papers were official. How was that? Before we departed, I had learned that any vessel registered in Thailand has to have a captain aboard with a valid master's certificate. Anywhere else in the world the skipper of a cruising yacht is not required to have a master's certificate. Not in Thailand. And I didn't have the money to hire a captain. What to do?
Bob Stevens had an accountant who I was told could arrange anything. "Your need master's papers?" he asked when I went to see him. "I want to leave in two weeks," I said. "I don't have the time to study for my master's certificate."
"You don't have to," he said and reached for the telephone. He dialled a number, mumbled a few words in rapid Thai and then dialled another number. The conversation went on for ten minutes. Finally he hung up. "Okay, Monday morning at nine," he said. "We have to be at Naval Headquarters near Krung Thon Bridge." He hesitated, and then added, "It will cost you fifteen hundred baht, about seventy-five dollars."
At nine o'clock at Naval Headquarters that Monday morning I was ushered into a room where three stern Thai Naval officers sat behind a long table. They were all in uniform. The officer in charge spoke up. "You have your papers with you?"
I had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, I looked around for the accountant but he was nowhere to be seen. "Papers, I don't know what you mean," 1 said.
"Your master's certificate," he asked gruffly.
I had to think of something. Obviously there had been a mistake. The accountant must have thought I already had my papers.
"I didn't think I needed to bring them," I said, not knowing how else to respond. Just then the accountant entered the room and briskly walked up to the officer in charge. He then handed him an envelope. The officer peeked in the envelope, then opened a drawer and shoved it inside.
"Well," he said. "No papers. I'm afraid you must take a test." He opened a book on the table and then shoved it toward me. He flipped to a marked page. There were hundreds of little circles on the page. "Tell me," he continued, "what letter do you see?"
"The letter G," I said. Any child who wasn't colourblind could have seen that. I suddenly realized what was happening; it was all beginning to fall into place. The officer had received the money but he also had said I would have to take a test, and he couldn't lose face. He had to give me a test.
He stood up, followed by the other two officers, and held out a hand. "Congratulations," he said, "you passed. You can pick up your papers in the office. I now was free to sail the seas, and that I did.
From Chapter 10 - Give me a good crew
Yachting is a never-ending learning process. There is so much we all can learn from the sea, given the impetus to learn. At sea, especially aboard a sailing ship, we are close to nature, closer than we can ever be anywhere else. We learn to read the wind. We come to know squalls and the power they might pack. We learn to read the clouds. "That is a fair weather cloud over there, and that one on the eastern horizon is a storm cloud." We learn to read the texture of the sea, to know at a glance when currents are running and when they are not. We came to know riptides. We learn that the blue in the clouds ahead means we are approaching a low atoll, that the blue is the reflection of a lagoon. We learn the speed of the wind by the white caps on breaking waves. We find that by following the movement of birds we can tell in what direction land might be. We learn to read the stars, and they become friendly. We soon have stars we favor, and we learn to recognize the planets. We learn the moon and all its phases. We know when it sets, and when it rises. We wait for it, and then we welcome it when we see it. We lament when it sets and turns the night into black. We even marvel when we see the moon in the daytime. What landlubbers would do that? Nature to the yachtsman is real and meaningful. Aboard Third Sea, oceans became our classroom.
We live in times when we depend upon mechanical aids for our very existence. The most difficult thing to teach a new crew was that we had to depend upon wind and sail to get us wherever we are going. It's so easy to say "turn on the engine." We might ask, how did the old schooners and square riggers get into and out of port without engines? Simple –– by kedging. In bygone days they had kedging posts or blocks in all the ports and entrances to ports. A ship's crew would row their longboat up to a kedging post and fastened a line from the ship to the post. The crew would winch the ship forward, either by hand or by windlass, up to the post. In the meantime, the longboat crew would row a second line to the next post and fasten it and repeat the process.
Kedging posts have disappeared but the procedure is still valid. Instead of posts two anchors will do just as well. With each new crew I signed on, I taught them how to enter and leave port without the use of the engine, by kedging with anchors. They learned that we aboard Third Sea were selfsufficient, and survivors. I can still see the early-morning risers at the five-star Ilikai Hotel facing the yacht harbor in Honolulu, standing on their balconies, coffee in hand, watching Third Sea being towed out to sea. I wondered what they thought, that we had no engine, that we were too poor to buy diesel, that the captain was a martinet. What they thought didn't matter; what did matter was what the crew thought.
Those who want to read more can have an autographed copy by contacting PayPal at www.wolfendenpublishing.com