And now, for the rest of the story

June 2003

By Dodge Morgan

I hear those stories that begin “I remember when I was” all the time. Often coming out of my own mouth. And then I scrub my memory a bit cleaner and can actually “remember when I was.” The purpose of these stories is to point out to youngsters just how easy things have become for them and how tough they were for us. This curmudgeon tendency goes well beyond the “we walked miles to school through snowdrifts up to our armpits,” particularly when sailing is the subject. The stories and the honest recalls go something like this.

Story: You do not impress me with your digital charts and global positioning system, fella. Back when I sailed the old Coaster from Maine through the Bahamas and the West Indies and Central America and to Hawaii and then to the South Pacific Society Islands, back to Hawaii and up to Alaska, I had nothing but the compass and a watch and a sextant. No electronic gadgets in those days. We knew dead reckoning. We could get an ocean fix with the sextant in just 15 lines of calculations using just the sun. I found Hawaii from Panama, 4,720 nautical miles, in just 49 days of sailing that 30-year-old gaff-headed schooner.

Rest of the story: Quite often, particularly in the voyage’s early stages, I would row ashore and ask where I really was. Although my latitudes were close, I was lucky enough to be within 5 miles of a “noon fix” because my watch, and therefore my longitude, was never accurate. And I do recall that just a few years ago a guy from New Jersey made it sailing around the world without compass, watch or sextant.

Story: So you think you’re clever and skillful because you can reef down your 800 square feet of sail alone in seven minutes. What a sissy you are. It took me an hour working alone to reef the schooner’s main and fore the old way and I did it hundreds of times in heavy weather.

Rest of the story: I recall sailing for three days in a double reef at maybe 2 knots speed because I figured the gale was bound to return sometime.

Story: So, you’ve festooned your vessel with electric bilge pumps and flares and automatic steering gear and man-overboard rigs. My granddad, “Cap,” carried a bucket, a cigarette lighter and one cork life jacket. He refused to even learn how to swim on the fundamental conviction that water was only good to drink if you had nothing else and that immersing oneself in it expressed the desire to die rather than to live.

Rest of the story: Even though he was never to drown anyone, Cap was to water safety measures as a mackerel is to a tree.

Story: You got ground tackle, alright, but I’ve never seen it in use even on those rare occasions your boat actually leaves the marina slip. When I was young we all knew how to set an anchor and there were no marinas.

Rest of the story: In the late ’40s, highly experienced boaters Clint Taylor and Reeny Doane would take their little one-lunger Baby II out fishing and drinking on Nantucket Sound, always intending a return at dusk when the sea breeze would quiet. In case the drinking outweighed the fishing, Cap would always wait hopeful at the boatyard for their return. On one particularly ground-tackle focused occasion, we heard their one lunger’s “bark, bark, woof” in the channel. The way to stop this engine was to short out a dangling piece of wire to the spark plug. The Clint and Reeny dialogue went like this as they came cross-harbor to us at a full 5 knots.

“Can’t find that f-ing wire Reeny. Fetch the anchor, quick.”

“Got it, Clint, but there’s no string on it.”

“Throw her over anyway, Reeny, stop our headway some.”

Reeny threw the barren anchor into the harbor. Baby II hit a piling head-on. The boat’s stem broke back past her planks and she sank rapidly right by the dock ladder. “Bark, bark, woof” became “burp, burp, burble.” As the two wordlessly climbed the ladder, only a half-filled bottle of Four Roses remained afloat. They rescued that prize.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.