A lament for the boat left out

Good Buddy as I first found her in early January, fenders out, sail cover off, as though her former owners had fled.

Story and photos by Bob Muggleston
For Points East

“A boat is always there – you never stop worrying about her whether you are aboard or ashore – she is always a presence in the mind and you’re conscious of her at all times. Men lie awake worrying about their bank balances, their waist lines, their wives, mistresses actual or potential, but sailors worry about boats.”

-Frank Mulville, from “In Granma’s Wake: Girl Stella’s Voyage to Cuba”

In November of 2015 an ad appeared on craigslist that demanded my full, unwavering attention. It was for a 1966, Carl Alberg-designed Pearson Commander sailboat, and the $750 asking price for the 26-footer nearly sent me into a tizzy. This seemed awfully cheap for a pedigreed boat, but there weren’t any pictures with the ad, either, which meant one of three things: 1) the ad was some sort of scam, most likely perpetrated by the Russians; 2) the boat might once have been a beautiful example of Alberg’s finest work, but no longer was; or 3) the owner of the boat had no idea what he or she had, and their ignorance would finally justify my obsessive combing of internet classifieds. Everyone knows the story of the wife whose husband dies, and, years later, unaware of real-world prices, unloads the husband’s Mercedes for next to nothing. This was just the sort of Easter egg I thought I might have stumbled across.

The owner of the boat, when I called him, seemed pretty normal, and his story more or less fit a narrative I’d already fashioned in my head. He was a non-sailer, he said, and had picked the boat up that spring on a lark. He and his family had used it all summer, puttering around Long Island’s Northport Harbor, but he’d recently gotten a job in New Jersey. The boat had to go. He answered my questions the best he could: Yes, there were a couple of sails, three, in fact; no, the deck wasn’t spongy; and yes, the 4-horse Yamaha that came with the boat was a good motor, though probably a bit on the small side for a 5,500-lb. vessel.

We talked for about an hour. As time wore on, I became convinced that what he was telling me was the truth – that I’d found my Easter egg. I hung up the phone feeling like I’d just talked with the prettiest girl in school.

Pearson Commanders have long held sway over me. In the 90s a young sailor named Zoltan Gyurko sailed his Commander, The Way, nearly around the world. Alberg designed the Commander as a comfortable daysailer, with a large cockpit and a small cabin. Gyurko (who changed his last name to Istvan, and in 2016 ran for U.S. President on the Transhumanist ticket) is a big guy. It was bonkers that he’d set off with such grand ambitions on such a small boat, but in his writings of the voyage he always spoke highly of the boat’s build and handling qualities.

I bought the boat more or less sight-unseen.

I know. Stupid. Never do that.

But the owner had scraped up a couple of grainy images, and the internet told me that the boat had once belonged to the Sea Scouts, who are basically an ocean-going version of the Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts. Denizens of a world in which honesty and good faith are guiding principles. This seemed an omen. In fact, in light of her previous owners, the boat’s curious name – Good Buddy – made sense. She’d almost certainly been named by kids!

When it was time to buy Good Buddy, however, and the seller chose the online payment service PayPal as the means of transaction, I became nervous. Was I being taken in by some sort of elaborate Russian scam? It occurred to me that one might advertise a pretty boat for next to nothing and then seduce 20 or so people into paying for it at more or less the same time, via PayPal. That was $15k! Both craigslist ads and talk are free. It’s a gambit that, up front, costs nothing, and who gets badly hurt, really, at that price point?

In the end, my wife convinced me to go for it. The former owner seemed pleased when I bought the boat, and had a friend take a snapshot of Good Buddy on her mooring from an adjacent beach. I had evidence she was real, finally, with a time stamp embedded in the image.

By now it was mid-December. Good Buddy was still on her mooring in Northport. I live in Connecticut. What had I gotten myself into? Sailing her across the Sound in December was out of the question for many reasons, not the least of which was that I’d never stepped foot on the boat. The yards in and around Northport were done pulling boats for the season. Now that I actually owned her, what was I supposed to do with her? I could pay for a wintertime slip with a bubbler, but they were prohibitively expensive, and besides, it seemed contrary to the whole point of the exercise. Several like-minded sailors (read: cheapskates) reminded me that often times in a storm, moorings are the safest place a boat can be. Northport’s inner harbor, where Good Buddy sat, was sheltered in every direction except the northwest. Could she survive the winter on a mooring? I honestly had no idea.

On a trip out to see her in early January (and yes, she was just as advertised, with rock-solid decks, albeit a bit neglected and still full of the previous owner’s belongings) I noticed she had two other neighbors – a large catamaran without a mast, and a sad-looking little sloop. Clearly, they were there for the duration. I reconsidered. Could Good Buddy survive a winter out? It didn’t seem right. But just because something isn’t routinely done, I thought, doesn’t mean it can’t occasionally be done. I’d already been green-lit by the boat’s former owner, who said Good Buddy’s mooring belonged to a friend of his. I bought boat insurance to hedge my small wager and made the fateful call – she was staying out.

And so began my Long Winter of Acute Anxiety. Once home, I discovered that a boatyard next to Good Buddy had an anemometer that provided real-time wind speeds and directions to a service called Intellicast. I checked Intellicast several times a day, and pored over long-range forecasts like I was a meteorologist. Then, one night, a sobering discovery: Right before heading to bed, I checked Intellicast to find that it was blowing 30 knots in Northport Harbor, and from the dreaded northwest, no less! How could this be? At my house in Connecticut there was no wind at all.

This scenario repeated itself at an alarming rate. Occasionally wind speeds in the harbor touched 45 and 50 knots. I worried about the harbor freezing, too, even though a commercial fisherman I approached on the beach in Northport said it didn’t happen often, and almost never after January 28. I ticked off the days like someone doing time, and irritated my wife with my constant laptop consultations. Three or four times I called a girl who answered the phone at a boatyard adjacent to Good Buddy and asked her to go out on the deck with a pair of binoculars. “Is she still there?” I’d ask. It seemed like a week didn’t pass that didn’t produce heavy air. How had I never noticed how windy New England winters are?

The scenarios I painted in my imagination were grim: Good Buddy crushed like an egg by ice; Good Buddy bucking in a fierce breeze until her pendants parted; Good Buddy on walkabout, careening her way through the fleet of small commercial fishing boats that resided in Northport’s inner harbor. In each scenario she ended up on the bottom of the shallow harbor, the 20 feet or so of her mast poking up through the water testament to my cheapness and stupidity.

January 28 came and went without ice. In late February I again made the long drive to Long Island. She was there, thank God, but . . . it seemed like in a different spot. Maybe it’s just the tide? I thought, even as my pulse quickened. Something was definitely off.

I raced out to Good Buddy, and pulling up alongside her I was in for an odd sight: There, on the port settee in the cockpit, was 20 feet of heavily rusted chain, a mooring ball and line, and what looked like a section of a wire lobster pot. Tangled in the pot was shredded nylon rode. What, exactly, was I looking at? I wasn’t sure. Then I saw chafing gear I’d installed peeking out of the pile. I was looking at a post-mortem of Good Buddy’s mooring! I untangled the mess and followed the chain, link by link, to the bitter end. By the time I got there the last three links were scary thin. The chain had parted. Good Buddy had, indeed, gone on walkabout. But where? Who saved her? And whose mooring was she on now?

The only scenario that made any sense was that a commercial fisherman saved her. They’re there all winter, and, with their shellfishing skiffs, have the ability to carry out an on-the-water rescue. Thank you, Northport commercial fishermen, if this was, indeed, the case. I’m forever indebted.

I called the previous owner of the boat to let him know what had happened, and he said a curious thing: “Can you send me a picture of the mooring that broke?” I thought it was an odd request, but as it happened I actually had one – it was in one of the pictures I’d taken of Good Buddy as I approached her in a dinghy on my first visit. Ten minutes later he called back. “That’s not the mooring I originally put her on,” he said. “I don’t know whose mooring that is.”

“Huh,” I replied. “Why would someone take her off your buddy’s mooring and put her somewhere else?”

There was a long pause at the other end of the phone. “Okay, full disclosure, I’m not sure whose mooring that was,” he said. “The inner harbor is unregulated, so there are a bunch that no longer really have owners.” He went on to say that he’d moved the boat around on various moorings all summer, and when someone was displeased with his choice they’d just stick the boat somewhere else. There was no telling whose mooring Good Buddy had been on, or, for that matter, was on now. He assured me that, all things considered, this was good news.

I wasn’t so sure.

Later that season, after friends and I rescued Good Buddy from Northport Harbor and towed her the 60 miles home, the boat was hauled for winter storage. I drove to her new wintertime home, wanting to see her imposing (and barnacle-encrusted) keel out of the water for the first time, and to see where the boatyard had decided to put her.

I was in for a shock. Half of Good Buddy’s rudder was missing. Stainless steel straps dangled from the remnants. This time I knew exactly what I was looking at: tangible evidence of her “walkabout” in Northport Harbor. The fantasy I’d conjured, in which Good Buddy had managed to hold on until someone was conveniently nearby to rescue her without incident, was just that – a fantasy. For all I know, she may have gone ashore. It really doesn’t matter that, at the time, Good Buddy was what most people would consider to be a “beater boat.” She was my boat, and beneath her neglected exterior, she was beautiful. I’d worried about her the way every sailor worries about his or her boat, regardless of price or condition, but, at the end of the day, it hadn’t been enough. Not to anthropomorphize too much, but I hadn’t been a good advocate.

Good Buddy is aware of this. Today, whenever she needs something – new cockpit coaming boards, a coat of interior paint, or cabin-top handrails – she reminds me, and I’m off and running, trying to make up for the winter several years ago, when, for reasons unknown to her, she was inexplicably left out.

Bob Muggleston is the editor of Points East.