True pirates, part VI

December 2023

By David Roper

n the last issue we left you underwater. Literally. We were off of Bermuda during my 1970s boat delivery from Rhode Island to St. Thomas. We were lying ahull, four of us flat on the cabin sole, when suddenly the wind and wave noise vanished, the natural light in the cabin turned the dark green color of the sea, and all was still. Obviously, we didn’t die.

But finally, the problems of the wind and seas became a bit more manageable, as both subsided. But they were replaced with two new problems, in addition to the chronic problem of the lack of moral integrity of two of my three crew: 1) we had no way to raise the mainsail, as our only mainsail halyard was stuck halfway up the mast; and 2) our only headsail was a huge genoa that couldn’t be reefed effectively. Our ability to sail to windward was compromised.

That’s when Mark, one of the pirates, looked up at the mast, then over at Hobie, my good friend and crew member. “You should shimmy up there and get it; you’re the lightest,” he said.

I shook my head. “Mark, a monkey wouldn’t dare climb that mast in these seas.”

Mark smirked at me. “Well, what do you suggest, Captain?”

“We can tie a can of beans to a small line and try to throw it through the loop where the stuck halyard and shackle are caught on the spreader.”

“It’ll never work.”

For an hour we tried, like kids at a carnival taking turns. It didn’t work. And we lost the can of beans.

There was another problem: we weren’t quite sure where we were. We knew we were close to Bermuda, but Mark hadn’t been able to get a sun sight for a couple days due to the weather. (This was in the pre-GPS days of the 1970s). We had limited fuel, perhaps only a few hours’ worth. And we couldn’t make much headway under sail. With the big headsail and no main, we seemed to move more sideways than ahead.

Two more days passed. It seemed we were setting a record for the slowest passage to Bermuda from Rhode Island, approaching nine days. Mark finally got a sight, showing us close to the island, but he couldn’t be sure which side Bermuda was on. We continued to see nothing, and began to worry we’d sailed past. I looked hopelessly over at my friend Hobie, who smiled up at me with that indomitable, impish smile of his, before singing his favorite line from a Dylan song: “Oh, mama, can this really be the end.” It was right then that I had the biggest lightbulb of an idea of my then twenty-six-year life. “Take the wheel, Hobie, I think it’s music that might save us,” I said, heading below. I grabbed the small transistor radio from the nav station. Hobie looked at me suspiciously. “You gonna retrieve the main halyard with that?”

“AM radio! Bermuda! We’ll use it like an RDF. A radio direction finder.” I turned it on and frantically spun the tuner knob. Most of the dial was blank of course, due to our distance from the mainland, but soon I found a Bermuda station. “This has a fixed internal antenna, so when I turn the radio 180 degrees and the sound weakens, we know Bermuda is on the other side.” So, adjusting course to the strength of the signal, we sailed until nightfall. But we still didn’t see the island.

Mark came up on deck. “Helluva time to listen to the radio, Captain.” Then he nodded, and I saw he got it. “Yeah, but still, we got those reefs all around Bermuda to contend with. And we don’t know where we are or how close we are to them.”

Then Mark had an idea. “It’s worth a try now on the VHF,” I said. “We may be close enough for Bermuda Harbor Radio to hear us and give us some advice. They’re good. Used them before. Let’s give it a try.”

And sure enough, we reached Bermuda Harbor Radio, and told them of our situation. I had hopes they would send out a vessel to guide us in. But what they offered for advice shocked me. “If you have flares on board, when we tell you, shoot one off, and we’ll give you a bearing that will take you through the pass in the reef.”

And that’s what we did. And it worked. By midnight we had tied to the wharf in the town of St. George’s. The sudden calm of the harbor felt blissful. I looked forward to a couple of quiet days. Mark and Artie had other ideas. More trouble was just beginning.

David Roper’s new novel, “The Ghosts of Gadus Island: A Story of Young Love, Loss, and the Order of Nature,” is now available. Dave is the author of the three-time bestseller “Watching for Mermaids,” as well as the sequel “Beyond Mermaids” and the novel “Rounding the Bend.” Buy them at or