When no one else is watching. . . .

May 2008

By David Roper

“Hope for the best, but Plan for the Worst.” A famous round-the-world sailor had this imprinted on his companionway bulkhead. I guess he did it as a constant reminder. Makes sense. Those of us with a few miles under our keels know that things can very quickly go from sublime to terrifying.

I’m 57. I have been cruising and day sailing, often alone, since 1967. Sometimes I plan for the worst. Sometimes I just go, and so be it. When your time is up, it’s up. Right? Stupid attitude. My time was almost up from the very first, though no one knew it until now.

When I was 16, after being inspired by the teenage solo circumnavigator Robin Lee Graham, I decided I should do something like he did, but on a much smaller scale. So I set sail alone toward Nantucket. I did it in a 23-foot True Rocket centerboard cabin sloop of questionable breed. I’d purchased it for $1,500 with funds earned while working at a shoe factory. I was off at last, on the verge of becoming the next famous teenage sailor. I knew, however, that I must always be prepared for the worst. And I should look cool while doing it.

So what I needed was a lifesaving harness. A justifiably concerned friend of my father’s gave me his old one. It was more of a fat canvas belt than a harness, like something a jackhammer operator would wear around his stomach. But to me it was cool. I pictured making each port, alone and salt encrusted, tethered to my noble vessel, while teenage tourist maidens swooned from their shoreside perches at every move of the romantic young adventurer.

The second day of my voyage, while drifting along a couple of miles off Plymouth on a course towards the Cape Cod Canal, I decided to test out my harness. I was planning for the worst, and I wanted to practice. I snapped the tether’s big brass clip to a shroud, leaned out over the windward side, let go both hands, spread my arms, put my full weight on the manila rope tether, and imagined myself fighting for survival in a horrific storm off Cape Horn. Now remember, I just wrote the word manila rope tether, not Super Spectra, Torlon, Zargon, carbon-fiber, mega strength tether.

Some wise person once said: “Character is what we do when no one else is watching.” Maybe stupidity in my case. What happened next I have never disclosed to anyone. You’re the first, gentle or crusty reader, though by now I’m sure you can guess. Yes, the ancient manila rope broke, and I back flopped into the sea. My 23-foot True Rocket (which, thankfully, was never anything close to a rocket) lumbered away from me. When I surfaced, my first thought, oddly, was not one of survival, but of gratitude that no one was watching. I swam easily to my Wal-Mart-quality rubber raft that followed faithfully astern, rolled into it, and pulled myself back to the mother ship.

The voyage continued for 36 days that summer. There was one teenage maiden, though her swoon soon faded. I got lost at sea in the fog. I got real scared. I got lonely. I ran out of money. But, like Robin Lee Graham, I continued on alone. And I was cool, because, until now, no one was the wiser.

Dave Roper, who lives and sails out of Marblehead, Mass., shares his distinctive perspective of coastal life each issue of Points East.