Where there’s a will . . .

The late Gordon Crossman aboard his home-built sailboat, into which he incorporated many found items. Photo courtesy Greg Coppa

Wickford, Rhode Island, has always had more interesting characters than I can shake a stick at. Plenty of interesting stories abound there, as well. Not too long ago there was a distinguished older gentleman who was very active in community affairs, politics, and the yacht club where I learned to sail as a kid. His name was Gordon Crossman. Though he was more than twice our age, one of my brothers and I enjoyed listening to his stories after Wednesday night races. We went on several sails with him, and even had a few drinks together.

Later, as an adult living in Wickford, I had a Sabre sailboat. One time Gordon helped me and my brother sail it to Sag Harbor, New York, where none of us knew anybody. We walked around town, past the windmill, up and down the streets by the water until the still-spry Mr. Crossman spied an American Legion post. As we entered it we could see that it was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else, and all eyes were upon us. It was like a scene from one of those old cowboy movies where the stranger saunters up to the bar, and the music stops. Gordon strode right up to the Legion’s bartender and said, in a loud, clear voice, “Barkeep, I’ll have your best cold draft beer and a couple more for my young friends here.” That got everyone’s attention. When the glasses were set down before him, my old friend grabbed one, turned toward the tables behind us, and proposed a toast to the “brave and honorable men of Sag Harbor.” Judging by the looks on most of their faces, the crowd was wondering, “Just who the hell is this guy?” Curiosity got the better of them, however, and soon Gordon was making friends. Connections were made, backs were slapped, jokes told and laughter erupted. Suffice to say, after Gordon got the “boys” wound up, our money was worthless at the Legion. We paid for no drinks or food for the rest of the night. This man was one of those rare people who made good things happen wherever he was.

In his golden years Gordon and his lovely wife, Rose, wintered on the small Caribbean island of Culebra. He loved Culebra very much but he missed sailing, which he had done back home in Little Rhody whenever he got a chance – even enthusiastically participating in the local frostbiting series. If there were any sailboats on Culebra he would have talked his way onto one. But apparently, there weren’t. Gordon told me that there was only so much drinking and sunning he could do. But there was no limit to how much time he could spend exploring tropical shores with a boat – even a small one. Buying a daysailer, or shipping one down there, turned out to be prohibitively expensive.

An incomplete plan was formulated and the Old Yankee from Wickford began collecting odds and ends as he walked palm-fringed beaches. Driftwood – mostly pieces of mahogany and teak – as well as stainless steel screws and small marine fittings from abandoned wrecks were cleaned up and squirreled away somewhere on the island.

The following winter he packed an extra-large suitcase for the trip south stocked with a few tools and some small boat hardware as well as building materials like fiberglass resin and cloth. This was WAY before the days of Amazon. Once back on the island, Gordon found a boat hull that was maybe 10 or 12 feet long, and talked its owner into letting him borrow it for a few days. Gordon could talk flies off a dead fish.

The boat hull was turned into a plug. I can just see Gordon now, the retired engineer, who had worked at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, setting it upside down on a pair of sawhorses. With Scotch Tape, he carefully covered the borrowed hull with several layers of wax paper. Then he methodically and patiently began to lay up catalyzed resin-impregnated cloth on the plug, allowing it to cure. After sanding the hardened first layer he followed up with resin-impregnated mat. Despite the fact that he ran out of materials, he had fashioned a stiff-enough hull to remove it from the plug. He returned the loaner and secured the work-in-progress in a safe place.

Again, materials were procured in Rhode Island, flown south, and eventually ferried to Culebra from Puerto Rico. A set of sails was fabricated from another set of sails. Spars were fashioned from who knows what, and finally, after three years, Gordon had a jaunty little craft.

With great and well-deserved pride he showed me somewhat-worn photos of his island boat, one with him at the tiller. I have to tell you that it didn’t look like a “suitcase boat” at all. Actually it seemed kind of spiffy. The hull had been wet-sanded and I believe that Gordon said he’d gotten it Awlgripped, free of charge, by someone with leftover materials from a repair job to a Sportfisherman. Knowing Gordon, he got an invitation to wet lines with the Awlgripper, to boot.

Gordon Crossman hasn’t been around for a number of years, and I miss him. He’s sailing in that place where the winds are always light and variable, the sky is deep blue and the sun bright and cheerful. But his positive, can do-attitude, resourcefulness, patience and perseverance are still an inspiration to me. Hopefully to some of you, as well.

Greg Coppa, a resident of Wickford, R.I., is the author of the books “November Christmas and Other Short Stories” and “Second Chances.”