And all of this reminds me of a story from when I was Newport's age. I know that I have told this story here before. Sorry to those who have read it.
In the early 1970’s, Dinner Key (Just south of Miami on Biscayne Bay) was a gathering place for a disparate collection of vaguely nautical types. A strange maritime amalgam that ranged from the white be-blazered swells at Coral Reef yacht Club to the castoffs that camped on the small barrier islands that marked the entrance to Dinner Key. It included the retired military lifers with their proper yachts, and the hippies with their strangely cobbled together vessels; old lifeboat conversions and weirdly converted wooden race boats, old Bahamas sloops and Cuban fishing smacks. This was time of great polarization in this country, but on the waterfront, life was a strange blending of diverse factions, living shoulder to shoulder, a stirring and mixing of opposites pulled together by our common gravity of being sailors.
This mix of the rich and the raucous, the saint and the stew bum, was constantly changing as boats and people came and went. I was there at ground zero, the D.I.T (Do it yourself) yard at Dinner Key, a 23-year-old, fresh out of architecture school, restoring a wooden folkboat, Diana; a lapstraker that was a year older than myself. It was not unusual to visit or be visited by others working on their own boats when the heat became too great to continue, or the skies opened up and we all ran for cover in the great shed. There was this sense of community as we each wrestled with each of our boat’s own particular form of torture. Mine was keel bolts. But that is another story.
Occasionally, there would be one boat and one person that really needed the help of the community and the Irish Kid was one of those. The Irish Kid (I don’t know if I ever knew his name) came to the States from Ireland to see his father who was a dog trainer at the greyhound racetracks. His visa only allowed the Irish Kid a few months in this country, and he had already extended it as far as he could. Immigration had ordered him to leave by noon of a certain day after which they would arrest him and deport him.
For a reason completely lost to time and myself, the Irish Kid had decided to leave by buying a boat and sailing to the Bahamas, at that time still a British possession. He had bought a neat little 20 or so foot plywood sloop, which was more or less a miniature Folkboat interpreted in multi-chine plywood. She was a pretty little fractional rigged, moderately long keeled, sloop, painted a cheery yellow by some prior owner. Unfortunately the boat needed some serious repairs so she was hauled out in Dinner Key Marina a couple boats away from ‘Diana’.
The Irish Kid had only planned to haul out a few days, maybe a week at the most, before being launched again and well before his deadline to leave the states. As in all boat repairs, it did not work out that way. The required repairs were far more extensive and time consuming than he had planned. All of us in the yard felt sorry for him and tried to help as best we could. I had found a source for government surplus bottom paint and so picked up an extra gallon for him. His mast step had rotted out and had also rotted the painted plywood deck below it. A number of us spent a night cutting the deck apart and scarfing in a new piece of deck and building him a new mast step. One of the guys donated the wreck of an old rig and its parts were scavenged to replace pieces of bad rigging. And so it went.
Every couple days, a black Ford galaxy with U.S. government plates would pull into the boat yard and two men in suits would talk to the Irish Kid and let him know that they would not allow him a minute more than the allotted deadline to leave. This very much scared the Irish Kid since all of his money was tied up in that boat, and if he was carted off and sent home, he believed the boat would be seized by the Government to pay for his airfare.
Adding to the pathos of this whole venture was the fact that the Irish Kid did not know how to sail, or navigate and had not spent time around boats. Originally, there was a hippie that had planned to sail over to the Bahamas with the Irish Kid. We all knew this hippie to be less than perfectly knowledgeable and trustworthy but he was certainly a more experienced sailor than the Kid. A day or two before the Irish Kid was set to leave the hippie decided not to go.
On the last day leading up to the Irish Kid’s planned departure, we all pitched in doing what ever we could to get his boat put back together. We had wanted to take him sailing and make sure that he understood what we had been telling him but he was only launched on the morning that he had to leave. Another sailor and myself drove him up to get some groceries at the supermarket. He had wanted to say good-bye to his father but there was not enough time to run up Hialeah.
We had tried to convince him to sail over and anchor in ‘No-Name Cove’ on the opposite side of Biscayne Bay and just daysail until he felt comfortable with the boat, but he was so nervous that he would have his boat seized that he insisted that he would just simply sail over to the Bahamas. But sailing to the Bahamas was anything but simple. For several days a Norther had kept the flags standing out and slatting harshly and had raised whitecaps in the protected water of Biscayne Bay. It was not a good day for a new sailor to try to sail to ‘No-Name Cove’ by himself no less the Bahamas, But he set sail about 11:00 or so heading across Biscayne Bay to the cut off of Cape Florida on Key Biscayne and out toward the Florida Straights.
About noon, the black Galaxy showed up. The two guys in suits asked if I knew where the Irish kid had gone. I climbed up the ladder to the deck of ‘Diana’, and looking seaward, there was a tiny white triangle glowing in the mid-day sun above a spec of a yellow hull heeled down and basically on course for the cut. I pointed and said, “There he is”. One of the Government Men came aboard and looked for himself, thanked me, and then they left.
The Kid did not know how to navigate. One of the guys in the boatyard had laid out a course and told him when the water turned color head 45 Degrees further south until the water turned color again. I don’t recall if he could even read a chart.
These were different times than today. Small yachts did not carry VHF radios. GPS or even Loran did not exist. The Irish Kid’s boat did not have a reliable outboard or an electrical system. He had a silly little double D cell powered running light that had a red and green at the front and a white light at the rear that he clipped to his mast. If he failed there was no way to call for help.
In the first few days after the Irish Kid left, I naively listened on the AM radio for news of an air/sea rescue search, but then it hit me, who would call in that search? Over the years I thought of the Irish Kid a lot. In the years after Dinner Key, I’d think of him almost every time I sailed a small boat in a building breeze. But slowly over time I’d think of him less and less.
To this day I wonder what happened to him. I wonder if he somehow made it, or if perhaps he slipped in to No-Name Cove and did in fact learn to sail. I sometimes imagine him reaching the Bahamas. I wonder how he knew which low sand island was which. I wondered if he knew to look out for coral heads and dope runners. I wondered the current took him north and he missed the Bahamas entirely. Or the Norther blew him south and he piled up on Andros to die tangled in the Mangoves. Or maybe he went on to become a world cruiser of great renown. Maybe he was Tristan Jones.
Most times when I tell a story there is a moral, or a punchline or even an ending but this one is different. If there’s a moral I have yet to figure it out. There is no punchline and as this still haunts me to this day, I am not sure there is even an ending.
Good night folks,