One of my “lifetimes" I spent as a professional sailor.
On the last day of our time on the island, our vessel was hailed on the the ship’s radio. As it turned out, there were two other tall ships in the area just off the coast. One, the Pelican, (top right) was a large Barkentine with square sails which had been functioning as a “Head Boat”, taking tourists from the main town of Castrees out for day sails to the Pitons and back. She was a steel hulled vessel built originally in France as an Arctic fishing trawler. Pelican had an unusual rig based on a design employed by the Barbary Pirates that made her more maneuverable than the typical square rigged vessels of the day. The other was the majestic Astrid, (bottom right) Built in 1918 in the Netherlands as a lugger, she was later transferred to Swedish ownership, renamed Astrid and sailed on the Baltic Sea until 1975. She then sailed under a Lebanese flag and was allegedly used for drug smuggling. After being found burnt out on the coast of England in the early 1980s, she was overhauled and used as a sailing training vessel.
We happened to be raising anchor when we got the call and were about to embark on the next leg of our journey to Venezuela. We were invited out for a sail and, up for the challenge, we set a course taking us to the vicinity of the tall-ships who were already under sail near each other and were biding their time until we could catch up.
The sight of these two amazing ships on the horizon built our expectation and excitement for what was to come.. Its one thing to see one of these great vessels at a dock or even in the distance at sea. To be sailing within tens of feet of these massive hulls while being immersed in the power of the wind and waves is another experience entirely.
The Pride is a traditionally rigged vessel and it took most of the crew to accomplish things like raising a sail or hoisting the anchor.. We considered ourselves the lucky ones when we were tapped to climb aloft underway to attend to one of the ship’s many topsails. (right) The adventurous voyage had truly been a taste of heaven for me and it was about to get even better..
Again, “Fire in the Hole!!!! …… BA BOOOM !!!
The cannon fire echoed as the shots across the bow reverberated off the nearby Pitons. Then after trimming the sails for maximum efficiency, we rocketed forward with remarkable speed and set our course for South America. As the Astrid and Pelican slowly receded in the distance, we all reflected, still in awe of what we had just experienced.
So many times I have told that story and every time introduced it with the words, “ Of all the great stories of my time at sea…. this is my Greatest Sea Story.”
But wait… there’s more…
One year later, the following winter, I was looking for another sailing job. I picked up a copy of Wooden Boat Magazine.. Brilliant and the Pride had both been featured in its pages and it was a favorite read every month. I turned to the classifieds in the back and noticed and ad for a position as First Mate aboard a private schooner out of the Bahamas. I was a little apprehensive as I had heard stories about crew aboard private yachts being treated as servants by wealthy owners.. I had lots of questions when I made my very first call in my attempt to find a berth for the season.
I was able to get ahold of the captain and found that the boat was docked on the island of Bonair off the coast of Venezuela. My interest was piqued as I heard more of the details. The boat was another classic, a 70ft. wooden shallow draft schooner with centerboard. Very unique and designed by the famous John Alden to navigate the shallow waters found in the Bahamas where she had been for the last ten years. We would be delivering her to San Diego and thus would be traversing the Panama Canal and visiting some of the worlds most exotic ports along the way.
I was still wondering about the owner and was told he was a musician. Hmmmm….. Good so far. I took a chance and asked the captain his name. Who knows? The sailing community is a surprisingly small one and owners of the classic boats and sailors often know one another . He replied, “David Crosby”. (right) It didn’t hit me at first. My mind started putting the puzzle together. David Crosby? Yes! THE David Crosby of Crosby Stills and Nash. Wow! What an adventure I was about to have and I couldn’t wait for it to begin !!
Now for the small world story of all time……
There we were.. the three crew.. a Panamanian named Ozzie, a pirate-like character named Cliff and myself. We were sitting around a table having a couple beers at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. The term yacht club was a stretch. It was a run down stucco structure with an open air tiki bar type feel. There was barbed wire around the perimeter separating it from the city of Colon, Panama and the word was not to venture outside of the fence. Despite this, we went into town one day and everywhere we went,we saw big bullet holes in the walls, evidence of the US Invasion that captured Manuel Noriega a year before. We spent a week there over Christmas that year as we waited in line to transit the Canal.
One particularly hot day (hotter than all the other hot days in Panama) we went to the bar to get out of the sun and have a cold drink. Several other yachtsmen from around the world had the same idea so before long, beers were flowing and so were the stories. Someone had an idea. We would go around the table and each of us would tell what we considered to be our greatest sea story.. As eager as I was to hear the others tales, I couldn’t wait for my turn. I was certain that mine would be the greatest of the great sea stories. When my turn came, I told with relish, as I had done before so many times, the saga related above. My Greatest Sea Story. With great enthusiasm, I built up to the climax where the cannons fired.. “Fire in the hole!!” BA BOOM!!! BA BOOM !!! I relived again the excitement of sailing away from the two great vessels into the horizon on that incredible day. I was sure that my story was the best and literally the Greatest Sea Story.
The torch was passed to the Englishman to my left. An older fellow with quintessential seaman’s grey hair and white beard. He looked at me in astonishment. He exclaimed that his story had already been told. Puzzled, we asked what he was talking about. He said that the story he had intended to tell and had been about to begin was the same story I had told. Still no one understood until he explained that on the great day of sailing with the tall ships off St. Lucia that I had described, he had been the captain of the Astrid!!! He too had also always rated the account of that very day as his Greatest Sea Story !
I have told this tale many a time and am still amazed at the how the stars had aligned to make this happen. The incidents were one year apart and the timing was impeccable. I just happened to get the job on Crosby’s boat, happened to be in Panama at that exact moment and happened to go the the yacht club on that particular day. We happened to meet, happened to sit at the same table and of all things happened to decide to tell our greatest sea story. If any of these details had been absent for either of us, this amazing confluence of events never would’ve taken place.
I never heard from him again but suspect that somewhere in the world there is an Englishman telling of the day that his Greatest Sea Story became his Greatest Small World Story as it had for me.
In a tragic turn of events, the magnificent Astrid met her demise as she went aground off the coast of Ireland in 2013. The 95-year-old vessel suffered engine failure and was blown on to rocks at the mouth of Oysterhaven bay, near Kinsale in County Cork. All 30 on board were saved in a dramatic and complex rescue operation.