More than a home, far more than a means of transportation, the cruising sailboat combines art and engineering, design and construction, ages-old tradition and modern efficiency, all in the service of joining sailors to the sea. Spend enough time with a boat, and you’ll soon gain the sense that, although she may not be human, she most certainly is alive.
For years that liveliness has characterized the relationships I’ve had with boats in my care. Moving about on their decks as easily as I navigate within my own home, I talk to them, occasionally curse them, and eventually come to cherish them.
Given time, I also learn their foibles and their faults. I know which toe rail wasn’t caulked properly during construction. I can point out the soft spot in the decking that indicates water damage, or the creased stainless steel railing that suggests someone arrived at the dock under less than perfect control.
Certainly damage to fiberglass, varnish, or sails keeps a lot of us in business, but every time one of my boats is damaged, it stings just a little. After Hurricane Ike, the sting was nearly unbearable.
Family Time had been lifted up by the storm surge and taken to the grass.
Tranquility crossed a parking lot, then came to rest against a palm tree.
Dockmates Coral Caye and Muriel June survived hours of hitting against one another, with significant, albeit repairable, damage. Legacy, badly bruised, didn’t require a trip to the boatyard, but Gemini had gelcoat issues, and required weeks in the yard to dry out.
Treena simply disappeared, and never was found. Though not precisely lost at sea, she most assuredly had been struck by the hand of the sea.
Of course there are other ways to lose a boat, and over the course of years I’ve seen them all. Poor navigation brings an encounter with the rocks; poor maintenance results in a trip to the bottom. From time to time, customers load their boats onto trucks and take them overland, to other ports of call.
Oddly, of all the ways to lose a boat, selling seems especially painful. When the decision to sell comes as a result of ill-health, changed financial circumstances, or the increasing limitations of age, ambivalence usually makes the process both long and difficult, no matter how small the boat or how prominent the sailor.
I still remember the day I learned Bill Buckley would sell his boat.
For years I’d been dipping intoThe National Review, the journal of conservative thought William F. Buckley, Jr. founded in 1955, and watching his appearances on television’s Firing Line. Throughout those years, Buckley’s lectures, columns, and books made him ubiquitous; whether you agreed with him or not, he couldn’t be avoided.
In the course of being exposed to his opinions, I developed one of my own. Buckley, I decided, was both insufferable and brilliant. Acerbic and bold in his writing, a polemicist at heart and not much given to the sort of subtleties designed to deflect criticism, he wrote like a painter wielding a palette knife: laying on vocabulary, subjunctive clauses, and parenthetical phrases until his meaning began to sink beneath layers of language. Often, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept reading and listening.
His distinctive enthusiasms and joie de vivre certainly helped to increase interest in politics and campaigns, drawing in people who might otherwise have remained disengaged. During his 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York City, someone asked Buckley what he would do if he won the election. True to form, he dead-panned, “Demand a recount.”
But Buckley was more than a political iconoclast and sharp-witted pundit. A dependable friend known for unfailing graciousness and wide-ranging interests outside the political world, he was equally well-known as a sailor and lover of the sea.
Like critics in the political realm, sailors often regarded him with disdain. His was the world of yachting, with all the class distinctions that yachting implies, but it was part of the package you had to accept — or at least tolerate — if you were interested in Buckley as sailor.
His first boat was the result of a deal struck between father and son after Buckley’s father decided, in 1938, that he and his two sisters should be schooled in England for a year. Given the strength of Bill’s opposition, his father finally resorted to a little bribery, promising his son that he could have a sailboat when he returned to the States.
As Buckley tells the story, he named that first boat Sweet Isolation as a tribute to his father’s political leanings at the time. It was a 17′ Barracuda class sailboat, and Buckley raced it with all the passion of a Whitbread competitor. Years later, he caught sight of a 1930’s America’s Cup J-Boat, and the slide down the slippery slope began.
In 1954 he became the owner of The Panic, a Dutch-built steel cutter. After nature did her worst to that boat, he moved on to a Sparkman and Stevens Nevins 40 named Suzy Wong. Suzy eventually gave way to Cyrano, a beautiful but extraordinarily large schooner which cost so much to maintain — even by Buckley’s standards — that he came, as all sailors do, to his final boat: the Patito. The Spanish diminuitive for duck, Patito happened to be the pet name Buckley and his wife used with one another.
s/v Patito ~ AFP photo, Martin Bernetti
Eventually, the day came to release even Patito. One circumstance led to another until, as Buckley put it, “the joys of ownership began to be overcome by the pains of possession.” In an essay about the decision-making process published inThe Atlantic, he added, “When such things happen, one can either putter on – or quit.” His decision was to quit, but, being William F. Buckley, Jr., that was not quite the end of the story.
With Buckley, no opinion came without added reflection, and his reflection on the decision to sell Patito was especially poignant:
So, deciding that the time has come to sell the Patito, and forfeit all that, is not lightly done, and it brings to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.
Eleven years ago, that “step yet ahead” was taken, and decades after I first read Buckley’s words, his voice was silenced. When death comes to a person long admired but never personally known, an individual whose presence loomed large for decades while shaping the lives of innumerable strangers, the experience of grief can be as surprising as it is real.
Combing through the columns and op-ed pieces written after Buckley’s death, reading and listening to the stories and memories shared by those who knew him best, I came across Peggy Noonan’s contribution in the Wall Street Journal, striking in its simplicity and continued relevance:
With the loss of Bill Buckley we are, as a nation, losing not only a great man. With Bill’s passing, we are losing his kind — people who were deeply, broadly educated in great universities when they taught deeply and broadly, who held deep views of life and the world and art and all the things that make life more delicious and more meaningful. We have work to do as a culture in bringing up future generations that are so well rounded, so full, and so inspiring.
Perhaps inevitably, Buckley died at his desk, still working vocabulary, phrases, and clauses into his unmistakable prose, even as he contemplated the nature of the path he was traveling.
Thinking about Buckley and Patito, I realize there will come a time in my own life when the boats must be let go: when for one reason or another it will be time to stop puttering, and move on. When that time comes, and the decision to “forfeit all that” brings to mind an inevitable future, I suspect Bill Buckley also will come to mind: a memorable model for considering all such next steps with courage and grace.