“… to keep your love alive.
Trying not to confuse it, with, what you do to survive.”
– Jackson Browne, “Running On Empty”
Working night shifts in a chemical plant pays the bills, for the most part, but it doesn’t do much for the soul. The method I settled on to save my sanity over the years was to put my body on automatic pilot, and my mind in free-spool. Grandiose plans seem more attainable somehow in the midst of an unnatural world of machinery, piping and tanks, fueled by an intoxication brought on by lack of quality sleep and an isolation from the daylight to dusk world outside the fenced and guarded borders of a petrochemical prison.. If these surroundings could exist and entrap me in their industrial snare, then anything was possible.
Thus The Boat came to play an important role in my life for what is now an undeterminable period of time. I first noticed its old style radio mast above the wrecked out shrimp boats and yachts in a Seabrook, Texas, boatyard on a bright fall morning after twelve hours of watching the clock. For those who spend the night occupied with unwelcome tasks, a crisp dawn brings euphoria and salvation. The exhaustion – whether physical or mental – that seemed unbearable hours before is replaced by a feeling that the world is being born anew before your eyes.
This is a very dangerous time for dreamers.
The Boat occupied a corner of my mind, almost unnoticed, for the small part of the day that I could stay awake, and possibly entered my dreams. It most certainly figured prominently in my “day dreams” at work the following night. I wondered about its builder, what the lines would look like, the name and method of construction. I was intrigued enough to place a call to the boatyard the next morning before going to sleep. A 52 foot wooden Wheeler, they said. Built in 1954. Twin Detroit diesels. Some fire damage. And the owner wants to sell.
After a particularly grueling night on the job, I lacked the energy to actually visit The Boat the next morning, and my regular days off had arrived with no time or real reason to drive through Seabrook. The vessel stayed in my thoughts, however. I did a little research on Wheelers and verified that Ernest Hemingway’s “Pilar”, now part of a memorial to the late American author in his final adopted home of Cuba, was a Wheeler – though only 36 feet in length. This alone was enough to add to my interest. I envisioned restoring such a ship to its original glory and spending my remaining years cruising the Bahamian waters off Bimini, where, “Islands In The Stream”, was set and where Hemingway wrote and fished during the most productive period of his life for both endeavors. The name painted on the varnished mahogany transom next to a portrait of the graying, bearded author would be “Papa’s Wake”
Dreams are good, even when life falls short.
I actually looked forward to returning to work the next week, and hatched plans all night around what I already thought of as “my” Wheeler. I killed time after the end of my shift waiting on the boatyard to open, the toll taken by a sleepless night overpowered by the rush of a new beginning. When I asked the man inside the fence where to find the big Wheeler, he grinned and said, “Oh, the burnt boat. Go around the corner – you can’t miss it.” He was right. The slight burn damage from a cabin fire I had been warned of was much more extensive. The interior was pretty much gutted, the once lovely teak planks on the helm deck above the aft cabin were blackened and partially consumed. It was like looking at a once beautiful and dignified lady clinging to a frail hold on life despite disease and the ravages of age – because The Boat still floated on her own bottom, her structure was sound enough to support her, and the evidence of her former charms was still there amid the wreckage.
As with many of the old aft cabin “sedan” cruisers, The Boat had a large trunk cabin forward and an open deck at her bow mounting a huge chromed anchor windlass. The wheelhouse style helmsman’s area was just above and behind the cabin – no flying bridge – and the raised bridge deck carried back another ten feet before dropping off to the main cockpit. The spacious aft cabin (where I found the fire had begun in an air conditioning unit) could be entered from either the cockpit or the main salon. Forward, the galley was down a few steps, with a “crew quarters” cabin in the forepeak. This part of The Boat was relatively undamaged. Under the salon floor were two massive 671 Detroit diesel engines, and a generator that was both huge and rusty. A gin pole – sort of a wooden post with block and tackle for lifting large fish aboard – and rod holders in the cockpit indicated a past involving fishing for big game creatures. All the hardware – cleats, hawse pipes and deck fittings were massive, and what was left of a polished mahogany rail encircled the bridge deck.
To see The Boat’s present condition, and to imagine what she must have looked like before the fire, was enough to bring tears from the heart of a true boat lover.
But not enough to stop the dreams.
For a short time, I tried to ignore the extent of the damage from the fire. My nightly mental wanderings were filled with plans and procedures for rebuilding The Boat, righting the wrongs visited upon her. When I finally admitted to myself that the hull would be doubtful at best for the sort of open water voyages my fantasies desired, a shift in attitude seemed only logical. It would be restored as a houseboat, allowed to enter a well-deserved retirement. I’d set a hot tub into the cockpit deck, and a cocktail area on the bridge deck. The hour before sunset would be more glorious than in Key West, and never so crowded.
The next long period of time away from the job allowed my weary mind to accept the fact that I had no time in my life to rebuild The Boat. An old timer whom I consulted about the possibility told me “Stay just as far away from that thing as you can. An old wooden boat is a lot like a woman – she’ll take all your money and break your heart every time!” I had plenty of heartbreaks already, and the financial woes to go with them.
But dreams are cheap. And adaptable. They can change on a whim, on a need, or with the weather. Once I accepted the fact that dreams were all The Boat could give me, that became quite enough.
In calm, sunny weather I would imagine that I was awakening offshore, anchored over a deepwater reef, rather than running from the smell of slow chemical death after a long and tedious shift. In The Boat’s heyday, there were no regulations on red snapper, and drastically fewer boats fishing for them. A night over good structure would have filled the big fish box with more than enough “red gold” to pay for the trip, and the real fishing – trolling natural baits for billfish, tuna, and wahoo – could begin. Marlin fishing in those golden days of the sport was even more a game for the wealthy – or those they employed to run their boats. Even in my dreams I would still be hired help. On long summer nights my thoughts let me be tied to a dock in the Keys, or “the Islands”, waiting on the owner to arrive after a business meeting in Miami. Sometimes I’d be crossing the stream from Cuba, with a Hemingway cargo of illegal rum, watching for any signs of pursuers on a dark and moonless night.
In stormy weather we were bucking a head sea, coming back from Florida into the teeth of a “Norther” and running outside to avoid the sandbars and boat traffic in the ICW. Sometimes The Boat and I were both older, I had managed to buy out the owner (at a special price to reward my years of service), and we were on a commercial fishing trip over Saratoga Ridge off Freeport, staying out when no one else would because the grouper were biting and there were bills to pay.
All things, they say, must someday come to an end, and the good things seem to always go first. One morning, The Boat was gone. No one was at the boatyard to answer my questions – they had closed down and moved away, apparently taking the inspiration for so many dreams with them. I later found out the bank had foreclosed on the property. The Boat was listed on the books because the owner had never paid for storage, but once it was revealed as a negative asset, what few parts could be salvaged for sale were removed, and the hull pulled out of the water and burned. Much better to have set it afire floating out to sea, with an old warrior aboard, ready for a watery grave.
I left the night shift soon after that, and found another boat – one old enough to have a legacy, yet in restorable condition. This one I bought, and opened a new chapter of life, and dreams. On sleepless nights, however, I sometimes turn back the pages to the old Wheeler, gleaming under new varnish and polished brightwork in my mind. Like Jimmy Buffet sings in “Mother, Mother Ocean” –
“In your belly you hold the treasures, few have ever seen.
Most of them dreams,
Most of them dreams”
(Author’s note: I attended a writing workshop at the 2001 TOWA conference in Port Aransas, where Mary-Love Bigony, of Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, gave a talk on inspirations – using the story of a derelict boat near Boston and the series a newspaper writer did on it. “Dreamboat” came from my mental wanderings after her presentation. It has been published in Mariner’s Log.