April 2001: Socializing in Antigua
We returned from New York to Antigua, where we’d left Lulu. There we got her spiffed up – some interior varnishing and exterior waxing -- so she’d compare favorably with all her sisterships, which soon poured in for a week-long Oyster rally.
With the exception of older versions, Oysters are clearly members of the same family. In the early 1990s, the company detoured radically from traditional styling, lowering and streamlining the typical sailboat profile. Oysters feature sleek, racy lines, low-slung deckhouses and sharply angled, black-bordered windows, making them, compared to most other sailboats, look like sports cars instead of sedans. The design changes, coupled with a reputation for excellent wood joinery and quality construction throughout, has made the English company wildly successful in a difficult semi-custom market. In the last few years, competitors have begun copying the distinctive shapes, so we’ve begun to see more and more imitations as we cruise.
On the rally’s first night about 35 boats, from 39- to 80 feet managed to berth themselves – no easy proposition -- stern-to, in size-places, separated only by slim fenders, around the long arc of Nelson’s Dockyard. The Dockyard, once the command post and headquarters of Admiral Horatio Nelson, has now been lovingly restored to its former 18th Century glory; its white, vaguely Willamsburgy brick buildings – formerly officers’ quarters, sail lofts, lumberyards, careening shops, are now all in use by various marine trades, a hotel, bars, restaurants and boutiques.
We were several hundred people, between the owners, their guests, in some cases, professional crews, plus a large staff of Oyster personnel that ran this complicated event. Until very recently, few Americans owned Oysters, so we got a chance to make a bunch of British friends.
The fleet, all flying big yellow and royal blue flags, moved daily around Antigua, filling up each anchorage, our dinghies crowding the beaches as we stepped ashore for Easter Egg hunts, buffet lunches, beach barbeques, happy hours, restaurant dinners. One day we all detoured to sleepy little Barbuda, 27 miles away.
Like the yolk of a sunnyside egg, Barbuda is surrounded by white – a white ring, almost unbroken, of coral sand beach; one extending for 17 uninterrupted miles. Otherwise it is an arid, scrubby place, barely 209 feet tall at its highest. Its whole 62-square-mile area belongs to the 1200 Barbudans, mostly descendants of slaves brought in the late 1600s who share six or seven family names. No one is allowed to own land, but anyone – that is, any native Barbudan – can use or live on the land. He merely fills out a snippet of paperwork and essentially borrows it from his fellow citizenry. There’s little to use it for, however, except housing, since agriculture is a lost trade. Where once the island’s produce fed the vast nearby Antiguan sugar plantations, today almost nothing edible is grown. Food is imported from Antigua, which is itself an importing island.
Tourism is allegedly Barbuda’s backbone industry, a somewhat grandiose assertion since this laid-back scrap of real estate has only two 36-room hotels and less than a handful of second-floor guest houses. There is not much to see but the beautiful beaches, virtually all reachable only by sailboats like ours. And nearby marsh colony of frigate birds, which are ugly, black, stodgy and grandmotherly in repose, but soaring swoops of grace and elegance, flaunting unexpected wingspans of seven or more feet, when they take to flight. They nest by the thousands amid Barbuda’s mangroves, which are also reachable only by speedboat. There aren’t many occupations to go around in Barbuda. The plentiful sand is exported to coat the balding beaches of the US Virgin Islands and the island’s final revenue producer is lobster cultivation and exportation.
The fleet actually raced back from Barbuda to Antigua and we got to find out the stuff we’re made of: If nerves of steel are called for, ours are not even al dente linguini. Gary, who deplores competition of any sort, gave way to any boat that even hinted it wanted to pass and approached his Maginot Line – a distance of, say, 200 feet. While I cottoned immediately to putting the boat through her paces, Gary preferred concentrating on why the autopilot conked out again. (You need to understand: No one, but no one, races with an autopilot: unlike a competent helmsman, it’s almost off course and busy correcting too much of the time.) Gary kept resetting the pilot and watching it die, meanwhile veering the boat sharply off course. Not an encouraging racing strategy.
Coming in first over the line was Silent Wings, and fourth, Royal Leopard, the other two 61-footers. Lulu limped in around 29th, behind most of the 39-footers. When we tried blaming our poor showing on the autopilot, we were met with more incredulity than sympathy. I took it philosophically because it was, after all, our first race. Plus we were also one of only two boats without professional or guest-crew. Besides, what can you expect from a reluctant camper – a loner who was sent out to play center field, got out there, passed it by and kept on walking right into the woods?
Though we didn’t place in the race, on Awards Night we won the competition for Most Outrageous Crew Uniform: we both wore to the Easter Egg hunt our Bikini-Body Tee shirts with the boat name emblazoned across the shirts’ bursting bosoms.
Most of the rally’s evening events began at 6 PM with the evening “Tot,” a ceremonial rite of the Antigua Tot Club. We’d never heard of The Tot Club, nor the custom it commemorates. If you’ve the stomach for it, it’s an easy way to meet the local citizenry, at least of one particular class: hearty drinkers, mostly mariners.
The Tot itself was an old British Royal Navy tradition, an addendum to the sunset flag lowering and “God-Save-the-Queen!” exhortation. All sailors were given a ration, called a “tot” of rum -- a tot referring to a specific measurement, like an ounce or karat or a tuppence. Its purpose was more or less to pacify them for enduring the monotonous meals, long tours of duty and the absence of women. Originally, a generous belt, over the years the tot quantity was gradually reduced: most likely, sympathy for the seamen’s plight waned as their capacity for drunken high-jinx waxed. The tradition was finally chucked altogether when it occurred to someone that modern warships deployed significantly more lethal weaponry than their quainter ancestors.
Ah, but drinking traditions die hard. About 10 years ago, a retired British naval officer living in Antigua who liked his rum and didn’t like drinking alone revived the tot, by forming a private club. Aside from drinking a lot or maybe while drinking a lot, the new Tots invented 365 toasts, one for each day of the year – something appropriately sexist and/or macho, like, “Here’s to wives and girlfriends -- may they never meet!” Today the group numbers several hundred, a decent selection of whom gather into a large circle every night at sunset, usually on the lawn, overlooking the water, outside the bricky Copper & Lumber pub in Nelson’s Dockyard. Each holds two glasses and some designated someone also holds a thick tome, from which he reads some fact or event from the naval history of that particular date. Glasses are hoisted, the toast delivered, an enthusiastic “Long Live the Queen” bellowed, and then everyone downs at least a half-glass of straight rum, followed -- in some cases it looks like reluctantly -- by a water chaser. It’s quintessentially English and not a bad way to start any night of revelry.
To join, one needs a sponsor and must drink 7 tots within 14 nights. Presumably, anyone with a gullet is welcome -- asbestos works best. Love of the Queen isn’t required, but the love of queens would probably be frowned on.
The candidates for membership are always singled out just before the evening incantations. Members sponsoring guests introduce them in typically strangulated BritSpeak – which, despite the brevity, manages to broadcast a solemnity and significance worthy of, say, a knighting ceremony. “I have here …arrgh…Gary Strutin, completing his Thiiirhhd Tot” (Although, in point of fact, Gary Strutin never got near even a first tot.)
We found the Brits great sports and particularly enjoyed jousting verbally with them, imitating their self-congratulatory, “Aren’t-I-lucky-to-be-cultured-old-me?” locutions -- always trying to bear in mind that careful enunciation doesn’t actually give them a 20-point IQ advantage. Or an ancestral pedigree that dates back to the Magna Charta. The British “t”, we noted, is honed to such rapier precision it could slice you in two. Single-syllable words get bifurcated and elongated by a riff up the tonal scale, making them sound lilting, important, and frequently questioning, as in Whaho-ot? – which is meant to mean, but sounds nothing like, our “What?” It also seems to mean Really? Or No way! or Go on! Or Good show! “Brilliant!” is their all purpose word for anything ranging from merely good to absolutely stupendous.
One night four Brits and the two of us had dinner aboard
Shilling, a 39-foot Oyster belonging to Dennis and Janet Knight. We spent the
evening eating, drinking, giggling and plumbing our deep linguistic divisions,
paying particular attention to the no-no Body-Part words. Our differences
weren’t so surprising considering the buttoned-up British reserve versus the blathering
American openness. What we found particularly amusing us was the utter blandness
of certain Brit-banned words. “Fuck” of course is off limits -- but “fanny?”
Fanny is not merely bad form, but possibly the most verboten of words. ‘
asked. “But why? How come?”
else you Yanks do, they said, you’ve got it backwards. Apparently a fanny is
not an ass or a tushy, but is rather synonymous with the female sexual organ –
our “C” word. Actually, I can’t remember by what words or sign language
they even got their point across. So delicate is the British sensibility that
they don’t even have a separate word for “panties” or “underpants:” if
absolutely required in a sentence, they say “knickers.” Which, if you think
about it, is so veiled a reference it’s actually a whole layer removed from
the referenced body parts.
Long live the double standard!
Classic Yacht Regatta
Strong winds, shifting mercurially seem to favor Antigua. The island is also blessed with Falmouth Harbour – an immense, natural bay capable of handling hundreds of boats at anchor or in docks built for behemoth cruisers. It’s the perfect site for big, important sailing races. Every year in mid-April, the world’s most gorgeous classic yachts -- from 25-up to 140 feet -- converge to compete against each other in three days of races. The thoroughbreds among them are faithfully restored and meticulously maintained, manned by professional crews, who often invite skilled amateurs as extra brawn. Many of the smaller boats and traditional wooden boats, on the other hand, are maintained on near-shoestring budgets and sailed for fun by enthusiastic owners and friends.
Such yachting pulchritude is difficult to imagine. The thrumming docks are even hard to take in when they’re spread out before you. Hundreds of people swarm all over them, hosing, chamoising, polishing, scrubbing, knotting, coiling, climbing, tweaking: mostly fit, honeyed young gods – their crews. They seem hand-picked their appearance: they all look like tall blond Princetonians with muscular legs and perfect tans, the kind you expect to see stepping onto clay courts, into racing shells or out of Tanqueray ads. But of course they are chosen for their skill. Aside from captain, of course, the most prestigious –and difficult -- job in such races is Tactician -- because the outcome often hinges on his strategies – how to time the start and from what position, what sail combinations to use, when to change sails, when to tack or overtake, how to round markers. These decisions must be made – and often revised -- within seconds.
Fifty-six boats competed this year in 11 different classes. Boats like the 109-foot, brass-trimmed White Hawk, which took 12 to 15 men working full time for three years to complete and was launched not only with champagne but with bagpipes; Ticonderoga, a 72-foot ketch built in 1936, which saw service with the Coast Guard during World War II; Vixen II, built in 1915 and still raring to race. My personal favorite was the graceful Savannah, with her unique oval wood cockpit varnished to mirror-finish. The quintessential representative of the chivalrous old South, her cockpit table was set with fine china and crystal, as if awaiting her owner (though in truth it was the Concours d’Elegance judges) with a welcoming bottle of Dom Perignon cradled in a wine chiller.
Not all the boats are actually old; there’s a whole class of newer boats built to traditional standards – the Spirit of Tradition class -- that race each other. Apparently to be a “classic” yacht, a boat can be constructed last year, be fiberglass rather than wood-hulled and have intricate modern electronics; she just needs to look vintage, have the proper sheer line, a straight keel, a long bowsprit and presumably a graceful sail plan. Wild Horses and White Wings, two of these modern boats were berthed next to each other, are identical sisterships somewhere in the mid-90-foot range and are – mind bogglingly -- the property of one owner.
Usually the focal point of the races, at least for spectators, is the competition between the J-Boats, Endeavor and Velsheda: sleek 130- and 140-footers, American and British, respectively, built in the 1930. They are literally and metaphorically in a class of their own. The two (there is also a third that didn’t show up this year) vie with each other every year and the prize seesaws back and forth between them. Staggering amounts of money are spent on most of these classic yachts, but particularly on Endeavor and Velsheda – on keeping them in top racing condition and in a state approaching newly launched splendor. Last year Endeavor changed hands and underwent a $2 million refit, inside and out. If I recall correctly she underwent a major refit just two years ago. Velsheda is now in England being totally overhauled at Southampton Yacht Services, the shipwright that built Lulu.
Velsheda is always accompanied by a 95-foot powerboat, aptly named “Bystander,” that houses a team of maintenance people and its panoply of extra sails, halyards, shackles, sheets and other replacement paraphernalia. The Velsheda team (I probably should have counted them but there were at least 40) all wore -- maintenance and racing crew alike, on the docks and during the races -- identical beige mechanic’s suits cinched with honey-colored leather belts. These belts, tooled “Velsheda-Bystander-Velsheda, Bystander” around their entire circumference, doubled as harness clip-ons. Orange bandanna neckerchiefs – doing double duty as sweat bands or even hand-wipes -- completed the elegant picture. Endeavor’s crew broadcast a more robust image: navy shorts, white “Endeavor” crew shirts, bright red nylon windbreakers and life jackets. It was often only the red Endeavor jackets and Velsheda’s beige sails that enabled us to tell the difference between them as we perched hundreds of feet above them
viewing the races, alone on a windswept hill. Well, alone but not without a picnic lunch.
From a sartorial standpoint, I preferred the well dressed and impeccably appointed Velsheda, but decided to be nationalistic and champion Endeavor’s cause. My loyalty did not go unrewarded. Often the pair raced almost side by side, swapping the lead, until suddenly one would ease ahead, and finally elongate her advantage. They seemed to tack effortlessly and turn the markers on a dime. Velsheda took the first day. On the second day she broke three headsail halyards and lost to Endeavor – I especially enjoyed watching the experts flounder and deal with familiar – if monstrously more complicated – sailing dilemmas. On the third day, Endeavor took an early lead and never lost it.
We looked down at the Starts, with all these sleek beauties prancing around each other in pre-race mode, the sailboat equivalent of equine snorting and nervous pawing about the ground. All boats raced the same courses, the smaller classes starting first. By the time all 56 were out there at different points and laps in the race, it was impossible to see which were ahead what with all the weaving, veering, reefing, , heading up, giving way, moving ahead, falling behind, and the heartstopping attempts -- often in scary clusters -– at sharp turns around the markers.
During Race 3, taking one marker, the twins White Wings and Wild Horses, one virtually sniffing the other’s tail like two dogs in heat, actually collided, right beneath our front-row mezzanine seats. Wild Horses rammed a hole in her sistership’s stern hindquarter, while her own bow pulpit, stanchions and toe rail peeled back like the lid of an anchovy tin. The ultimate damages were estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Imagine owning two boats, in the same ocean and having them crash into each other! Imagine, as well, having the what-all to sustain such a hobby.
From so high above, we had an impression of utter silence and a slow, stately, barely-moving pace -- even the bigger boats barely seeming to cleave the water. The small ones were just white specks on the hammered metal plate of the sea, but it was easy to follow the Velsheda-Endeavor competition: their long hulls were mere streaks but their masts soared above the others. All this appearance of a turtle’s-pace race was quite illusionary and it was jolting to compare our bird’s-eye perspective with post-race close-ups of almost battlefield proportions -- gunnels plunged deep in the water, straining sails, heaving crews, snapped halyards, fiercely luffing sails, house-high plumes of waves, sailors slipping and sliding on pitching decks and near confrontations amid churning maelstroms. Marvelous digital action shots were on view every night, taken by the intrepid Tim Wright, who works from a 10-foot rubber dinghy -- the equivalent of riding on a cork during a storm. Tim gets as close in to the fray as he can without interfering in it -- fearfully close, as the photos show.
We know Tim because he’s photographed Lulu twice as we charged in under full sail to Bequia, his usual base of operations. Every afternoon, when the winds are strongest and the seas choppiest, Tim takes to his dinghy and snaps the boats sailing in from St Vincent. The first time he approached us from afar, his camera slung over his midsection, his eye sighting down what looked to us a submachine gun, we thought we were about to be pirated by a drug runner. (Yes, this can happen down here.)
Hours later Tim will knock on your hull and present you with a framed 11 x 14 photo of your boat, for $100. Vanity and pride almost demand you buy. But lately he’s been making a bigger name for himself in the racing world. Anyone who wants to see his shots of the Classic Regatta – or the following week’s 250-boat Race Week can check out his website at www.photoaction.com. There’s also a section devoted to the Oyster Rally, though only Gary and I can pick Lulu out of the pack.
We were joined for the regatta by our friends, Susan and
Ray. This August 21, Susan and I will celebrate a 40-year friendship. (I never
thought I’d be making statements like these, the kind we used to hear spilling
out of our parents’ mouths, but there you have it – Life.)
After 1 ½ years, for all
intents and purposes, living the most separated since 1961, being together was a
real joy. Though Susan and I rarely reminisce, the happy ghosts of all the years
always inform and enrich our present.
We met in the coffee shop of the Castle Harbour Hotel in Bermuda; she was 19, I still 18 -- and I’ve never let her forget my 6-month advantage. We were both on our honeymoons. (Imagine having the temerity – or lack of imagination – to marry at such an age!) It was disdain at first sight – they thought us bland WASPs, we thought them greasy Italians. We soon discovered we’d be living in the same town, even at opposite ends of the same road – so there was something to hang a friendship on. She was clearly the older sister. I with my pixie haircut and organdy John Meyer of Norwich dresses, she in her sexy Emilio Estevez sheaths. She also wore actual face and eye makeup, all crowned with her Super Brooklyn Sophisticate hairdos (she had a “fall,” a chignon, I had a barber’s haircut. Her French twists or beehives were always crisp from the front but utterly crushed in back, from all the ferocious newlywed sex. Clearly I had the more appropriate hairdo. The two of them ate fashionably late, Barry and I were famished by the time the dining room doors opened at 6PM. Still, we found time to become almost instantly inseparable.
I, thoroughly devoted to my Bryn Mawr psuedo-intellectual posture, had refused to learn to cook. “If you can read a book, you can cook,” I maintained. Shall I tell you how that “Cooking is for Birdbrains” strategy worked out? Here is the menu for my first dinner-at-home for my hungry (it was after all served after 6PM) new husband:
Individual T-Bone STEAKS (How hard could those be? I figured. I’ll tell you how hard – I shoved the broiler door closed so hard they fell behind the stove onto the floor.)
SALAD with his favorite: homemade Roquefort dressing. The dressing recipe? I decided if an ounce of Roquefort was good, a cup would be better. (I have never not been into “extra sauce.”)
POTATOES AU GRATIN Ah, here’s where the fault in my logic lay: Just as I raced out to pick him up at the train station -- the potatoes ready to pop into the preheated oven, looking all creamy and cheesy and tempting -- I once more, and nervously, reread the recipe. (What WERE parboiled potatoes, anyway?)
A can of tiny Le Seuer peas mixed with a can of mushrooms. (Thank God for cans in those early “Salad Days” is all I can say.)
Barry -- he possessed of the Fastest, Most Lethal Tongue in the Western World -- actually sat absolutely silent, his hands folded on the table, for several minutes. Then, he said, very quietly, very evenly – “NOW, can I call my mother?”
Eventually, I went on to work my way through Julia Childs’ “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” stopping around the “V”s when I produced – after some 36 hours of frenzy -- a masterful Veal Prince Orloff. But, meanwhile, Susan elected herself my cooking teacher. Brisket, Veal Scallopini Marinara and perfectly crusted homemade pies were (and may actually still be) her entire specialty list. She faithfully taught me all three. What I didn’t know was that her idea of sweet was like my idea of Roquefort dressing: if a cup of sugar works, two must be better. We made a brisket and a blueberry pie together for my first “in-law” dinner. What the heck, I also invited my parents and grandparents. I made the mistake of taking full credit for the pie. Once again everyone sat –quietly, actually speechless – they were trying to unstick their cheeks from their mouths, I think. When I called in my report to Susan the next morning and mentioned that the pie might have been a tad sweet, she told me hers – from the exact same batch of blueberry formula – was a bit too tart. No one, not even my grandmother, she of the flaky strudel, could ever fault Susan’s pie crust, though.
As time went on, Susan propped me up during my divorce. I didn’t get to return the favor for a decade or more. Later, I lived through all her crazy boyfriends; she lived through all my personal crazies. I helped her pack for the nudist colony (well, who wants to put a bare bottom on the barstool at night? she explained); she was first on line to out my brand new vibrator, long before I could get my hands, or any other body part, on it.
At some point, Susan, the least likely person ever to have to add a column of figures, became our bookkeeper – it was merely an extension of my “If-you-can-read-a-book” philosophy. Her results were somewhat better, but she really flourished when we threw her into managing our retail stores. Thus, we got the chance to work together for 20 years -- aggravating about sales, arguing about products, driving to gift shows so intensely engrossed in our chatter that we once drove to Atlantic City – southeast -- by way of Monticello—northwest -- and might have reached Canada had one of us not looked up – probably to light a cigarette. We schlepped together down endless aisles at endless New York Gift and Chicago Housewares shows, after which I invariably dragged her always-exhausted bones downtown to shop Chicago’s super-elegant Oak Street boutiques. There we were invariably mistaken for lovers — she the butch, me the femme. “Oh, darling, have it, buy it, you look ravishing in it!” Or, more likely, “Louise, take that off, it’s preposterous, you look like shit in it!”
She always functioned as my Truthteller, my Level Head; I showed her, in Technicolor example, practicing excess in all its forms, how to actually shop for herself without guilt. Together Gary and I taught her not to fear fear itself. There is, I believe, nothing important or trivial we can’t say – and haven’t said -- to each other. We have no secrets from each other. There’s too much trust for one of us to offend the other. We’ve never had a “fight,” or even a snit. Well, maybe one snit – though I don’t remember the subject. She probably does. When she spells her name for strangers, N,O,D,I,F,F, she appends it “as in ‘makes no difference.” Never has anything been less true.
As she goes through life telling it like it is, in her own unique, blunt, acerbic, funny style, she says she’s not looking for a battalion at her funeral. She will surely have it. While I hope I’m not there, should I be, it’s my job to do a eulogy. I think I just did, Sue.
If there’s something, besides our children and grandchildren, missing from this glorious cruiser life Gary and I love so much, it’s the comfort and continuity of such friendship, the feeling of being known and loved and nourished by people you share a real history with. Fortunately, we were smart enough to take along Jackie and Mel…
TO BE CONTINUED….I promise I’ll get to May…maybe even before December.