Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Driving Webb Chiles

There was a joke making the rounds in the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union that came to mind Monday morning as I went out with author and circumnavigator Webb Chiles. The connection to a common-or-garden daysail may seem tenuous at best but it was a feeling I had all morning as I went on a modest boat ride with a man revered by sailors the world over for his fearlessness and ability to manage peril on the ocean. 

It seems President Leonid Brezhnev had a penchant for Western cars and he apparently imported many to his dacha (vacation home) outside Moscow where he would test them out. On this particular day he decided he wanted to take the wheel and he told his chauffeur to sink into the luxurious seat in the darkness of the rear of the limousine he had chosen to drive.  The gate guard saluted as rigidly as ever as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union rolled by.

"I just saluted the man who really rules the country" the guard told his colleague in high excitement. "Who is he, then?" his colleague asked. "I have no idea," the first guard replied. "But Brezhnev is his chauffeur."  

Somewhat to my surprise Webb agreed to go for a daysail with me, which is odd as a casual sail for Webb might involve a couple of weeks and a thousand miles, which seemed unlikely for us as we only had a morning at our disposal. What a morning it was! Sunny and warm with a light breeze and glittering waters outside the marina on Skull Creek. "I'll be the passenger," I told Webb because even though I enjoy sailing to undertake a task sitting next to a sailing legend might, I figured, break my last nerve. 

My friend Wayne sent me a message after seeing a photo of me out sailing: Judging by your man-out-of-captivity facial expression on Webb’s boat I’d guess maybe it was among your best birthdays?  
"Take the helm" Webb said in a tone that brooked no discussion.  I plunked my tightly sphincter bottom down where his rear had sat for thousands of miles between here and here by way of Darwin, Australia, and tried to concentrate on sailing. To make matters worse the creek is narrow and winding and the wind was at just the right angle to require the ultralight Moore 24 to tack and tack again. Sailors call it short  tacking as you buzz madly from one side of the channel to the other, trying to make each tack count while not running into shallow water and mud at the end of each leg.

"Watch the depth sounder and if it goes under twenty feet call out," was the first instruction. I felt a light trembling through the tiller as I sat next to my very agile 79 year old line handler and kept glancing at the depth sounder and trying to keep the sails full and drawing. "Point higher," he said and obediently I drove the boat closer the wind, closer at an impossible angle and of course the racer turned long distance  thoroughbred of a boat responded just fine. One had to assume Webb knows what he's talking about when he gives direction (!) and the ride became a wonderful series of swoops, occasionally heeled hard and sometimes riding flat and fast. It was tremendous fun.

As the depth sounder hit 19.9 we'd get ready to turn and I'd push the tiller away and lumber after it in the unfamiliar space. Webb leaped from side to side like a teenager hauling in the jib sheet and watching the situation develop as we sailed back and forth up the creek toward the sound. I have no photos of this section of the sail as it was a bit busy for poor old me, the least legendary helmsman in the history of Moore 24s, a boat which was built in Santa Cruz where I lived as a new immigrant. Also the town where I once delivered a pizza to George Olson, known as the "father" of ultra light sailboat design. I was young and paid for my VW van by working for  Pizza My Heart doing deliveries to the great and good around town which included famous names and hungry bored whores. That was a job with a few stories I should get around to one day. Anyway the former pizza delivery youth was now helming the world renowned sailor up the creek...and feeling nervous.

Lots of boats passed us, all under power many creaming bow waves and leaving largish wakes behind them. I kept my eye on little strings of wool attached to the foresail such that we were in the groove when the string flowed back horizontally showing clean passage of air over the sailcloth. That and watching the depth sounder kept me busy enough not to keep harking on who it was who was sitting next to me. A friend, yes, but in his element, and what an element it is. I was not wanting to let him down.

As the other boats passed us, sailboats using engines not sails, I had to wonder who among them was wondering who that famous sailor must be? They couldn't quite place him but he must at the peak of his sailing powers obviously, because no lesser a figure than Webb Chiles was his obedient crew!

On the way back from the sound Webb relieved me at the helm and replaced me with an electronic device that steers without human intervention, following the trend of grocery stores given to automating checkout cashiers thus eliminating the human touch. In this case he gave the human touch a chance to sit back and enjoy the surroundings which was considerate. He also deployed the electric motor that powered him in and out of harbors around the world. This is the newer Torqeedo, made in Germany, that replaced the original model he started with half way round. Nevertheless I looked at the modest little motor and figured it had been further on the water than I had and it still pushed us at walking speed. Webb sails, he doesn't motor boat.

Three hours after we started we were back and I allowed my crew to do the dreary work of disassembly and tidying up for me. Especially as he has done it a few thousand times and I had no clue where or how things went. The orange ring floating around the post is an innovation from New Zealand that allows you to tie the boat off  to a point that rises and drops with the tide. A very clever thought.

Many years ago I lived on a tubby little 20 foot sailboat  that I could stand up in and offered a surprising degree of comfort and sailing ability. I bought the Flicka for ease of sailing, as I wanted a boat easier to handle in Santa Cruz than the 30 foot Catalina I started out with. I showed the boat to my new wife in Ft Myers whence I had sailed and she took one look and said: cute but no. We lived on a spacious 34 foot catamaran with all amenities as a result. Webb's boat is so spartan inside I would balk at living aboard but he loves the life and the intimacy with the environment and the speed and ease with which the Moore 24 sails. I got a small taste of that and was astonished by her ability to point and to move at the merest suggestion of wind. It was a great sail and a superb birthday present. That and the autographed book which will be very helpful when things go wrong. Whatever van problems present themselves they will be as nothing compared to some of the issues he has dealt with and written about.

Webb lives in sight of the marina and he was quick to point out the short black mast as belonging to Gannet, the original after which we named our van Gannet 2. Webb was very complimentary about my sailing which was a bit of a surprise as I hadn't done any in years and I did get a bit of a twinge of nostalgia as we tacked up the channel in flat water and crisp sunshine. You may actually be a sailor he said, giving me a steely look. In my head I agreed I might be underneath the veneer of a van lifer!

Ah well, it will take a while for the warm glow to fade but we had traveling to do and Webb had people to meet. You don't circumnavigate six times and write a fair few books -LINK -without having to do interviews. One reviewer said if you aren't too fond of the sea read Webb Chiles and he will change your mind. He does have a rather seductive way of describing life at sea but I am van committed as I have a wife and dog to live with and no desire to start again.

What these two pictures show is Gannet 2 ( the 21 foot Promaster, not the 24 foot Moore- now you know) parked at a Walmart for the first time. The store on Hilton Head is surrounded by a pine forest and we found it to be the perfect place for tuna fish sandwiches and a full strength energy drink for the drive ahead. We had no intention of sleeping there which was lucky, because it was clearly sign posted: 

And the next picture doesn't look much different except it's three hours away, not counting freeway accidents which had us diverted all over the countryside for some more pleasant driving, in a national forest near Greenville, South Carolina. Fully pre-paid and reserved for us.

I found the place on the iOverlander app and followed up by getting the recreation.gov app (I am very Modern) and reserving a spot for a couple of nights. I wanted to expand our experience and learn by doing, how to handle all this up to date way of stopping and camping and it worked quite easily. Next time I will know we have the National Parks pass which entitled us to half price fees, from $5 a night to $2:50...and next time I won't cock up my times so we will only pay the $8 administrative fee once and not twice...Even at $26 for two nights it's not bad, even though it should have cost us half that! Layne was very forgiving. I promised, after the flogging stopped, I'd do better next time.

It is an organized campground but there are no hookups, just a few spaces occupied by empty trailers and tents, slightly weird and possibly reserved by hunters as this is the season, and a couple of pit toilets, the cleanest I've ever seen, and some trash cans. There is some traffic noise in the distance but if you saw me sitting here at the picnic table typing in the gentle autumn sun you wouldn't think this road trip to anywhere was a bad idea. Last night it went down to 45 degrees but our well insulated van was quite comfortable even when Rusty abandoned us and went to his own bed on the floor. By day it's 60 degrees and with no wind its warm enough for shirts only. I can do this non tropical stuff.

Rusty will need more time to adapt to a new world. He got nervous on the trails I tried to walk and pulled me back to the security of the van. We have a thirty foot tether for use in campgrounds and after a leashed walking circuit to inspect our immediate surroundings he sits in the sun on his tether  watching everything and not seeming to mind being tied up at all. It's as though being on a leash or tether gives him the secure feeling he needs. I expect by the time we get to Alaska he'll have morphed into a Jack London character and run like Buck.

Two nights here, a week with my sister-in-law in the North Carolina mountains and then we drive north for Illinois. Then back south, then at last we go west and take the Promaster where our camper van has never been before. I wonder if we'll sit in the desert and reminisce fondly about the forests of the southeast back when Rusty was a nervous van lifer?