Cap’n Bill

Cap’n Bill claims 61, but looks 70. He’s been a commercial captain sailing the East Coast and the Caribbean for many decades, though he looks instead like a retired executive – short silver hair, a square face, patrician features – but barefooted and unconcerned as only 3 of the 8 people booked for today actually show up. His fin-keeled sloop seems able enough, if a little rusty as we push away from the pier under the Spanish fort and lighthouse, though you could not get below for all the wire, tape, line, and detritus he has covering every surface. He does not – could not – live aboard. I am glad the rest did not show up – the cockpit holds only the four of us comfortably – the rest would have been lolling on the deck, and 1500 pounds of flesh would have affected the 30’ footer’s handling.

All I want is to sail, and the wind obligingly freshens for a beam reach across to Culebra, with the soothing sound and feel I will not have again until my boat is launched in May, but the arrogant young Frenchman with his diffident American wife is itching to show off his ability to free dive to seventy feet, so we bring her alongside a reef (with a heart-stopping moment as Cap’n Bill sails across the ridge of the reef, the water going from deep blue to coral heads right under the keel in seconds – but he does this every day, so he knows where he can go.

Yes, does this every day, with an endless procession of tourists. Cap’n Bill has long since stopped listening to what we have to say – if he ever did – something drives a man to sea, and he rides over whatever anyone else is saying with ease and aplomb. Fortunately, his patter and his stories are good enough to cancel any rudeness. I drop over and follow his directions into the coral garden of the reef – bleached like most of the Caribbean, but offshore and thus richer than most of what I’ve been seeing while snorkeling from the island. We’re on Cap’n Bill’s own mooring he set out here, in about 40 feet, so he wants the Frenchman to dive down the lines to check the shackles and thimbles for wear. Thomås puts on his huge diver’s watch and drops over the side, but in going down, he apparently catches himself on some part of the mooring gear, so that by the time I get back from my tour, he is shivering back in the boat, with a cut down his sternum as neat as a heart transplant. The poor guy is bleeding pretty profusely, even though it’s not very deep, with paper towels pressed to his chest, and his wife still reading her book. The wind has petered out and we motor back to the dock, them to their plane to frigid, snow-bound Chicago, while Cap’n Bill keeps me working for another hour on some sailor’s errands around the boat, regaling me with stories of the stupidities and the ‘There we were…’ stories that are the staple food of all sailors’ repertoires.

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