Joy of Sailing
Summer Job Experience
say that time is money, which is only partially true, because
if time were currency in the mid 1990s then I would have
been rich. My problem was that I had free time. Therefore
I was in need of cash.
on a cold and rainy day in April, I drove down to Buffalo’s
waterfront looking for work. I already had warmer, sunnier
times in mind. Inspired by the trinity of The Old Man
and the Sea, Jimmy Buffet albums, and the movie Captain
Ron, I was determined to learn to sail. My plan was
to work around boats, pick up the necessary knowledge, and
get paid at the same time.
could see my future very clearly. I would chart a course
from dreary Buffalo, cruise out the St. Lawrence Seaway
and down the East Coast to the Caribbean, where I would
slip off the Matrix and survive by catching fish, occasionally
anchoring in some salty port for a few nights of rum and
debauchery. I pretty much had it all figured out.
a total lack of experience I was hired immediately at a
marina wedged between the Skyway and the General Mills plant,
on the Ship Canal. The boss, a paunchy but pleasant man,
sat me down and explained just one thing. He said, “Your
predecessor may have had a drinking problem, I don’t know,
but failing to show up for work – and not even calling –
is untenable.” I stepped out of the office – actually, a
trailer on blocks – with a new job.
weather warmed and the busy season of getting the boats
in the water began. Their owners constantly checked on maintenance,
certain that the vermin working at the marina were slacking
off or up to no good. They treated me, and the others, with
I was on a mission, and I couldn’t help but learn something
about boats. I began to understand the argot, and I could
maybe pass myself off as a sailor for about a minute. The
boss was helpful in tutoring me.
the big fin thing for on the bottom?” I would ask.
mean the keel? It acts as ballast to keep the boat from
heeling too far and capsizing.”
the end this was the extent of what I would learn about
sailing during my nearly four months on the job. Mostly
I pumped foul bilge water from old boats that wouldn’t be
sailed until they had been sold to new owners. They were
neglected at the very least, and in some cases despised.
say the second happiest day of your life is when you buy
your boat. The happiest is when you sell it. Also, a common
crack among boating cognoscenti: “Look up the word ‘boat’
in the dictionary and it reads, ‘A hole in the water where
you throw money.’”
would ruminate on these folksy aphorisms and other things
as I went about my lonely work. My equipment consisted of
a ladder, a bucket, and a bilge pump. I would climb the
ladder into the cockpit of various boats and open the hatch,
sometimes disturbing a nest of angry wasps (not the boat
owners, the insects). They would attack, and I would sprint
to the bow and try to fend them off with my hat. In my most
desperate scenes I would leap over the side 15 feet to the
gravel below. I would then walk quickly and casually away,
hoping no one had seen.
I would return and crouch in the stifling heat of the stinking
cabin and pump stale rain water and leaked diesel from the
bilges into a bucket, which I then dumped over the side.
I repeated this routine for hours each week.
I performed non-nautical tasks, like mowing the lawn. And,
on the occasions when a boat did sell, I would bring its
outboard engine aboard. This meant bear-hugging it across
the yard and then balancing it on my shoulder while I climbed
the ladder. I managed the whole maneuver on sheer nerve.
I persevered, my eyes on the prize. Things would get better
and, I was sure, by the end of summer I would be a master
this solitary work beat being anywhere near water, and the
uptight owners. My first negative experience with them came
almost immediately. I had been assigned to re-stain the
teakwood deck work on a handsome cruiser. I began by taping
off the deck so that stain wouldn’t spill onto the white
surface. Soon I was deep into my work, and didn’t notice
the gathering storm, the kind that creeps up suddenly and
violently during summer near the lake. I was quickly caught
in a downpour.
sprinted to the office to get my foul-weather gear. While
I was in the back room putting it on, I heard a commotion.
Some lunatic was shrieking in the other room. I walked out
and saw a skinny bearded guy, dripping wet. He fixed his
eyes on me and shouted insane gibberish.
was caught completely off guard, but my boss gently guided
him into his office for a conference. Turned out the old
fool was livid that I had put masking tape on his deck.
Now wet it would be a bitch to get off. As I stood there
kind of stunned, one of the mechanics walked up and said,
“I would have sunk the claw end of a hammer into his skull,”
injecting some much-needed levity into the situation.
not for comic relief, there would have been real violence.
Most of the workers were hardened, resentful types – refugees
from some other industry. They were hardly employable, and
prone to quick anger, because life had already been mean
were reminded constantly to be kind to the customers, however.
“After all, they are the ones who pay our salaries.” This
constant threat of unemployment and the sage guidance of
the Cap kept things from getting out of hand.
Cap drove the crane that carried the boats from the cradles
to the canal and back again. He was a veteran of Buffalo’s
blue-collar industries, and he would stare wistfully at
the Skyway, the hum of the traffic mocking him. Once he
told me he knew Bethlehem Steel was destined to close after
the Skyway was built with Japanese steel. He had worked
at Bethlehem at the time, hauling slag out back by the shoreline
and dumping it into an area that he described looking like
the surface of the moon, with big bubbling craters of purple
was rare, though, for the Cap to act melancholy – or even
serious. He mostly kept everyone loose with his steady commentary
from the cab, where he leaned out the window, smoking cigarettes.
To start, he was just funny looking.
was short and stocky with a big belly and powerful arms
and legs. He had jaundiced eyes and brown teeth, and he
croaked when he talked, his voice ravaged from cigarettes
and booze. Still, he talked constantly.
down,” the Cap would call. “Don’t work so hard.” Then he
would take a drag from his cigarette and exhale. “You’ll
bust a nut.” He would sort of chuckle to himself, and say,
“You wanna fuck tonight, don’t’cha?”
Cap was a master of milking company time, and conserving
energy. When everyone finally slowed to his satisfaction,
he would crack, “Hey, Jimmy (or whoever he was targeting
that day), show me your union card!”
his perch in the cab the Cap could see the whole yard, including
the boss’ whereabouts, and he kept watch and warned us to
pick up the pace or stop slacking, if necessary. For this
and other reasons, the Cap was held in high esteem, like
an old blues man who hasn’t learned any new licks in decades,
but who can play the old ones better than anyone.
way we kept ourselves busy laughing so that we didn’t go
crazy and attack one of the customers was by telling stories,
usually about some mishap involving the customers.
I had a story to tell, too. It went like this: When my boss
was indisposed I was sometimes asked to show potential buyers
the boats for sale. I would open them up, air them out,
pump the bilges, and stand around while they asked questions
I couldn’t answer. This particular customer wanted to see
some of the bigger, more expensive performance yachts.
arrived late. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged guy,
dressed completely wrong for boat inspection. He wore a
pair of dark dress shoes, the kind with pointy toes and
tassels, and dress pants, with a button down and suspenders.
out he was from Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay area. He had
a good ol’ boy Southern accent and he smoked a fragrant
brand of specialty cigarettes. For the better part of an
hour he jabbered at me, showing off all his knowledge. Finally
he turned and asked what I sailed.
told him I didn’t have one, adding in a friendly way that
deflected from my obvious poverty that they were too much
that’s why I got a B.N.,” he said. “Eve’body down’n Chess-peek
got a B.N.”
B.N. You know, boat nigger. Someone to clean it – keep it
gave him the slow inscrutable nod of the white Aryan brotherhood.
I wondered if this fucker was just an ignorant redneck:
Were we supposed to share this moment of racial superiority,
or was he purposely trying to call me a boat nigger, or
its white equivalent? Alas, the fine line between ignorance
and stupidity is not always crystal clear. He gave no clues;
he just smiled.
was one more boat to show, and I was eager to get rid of
this jackass. We climbed aboard. The customer casually lit
a cigarette and began to say something while stepping across
the cockpit. His shoe just grazed the bench on the other
side. He reacted quickly, reaching for the boom, but it
swung away before he could get a grip, and he headed downward.
His sternum landed solidly on the edge of the molded bench
and a great gasp escaped from his lungs. His cigarette was
sent flying from his mouth as if blasted from a blow dart.
arms had flailed, yet there was nothing to grab but the
air, and his hand struck the deck hard, sending his watch
skittering toward the bow, demonstrating the engineering
principles that directs water from large waves overboard.
was all over in a matter of seconds. He struggled to roll
onto his back as the boom swayed gently overhead, and I
noticed that his suspenders had come unfastened during his
ordeal. Although his eyes were closed, he was breathing
– like Darth Vader.
rubbed his knee and flexed it to be sure the joint was still
working. Meanwhile, he moaned. Which is about the time I
started laughing. I skulked away toward the bow, my shoulders
shaking the whole way. I tried to compose myself while picking
up his watch. Finally I clenched my tongue between my teeth
and walked back to the cockpit.
was standing now, and with trembling hands trying to refasten
his suspenders. The blood had risen up his neck like an
outdoor thermometer and his face was purple. His shirt was
soaked with blotches of sweat that looked like strange continents.
handed him the watch. “Thanks,” he rasped. The band was
broken, so he put it in his pocket.
all right?” I asked.
shoes,” he began to say. He sounded like an emphysema case.
The blow to the lungs must have jarred all the tar from
his air sacs. He coughed and wheezed, “Shoes… are… not good…
on this… nonskid… surface.”
bit on my tongue again. After a minute he summoned the energy
to slowly climb down the ladder. I picked up his cigarette
and flicked it over the side.
you’re all right?” I called. He just waved me off as he
walked away. Then I went down into the cabin and laughed
for five minutes.
never did learn to sail that summer – or ever, for that
matter, which is probably just as well. I did learn some
other valuable things about life, however.
this may be unpopular (My colleagues at The Beast
are not religious; they don’t even worship the devil. They
are atheists.), experience has taught me that there is some
higher power; sort of a cosmic connection – something like
is the guiding hand behind schadenfreude, and empirical
evidence for it abounds. And most of the time it’s all we’ve