Jacksonville, Florida – July, 1976
Hanns awoke in the cockpit of Windship Chaos to the buzzing of a lone mosquito in his ear. Rolling on his back, he exhaled deeply, then inhaled slowly. The tiny droning sound circled around his head, honing in on the cloud of warm carbon dioxide he’d created a short distance over his face. He scraped some sleep from his eyes and soon spotted his target hovering beneath the white of the cockpit’s overhead.1 A carefully timed slap silenced the source of the irritation, leaving only the subtle hum of two electric cockpit fans.
Hanns breathed deeply again—slowly, rhythmically. He closed his eyes and visualized triple bows slicing through blue ocean swells. So close, now.
A diesel engine growled in the distance. The clattering of a returning shrimp boat faded in and out intermittently as the faintest breaths of early morning wind teased it towards him and away again. For a moment, he heard the voices of the boat’s crew and the refrains of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water Dopler-shifting strangely as the vessel ground its way up the St. John’s river. When the noise faded, the hum of the fans took over once more. Two herons squawked in the nearby mangroves.2 One took off with a fluttering of wings.
Hanns yawned and glanced down the companionway, eyeing the clock on the forward crossmember.3
5:30; may as well get up and get ready. Standing, he silently relieved himself into an empty apple juice bottle. No way I’m going out there just before dawn with the mosquitoes and no-see’ems.4 He heard the wake from the distant shrimp boat lap against the shore, and tiny fiddler crabs clattering up the roots of the mangroves to escape the sloshing water. Clambering over the bridge deck and down the companionway steps, he poured some alcohol onto the stove and ignited it to preheat the burner. Checking the kerosene5 pressure gauge on the aft bulkhead, he pumped a few times, opened the valve, and set a kettle of water on to boil.
A former filmmaker, an avid photographer and a veteran of five years cruising the seas from the Mediterranean through the Panama canal to the South Pacific, Hanns was accustomed to rising early to catch the dramatic shadows of first light or the deeper waters of a flood tide. Where he was soon headed, early departures ensured daylight arrivals in places where safely navigating rocks and shoals depends on good visibility. The Bahama Banks are no place to sail at night.
A click of a switch sparked the V.H.F. radio to life.Hanns let the recorded, robot-voiced weather forecast loop play in the background. The kettle screamed. He poured herbal tea into a stainless steel mug. The weather would be predictably sunny and mild with possible showers later in the afternoon—typical—but these weather broadcasts were somehow part of the sound of a vessel under weigh;6 and today, after two months of hard work, Windship Chaos was finally to begin her voyage south.
Hanns brought his cup to the cockpit, watching starburst patterns of lights on the boat yard office through the fine screens of the cockpit enclosure.
A raccoon briefly studied an oil drum garbage can in the yard before ambling off into the mangroves. Night shifted to day stealthily; the barrel suddenly yet subtly changing to rusty blue from the black it had been only a moment before.
Hanns gathered his mane of blonde hair into a pony tail—it was cooler that way—and put on a loose, white shirt.
Another shrimp boat growled upriver; he watched its lights move by through the isinglass windscreen in front of the cockpit. Faint strains of The Doobie Brothers harmonized with two big diesels on the wind, “Jesus is just alright with me. Jesus is just alright, oh yeah…”
Vessels of all shapes and sizes emerged from the shadows of the yard. Yachts awaited the arrival of the day’s self-proclaimed “marine contractors” to sand, grind, and paint under the Florida sun for another day’s drinking money. The shells of two wooden shrimp boats loomed by the back fence along with a few other festering hulks, protected from watercraft hell only by idealistic owners’ willingness to pay the storage fees required to keep their dreams in purgatory for another month. As many patients died in boat hospitals like this as were cured and released.
There were real boat yards, of course; yards where one left one’s well-financed boat in the hands of able workers, and where do-it-yourselfing was not an option. Such establishments charged enough money to keep out drifters and dreamers, and were far less likely to accumulate derelict boats or derelict owners with grandiose aspirations. But, for a capable craftsman like Hanns, Rose’s Marine Salvage was a roughshod but affordable godsend that provided the necessary resources to make dreams happen…not that there was much about Rose’s anyone would consider rosy.
Hanns looked disdainfully through the cockpit screens. After eight weeks of hard work in this boat project purgatory where the grandiose aspirations of his co-consignees were so often encumbered by alcohol, low standards and mediocre skills, it would be wonderful to slip back into the water. Today, he would feel the presence of the ocean beneath his feet again.
Windship Chaos was a 47 foot trimaran; two small hulls with a large central yacht in the middle that created a sailing platform 24 feet wide. Behind a covered cockpit offering a protected steering station, Hanns had converted a small aft cabin to a workshop with ample tool storage, good lighting through a series of aft portlights, a big hatch overhead for ventilation and wraparound work benches. Having sacrificed this ideal spot for a large bed, he had constructed a luxurious fornicatorium in the forward cabin behind the chain locker7 with stereo speakers, a custom-fitted mattress, plenty of headroom and a beautifully crafted stainless steel hatch that could be opened facing either forward to direct tropical breezes down into the cabin, or aft where ocean spray could be deflected while still allowing air to flow.
He had purchased the hull, deck, engine and mast from a Jacksonville businessman who had spent two years and no small amount of money working alongside a master carpenter to precisely laminate and fair six layers of aircraft-grade plywood into a sleek and graceful yacht before committing an indiscretion with his business partner’s secretary that liberated him from his wife, his business, his money and a boat ready to go to sea save for the completion of its interior.
But for Hanns, it was perfect. He hated the typical formica-over-plywood interiors of production yachts with their faux wood grain and unimaginative layouts so often marketed based on the number of people for whom they provided bunks—as if anyone in their right mind would want to take seven people cruising! Where was the romance in that? Windship Chaos offered plenty of lounging space on deck and in her spacious cockpit for an ample number of day guests, and a table that could be dropped down to make a comfortable extra bunk for overnight visitors. Two more people could easily sleep in the cockpit, and there were soft trampolines between the amas and the main hull that allowed one to lie comfortably suspended over the waves.
But while comfortable bunks were essential on-board for any number of purposes, Windship Chaos was a study in comfortable, functional, efficient living space. During two months of grinding, fitting and fabricating, Hanns wondered many times if traditional naval architects spent any time sailing the boats they designed, or if testing involved merely sleeping aboard at the dock.
Hanns smelled tobacco smoke and wrinkled his nose, “Morning, Gary. Put out that stinkarette and come join me. I’ll make you a fresh cup of hot java if you won’t reek up my cockpit.”
A smiling face appeared over the port side. Gary placed his hand-rolled smoke under a sandy moustache, took one more drag, turned his head around to blow the smoke away from Hanns, tossed the butt and climbed up the ladder into the cockpit. “Looks like we’ll be losin’ you today. What time ’r’ ya splashin’?”
Hanns looked at Gary’s paint-spattered jeans and threadbare Frank Zappa T-shirt. “Rawlings says eight o’clock. Frankly, I’d just like to get it over with. This boat yard wasn’t really built to accommodate multihulls and I’ll feel better when she’s safe in the water…not to mention I’ve been here in redneck, alcoholic hell for two months now.”
Gary laughed and put on his best southern accent, an only-slight exaggeration of his natural speech.“Hope you ain’t talkin’ ’bout me, boy. I a kick yo’ ass.”
Hanns had grown fond of Gary during his tenure here at Rose’s. Though superficially veneered in small town American ignorance and the rough mannerisms that characterized most of the people attached to this place, Gary had made a number of innovative time-saving suggestions and even volunteered some of his own time to assist with several of Hann’s projects. Hanns found an amusing contrast between Gary’s lack of eloquence and his quiet, philosophical sophistication. An able shipwright who shared his love for sailing, he had become a friend, a jousting partner and as someone who knew how to navigate the petty politics of this backwater boatyard, a valuable resource.
Hanns descended into the cabin to reheat the kettle and load up a paper filter cone with ground coffee for his guest.
“Y’know, Gary, I’ve sailed all over this planet, but the Caribbean has always pulled me. Then, there’s the incredible greed and ignorance of homo sapiens to push me. It’s the perfect storm, but if I had to choose, I’d face reefs and hurricanes over banks, lawyers and stock brokers any day. I am so ready to splash this boat and go enjoy life a little closer to the equator.”
Gary smiled down the companionway at Hanns.
“So, what do you have going for La Vida today, Gary? You’re not too far from splashing yourself, are you?”
“Unfortunately, Rawlin’s has me fiberglassin’ the rudder on a Westsail 32 today. I don’t want to put the final finish on La Vida’s hull ’til I can grab me a three-day block of time durin’ dry weather to just knock it out. That hull is Dutch steel and I don’t much care to trap any o’ this Florida salt under the finish. Hurricane season ain’t over, so I’m jus’ as happy to stay here safe up-river ’til October, make me a few bucks and finish up La Vida when the time is right. She’ll get done soon enough, but I wanna stay gone when I finally go ’n’ I’d rather put off havin’ to work-to-keep-cruising as long as possible.”
“Maybe you should have asked for more cash and less dope for that delivery?” Hanns chuckled, following a steaming mug of black coffee through the companionway.
Gary flipped his hat around so the brim pointed backwards over his pony tail. His glasses had a smear of epoxy across the outside edge of one lens. “Y’know, Hanns…I’ve watched guys get greedy ’n’ try to make more than one run. I got to see a bit of Europe—which don’t mean much to a kraut like you—but I might never have seen any of it. I had a kick-ass time making the crossing from Tangier to here, got the shipment where it was supposed to go and ended up with a cruising boat I could never afford plus ten G and a pound o’ hash for my time and trouble. When I started, I had nothing to lose, but now, I’m ahead of the game. If I have to work for a living to keep my $200,000 cruising boat, I ain’t gonna get me no attitude ’bout it. I got away with my one run, and I’ll play it safe from here.’
‘How ‘bout you? What’s your cruising account look like, Hanns? What’s in the tupperware bank? You retirin’, or off to be a soldier of fortune?”
“You’re a wise man, Gary. I’m in the same straits as you. I have some emergency reserves, and the boat’s stocked up and ready, but yeah; I suppose I’ll be glad when someone needs a diesel mechanic or some welding done. I’m grateful to have Chaos finished and paid for. You won’t find me risking anything I have to make a quick buck, either.”
Gary moved a muscular, tattooed arm up to salute Hanns. His coffee splashed on the cockpit sole. “Shit! Sorry about that, but at least I missed your cushions.”
“I won’t have that kind o’ language in my yard, Gary.” A crusty, grating voice assaulted them from the ground below. “Y’all ready now, o’ you gonna make me wait ’til eightaclock? I kin have y’all in the watah in fahv minutes if y’all ’r’ ready.”
Gary rolled his eyes.
Rawlings was a nasty, gimpy little dwarf from some backwoods shrimping town in Louisiana. When he wasn’t barking orders at people, he was warning them about the wrath of God and thumbing through a tattered pocket bible. His wrinkled features, sunken cheeks and bad teeth suggested his road to salvation might have been paved with empty whiskey bottles, but his condescending air was buffered by an obvious ignorance that rendered it unworthy of challenge.
And it was his boat yard.
Gary whispered, “there’s one asshole I won’t mind leaving behind.”
“Ready when you are Mr. Rawlings,” Hanns returned with exaggerated cheerfulness. “Gary, if you can toss the dock lines to me, I’ll station myself up on the bow.”
Though he was excited to get back in the water, the launching arrangement made Hanns nervous. Rawling’s railroad was built to haul traditional, monohull boats which meant during her brief descent into the sea, Chaos’s outer amas would be unsupported. He’d looked over the shaky apparatus with his engineer’s eye and concluded it was probably safe enough as long as there were no snags or obstacles to throw anything off balance, but if the boat hadn’t been here when he bought her, Rose’s would not have been on his list of viable places to haul her out and work on her.
Chaos’s center hull was perched on two cars that ran on railroad tracks leading down a shallow incline into the St. John’s river. The cars were chained together to prevent them from sliding apart along the curvature of the hull. The shoreward car was tethered by a greasy cable to a rusty, diesel-powered winch. A band-brake surrounded the smooth edge of the cable drum, and Rawlings uncranked the tension wheel a few turns.
Chaos didn’t move.
“Maybe give her a push, Mr. Rawlings?” offered Hanns.
“If I wanted you workin’ here, I’d a’ hired ya,” snarled Rumplestiltskin, cranking the brake wheel open a few more turns.
The trimaran started to move, slowly at first and then with gathering momentum. Hanns clung to the bow pulpit and heard the whine of cable flying off the spool. He looked back and caught a glimpse of Rawlings frantically cranking back down on the brake, for a moment, making eye contact with Gary on the dock as Chaos hurtled towards the water.
The brake grabbed.
The cable stopped running abruptly.
The supports gave way with a sudden crack, followed by the visceral sound of crunching wood.