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Going to Hell for a Pastime (Canadian Yachting, 1989)

Dear Frederick:

Gloria and I are just back from what you jestingly refer to as our “sybaritic week of yachting with Horatio and Clothilde,” and your letter was among the many waiting for us. Frederick, I must tell you that during the past week I have seriously considered asking you to join me in an application to have Horatio confined for observation, at least, in a mental hospital. Our brother is suffering from an obsession which leaves him with no grip whatever on reality. If there is a medical term for the condition, it is probably dementia pray-coxswain.

We were due in Baddeck at 1:00 Sunday; we arrived at 3:00, because of trouble with the car. Horatio snapped that since we had already missed the best sailing of the day, we had better – “cast off”, I think, was the phrase – at once. I asked if we might have a moment to carry our suitcases onto the boat.

“Suitcases!” he cried. “At sea! You can’t bring suitcases!

I replied that when Gloria and I travel, we generally like to bring a few things with us – a change of socks, my shaver, Gloria’s fresh frillies and so forth – and that rather than carrying them loose in our hands, we find it convenient to put them in a suitcase or two. In our circle, this is customary.

Horatio muttered something about seabags and seachests. I thought he was talking about Clothilde, who is rather a bag and has an ample chest, but apparently not. The two of them started muttering about lockers, settees, quarter berths, stowage, stewage, steerage and what-not. When he began talking about souls and overheads I assumed he was taking a fit of religion, but apparently not; the roof inside a boat is for some reason known as “the overhead”, and the floor as “the sole”.

When he mentioned lockers, I looked around for things such as one sees in the corridors of high schools, but it turned out that any dark, inconvenient cubbyhole of an awkward shape may be called a locker. Horatio said that none of these was big enough. Apparently this 30-foot boat has no space in it large enough to put a suitcase.

“You’ll have to put your gear in garbage bags,” Horatio said firmly. “It can’t be helped. I’m sorry.” He wasn’t: you could tell from the look on his face.

We transferred our things into green garbage bags. As a result, all our clothes immediately became wrinkled and musty, and we were never able to find our toothbrushes.

Horatio tapped his foot while we “stowed away”, as he put it. We were to sleep in the “quarter berths”, which are coffin-like enclosures along the outside of the boat towards the rear, and our things were buried under one of these. The fuel tank is under the other one, by the way; you may imagine how delightful it is for a heavy smoker to lie in his berth and read knowing that the sloshing sound which keeps him awake half the night is highly volatile gasoline under his pillow.

We went outside – I’m sorry, “on deck” – and Horatio began bellowing mysterious orders. “Sway up the genoa!” he cried. “Loose the gaskets on the main! Make fast the sheet! Cast off bow and stern!”

The sails went up and snapped in the breeze quite impressively. “Gloria, double the spring line around the bollard and belay the fall aboard!” shouted Horatio. Gloria tried to figure out what a spring line might be – it sounds like a device for drying laundry – until Clothilde came to the rescue.

“That rope there, dear,” she said, pointing. “Undo it, first.”

Gloria had spent over $40 on a pair of “yachting shoes” from one of the more exclusive stores here in Halifax. She undid the rope, and Clothilde said “Bring the end back aboard, dear.” Gloria put her left foot back aboard, and the right heel of her new shoe stuck firmly in a crack in the wharf. Since the rope she held was the only one connecting the boat with the wharf, the boat sailed away — surprisingly forcefully; it is astonishing how much power a couple of sheets of cloth can develop. Gloria’s left foot sailed away with it, but her right foot remained stuck to the wharf.

“Belay the spring line!” bawled Horatio.

“This one?” cried Gloria, tugging at her shoe as the stretch of water under her grew wider and wider.

“Yes!” shrieked Clothilde. “Yes!!!”

“What do you mean by ‘belaaay’ -?” whimpered Gloria, who was by now performing an evolution rarely equalled by Dame Margot Fonteyn.

“Tie it!” shouted Clothilde.

“I ca-a-an’t!” screeched Gloria.

With a pop, the strap of her shoe let go. She teetered for an agonizingly long moment, and then slowly toppled face-first into the harbour water, still clinging to the rope. The boat – whose name is Medusa – picked up speed, and began tearing through the fleet of anchored boats like a drunken slalom skier.

Horatio tried frantically to steer, but he could see little or nothing under the huge sail that sweeps the decks of the boat from the pointed end back. Gloria was bubbling and gurgling on the end of her towline. Clothilde and I tried desperately to reel her in, like a very angry fish, but to no avail.

“Luff her!” cried Clothilde. “You’ll have to luff her!”

Luff Gloria? The mind boggled. Horatio swung the steering stick to the side. The boat spun right around and all the sails started cracking and banging in the wind, shaking the whole boat. Then the boat stopped very suddenly. Horatio, Clothilde and I all fell down in a crumpled heap around the base of the compass, while Gloria surfed down a little wave and cracked her head on the back of the boat. As I scrambled up, I could see disturbed faces scowling down at us from the side of a large expensive-looking motor cruiser into the side of which we had punched a jagged hole.

As we drifted away, we could hear a good deal of slander and obscenity. Gloria clambered over the back of Medusa, looking like a furious kitten who had narrowly escaped drowning. She had lost a shoe, the water pressure had pulled her panties down to her ankles, and she stank of diesel fuel.

I tried to calm her while Clothilde and Horatio shouted at one another and pulled the sails and their various ropes this way and that, apparently trying to get the boat under control. In the meantime, we were drifting backwards towards a large, sleek, two-masted sailboat. Horatio rushed to the back of Medusa, carrying what he called “the boat hook”, a long pole with a wicked-looking metal point and hook on the end of it. He stood on my hand, which made me cry out and bunt him with my shoulder. This brought him down on top of Gloria.

As he stood up, he put his knee in her face and jabbed frantically at the big two-master. He stabbed the boathook into a rubber boat tied on its deck, and I could hear the air rushing out. The rubber boat collapsed in wrinkles, like a dried apple. The front end of Medusa swung sideways, and the sails filled. We bumped and scraped our way down the whole length of the two-masted boat.

There was a piece of wood sticking out of the front of it – a “bowsprit”, I discovered later -and as we ground and scraped our way over the anchor rope, the bowsprit caught in the wires that held up Medusa‘s mast. As each of them pulled free, it emitted a musical tone. I don’t know whether all boats are arranged this way, Frederick, but those three wires are tightened in such a way that they produce a very low E flat minor chord when plucked.

Horatio swung the steering stick this way and that, and we escaped the harbour without further incident. The owners of the motor cruiser are claiming $3300 in damages, however, and the inflatable dinghy is worth $1400. Perhaps the dinghy can be repaired, but Horatio says the motor cruiser’s repair estimate is ridiculously high, and the matter may end up in the law courts.

We ended up in the Washabuck River, an hour’s sailing from Baddeck. Gloria’s temper was not improved when she found that the boat had no bath or shower, and that baths could be taken only by filling the cockpit – the trough from which one sails the boat – with tepid seawater and then lathering oneself with dishwashing detergent. It took quite a long time to get the smell of diesel out of her hair, and it was difficult to persuade Horatio that a pan of warm fresh water for a rinse would really not be an excessive drain on his supply. It was also difficult for Gloria to achieve much privacy, since three other boats were anchored in the same minute cove.

In the meantime Clothilde was making supper. She does this in a makeshift kitchen which she calls “the galley”. It is well-named, if you recall the squalid Roman vessels to which felons were once sentenced. Cooking in it reminds me of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s remark about a woman preaching: “Sir, it is like a dog walking on its hind legs. The thing is not done well, but one is surprised to find it done at all.”

Clothilde begins by getting food from the icebox, a black hole into which she cannot reach except by lying on her belly over the counter with a flashlight in one hand. Out of the cold, milky water which sloshes about in the icebox, she pulls out bits of bleached meat, dissolved lettuce, pallid cheese and limp celery.

She lies there thinking for a moment before she replaces the lid and wriggles to the floor. The reason for this is that once she starts cooking, she has no further access to the ice box, since its lid is the only available work surface. Next she lights the stove. This infernal device is fuelled by alcohol, which ignites with a spectacular orange flame that scorches the paint overhead, and burns her eyebrows. It burns nothing else, however, because it produces a flame so cold that it takes half an hour to get a cup of coffee from it.

To make a proper dinner for six o’clock, she has to begin working at it by three. Since Horatio insists on sailing as late as possible, she has to cook, generally, while the boat is in motion. For that reason, the stove is hung from pivots, which make it swing back and forth like a playground toy. In theory, this arrangement, which Horatio calls “gimballing”, keeps the stove-top level and prevents the pots from spilling.

No doubt this would be true if the boat would lean over to a certain angle and then stay there. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Out on the water, Frederick, I noticed some curious things called waves. You know about them already, perhaps, but the designer of the stove had never seen them. The result was that the stove would start to swing, slowly and irregularly at first, then more regularly and more strongly. And then –

Well, one afternoon we were crossing a body of water known as “the big lake”, which is about fifteen miles in breadth. Since we had just finished lunch, it was time for Clothilde to start making supper. She put a big pot of stew on, and as she worked the wind grew stronger. By the time she was done, Medusa had fair-sized waves rolling up behind her at an angle. The boat started to make a strange, corkscrewing motion. Gloria turned greenish and glassy-eyed. Just as Clothilde came up through the hatch, Gloria bolted for the side of the boat and threw up.

Unhappily, she threw up into the wind, which then carried her lunch back across her shoulder, onto Horatio’s waist and across my chest before striking Clothilde in the face. Clothilde promptly lost her lunch, and at that moment a wave tossed the boat, throwing Horatio off balance. He reached out to steady himself, but the plastic seat was by now well-greased with lunches and his hand slipped out from under him. He slithered to the floor on his back, and tripped me. I came down with both knees on his stomach, and he was immediately divorced from his own lunch, which he thoughtfully deposited inside my rubber boots.

As we all wallowed about together on the floor, Medusa herself chucked up her own supper. The stove had been swinging harder and harder, in a steadily increasing rhythm, and the stew-pot now achieved lift-off. It came out of the cabin as though it had been fired from a slingshot, caromed off the side of the hatch, sprayed part of its contents over Clothilde, soared over our horrifed faces, smashed into the little metal fence at the back of the boat, dumped the rest of the stew over Horatio’s legs, and then hurled itself to a watery grave.

Fortunately Horatio’s and Clothilde’s burns were only superficial — though for several days Clothilde’s were quite disfiguring. I must say Clothilde was very brave about it.

“Don’t worry about it,” she chirped. “I’m sick for the first three days every time we go to sea.”

“Every time?” I asked, incredulously.

“Oh, yes,” she said blithely. By now we had turned into the wind to reach our harbour, and the boat was smashing into the waves head-on. We were all bundled up in sweaty plastic coats and pants. Clothilde gave the tiller, as the steering-stick is named, to me, and stuck her head down below to light a cigarette.

“God, I really needed that,” she said, taking a deep puff. “With all that excitement I haven’t had a smoke for hours.” She took another puff. “Still, despite all these little things, it’s really great fun, isn’t it?”

A bucketful of water came flying over the front of the boat, shot across the top of the cabin, and smacked her in the face, reducing her cigarette to mushy, tangled filaments of tobacco smeared across her cheek.

“Great fun,” I said. Frederick, I confess to you that I was being just a trifle facetious. Fortunately, she missed it. As Dr. Johnson once said, these two have found Truth to be a cow which no longer gives the milk they want, so they have gone on to milk the bull.

There is no point in detailing for you, Frederick, all the sorrows of that interminable week. I cannot conceive how a man as intelligent as we know Horatio to be could possibly choose to spend large amounts of his time in a plastic receptacle which is unspeakably cramped and inconvenient, and which after a couple of days develops a smell compounded of Clorox, stale bacon and old socks. The ice supply runs out, and you must drink your cocktails warm. The fresh-water pump in the kitchen fails, and to get a drink of water you must have someone on deck blowing ferociously into the filler pipe in order to produce a thin trickle of water at the sink. The designer of the boat evidently has never seen a human being; all the seats are right-angled with upright backs, and the most comfortable place to sit is the toilet.

The toilet, however, has its own peculiar habits. At its side is a little lever with two positions: PUMP OUT and PUMP DRY. In the first position, it brings seawater into the bowl and then carries it away, slightly soiled. In the second position it only removes seawater. After using the thing, you must first pump it out, and then pump it dry. I failed to do this – nobody had told me – and the next time the boat leaned over the other way, the toilet belched all its contents out onto the carpet.

You may think I exaggerate, Frederick. I do not. I could write a catalogue of small unpleasantnesses which would go on for pages. The table is supported by a large pipe screwed to the floor. When anyone brushes it, it joggles and wobbles so that anything on it is spilled. Gloria was not pleased to find a bowl of oatmeal porridge in her lap. The main light above the table is cunningly situated so that when you sit down in the least uncomfortable place to read, your head neatly blocks the light. There is no ventilation in the forward compartment except a hatch, which has to be kept closed when it rains. After one humid, rainy night with Horatio and Clothilde puffing and blowing in there, they had to hang their sleeping bags to dry; they were soaked with condensation.

There is an opening window just above the clothes closet – or “hanging locker”, as Horatio insisted we call it. The side of the cabin into which this clever little nautical window is mounted slants inward. The window collects water when it rains, and then dumps it on your dry clothes when you open it. Not far from here is the mast, which is made of aluminum, and against which various ropes and wires send up a horrendous clattering whenever the wind blows — which in Nova Scotia is most of the time. I asked Horatio whether anything could be done about this deafening racket.

“I’ve done it,” he said smugly. “I’ve tied the halyards off to the shrouds with shock cords.”

He might as well have told me he had rectified his transistors, or transistorized his rectum. In any case, I inquired why the horrible noise was still going on.

“Oh,” he said, “those are from wires and ropes that run up inside the mast. Nothing you can do about that – at least without an awful lot of expense.” It occurred to me that for a man to spend $30,000 or $40,000 on a boat which wouldn’t allow him a good night’s sleep and then complain about the cost of doing something about it was just a trifle absurd. At that point — this was the first evening of the trip – the boat gave a gigantic shudder, as though it had suddenly developed some fiberglass edition of the palsy.

“What’s that?” I cried.

“Oh, just the vibration of the mast when she passes through the eye of the wind,” said Horatio.

“Nothing you can do about that either, I suppose?”

“I don’t think so.”

Horatio evidently puts up with all this because – though he doesn’t exactly say so – he evidently feels it proves that sailors are tough, and he is one tough sailor. My own feeling is that it proves sailors are pitiful victims of their own mythologies, and that Horatio in particular has clinically significant symptoms of mental disturbance.

I pass over the day when we took the garbage ashore to deposit it in one of the yellow plastic bins thoughtfully provided by the Cape Breton Development Corporation. We fled from that harbour before a roaring gale, and discovered only at bedtime that a bag of garbage was stowed under our quarter-berth, and that we had presumably jettisoned Gloria’s nightgown and all of my underwear. One of the advantages of suitcases, as Gloria pointed out in a high-pitched scream, is that one does not throw one’s garbage out in suitcases.

But the most memorable moment of the whole affair occurred on the fifth night – it felt like the fifth year – of this exercise in gracious vacationing.

You have already discerned, no doubt, that living aboard Medusa is a sequence of forced intimacies and difficult physical convolutions – as graceful, in one of Dr. Johnson’s phrases, as an elephant dancing upon a rope. Now, Frederick, I have a confession to make. Gloria and I enjoy sex together. We enjoy it regularly, and vigorously, and variously. We are prepared for occasional lapses in our swiving, but not an entire week which we are spending together ostensibly in mad pursuit of pleasure. But sailboats, Frederick, are designed by a species of monk with serious physical deformities.

I have already mentioned the quarter berths – long, narrow pigeonholes into which one wriggles so that most of one’s body is under the cockpit seats, like a knife inside a sheath. One’s head and shoulders are in the main living space, one person on each side of the main hatchway. This hatch leaks, by the way, because the back wall of the cabin slants forward, so that water trickles down the side of the hatch and drips onto the steps beneath it. Its splash creates a fine, light spray which yields an uncanny sensation of sleeping outdoors on a Scottish moor. The mattress itself is made of thin foam, so that the pivot of one’s hip grinds all night into a hard piece of plywood underneath. Remember, Frederick, that one could buy quite a good house in Nova Scotia for the cost of Medusa. But I digress.

Gloria slept in one quarter berth, and I in the other. For several nights this had induced in both of us a combination of restraint and frustration. On the fifth night, however, after lights out, we decided to reconsider it. I turned on the radio softly, so that we could not be heard by Horatio and Clothilde, who were sleeping in a strange, triangular bed up at the front of the boat. Horatio and Clothilde are not shaped like triangles, and I can hardly imagine how they fitted in the berth; their toes were intimate, but their shoulders had sued for divorce.

Gloria and I discussed what we were missing, and how much we were missing it, and to make a long story short we became determined to resume our conjugal relations. I slid out of my berth, stark naked and eager, and started to cross the cabin to Gloria’s berth.

At this moment, a light suddenly snapped on in the bathroom, the open door of which gives a panoramic view of the saloon. Clothilde, in a billowing nightdress, was easing out of the triangular berth towards the toilet. She turned to close the door, and caught me, transfixed by embarrassment, in the middle of the floor.

“Holy hopping Moses!” she breathed reverently. “Great snapping roary-eyed baldheaded billygoats!” I take it, Frederick, that the family resemblance between myself and my brother Horatio does stop short of completeness.

Clothilde caught herself up, blushed prettily, and slammed the door. A lesser man might have surrendered his fantasies – but, Frederick, I am not a quitter. I clambered in with Gloria, which was about like fitting two knives in one sheath, and we coupled defiantly. It was not easy; in fact, it was about like trying to achieve sensual bliss in a fallen telephone booth; but we managed.

At first we were gentle, but as the central nervous system asserted its rights we became energetic. We made sounds, and the boat began to rock. Then, carried away by enthusiasm, I abraded my bare buttocks on the unfinished fiberglass above us, and let out a roar like a wounded panther. By now the boat was heaving furiously, and it dawned on me that passion was not the sole cause of it; a sudden blast of wind had caught Medusa, and the whole boat was moving jerkily sideways.

“I knew she was on a lousy bottom!” shrieked Horatio. “That fluke won’t stick in there far enough to do any good!” He rushed past us, wearing only a pair of blue boxer shorts with red seagulls emblazoned on them, threw the hatch open, and vanished into the pouring rain while I tried manfully to shield Gloria from the hailstorm of hatchboards he had let fly.

By the time Horatio returned, I was draped over the table while Gloria daubed my trailing edge with mercurochrome. Horatio apologized, and said that he had thought that the anchor was dragging, and he had “gone on deck to veer more rode”. I didn’t care what he had done; I was pleased enough with what I had done, despite being ignominiously wounded in action. Clothilde appeared in a cloud of flimsy nylon, and suggested hot chocolate and a snack. So there we sat around the table in the middle of the night, drinking cocoa and eating oranges and pretending nothing had happened. It was one of the most bizarre post-prandial moments of my life.

So that, Frederick, is the story of our experiment in the rarefied world of yachting. I suppose polo is just as bad, or fox-hunting, or any other of the upper-class amusements from which it has pleased a generous God to spare us.

In the meantime, I have been recovering from the week’s trials by soaking myself in the urbane, rational outlook of Samuel Johnson. I have never been so struck by Johnson’s penetration and acuteness as I have this past few days, and the acme of my pleasure was to discover that Johnson must have had a similar experience, and judged it with the same ruthless realism he applied to works of literature.

“The man who would go to sea for pleasure,” said Johnson, “would go to hell for a pastime.”

I remain, dear Frederick,

Your affectionate brother,