Sailing Back to Horses
I have not always traveled by mule. When I was thirty, I decided that sailing around the world would be more interesting than sticking with my office job. I bought an old boat named Sea Bird and notified my employer that I was going sailing. I had just enough money saved to get going but not enough to make the whole trip without working along the way. I went anyway.
My sailboat’s name was Sea Bird. I found her on Lake Norman, North Carolina. She was a steel ketch that looked more like a fishing boat than an America’s Cup contender. She had schedule 40 water pipes for masts, a tractor seat on the bowsprit and an ancient Volvo MD-1B diesel engine in her belly. The engine only had one cylinder and didn’t have a starter motor. It had to be cranked by hand. Sea Bird didn’t have any winches or fancy electronics aboard.
I had her trucked to Oriental, North Carolina where I spent two months getting her in shape. I painted her hull, reinforced her sails and mounted an anchor windlass on her foredeck to help with anchor handling.
Somewhere during the refit, my dad asked if he could come sailing with me. We had sailed together years before on a small sailboat I built as I rode as a steeplechase jockey. He was my greatest supporter and best friend until I met my wife Julia. But he wasn’t a sailor. He also had a bum hip, needed a hip replacement and got around with a cane. When he asked if he could come along, I said, “Sure!”
He was 72.
In early November, on the heels of bad weather, we sailed from Beaufort, North Carolina, out into the Atlantic Ocean. Destination: St Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
We coat-tailed the bad weather because it pushed us south, the direction we needed to go. I was seasick the first five days. When I threw up, my dad threw up. Sea Bird was cramped below. We bonded over a barf bucket and were miserable until Thanksgiving. Which we couldn’t eat. Because we were seasick. We sailed a week. Ten days. We started eating ramen noodles.
One calm night, hundreds of miles away from land, I scanned the horizon and saw what looked like a battleship hunkered down on the horizon. Then a helicopter flew low over Sea Bird like it was checking us out.
A man’s voice came over my VHF radio and told the unidentified vessel to leave the area.
Sea Bird was the unidentified vessel. We had sailed into a naval maneuver.
Because there wasn’t much wind, I fired up Sea Bird‘s old engine. As I put it into gear, I tangled the jib sheet, the line used to trim the jib sail, in the propellor. The engine made a muffled “Bang!” and we stopped moving through the water. I went below and looked at the ancient Volvo. Black oil was pouring from the transmission. What looked like molasses was pooled up under the engine.
I fired the engine back up and put the propellor into gear. The propellor shaft didn’t turn. Sea Bird‘s transmission was shot. I turned off the engine and slowly sailed out of the naval maneuver. Nineteen days after my dad and I sailed out of Beaufort, we anchored in Charlotte Amalie harbor, St Thomas.
A few days later, I sailed to Red Hook, on the other side of the island and started looking for a replacement engine. A new engine cost five thousand dollars, about half the cost of what I’d paid for Sea Bird. Damn. I hadn’t expected to run into such a big expense less than a month into my trip.
A New Engine
Before I took off on my trip, I’d been approached by a North Carolina newspaper to submit monthly articles about my trip. While that was great rum money, it wasn’t great engine money. I needed to earn a few more dollars if I was going to repower Sea Bird.
I anchored in the Red Hook anchorage and, a few days later, found an engine dealer that had the new engine I needed. I had enough money to buy the engine so I bought it. I didn’t really know how to install it so I hired a guy to help me. The guy was from St Thomas with great big dreadlocks, a Bob Marley smile. He was skinny because all he seemed to live off was Ting, the local sugary drink of choice. To save on labor, I did as much of the work as I could. I did the grunt work, like removing the old engine and installing the new engine mounts. He helped me with the more detailed jobs, like lining up the engine with the prop shaft and hooking up the controls. We were a cheery, mismatched team, a guy in deadlocks helping a guy with a crewcut, but a week later, Sea Bird had a new engine.
And I had an empty wallet.
A few days after we hooked up the engine, I was walking the marina docks, wondering what I would do to earn back what I’d spent on the engine. I started talking with a guy that ran a water taxi. A water taxi is a small boat that runs people and stuff around the islands. I told him I’d just had to spend a bunch of money on a new engine and was looking for some kind of work. Somewhere along the way, I mentioned I grew up riding horses.
“Well, you need to call Amy, ” he said. “She’s got a horse and she’s looking for someone to work with her horse.”
That seemed crazy. That on St Thomas, a little tropical island, somebody was looking for a horse trainer.
He gave me Amy’s contact. A few days later, I was standing in a sandy arena, giving my first riding lesson.
That chance encounter mushroomed into a riding gig that, along with my freelance writing, paid for my circumnavigation.
It also set up how I came to mule travel. When I came home from sailing Sea Bird around the world, I sold her, bought a mule and pony and headed off across America.
If you haven’t already, you might enjoy reading “Too Proud to Ride a Cow”, the account of riding my mule Woody and pony Maggie across America.
Copies are available at:
- paperback: The RiverEarth.com General Store
- ebook for Kindle: download at Amazon
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