Water Dwellers: Essay in Salt Magazine

It is my pleasure to announce that my inaugural On the Water column comes out in this month’s issue of Salt Magazine, Wilmington’s own art and literary publication. In it, I profile the wandering souls who pass through our harbor at Wrightsville Beach on transient boats.

In the process of doing research I got to hang out with several very cool people, including a couple who built their wooden sailboat in Alaska and have been cruising together for over twenty years, a young solo sailor who rambles across the sea searching for romance and grog, an odd fellow on a trawler who would only answer to Kilgore Trout (my Vonnegut fans know what I’m talking about), and a retired accountant and his wife who sailed here from Tennessee (and a rocky, arduous sail it was).

All these outsiders in our harbor have something to teach us. Alan Watts famously said the role of the hermit was an important one which gives the citizens great strength, because it reminds the government in no uncertain terms that there is something more than government. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but the wild spirits of these sailors inspires me to live my own life to it’s fullest potential.

Read all about it here, or scroll down for the whole text.

The Water Dwellers

By John Wolfe

Standing on the Causeway Bridge at Wrightsville Beach, you see them to the south, lazily swinging around their anchors: boats of all sizes — power and sail, wood, metal, fiberglass. Exotic flags flutter in their rigging. Names of romantic foreign ports are painted on their transoms: New Zealand, France, South Africa, Canada, both American coasts. At night, lonely white lamps atop their masts dot the harbor, signifying the vessel is anchored. These firefly pricks of light dance as the lamps bob 50 feet above the open water, reflected at sea level and reaching toward the firmament above. Each light is a boat, each boat is a home, the mollusk-like shell of these traveling people who dwell upon the sea.

Where are they from? Who lives aboard them, these carriers of our dreams? What storms have they weathered? What brings them to our little city by the vast sea which connects us to every other port in the world? What distant lands and peoples, what strange scriptures, have they left in their wakes? I decided to go ask.

“We are gypsies, I think,” says Nola Kathleen. “Gypsies looking to be out in nature, away from consumerism and materialistic means. It’s the only thing we find really important: living simply, eating well and trying to give back when we can.” Nola squints at me through her glasses. Her face is deeply tanned under short-cropped brown hair and emanates that necessary kindness found on the frontier, where people must rely on others to survive.

Nola’s home port: Sitka, Alaska. She and her husband, Jerry Sharrard (and their white doodle, Tara the Salty Dog), are anchored where Bradley Creek flows into Banks Channel. Their 50-foot-long wooden sailboat, S/V Moonsong, was named for the howling of huskies. The boat is the culmination of a lifetime of Jerry’s woodworking; the joinery reveals the delicate precision-work of a master craftsman. Moonsong is a geometrical wonder, a marriage of perfect squares and seamless ovals — roots and rootlessness — of green leaves and salt water. Jerry and Nola built this boat on Prince-of-Wales Island in southeast Alaska, while Nola worked as a teacher, a tugboat crew, and a salmon seine-fisher. The spirits in the harvested trees hewn for her worn decks and sturdy beams live on.

“When I got out of college in the early ’70s,” says Jerry, “I did an apprenticeship with an old-time boatbuilder on the coast of Oregon, a guy named Joe McGlasson, who was a well-known marine architect . . . He designed this boat, kind of as a present, because he felt guilty for what he paid me. It’s the only one ever been built.” Jerry is weathered and bleached like an old sea turtle, and his hands are held with the quiet confidence of someone who knows how to shape wood. Not a hobbyist, but a carpenter, a builder. A boat builder.

In the harbor I met another man, younger and lankier, also a carpenter by trade: Michael Cafferty from Connecticut, anchored nearby on his 28-foot Sea Sprite sloop. (Aboard a sub-30 foot boat, life becomes streamlined; everything not absolutely essential gets removed until you are left with a bed, a table, a seat for guests, a stove, a sink, perhaps an icebox and the cubic volume of the trunk of a mid-sized sedan in which to store clothes, food and other luxuries. My two years living aboard a boat of similar size was akin to living in a damp walk-in closet that never stopped moving. But the view was spectacular.) Beneath Michael’s tangled, curly, brown hair shone eyes that revealed his lust for living. A crescent-moon smile graced his face, effervescing laughter. For years, Michael longed to go cruising, so he dodged committed relationships, saved his money and finally left home for the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas last November. He’s been sailing ever since.

In foreign ports, he confronted the classic problems of every cruising sailor. Out of fresh water? Spend your afternoon in the dinghy with a few 5-gallon jerry cans, hunting for an unattended spigot. It’s 3:30 in the morning, and you hear a suspicious noise? Crawl out of your warm bunk and slink on deck in your underwear to make sure your anchor isn’t dragging. Need groceries? Carry as much as you can balance on the handlebars of your fold-up bicycle. The benefits, however, outnumber the drawbacks: Fish off your front porch. If you don’t like your neighbors, just pull up your anchor. Every evening at sunset you get a front-row seat to the greatest light show on the planet, to say nothing of the unparalleled stargazing that follows it.

A solo sailor, Michael makes offshore hops from inlet to inlet. He tethers an egg timer to his life preserver so he can sneak a few winks on watch. His longest run, from St. Augustine to Charleston, was 30 hours. “I had told myself I was going to sleep as soon as I got in the inlet,” he said to me over a pint at Poe’s, “but, you know, the adrenaline hit me, so I went ashore and had a few beers.” The love affair between sailors and grog lives on.

Searching for an open stool, a generous pour and a pretty woman to make conversation with, Michael rambles over the ocean. Romance, he admits, is what brought him to the water in the first place. “I read “Dove” and that was it,” said Michael of the Robin Lee Graham memoir about his round-the-world sailing adventure as a teenager. “The romance of it, the freedom, being able to meet other fun people. It’s been incredible meeting people – fellow sailors are good folk.”

Nola and Jerry have been cruising together for 21 years. The first decade was spent on the Pacific, making a living crewing aboard Neil Young’s hundred-foot schooner. They met musicians they had grown up listening to, like David Crosby, and were treated to rare acoustic performances in the cockpit. Nola helped host parties where a “cheap” bottle of wine was anything under $30. She cooked elegant meals for the crowds of hungry musicians. “I think that’s why Neil kept us on so long,” chuckles Jerry. “He liked Nola’s cooking.”

Then Moonsong sailed down to Ecuador and Costa Rica before crossing through the Panama Canal. On the East Coast now for nearly 11 years, they’ve cruised everywhere between Venezuela and Nova Scotia. Nola showed me her collection of hand-stitched molas, the artisan craft of the Kuna people of the San Blas islands in Panama. Molas (which means bird plumage) are fabric panels, traditionally worn on the blouses of Kuna women, with colorful designs portraying fish, birds or geometrical patterns. Most of them were made by women, but there are a handful of albino men who, because of their lack of skin pigmentation, must stay inside out of the hot tropical sun. They make the most intricate molas of all, with stitches like the footprints of ants.

Like the tides, these visitors refresh our place, flood it with new ideas and experiences. Their presence ashore, when buying fish and bait at Motts Channel or restocking their iceboxes at Robert’s Grocery and Monday’s farmers market, wards off the cultural stagnation that is born from regional myopia. They are prophets of freedom and simplicity, of self-reliance, of reconnection to nature.

All they ask in return is a sandy bottom on which to anchor, and a place to tie up their dinghy. Updated shower facilities would be nice, suggests one cruiser, a Vonnegut fan who asked to be identified only as K. Trout. He invites me aboard M/V Traveller, a backyard-built 48-foot aluminum boat that looks more flying saucer than watercraft, hands me a beer and a Scopalomine patch. He uses them to counter seasickness as he leapfrogs up the coast. He’s done 900 miles so far, single-handed, from Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas, heading home to Maryland.

He tells me about his friend Brindle, who was a safety diver with Jacques Cousteau. He tells me about one blurred evening at The Pineapple Bar, how in the bright morning the island’s constable, whom he didn’t remember meeting, told him, “It’s good to see you sober.” He tells me about having to wrestle a turtle while snorkeling, after accidentally swimming between the turtle and its mate. Apparently, the turtle thought he was a rival suitor.

For K. Trout, the Traveller transports him through space and time. “(Visiting Green Turtle Cay) is like going back to the 1950s,” he says. “The people down there are still dependent on each other. You can’t build the walls you build here.” Like Vonnegut’s other anti-hero, Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, he has come “unstuck.”

Land dwellers living in quiet neighborhoods on shaded avenues understand the frustration of uncourteous Corvettes speeding past, ignoring speed limits and scattering exhaust. Now imagine if your house rocked back and forth every time this happened. When weekend warriors whiz close by at full throttle on powerboats, sailors grimace. “It’s like a dog marking its territory!” exclaims Larry Fansler, a white-haired cruiser who equally resembles Hemingway and Santa. “And they’re dragging their kids behind them on a busy Saturday. I’ve never seen anything like it.” (It’s common knowledge on the water that sailors and motor boaters occasionally get on each other’s nerves; a parallel friction found between people who drive souped-up sports cars and people who drive old Volkswagen Vanagons. The rivalry usually begins and ends with disgruntled fist-shaking, but occasionally the conflict escalates to profane utterances over Channel 16 or the cold shoulder at West Marine.)

Larry is a retired accountant and a licensed captain. He and his wife, Candy, sold their house, bought a boat and are now living their dream, cruising on their Pearson 367 Saphira out of Knoxville, Tennessee. They have arrived here by a circuitous course: down the Tennessee and Tom Bigby rivers, into the Mississippi — the jugular vein of America — then washing out into the Gulf of Mexico. Around the priapic protrusion known as Florida, they traveled up the Intracoastal Waterway to anchor out, finally, here. They are here for a family reunion in Topsail and are not sure where they’re heading next. “If you schedule things (when you’re cruising), that’s where you get into trouble,” advises Larry.

Transitioning from a house to a 36-foot boat would test any relationship. Candy says they’ve grown closer. “I always had a respect for him as a captain anyway, and in the last year that’s grown even more. He’s a good decision-maker.” Larry laughs and says, “It’s taught us more patience than we ever realized we had. We’re in it together, and we have to work together to make it happen.”

Back on the Moonsong, Jerry chuckles when I ask him the inevitable question about storms. “If you pick your season, and know the currents and the storms for that area, you’re not going to see many,” he says. “Most of the people we’ve talked to who’ve sailed around the world, they say occasionally they’ll see a three-day storm. But hardly any more than that.”

“However,” interjects Nola, “when you don’t (know the prevailing weather patterns), you hide out and you sneak out when the weather’s clear. And we’ve done that. We left Ketchikan, Alaska, one time for the Inside Passage south, November first or second, and we got down to Cape Scott. And (the Canadian Weather Service) predicted 100-knot winds.” Some perspective: that’s comparable to 1996’s Hurricane Fran, a category three that devastated Wrightsville Beach.

Nola continues, “We went way back in the islands—” (“up a fjord,” Jerry says) “—and found a totally protected area and let two anchors out. We hid out and played cribbage. And we would have 60 knots every once in a while, and it would just go ‘whoop!’ and blow us over, but we were fine — no seas came in. When we went outside a day later, the moss had been blown off the rocks. The trees were like toothpicks.”

It takes a great deal of courage to live a life removed from convenience, and like Thoreau in his little cabin, they live richer and deeper because of that. They crave the independence, the freedom, the ultimate wildness that life on a boat offers. To return to a landlocked life in society may smother that spark of self-sufficiency they worked so hard to kindle. They remind us there are customs of living beyond our own and that’s OK. This Earth — and the water that covers it — is large enough for us all. They stand on the water and look upon land as the strange medium. Those critical questions: What is important to me? What do I value? Their answers are demonstrated in their own lives.

When viewed from the infinite ocean, Wrightsville is just one more beach town. And yet, Nola, Jerry, Michael, Larry, Candy and, of course, K. Trout have all anchored here. Perhaps to shed perspective, offer a glimpse of the sublime world beyond the city limit, that we locals often crave. By their presence they give the community great strength. They reveal to us what our own wild spirits can do.

So go talk to them. Motor or row (or better yet, sail) out to the anchorage. Knock gently on their hulls. Bring cold beer, open ears and open hearts to receive the wisdom of these water dwellers.

Captain John Wolfe is a North Carolina essayist and mariner on a quest to experience sublimity. When he’s not on the water, he wishes he was. 

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