Usually when people ask me how I learned to sail, I answer that I taught myself. And this is true to a large extent. No one ever taught me how to row a boat; handling oars seemed as self-evident as walking. I do recall being taught to manage an outboard-powered skiff as a boy, but when I decided I wanted to sail, I got myself a 13-foot daysailer and figured it out on my own.
Ocean sailing was different. I had only limited experience when I joined the crew of a large, disheveled Alden schooner, Constellation, that was setting out from Key West on a transatlantic voyage to Spain in the spring of 1992. The first mate was a young man about my age named Tim Slaney. He had deep experience skippering charter boats on deliveries between the West Indies and Florida, had served on aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, and did not suffer fools gladly.
In the best tradition of hard-ass first mates, Tim’s default mode was to treat his crew with barely concealed contempt. Most of my shipmates were put off by this, but I saw it as a challenge. Behind his gruff, dismissive veneer, Tim clearly was a fount of valuable knowledge, and I was determined to access this. Once he understood that I was willing to work hard for him and was eager to learn, Tim’s attitude toward me gradually softened.
A key moment came early in my tenure aboard. We were sailing north up Florida’s east coast and were overcome at night by a sudden squall. It was all hands up to shorten sail, and I was on the foremast, handling the headsail halyards. To my mortification, I let one get away from me, so that its working end was waving about, loose in the breeze to leeward, far outboard of the gunwale.
My heart clenched tight, and I looked to Tim anxiously; either he would forgive me, or forever think me worthless.
“Don’t worry,” he remarked grimly. “It’ll come back. Just don’t pull on your end.” He braced himself and stood by the gunwale. Soon enough the halyard swung inboard again, and he snagged it easily with a boathook.
From that point forward we became something like friends, and this was one of many lessons Tim taught me, both implicitly and explicitly, about linehandling, sailhandling, helming in large seas, general boat maintenance, and much more.
Constellation was certainly a fertile classroom. Not only because she was so large, nearly 100 feet overall, but because she was decrepit. She almost sank en route to Bermuda, her frail sails were constantly blowing out, her standing rig was apt to fail, and her engine often threw fits. We did in the end make it to Spain, but soon lost the boat in a river at night after running aground on a high tide. She ended up full on her side at low tide, and when the flood returned she simply filled up with water.
This was the denouement of our relationship—a long night spent ferrying people and gear to shore in the ship’s dinghy. Just a few days earlier, Tim and I had attended a bullfight, a first for both of us, and had marveled at the bravery of one bull in particular that fought long and hard to resist its fate.
The purpose of the spectacle was immediately apparent. “At least this way they get to go out like bulls!” Tim exclaimed.
Now, on our last trip to shore as the weak-willed morning sun crawled over the marsh behind the river, Tim gazed back at the hulk behind us, her masts leaning at a sharp angle over the rising water. He had labored on this vessel with her skipper for years, doing all he could to keep her going.
“I worked real hard on that boat,” he muttered in a dispirited tone.
“Well, at least she went out like a boat,” I answered.
Tim then remembered the bull…and he smiled.
I think of him often when I am sailing offshore, and I wonder: Tim if you are still out there somewhere, I do hope you will get in touch.