Called by Optis at an Early Age
Long before world cruising on Wild Card, Fatty got his start in sailing in just the way that many kids do.
“I noticed he hiked hard and sailed flat on the first beat,” said my father.
“What are the black things fluttering?” asked my sister Gale.
“Telltales,” I said wisely. She might be older, but she didn’t watch with the same intensity as I did. “They tell how the air is moving over the sail.”
“When you’re sailing to windward,” my father said, “they should be streaming aft and slightly lifting if everything is trimmed right.”
A sustained puff of wind blew through the harbor.
“See how the leaders moved aft in their boats?” said my father. “Those in the back of the fleet didn’t, so they’re even farther behind now.”
Gradually, my mother and sisters drifted away, but my father and I studied every race, each tack, and all the shifts. I was mesmerized. I’d recently learned how to play chess, but this was 10 times better and more exciting. It was like chess on the water with pieces you could steer. Sometimes I’d get so excited watching that I’d have to tightly clamp my legs together to keep from peeing. By noon, it was all over. With the prams put away and the kids gone, the sailing coaches locked the chain on the fence that kept out the landlubbers. I’d have lunch with my parents and then tell them I was going for a row around the harbor.
My personal dinghy was an old, nameless fishing skiff that had floated into the harbor awash; it was missing an entire bottom plank. I’d tied it up to the seawall for months before my father would allow me to claim salvage rights. Sawing the plank to the right size took forever—the hand ripsaw was too large for me. It weighed a ton. My father would spell me for a few minutes, then quickly hand it back to me: “If it’s going to be your boat, son, then it has to be your blood, sweat, and tears, too.”
Nailing on the plank wasn’t difficult. I used bronze Anchorfast nails. I predrilled the holes and used plenty of goop. Some of the nails bent over, and I had to remove them and start afresh. Afterward, she was tight as a drum. But she was big and heavy and I was light and small—and it took everything I had in me to row it over to the Opti dock across the windy harbor and tie it up.
The fence was to keep out the landlubbers. I was a sailor. And my vessel was the key to this delicious privilege. I was, of course, careful not to touch anything or make a mess. But I’d spend the rest of the afternoon looking at the faster prams and wondering why, why, why?
Smooth hull? Lighter? Better shape? Stiffer? All of the above?
Looking back, I guess I was lonely, real lonely. But at the time, I just thought of myself as solitary, introverted, and studious. I wanted to begin life, not wait for it.
I’d mentally rehearse carrying a pram from the rack to the water. I knew, from hiding behind some nearby palms and listening, that the flip was the hard part. I was slight of build, and I knew I’d have to make up for my lack of big-kid muscles with grace and timing.
Finally, after about what seemed like a hundred years, my ninth birthday arrived. My father gave me a used copy of the international yacht-racing rules. Mother presented me with a pair of sailing gloves, which she’d put on layaway at Maas Brothers many months before. Sisters Gale and Carole had hand-sewn a bright-red protest flag.
Father brought me down to the clubhouse. We were too early—but I’d rather wait for an hour than lose a second.
“Show ’em,” said my father when the organizers arrived.
I pulled out my birth certificate, unfolded it carefully, and pointed to my birthday of February 2, 1952. I was 9 years old, for sure.
The coach—his name was Harold, but I still thought of him as Mister Floppy Hat for most of that first year—smiled and said, “OK, son. Welcome aboard.”
Up until this point, I’d never sailed alone. Sure, I’d spend many hours at the helm of Little Liz, our 10-foot clincker-built sailing tender, but always with my father in the vessel. The first time I took a pram out alone, it was a windy day. I couldn’t believe the acceleration. It was so much fun and so scary-thrilling that I couldn’t stop giggling. I still giggle to this day when my vessel picks up her skirts.
Just as I suspected, flipping the Opti wasn’t easy. The 15-year-olds who dominated the clubhouse didn’t give me a break—they wanted to make a fool of me the first few times I tried. But I was ready. I’d found my tribe at last. These were my people. This was my world. And I burned with the desire to learn every single thing about it that I could—right down to the tiniest, least significant speck of knowledge.
A seat wasn’t a seat. It was a thwart. You didn’t steer with the rudder—the rudder was in the water; you steered via the tiller. It was like a secret language: gooseneck, sprit, trunk, chine, peak, throat, gudgeon, downhaul.
And I knew this language, this world, these rules—and the adult landlubbers ashore did not. This made me special. This made me proud.
Success around the buoys, of course, wasn’t immediate. I was almost 12 when I won the top annual prize—the youngest sailor ever to do so at that public club. (The sailors at the other Opti group in town, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, sailed much faster than we did.)
In the intervening 50 years, I believe that I’ve led a very event-filled life. I’ve sailed around the world. I’ve won my share of races in New England, Bermuda, Antigua, and Sint Maarten. I’ve written books about international cruising. I’ve broadcast numerous local, national, and international radio shows about being a sea gypsy. Why, I’ve even climbed up to the masthead of this magazine, which I consider the pinnacle of success in my chosen field. But to be perfectly honest, I’ve never had as much fun as I had while steering an eight-foot Optimist pram when I was 9 years old—while trying not to pee with the bladder-draining excitement of it all.
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander, who’s now lived aboard for more than 50 years, is preparing to slap some anti-fouling on Wild Card for another summer of Mediterranean fun. His latest book is Red Sea Run.