Scott Dodgson – A Sailing Life

Dodgson LE Mag March 2024

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Live Encounters Magazine March 2024.

A Sailing Life by Scott Dodgson.

Photograph © Scott Dodgson
Photograph © Scott Dodgson

One winter, during the 60s, I was watching our RCA black and white console television with my sisters. After school and after homework, we could watch television for an hour while my mother cooked dinner. We waited for our father to come home from work. He was an engineer. Looking back, I realized this hour of television time served two purposes for my mother. One, she worked at the bank all day and she had limited child bandwidth. Even on the best of days, Mom longed for peace, often praying to the god of quiet. A God in the pantheon of Gods celebrated more than one might know. Television was a way to corral us into behaving. Two, to my mother’s credit, she embraced the new medium of television as a learning tool. She would often ask us questions about what we watched.

When father was late, which was frequent, he’d say, “Building the future wasn’t a nine-to-five job.” His tardiness gave us more time in front of the television. I would intently watch the news. We were a CBS, Walter Cronkite family. Every family had their favorite, CBS, NBC, ABC. The news really came down to Walter and Huntley/Brinkley. Reports were trickling in on the “police action” in Viet Nam. A country I would later serve. A lot of ink was devoted to the domino theory with the terrifying result of communists taking over city hall and the playground. What captured my attention were reports from the Middle East. I barely understood or cared about what crises were occurring. I watched intently a reporter in Beirut telling the audience something earth shattering while standing in front of a bombed building or a pastoral field with sadly decayed crops.

What excited me the most was the intrepid reporter stood in a marina where fishing boats docked. He used this backdrop several times. I figured it was close to the action. He wore a tan safari jacket. I longed for that jacket. If I could have, I would have told the cameraman to give me a wider shot! I want to see what this place was like. And could you get the reporter out of the way, please? I wanted to visit the Middle East. Every foreign report piqued my desire. I wanted to visit everywhere. I was bitten by the travel bug.

These reports reached through the television screen with all its information like a thunderous clap to me. Streams of words and pictures flowed directly into the pleasure center of my brain.

I constantly dreamed of foreign lands and their peoples. However, as a preteen, acting on this impulse was impossible. Instead, I learned about geography and studied history. I read ferociously.

I listened to the old men in the neighborhood tell stories about their native homes. Their accents were music to my ears. The food was another enticement. It smelled good and different. Arguments over small things like the best olive oil, or the best part of a cut of lamb chop raged on week to week, never being settled. Spices, sauces, movie stars, cycling, boxing, the best oranges, the best fish, and politics were argued over continuously like a melodious troupe of homing pigeons. It fed my desire. Post-World War II and Korean War immigrants were still being integrated into the neighborhoods of America in the 60s. Nostalgia for far-away homes flowed like an underground stream through our everyday lives.

My German fifth grade teacher married a soldier after the war. The bodega down on Oxford Avenue was run by an Italian family from Napoli where German and Allied bombs obliterated their home. The Polish butcher brought his skills to our neighborhood because the communists ran his country.

The world had come to my home. I half expected to see the reporter in that sharp safari jacket reporting in front of my house. Why would I want to leave? The answer was simple. The quest to attain authenticity and to understand the pathos of things. Having the right type of experience and the correct education are the passerelle to enlightenment. Sailing was the predominate method of travel throughout history. It made sense to me that to be truly authentic, one must voyage by boat. I knew, even though I had no proof, there was something magical about sailing around the world.

I admit I am a romantic. My romance is with life itself. At an early age, I swore to myself I wouldn’t let life grind me down as it did to my parents. I have one life and I will live it on my own terms. To be honest, I did not differ from generations of young men who set out from their homes to work ships as deck hands, top men, riggers, or rowers. This was a worthy pursuit through the ages.

The desire to see the world is as old as ships themselves. For thousands of years, men and women have boarded ships for foreign lands seeking a better life and profit or just out of curiosity. The ocean’s call is powerful.

The great Phoenician sailors communicated by their invention of script writing, allowing other sailors to grasp what they could not see. Ports provided a hub of storytelling. The more stories were told, the more understanding and the more desire to see these wonders for themselves. Who were these storytelling sailors? What kind of men and women were they? Why did landlubbers believe their stories?

Sailors become sailors by sailing. This sounds simple, but there is a lot to unpack about what kind of transformative experience sailing can be. Consider three aspects: the physical, psychological and the intellectual.

Having spent a lifetime on the water, my logbook reads; I made eighteen round trip crossings of the Atlantic from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and numerous voyages around the Mediterranean. Sailing from the Med; I visited the Red Sea, Kenya, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. I made eight round trips to the South Pacific one as far as Sidney, Australia. I raced in the Southern Ocean and made many trips up and down the Central American and North America Pacific coasts. I’m only counting voyages on sailing yachts from forty to ninety feet. The purpose of listing these voyages is to lend credence to my experience of the many conditions at sea on a relatively small vessel.

Understanding of the effects of motion, pitching, and rolling has on your body and mind is essential to sailors and their sense of perspective. The same experience happens to Sufi Whirling Dervishes. The result is a kind of aura. In history and literature, the nautical character looms large.

Once I was taking a prospective chef to my boat by dinghy, and she was sick before we arrived and demanded returning to land. Sea sickness is a normal response to motion. The eye and the inner ear where your balance lives become off kilter, resulting in nausea. This is an uncomfortable experience for someone not used to being on a boat. I liken the motion to practicing yoga. The physical feeling is much the same. Deep meditation and chanting will also produce similar manifestations. The feeling can be deep and very strong when at sea for a long time.

I began studying this physical change when I took part in a theater experiment designed by the famous Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. (The Theater of the Poor.) “The actor’s research is based on body work that aims to rid themselves of automatic reactions in order to get to the character’s essence within themselves.” Both movement and training produce similar physical feelings.

The result for the actor is an energy like transference from the authenticity of the character to the audience. A sailor experiences the same continuous state of energized being, like the actor, and when the sailor embarks, he projects with the same intrinsic transference of energy. The nautical character is born.

Intellectually, sailors have a finely focused sense of time often likened to simply being. Standing on the rolling deck of a yacht with nothing but the arc of the ocean in all directions naturally focuses the intellect to the present. There is nothing to do about the past and the future is simply a waypoint. What is real and refreshing given the hustle and bustle of modern life is the simplicity. The Zen like sense of being and the intellectual focus opens a vast reservoir of psychological propensities. These tendencies can be heightened sexuality, paranoia, aggression, indolence, and impatience, to name a few. After a few voyages, you can watch your crew change over the days and nights. Explaining what is happening to them usually keeps the ship’s company working toward the same goal.

The path to being a captain is in the experience. All licensing regardless of country has a basis in accruing time at sea. Authorities have long recognized the physical, intellectual, and psychological phenomena of sailing. Experience means safety.

Storytelling has long been a tradition of sailing and the sailing life. I was very attracted to storytelling.

The Phoenician sailor told stories to a rapt audience in the local taverna at the port. Like that pre-teen peering into his RCA television, stories opened a whole new world to the imagination. This tradition continues today. Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, and every sort of sailor would offer their observations and stories of their experiences. Ancient ports were the hub and natural environment for the sailor as they are today. For thousands of years, civilizations relied on sailors for information about foreign lands and peoples. I was aware of the importance of carrying on this tradition and it informed me at every course correction in my life.

My grandfather owned a sailing dory, which he kept near his home in Ocean City, New Jersey. The Jersey shore is a series of barrier islands buffeted by the ocean. Egg Harbor Bay and the continent lie behind its protection. In this expansive saltwater marsh, my dreams of travel and sailing coalesced into what would become my sailing life. We would sail out into the bay with crab traps. My grandmother would collect chicken skin for us to put into the traps.

We would spend the day sailing up and down the bay until the tide changed. He would tell me stories about his experiences. He was a sailor and a sportswriter who covered cycling, baseball, boxing, and football. Lots of stories and lots of lessons for a young man who listens. One story, a baseball story has remained with me today. Baseball like sailing seems to distort the sense of time. It is one of the few games that doesn’t rely on the clock.

The St. Louis Cardinals had just swept the Philadelphia Phillies five straight. The Cardinal star Lou Brock hit almost every at bat and stole base after base against one of the best catchers in the league, Clay Dalrymple. In the locker room, the other reporters yelled at Lou Brock, “Hey Lou! Hey Lou!” They showed Lou little respect because he was Black, and even less for Clay, although white was performing poorly they called him a bum. When the scrum of reporters finally dispersed, my grandfather addressed “Mr. Brock.” He asked him for tips on fielding fly balls for the Little Leaguers that read his column.

Mr. Brock’s face lit up, and he went into a detailed explanation about running with your head level, keeping your eye on the ball, etc. Then my grandfather asked about all the stolen bases. Mr. Brock told him it was a competition and winning was important because they were in a pennant race, but he felt bad about it. Very few people knew about Clay’s condition, but he was suffering from overwork and arm fatigue. “He’s a competitor.” Said Mr. Brock with great respect and admiration. My grandfather was the only one to get the story. He told me this story, then returned to picking up the traps full of blue crab off the mud flats. It was a simple and entertaining lesson. Respect everyone and they will respect you. The culture of ships is more equalitarian and respectful than life on land.

The simple and satisfying time of sharing work on the sea with my grandfather led me to become a tugboat captain, tour boat operator, water taxi driver, yacht racer, vessel assist operator, support vessel captain, fishing charter captain, charter yacht captain, mega yacht captain, ship restorer, delivery captain, yacht builder, surveyor, and dive charter operator.

The history of jobs on the sea was a driving force for men less fortunate, or the wrong nationality or color. My family was essentially working middle class, coal miners on one side and a simple newspaperman on the other. My parents were the modern ones. Their generation was building the world of technology and finance. Their world was an abstract world. I preferred Herman Hesse’s quote, “Every experience has its element of magic.” I sought and fought hard, sometimes sacrificing comfort and love for exchanging music for noise, creativity for business, and passion to make my world as real as possible.

Misconceptions abound about sailors throughout history. I have been very careful not to fall into the trope trap of pirates and the yacht club set. These are two influential and counter productive aspects of the modern American sailing world.

Americans especially have a fascination with the Disney version of pirates. I see local sailors hoisting the pirate flag as a party flag. Celebrations of the pirate as a benign swash buckling hero in the movies, and literature are ubiquitous and can be found in any bar near the water. There are documentaries that talk about these misunderstood creatures of the sea with such excitement and glee they created a faux history, “The Age of Piracy” as if it was some socially redeemable moment in history. Pirates were and are murderous scum driven by greed. Piracy exists today and you don’t have to go to the South China Sea to get your throat cut.

I have had a few run-ins with pirates over the years. I was once flagged down by a fishing boat that appeared to be adrift. The boat flew a Lithuanian flag, somewhat common in the Baltic Sea. My vessel was a 90-foot San Lorenzo motor yacht capable of 28 knots. As I got closer, I could see the fishermen were wearing street shoes and new Nike sweats. These were not fisherman. One man raised a revolver and feigned shooting at me if I didn’t stop. I laughed at how pitiful these pirates were.

I have experience with weapons from my days in the service. I remember distinctly qualifying on the range with an army issue forty-five caliber pistol, standing on solid ground, taking careful aim, and firing at a target only fifty feet from me. Out of ten, I hit it seven times. After some practice, I hit the target ten out of ten times. At one hundred feet, I had the same record.

I am, by military standards, an excellent marksman. I’ve got the medal to prove it. So, when I saw these men standing in a fishing boat that was rolling and pitching in leather dress shoes on a wet deck slipping and sliding waving a small caliber revolver at me, I knew there was no way he could hit me or the three stories of shiny fiberglass and massive tinted windows floating one hundred feet away from him. I gunned the yacht and left a wake big enough for both men to fall on the deck and hang on for dear life. I called the Coast Guard and reported their position and intent. Returning to my speed and course, I continued my trip without incident.

Pirates today come in all kinds of perfidious guises. They don’t board your vessel with swords and flint lock pistols twirling their ‘rrrrs’ like a Cornwall fish monger. They are desperate people willing to do anything. The worst form is the police corporal, under the guise of looking for drugs or guns, who needs the smallest pretext to impound your vessel. Or the port captain who shows up at your boat asking for a donation to his church or the customs official spending hours with you in a cramped office in North Africa trying to find the politest way to extort booze from you as the price of entry.

In Granada, I fought off two men in the middle of the night who apparently swam at least a kilometer to board my sailboat with machetes. They were exhausted, and I easily defeated them. I opted to give them a ride back to shore so they wouldn’t drown. I gave forty dollars as well and a heap of shame. They apologized profusely.

I detest pirates. I hate to see the skull and crossbones flag on any vessel. To me, it is like celebrating serial killers.

The yacht club set is a group of sailors characterized by their whiteness and wealth. It is a group that has showed little respect for the history of sailing, preferring to manufacture its own self-indulgent history. Please, there are plenty of people of color and nationality that are members of sailing and yachting clubs today. This wasn’t always the case. Being white and being rich set the yacht club crowd apart from the average sailor. My American yacht club experience has been less about sailing and more about selectiveness and racism. I have enjoyed the comradery and social benevolence of yacht clubs around the world, even the exceptionally snooty ones. American yacht clubs are not so welcoming. Yacht club folks conjure a persistent trope of what landlubbers think about boating. Yachting as we know it was a late 19th century creation.

The vessel design that afforded the yacht scene and the subsequent multibillion dollar industry was developed by Black Bermudians in the 18th century. Most vessels used to fight the American Revolutionary war were designed and built by Black Bermudians. The Bermudian Sloop changed naval warfare. Shifting from large British built square-rigged vessel to fast triangular sails with large genoas, the vessels possessed a great speed and the ability to sail close to the wind. Sailing close to the wind was a key tactic in defeating the larger square-rigged vessels with overwhelming firepower. The Black Bermudian ship builders were key influencers and leaders of the Black slave population. They taught shipbuilding trades, as well as reading and writing in small schools set up near the shipyards.

The famous abolitionist Fredrick Douglass recounted in his memoir “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” that he learned to read and write at a school created by caulkers. The job of a caulker is to hammer cotton into the seams between the planks on the hull of a wooden boat to create a watertight structure. It is a highly skilled job, left mostly for Black slaves. To escape, he adopted the disguise of a sailor. The Bermudian sloop became the vessel of choice for the American merchant navy and the slave trade. Until 1860, roughly 30% of all sailors were Black. Black Jacks, as they were called, used the sailing experience to earn respect and money.

Ships have a different view of sailors. Social cohesion on ships depended on powerful hands and back, marlinspike skills, and the courage to face the hardships of sailing in the ocean.

After the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws gutted the navy of Black sailors. Steamships further reduced the need for crew and the tradition of the Black Jack sailor earning his stake in the Americas evaporated. The ultimate moment of the eraser of Black tradition in building and sailing occurred with the rebranding of the Bermudian sloop.

In 1920, The America’s Cup challenge took place in New York Harbor, The Resolute for the New York Yacht Club and the challenger Shamrock IV owned by Sir Thomas Lipton of tea fame. The New York newspapers compared the mast and rigging wires of the very tall masts of the America’s cup sailboats with the wires and tower of the early Marconi radio towers. They promoted the contestants rigs as the Marconi rigs, and the name stuck. The Bermuda rig was relegated to a historical footnote.

As an American sailor, I feel it is important to know yourself and know where you stand in the history
of sailors. The American sailor falls in the later chapters of the long history of sailing. Having touched in a port on every continent except Antarctica, I came to understand the principles of seamanship, experience on the ocean, and the tradition. They run like a common vein throughout every country, culture, and time. When sailors gather, usually in a pub, we share common experiences. One common experience shared among hardcore sailors is the first voyage.

At fifteen I bought, with a loan from my grandfather, my first sailboat, a 21-foot Herreshoff designed sloop sailboat. My dreams of travel were realized. I sailed to Bar Harbor, Maine, the next summer. I sailed roughly 500 miles one way along the coast. That trip opened my perception of myself wholly unexpectedly.

I experienced that unique state of being. I gained valuable nuanced experience at sailing a vessel for over four straight days. My training helped me to resolve some unforeseen problems. Confidence in problem solving is a major aspect of mariner training. I saw that the surface of the ocean was readable. I understood inherently that the wind was also another invisible source of understandable information. My understanding of myself and sailing grew, changing me over that voyage. I was sailing in two oceans, an ocean of air and an ocean of water. My art and my being were imbued with a special understanding that allowed me to navigate between these two oceans just like so many others before me.

I have spent a lifetime, at least, 50 years living and earning as a licensed captain on the oceans and seas of the world. I have derived a great deal of joy and satisfaction from sailing. The pre-teen who vacuumed up every detail about everything in every country was right. The sailing life is more valuable than gold to me. The understanding of the world is fulfilling and magical.

Post Script: I never did get that Safari Jacket, but I did dock my boat among the fishing boats in Beirut.

© Scott Dodgson

Scott Dodgson has roamed the seven oceans sailing as far north as the Baltic Sea and Alaska and as far south as Kenya in the Indian Ocean and from South Africa to Chile in the Southern Ocean along 50 degrees south. He wrote the popular movies “The Anna Nicole Story”, “Paris Hilton, Princess Paparazzi,” and numerous other films and television shows. His podcast “Offshore Explorer With Scott Dodgson can be found where ever you get your pods. He has published a novel “Not a Moment to Lose,” a novella (optioned for film) “The Casket Salesman,” and numerous short stories and essays including in Live Encounters. His anthology of short stories “A Sailor’s Point of View” published by Main Street Rag Press is available. His two new novels “The History of Water” and “Le Pécheur” are grinding their way toward publication. He lives in the south of France.

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