Outward Leg [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Tristan Jones
eBook Category: General Nonfiction
eBook Description: After having his left leg amputated and spending several years ashore, Tristan Jones decided to return to the sea. In October 1983, Jones and his only crew member, Wally Rediske, set out from San Diego in Outward Leg, a 36-foot trimaran, intending to circumnavigate the world from west to east by sail. Outward Leg chronicles the preparation for launch and the first part of that inspiring journey (continued in The Improbable Voyage). Tristan sailed down the western coast of Central America through the Panama Canal to a small Columbian town. There he fought for survival against hostile natives, drug dealers and uncooperative port officers. He sailed on to Venezuela, Aruba, and the Dominican Republic during its 1984 revolution, then up the coast of North America to New York. After crossing the Atlantic for the twentieth time in his life, he finally returned to St. Katherine's Dock in London where he had begun his seagoing adventure thirty years before. With wry humor and inimitable style, Tristan tells his story, "a story of how I met with disaster in the midst of triumph, and how I struggled to overcome it. It is the tale of how I returned to sea despite almost unimaginable obstacles placed in my way by the fates. It is the account of how I turned a desperate situation into an opportunity to serve others. It is also the tale of how I incidentally sailed 14,000 miles on my way around the world."
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1985
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2009
A Tale of Two Cities
As I rolled down old South Street, a fair maid I did meet,
Who asked me then to see her home, she lived on Fountain Street.
And away, you Johnny, my dear honey,
Oh! you New York gals, you love us for our money!
Says I, "My dear young lady, I'm a stranger here in town,
I left my ship only yesterday, to Lisbon I am bound."
"Now come with me, my dearie, and I will stand you treat,
I'll buy you rum and brandy, dear, and tabnabs for to eat."
When we got down to Fourteenth Street, we stopped at Number Four,
Her mother and her sister came to meet us at the door.
And when we got inside the house, the drinks were handed round,
The likker was so awful strong my head went round and round.
Before we all sat down to eat we had another drink,
The likker was so very strong, deep sleep came in a wink.
When I awoke next morning I had an aching head,
And there was I, Jack all-alone, stark naked on the bed.
My gold watch and my pocket book and lady friend were gone,
And there was I with not a stitch and left there all alone.
On looking all around the room, oh nothing did I see,
But a lady's shift and pantaloons not worth a damn to me.
With a flour barrel for a suit I wished I'd never been born,
A boarding master then I met who shipped me 'round the Horn.
Now all you bully sailormen take warning when ashore,
Or else you'll meet some charming gal who's nothing but a whore.
Your hard earned cash will disappear, your rig and boots as well,
For Yankee gals are tougher than the other side of Hell!
"New York Gals," a bowline shanty from the heyday of sail in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Some of the great cities of the world are sailors' cities, built by peoples of the sea for the sea peoples--Bristol, Liverpool, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Venice, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, San Francisco, and although she does not on the surface care to show it too flagrantly, New York.
Of all these, the most obvious sailors' city is Amsterdam; the least, New York or, as she was once known, New Amsterdam, but anyone who really knows these cities and is not affectionate toward both of them cannot, I think, be counted as a sailor who knows his roots.
Amsterdam preserves her sea heritage carefully. Some parts of the city reek of the sea and of distant voyages--as indeed they should, for the three greatest capes in the world all have Dutch names--Horn, Leeuwin and Good Hope--and the city was in the main founded upon treasure wrested from lands at the very ends of the earth.
New York, apart from a valiant attempt at the South Street Seaport, does her best to ignore the sea--to treat it as though it does not exist. For her the sea is somewhere that taxi drivers go to with their families on holidays, somewhere to splash in, at places like Fire Island or Coney Island. To New York the sea is something that generations of immigrants crossed in often squalid conditions, to reach the promised land; it is something to be remembered with a coy horror, something to turn one's back on so as to face the golden prairies and a land flowing with milk and honey. That, it seems, is how the vast majority of New Yorkers view the sea; but there are communities in the city, tiny and scattered, that yet live by the sea and on the sea. Often, surprisingly, walking down some busy traffic-laden street in Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, a sailor sees some magic remembrance of the sea and sailors of the past. It might be some odd line in the structure of a building, a door lintel, a window in Greenwich Village, a beam in a bar. Somehow a sailor knows that it was put there by a sailor, and a warm feeling, rare in Babylon, stirs his soul. Sometimes I see a face in a hundred thousand, perhaps a young face, perhaps an old face, and I know that he or his forebears were of the sea. It might be an Irish face, Portuguese, Danish, African or Dutch, but I know by the stance and the set that the sea has worked her will on his people for centuries, and he stands out clearly to me among the millions of landsmen.
When I walked down the West Side Highway--when I could walk down it--as I did most mornings, the rushing traffic was blurred, and so were the ramshackle, decrepit, rotting warehouses and piers too, and I saw in my mind's eye the lofty ships of the last century--sleek hulls and spars of astounding grace, crowding the Hudson River shore; or the svelte, monster liners of sixty years ago--the Mauretania, Berengaria, Queen Mary, Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, Andrea Doria--waiting to perform yet again their transit of excellence between the New World and the Old.
The sea is New York's, and New York is of the sea. The finest sea trip, and the cheapest, in all the Americas, aboard public transport, is from Battery Park to Staten Island. Battery Park itself, off which the Dutch ships lay to their moorings in the days of Peter Stuyvesant, lies like an anchor to the high towers of Wall Street, to the bows of the huge ship of Manhattan Island. Farther along the shore on the port side of Manhattan, the old three-master Peking lies disdainfully off South Street. On the starboard side of Manhattan, in the West Village, warehouses where Melville labored as a Custom's inspector still show their red-brick faces to the sometimes sweating, sometimes freezing streets. Farther amidships the incredible, man-built cliffs of Midtown are piled up--but always, under them, lies the sailors' town. Below them are Broadway and the Bowery--celebrated in a hundred shanties even now sung from the English Channel to the South China Sea.
I lived in Manhattan for six years on and off, to sing my songs of the sea and sailors. When sailors have asked me how I could live there, so far from the sea and things of the sea, I did not tell them that I thought New York was the world capital of the oceans and that every time I walked down any street anywhere in that sprawling hubbub I was continually reminded of the sea and of things of the sea and of peoples of the sea, for how would they have believed me? But how else could it be for a city whose main river is named after one of the greatest and bravest sea navigators of all time, Henry Hudson?
Now I write in a lonely bay on the northern shore of Colombia. My view is one of blue sea and jungle-clad hills rising over a golden beach to the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The sun-dappled house at Conchita, in which I write, is set over a tiny beach only a hundred yards away from the leaping seas of the Equatorial Current as it charges westerly to the north, on the other side of a headland. Yet I think I was closer to the sea in West Greenwich Village. Closer to the true sea, the toil and delights of all the centuries of seafaring, and to the honest songs of the ocean, and the hearts of the sea people of whom Melville and Conrad wrote so perceptively. There, in my scruffy rooms in the Village, I did my best to do what I had promised myself I would do--tell the world that sail and sailing and sailors are not dead and gone, and that the spirit that peopled a continent, that overcame unimaginable difficulties, is still alive and well, and again coming into its own. For my pains, I was called everything from "the last of his kind" to "a poet of the unendurable." Now, after bashing and slashing my way through the Pacific Ocean waters from San Diego to Panama, and then beating and smashing against the reinforced winter-season trades of the southern Caribbean--one of the most difficult sail passages anywhere--I smile to myself as I try to imagine those people who wrote their epithets at their desks, working out the week's expense account, while I sit here above the beach of Conchita, with the sound of the surf in my ears and shining fresh fish for breakfast. It is I who will scramble up the bluff beside the bay this afternoon, to watch the sun go down over Cabo de la Aguja: surely one of the finest views in all the Caribbean. While my critics pack the remains of their lunchtime sandwiches into their briefcases and head for the subway, to go home and pay the mortgage, I sit on the stone seat atop the bluff and reckon with the ghosts of Waal, Drake and Morgan, and see the pale galleons ride by in the gloaming under a blanket of clear stars, and feel the sand beneath my foot as I scramble down the bluff under the rising moon.
In Manhattan I learned the true meaning of solitude, I who had probably been more truly alone than anyone else on earth--for fifteen months during my Arctic voyage in Cresswell twenty and more years ago. It was in New York that I encountered the very real solitude of the writer, and how he must, like Prometheus chained to his rock, feed the public on his own bleeding guts. I learned real profligacy, which is an artist's defense, nature's balance against the headiness of having been, for but a fleeting moment, of the kingdom of heaven. I learned how to lose myself--and for that New York is an ideal place. I suppose that only writers can really lose themselves, unless other people do it by falling in love. But a writer is already in love with everyone--how else could he suffer the hell on earth of creativity? I learned that the only thing that could save me was the very thing that was destroying me--work, work and more work. In New York I learned to care about what I should care about--and nothing else. I learned that I care about people and the world in which they live. I learned that they are the only people we have, and that this world is the only world we have. I learned that to care for the world and the people in it--all the people--is the only way to true art; and so art must be for and of and by the people and to hell with all the critics and experts and dilettantes, except as they, too, are people, although with some of them that is hard to believe.
In New York I learned, too, that true loneliness and boredom are only possible in a crowd. Loneliness because I am me, and boredom because I was boring myself; because I could never be part of the crowd. I learned that solitude--not loneliness--is a wonderful thing, the mainstay of freedom. There is no freedom within a group. Each one is chained to the others. It is only in solitude that we can go into a dream and stay there as long as we like. The only harm that solitude might do is to isolate us from those who might understand us. But if you are reading this, then that is discounted. Whether you understand me or not is an entirely different matter. That is for you to decide. And there is the crux of something else I learned in New York: You only understand what you want to understand.
Everyone makes two journeys in life. The outer journey, known to all who know him, and the inner journey. In my outer life I have traveled far, mostly in arduous circumstances. But in my inner life I traveled farther in New York than anywhere else. New York gave my mind and my soul and my spirit nine-league boots, but it crippled me physically. I reckon the exchange was fair.
On the practical side of being alone in a great city, I learned that it is easier to be courageous when you are alone than when you are with a group. It is easier because you never apologize to yourself for your own courage--and not to have to apologize is the hallmark of achievement. This is quite a discovery, and it is important to anyone who is afraid of being alone for any length of time.
In Manhattan, too, I learned how desperately the poor longed for the material possessions of the rich, who live among their riches so thinly, so poorly. I learned how the realization of the dream of possession transforms the wonderful into the commonplace, magic into mundane. The acquisitive impulse is a beast alive in New York; it is the predominating obsession in the city; evil and misery are everywhere present, except in a few corners where they know that it is useless to try to put out a fire by heaping straw upon it. You cannot kill a lion by feeding it meat.
Once a year in New York City I dumped everything I owned that was not of me or the sea into the street--a sort of annual cultural revolution. It is the only way to beat the beast in New York. It is the only way to avoid sacrificing bits of yourself to dead things. As soon as it starts to own you, dump it.
There is little wrong with poverty, except that it prevents you from being generous with material things. But it does not prevent you from being generous with yourself--and that is far more important. As long as there is enough warmth for your body and food for your stomach, you do not need to sell yourself to the beast. And if there is not, then make sure that what you sell is of the tiniest quantity and the worst quality that is within you; drive a hard bargain--the hardest you can.
The two most powerful groups of people in New York are those who have everything and those who have nothing at all. But the first group's power derives from fear, while the second's derives from the pure strength of having nothing to lose. The most powerful people in the second group are those who wish to gain nothing, and I was privileged indeed to know some of them, on the Bowery and in Lower Manhattan, and among them were some of the most remarkable people I have ever met in a lifetime of wandering the earth. They taught me not to apologize, that circumstances will apologize for themselves. They also confirmed what I had already guessed--that the only true riches are to be found between your ears. That the only thing you should regret is what you did not do, not what you did. Reputation means nothing in New York--it is the most animallike city, and at the same time the most incurious, on the face of the earth.
But becoming old in New York, to be crippled and not able to run, to have to depend on anyone else in New York, must be like becoming impotent before a dominant but still beautiful lover, helpless to give one's love, and too weak for the burden of trying. Here, at Conchita, someone fitted mosquito screens a few years back on the window of my room. Now the screens, of green plastic material, are in shreds and tatters, with only a few ragged remnants of the edges, fluttering in the breeze.
Two woodpeckerlike birds called carpinteros inhabit the tree outside the window. They are black-and-white, with long, curious beaks, evidently very sharp, and early every morning, I hear their chucklelike chopping. The male bird has a red topknot and a blue tail, and a gallant air about him. His mate is not much less colorful and more subdued. In the day, when the sun is on the tree, they disappear into their green nests high in the branches--made of plastic fibers. Everlasting nests: what a very good idea! A justifiable use for plastic waste at last! I have no doubt that sooner or later some sea creature will find a way to use to advantage the millions of plastic bottles that we have so unthinkingly cast into the oceans. Only I hope to be alive to see what strange construction they make of them. Life will find a way. The sight of that plastic bird's nest makes me feel very good indeed, and I hobble out of the house each morning especially to stand and stare up at it and wonder at the miracle of life.
So far as I know, the two woodpeckers are the only birds around Conchita, except for a very few seabirds who stray in from their hungry hunt under the easterly trades in the fish-sparse Caribbean....
Chi-chi is fifteen years old. He is from a poor barrio on the outskirts of Santa Marta. His father is dead--early death is the lot of the poor in Colombia. His mother is alive but he doesn't know where. Chi-chi helps the fishermen in the next baylet. He is engaged to watch our boat at night, to sleep on deck, and to fish for us in the day. He will do this for $2.50 per twenty-four hours. This, with his food, is good pay here for a lad of fifteen. As with all young people brought up in hunger, his extremities are too big for him, his legs too long and his belly protrudes. But he has a golden-brown skin, regular features and a happy smile, so we will see what he makes of life among the sailors ... los veleros gringos, as we have come to be known.
Few tourists would go to Amsterdam in February. The weather there should be miserable, but for me, in 1982, it was like April, and I wallowed in the fleshpots of the sailors' quarter like a good 'un. I always had a hankering for more and more Heineken beer, and when I crossed over the Leiderplein Straat that February morning I was quite happy, humming to myself "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." The jolt in my hip, like a hundred thousand kilowatts of electricity, almost killed me with the shock of it. I went down right in front of a streetcar and only the driver's alertness saved me from being chopped to mincemeat.
I was dragged to the side of the road and managed to stand, but in intense pain. The main problem with pain is that it prevents logical calculation and thought. I dragged myself to the nearest bar and drank a deep whiskey. With the first drink I cursed the thing that drives anyone who writes to drink, to sharpen his senses at the same time as seeking oblivion from his sensitivities. With the second whiskey I cursed the frailty of the human frame. With the third I cursed my own weakness and sought a pharmacist.
I found myself back in the seamen's quarter, in the waiting room of a free medical service for the denizens of the district. I was surrounded by the women of the night; I was the only male waiting, the subject of five dozen female eyes all seeking to recognize me from--two or three nights before?
When I eventually entered the doctor's office, I found an Indonesian gentleman, tall and thin and bronzed, intellectual-looking and about thirty--perhaps all Indonesians are thirty? His English was almost as bad as my Dutch.
"Where you from?"
So as not to complicate matters, "England, Doctor."
"Sort of--yes." Useless to tell him I'd been researching the background of a novel, set partly in Amsterdam.
"You drink der beer? Whiskey?"
"Hmm." Long silence. "You got the English disease."
Consternation on my part. The doctor grinned.
"Wait minute I look--" He reached up to his library shelf for an English-Dutch medical dictionary, flicked through it, then suddenly looked up and beamed. My left leg and foot were burning.
"Ja, here it is--gout!"
I felt intense relief. Now I could stop boozing and eat sensible food.
"You keep your foot up on a chair. You drink no more beer, whiskey, and you not eat spicy food, eh?"
"Right, Doctor. Thank you. God bless you."
I went back to my hotel and sat on the bed and suffered for three days and nights, promising myself that if only this pain would go away, I would live the life of a saint for ever and ever, amen.
But it didn't, and neither did I.
When you are down there is, it is said, only one way to go--up. But there is another way, too--sideways. I decided to go sideways--to make leeway as we sailors say. For me that meant a return to sea. And that's why I am in Conchita, Colombia, telling you this tale.
The true enemy of intelligence is not fear--it is pain. The true hallmark of mankind's progress is its steady defeat of pain. It is not death that is the most fearsome prospect--it is unbearable pain. To defeat pain is the most difficult task known to man. It is the ultimate challenge. In telling my story I declare war--hard, bloody and eternal--on physical pain. Anything I can do to defeat it in myself and in others I will do, until the last dying breath of my body.
Pain is stupid. It must be, or it would not be so indiscriminate in its choice of victims. But perhaps the gods chose me. If that is so, they must have had their reasons, and where there is reason, then more than one can play the game. I will play the game right down to the limits.
Can there be life without pain? I don't know. It seems doubtful--at least mental pain may be with us for eons to come--but physical pain, that is another story. Pain cannot be conquered--only controlled.
Consider this--we are more than our mere bodies; if this were not so, I would have died in Amsterdam two years ago.