Monday, February 6, 2012

Joining The Harvey Gamage

Credit: Schooner Harvey Gamage Foundation, Inc.

There was one thing I noticed very early on in my working life about retirees.  Those that were fully invested in their careers, with nothing planned to look forward to after retirement, didn’t last long after leaving their jobs.  They were lost.  They became depressed and looked frantically for something to fill the void.  With no alternative plan in place, their lives were often too quickly filled with affairs, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide, or self-induced, stress-related heart attacks.  With nothing to fill their lives, many failed to live longer than three years after getting their gold watch. 
I had lived my life on the water, so it was not much of a leap to decide what my second career would entail.  My pension would help support the family, so at last I had the opportunity to do something I enjoyed.  I started making contacts a year before I retired.  Sixty-five resumes went out in June.  By August, I had one commitment and several employers expressing interest.  Several phone calls followed with Capt. Eben Whitcomb, owner of the Harvey Gamage, and by the second week of August, I was locked in as the First Mate for the Caribbean cruising season.  I retired on a Wednesday, and on that Friday morning, I boarded the Gamage in New York Harbor.  I had been retired for one day.
Jean had gone ahead to find a house in St. Thomas while the kids remained with me.  She also found a job as assistant manager of South American Trade in Charlotte Amalie.  A friend agreed to drive me to the ship, and the kids were dropped off at Philadelphia International for their flight to join their mother in the Virgin Islands.  I was to join the ship at Pier 40, but she wasn’t there when we arrived.  After a little hunting, something I’d get used to, we found her at Pier 61.  After saying good-bye to Jim, my friend from home, I boarded and got settled into one of the spare cabins.  I was expected to take the second-in-command responsibilities the minute I stepped aboard. There was no training or breaking-in period, as within the hour we were underway, having to move the ship around the Battery to Pier 11.

The largest vessel I had skippered previously had been 73-feet.  Here I was on a 115-foot gaff-rigged schooner with dozens of miles of rigging on masts that rose 91-feet in the air, 4,200 square feet of working sail, and the ability to carry 6,000 feet of sail.  It was going to be a very steep learning curve.  She had been built in 1973 by Harvey Gamage, one of the last surviving wood sailing ship builders, and Eben had decided to name her in his honor.
While in Pier 61, a private yacht so huge it would reasonably be called a ship, had come and berthed across the mouth of the piers.  With our way blocked, there was no way to get out.  It fell to me to ask the owner, an Arab sheik, to move.  The boarding ramp had been raised chest-high off the pier so no one could board.  I walked back and forth trying to attract someone’s attention, banged on the hull, but still could attract no one’s attention.  I started to hoist myself onto the boarding ramp when a couple of the crew called me back to the schooner.  One said, “Hey, man, you’re going to get your ass shot.  We’ve seen armed men walking back and forth all over the ship carrying automatic rifles.”  But, we needed to move, and, therefore, so did the sheik.
We began to get the story.  The sheik and wife number ? were involved in a violent divorce.  She wanted sole custody of their kids, so he had flown his kids to the ship in his helicopter and set sail for the U.S.  She was apparently flying to the U.S., having learned where the ship was, and was expected to show up at any time, which explained the raised boarding ramp.  The idea was to deny her boarding access long enough for the kids to be loaded in the chopper and flown away once more.   Knowing the skipper wouldn’t be too far removed from the bridge, I did manage to pull myself onto the ramp, went to the wheelhouse, and banged on the door until I saw three men coming walking quickly down the side deck.  All it took was a five-minute explanation, and a half-hour to get the engines going and all the yacht’s lines to be walked forward, and we had access to open water.  We got out of sight before the show down with the wife. 

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