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I just came to the sad conclusion that I would have made a lousy pirate.
My entire life, I have been infatuated with legendary late 17th century buccaneers and the billowing high sea adventures that they embarked upon. I have fantasized about discovering empirical treasures, establishing sumptuous small island colonies full of sexual heathens, and eating grand carved slices of roast Zebu meat washed down with copious never-ending rivers of Carribean rum… I’ve imagined sailing into tropical ports clad in bulging silken scarves puffed out from manicured vests tethered to worldly fabrics… I’ve envisioned a cutlass tucked in my waistcoat belt complimenting a gun or two hidden upon a hip to be used only in case of discovery or ambush… I have envisioned a fair, virginal maiden awaiting me in every port. For 30 years, I have shouldered dreams of piracy.
I have always foreseen myself living this life – thinking that perhaps I was born at the wrong time and that I was meant to be born a sea-beaten and weathered swashbuckler with a Dread Pirate Roberts-like understanding of wit, trickery, swordsmanship, romance and true love. A mysterious villain with a heart – and a chest – of gold. Lavishly gouging myself on intercontinental coffees and licquers. Forever eluding capture. Leading a wispy life on the wind until the proper time arrives when one must lower his mainsail, trade his beloved ship for gold and retire to live like a king in some far-off heavenly slice of paradise cascading into the far reaches of the sun-drenched Earth… I have secretly hallucinated about my own retirement plan. I visualize my final days spent bearded and leathery, awash in Key West swells, living off the fruits of my lifelong seaworthy labors…
And then my father-in-law invited me out to join him on a fishing trip.
We are very different types of men. We have not necessarily spent a lot of bonding time together, but in the quest to find a connection between my wife’s father and myself, I have tried a lot of angles. What I have discovered, is that it has been fairly hard to find any common ground.
Back in 2001, when my father-in-law and I first met, he had never been to a major league baseball game. I had never fired a gun.
He had never written a sketch or a creative story. I had never flown an airplane off of a carrier in the Pacific Ocean.
He scoffed at the use of profanity – like the word “shit” – in film and television. I had just written a song called Cartoons I’d Like to Fuck.
I immediately knew it was going to be a tough climb.
Over the years, I have divulged that my wife’s father is a true man of the sea. Following a storied 35-plus years as an airline pilot, the events of 9/11 forced him into early retirement. Bored with the sky, he was delighted to be focusing his attention on his true love: THE OCEAN. He celebrates the big blue and all that comes with it, everywhere. For instance…
His house is decorated like the inside of a cheesy Santa Monica seafood restaurant. Old fishing nets line the kitchen walls, complete with plastic lobsters caught in their webs. Vintage boat steering wheel-clocks help you keep time at over 26 different spots in the den. At least five small, circular windows are placed on the port and starboard side of the living room. In one room, shark teeth serve as a makeshift picture frame for his wedding photo. Above his bed is a thrift store painting of Captain Cook inspecting a compass and a map. Finally, his shower curtains are seven foot-tall lug sails that he ordered on ebay.
Friends who have visited sometimes refer to his home as “Red Lobster.”
I will say that I absolutely respect his love and passionate worship of the sea. It is his true mistress. When we visit him at his house in Washington State every Christmas, I often find him avoiding the shrieking outbursts of my children by stepping outside, making a fire and longingly staring out across open water where an undiscovered land of opportunity awaits him. I never understood why he did it, but I would not put it past him to believe that somewhere on that horizon lies an island with a river of frozen pina coladas, buried treasure and a pulsating posse of randy mermaids shape-shifting from sea creatures to women – prepared to satisfy his every perverted need.
In short, he also harbors dreams of being a pirate.
My father-in-law had owned a beautiful sailboat for many years and took his family around the world and home again on it as a younger man, but his post-retirement dream was to refurbish another boat into his vision of the ultimate dream cruiser. His plan was to take us all around the world in four years.
In 2001, he bought the boat. Following some bad luck, terrible storms and unfortunate circumstances, he sold that boat for half of its value nearly a decade later. It had never left the dock.
However, in 2012, he finally got a vessel he deemed worthy. It is a beautiful boat – with sleeping room for eight – common hang out areas and gorgeous deck space. He spent the majority of the past year sailing it from Maryland, between some Caribbean islands, through the Panama Canal and up back towards Seattle. It was his dream journey. When I heard that he was on this fabulous trip, my old brigand dreams were rekindled. I harkened back to my obsession with colorful pirate captains like Robert Culliford, Blackbeard and Calico Jack. I dreamt of a night on that boat, searching high above for the Andromeda Galaxy through my spyglass while cosmically spaced out on aged Puerto Rican spiced rum.
And then, in March, my family received his postcard from the island of St. Croix illuminating us on everything we were missing. As I sat on my couch, firing up another game of Wii Wipeout, I realized that he was absolutely right. And I was jealous. My father-in-law was out on the high seas, island hopping and fishing for his dinner – while I was spending my life about to challenge my six-year-old on the treacherous Wipeout “Big Balls.”
Luckily, one night during last year’s holidays, my father-in-law and I happened upon the fantastic film Hornblower on television. I had a few glasses of wine and immediately fell into the story. It was fascinating. He informed me that he had the entire mini-series (on VHS, nonetheless) and we tackled all eight parts within the next three nights. After that, we went through Master and Commander, Dead Calm, Treasure Island and the Pirates of the Carribean collection. It was then, that I inquired about possibly joining him on his next worldwide journey.
“Why don’t you start by coming out with me tomorrow?” He offered. “I’m going to set some crab traps and head to Port Orchard Bay to do some fishing.”
My eyes lit up. Crab traps? Fishing? A boat? I know it wasn’t exactly commandeering a massive English Man-of-War, but it was a start. I figured I would get my sea legs, catch some fresh dinner and be back by sunset to drink some beer and cook fish while counting the easy sailboats in the harbor. My first pirate adventure awaited me. I felt like those lifelong deckhand barflies who spend their lives in the bars of port towns like Bremerton, awaiting the rare Alaskan fishing vessels to offer them jobs out on the icy water for a three month run where they might make enough to stay in booze for weeks.
My wife was her usual supportive self. “Don’t come back with a peg-leg,” she requested.
I slept well that night, anticipating my maiden voyage on his boat, The Great Orca II, where I would ride the Pacific Northwest waves until I was christened first mate. I awoke at dawn to pack and head on out on the open water.
Before we set out, I took my journal with me hoping to find some inspiration. I also fastened my guitar to my back – knowing that pirates always appreciated a good sea shanty – and tucked my headphones into my jacket pocket. As the sun rose, I watched my father-in-law put on a set of rubber pants and some Merrell boots as I laced up my Converse All-Stars. I arrived in the kitchen ready to embark on our little journey with my guitar and ipad. He arrived with a woven beanie and a pair of pliers in his hand.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“In case we hit something and one of your teeth pops loose.”
I froze. He smiled.
“So, what’s your sea name gonna be?” He asked me.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Sea name?”
“All my passengers must create sea names for themselves when we are out on the water. You know, aliases. I always go by ‘Captain T.’’
I thought about it. A sea name! Cool! It would be like my pirate name… I knew it had to be something legendary, with a little flourish and a hardened edge. Something like “Black Pistol Bluebird McCoy…”
Knowing that there was a “Pirate Name Generator” on the internet – (look it up) – I quickly logged on and typed in my name. Sadly, their suggestion wasn’t the heroic adventurer name I had imagined. On the website, it read:
Yarr olde name be Zachary Selwyn. But we’ll now call ye:
PANTS DOWN DARIUS
My wife laughed. So did my mother-in-law. I demanded to re-enter my name, but it was too late. The new sea name had stuck.
“Hey, Pants-Down,” Captain T yelled. “Don’t bring your guitar unless you want it to get ruined.”
(For the record, when my father-in-law typed in his name, he was anointed Pirate Laszlo the Ochre… Lucky bastard.)
Now I have certainly been fishing a number of times. However, most of the deep sea adventures I have been on involved a drunk Mexican pontoon boat captain named “Suarez” and an unlimited supply of Modelo Especial somewhere down in Cabo San Lucas. I figured this little trip would be the Pacific Northwest version of that. Basically, at a short little booze cruise into Port Orchard Bay.
As I slipped on the wet step-ladder that hoists a passenger into his boat, Captain T called back towards the house where my wife and kids were waving good-bye from the back porch.
“Better stand in the ‘widow’s peak’ now,” he chortled. “He might not make it two knots!”
Widow’s peak? Knots? Sailor humor, I figured. I stepped into the cabin and drank some coffee. It was cold outside, but I figured the sun might come up soon enough for me to catch some open sea rays before catching our lunch and heading home. I lied down to try and catch another ten minutes of rest.
Five minutes later, we set off from the dock, and I suddenly found myself alone, in the water with my father-in-law. It suddenly dawned on me that if my daughter was to ever marry a man like me, I would someday do everything I could to find a way to “accidentally” push him off of a boat into arctic waters. I immediately became paranoid that I was on a boat trip not unlike the one the character “Big Pussy” made with Tony on The Sopranos.
After getting out of the inlet waters that are surrounded by hilltop mansions of Bainbridge Island, we settled into a nice stretch of slightly bumpy water where I figured we might drop some crab traps. As it turns out, we were early. Captain T informed me that we were just stalking until the tide came back out. I looked at my watch. It was 8:13 a.m.
“What time does the tide come back out?” I asked.
“Around 10,” he responded.
The next hour was remarkably the most relaxed I had been since we arrived for the holidays five days prior. Captain T and I played cards, looked at pictures on our iphones and talked about what type of fish we wanted to have when we got back to shore. We both snacked on some almonds and popped open bottles of Amber Lager while playing the card game “Casino.” We discussed my children, our careers, and how good life would be once we emptied his crab pots and relished in the brilliant shellfish found below the surface. There was no Spongebob on TV, no diapers to change and no wives to harass us abotu drinking beers at 8:30 in the morning.
“Are there laws about how long you have to be sober before flying a plane?” I asked.
“When I flew for Pan Am the rule was eight hours bottle to throttle.”
“What about when you’re on a boat?” I inquired.
“Probably something like, ‘don’t get in trouble, drop anchor when you see double.’”
It was by far the hardest my father-in-law has ever made me laugh.
It might not have been piracy, but it was a deep hang. One that I enjoyed so much, I began doing math numbers in my head to figure out how much property I could get in a small Seattle waterfront town if I sold my house in Hollywood. Bottom line? I could probably get a shitload. And a decent boat. And I could probably purchase and work at a small fireworks stand on the side of the road near the Suquamish Indian Reservation. For 45 minutes, I was truly considering this massive life change.
And then the storm broke.
The Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for its dry weather. In fact, they average 23 days of sunshine a year – which explains the high suicide rates and tremendous coffee production. Sometimes, when we visit, we get lucky and only have to withstand a small patch of overcast skies and minimal rain. Unfortunately, this afternoon was not one of those times.
Sheets of water began pulsating against the Great Orca II forcing us to cut our engine and enclose ourselves in a plastic sheathing to protect the engine room. I helped button down a few knobs, but I began to get a little concerned when, following a heavy pane of rain, I heard my father-in-law cursing at something from below the deck. Being that he was a man who found Mary Poppins to be morally reprehensible, I was amazed at his sudden vulgarity. The man I had known for 11 years suddenly became a re-incarnation of the revolting British pirate Batholomew Sharp.
As a rule, in his home, the word “damn” summoned up punishment.
Out here, on the water, the words “fucking cockshit” suddenly became acceptable.
“Something wrong, sir?” I yelled below deck.
“Stay up there Pants-Down,” he yelled back.
I leaned against my seat and did my best to ignore the boat’s nauseating rocking motion. I dumped the remainder of my beer over the side.
“We got a breach in the hull,” he yelled. “Get me my black toolbox, NOW!”
I panicked. Not knowing where he stored it, I frantically searched in the state room before coming across what I thought was a black tool box. I brought it down to him and he slapped it away.
“That’s a God-Damn tackle box, Zach!”
So much for only using our sea-names.
“Stay here and apply pressure to where this leak is coming through, got it?” He said.
I nodded and applied pressure on a tarpaulin that he had fastened over a small crack in the boat’s bottom. Water was seeping in fast. Assuming the hole didn’t get any bigger, I figured we had three hours before we would be re-enacting scenes from The Perfect Storm.
When Captain T got back down, he cursed at the scene and thrust me out of his way. He threw open his tool kit and removed some puddy-like mold and went to work. I sat there, frozen for what seemed like 20 minutes.
“Anything I can help with?” I offered.
“Go upstairs and radio the Coast Guard… We might be stuck out here tonight.”
Back above deck, I fiddled with the radio, but had no idea what the hell I was doing. When I couldn’t get any response when I simply garbled “SOS” into the receiver. I figured we were done for. We were barely five miles from his house, but we were in the middle of nowhere. Looking around, I did not see another vessel in sight. It was time I faced my immediate pirate future. I would be buried at sea.
In the world of ancient pirate adventures, rarely did a buccaneer get a chance to enjoy the treasures he pilfered. Most pirate galleons were besieged by disease, starvation, dehydration and terrible, long droughts of immobility. Ships would fail to catch wind and be stranded in the middle of oceans for days on end, making life hell for the crew. Very few pirates got away with anything without dire punishment. Should a pirate be captured, his life became even more unpleasant, and many spent years holed up in dank, smelly, cavernous prisons chained to walls and a chamber pot. If one was lucky enough to get pardoned, he would more than likely end up penniless and ruined. The lucky ones died of scurvy or dehydration. Many hung from gallows to welcome incoming ships and warn them against the joys of piracy. Making it out alive in the world of 17 and 18th century piracy was about as common as moving to Hollywood tomorrow and becoming the next Hugh Jackman. Very few pirates actually got to enjoy their riches, and most were killed, imprisoned or tortured for their brief careers as marauders of the seven seas. It took a strong will to be a pirate, spending a treacherous nine months on a boat hoping for one miraculous ship capture and a raid that would make you rich.
The toughest ones stuck it out.
I had been at sea for a grand total of two hours and five minutes and I was ready to abandon ship.
About ten minutes after I had given up on the pirate life, Captain T came back up to the bridge and asked me for a towel. When I handed him one, I noticed that he was soaking wet and smelled like the open sea. He was shivering something fierce and his droopy face beneath his wool cap made him look a little like a drowned sea lion.
“Well, I got the leak fixed,” he said.
I nearly got up and hugged him. I couldn’t believe it
“Any word from the Coast Guard?”
“Uhh, no,” I replied. “I wasn’t really sure how to call them.”
Captain T handled the radio and spoke into it. When he did not receive a response, he calmly holstered the radio and sat back in the Captain’s seat.
“Looks like we might have to tough it out and get back home through the storm,” he mumbled.
As the wind raged on and the boat rocked back and forth a few times, I found myself a victim of seasickness. Vomiting over the side of a rocking boat in the middle of the ocean is a wonderful experience, let me tell you. Especially when your father-in-law captain recommends aiming it into the wind so that it doesn’t fly downwind and land on any leather boat cushions.
Captain T straightened out some things that had come off the walls before fastening nearly everything down and telling me to hold on to anything I could find. He flipped on the engine and guided the boat to turn around.
“Anything I can help with?” I asked.
“You can get us a couple of beers,” he said. “This is gonna be a rough re-entry.”
The next three hours, I watched my father-in-law in his element. Whereas I had spent the afternoon scared for my life, he was fighting mother nature like I imagined Captain Kidd would have done while guiding his ship from the shores of Madagascar back to New York Harbor. My father-in-law was magnificent. He relished in every challenge and every chance he got to steer clear of an oncoming swell or ride through a air pocket with ease.
No wonder this guy had flown planes for 35 years, I thought to myself.
It was a true mark of bravery. One that reduced me from a heroic and valiant wannabe pirate – into a lowly stowaway, longing to warm my feet by a fire while flipping through 298 television stations.
He dipped over waves and squinted through the wind like a cast member of Deadliest Catch. His beard had tiny icicles forming below his nostrils and he was doing it while wearing nothing but a cap, rubber jacket and a long sleeve shirt.
Meantime, I was in nine layers of long johns and two sweaters.
About two hours later, we safely made it back to the dock where I helped tie up some lines and put out ship bumpers so that we wouldn’t scratch the vessel. As I walked up the dock towards the house, I looked through the windows. I noticed the familiar positioning of my family. My wife was on the couch. The boy was yielding a lightsaber by the kitchen table and my mother-in-law stood cooking chili. I stopped and looked for a minute at this Rockwell-like serenity and for a moment, considered waiting for Captain T to come out of the boathouse so that he could share the praise with me. After all, we had survived the storm! We had made it through! We were men of action. True sea-dogs. Quite possibly the closest we would be to pirates our entire lives.