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Authors: Jr. William F. Buckley

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BOOK: Atlantic High
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Nobody, but nobody at all, elected to hire himself these delights; so my wife and I and friends did, a half dozen times during the ensuing two seasons. But then the day came when our treasurer, Mrs. Flynn, asked me for—yet more money. There was nothing coming in, she reminded me. By chance I had just finished commissioning a major overhaul, directed primarily at getting
Cyrano’s
eccentric electrical system into absolutely reliable order, and endowing her with cold plates that permit you, after only one or two hours’ service of the generator, to keep things ice cold all day long. Supervising the operation was a young man of great experience who had served as a professional boat captain. It was while he had the boat in Savannah, where the work was being done under his supervision, that I made the decision that has been made by thousands of grown-up men, backed into stoicism. The only way to go was fast, and so I called a broker. In two weeks he had a likely buyer, a gentleman from El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California.

Since it is one of my purposes in this book to share practical as well as idiosyncratic experiences, permit me the suggestion that when you sell your boat, if you are especially attached to it, you make it a rule to establish no social contact
whatever
with the buyer. In this case the buyer was instantly recognizable as the self-made man—because he so proclaimed himself. You ask for X. The broker says that he has a buyer who is extremely interested, but is willing to pay only X minus Y. You think a while, measure pride and obstinacy against prudence and convenience and, depending on the mood, tilt one way or the other. On this occasion I was taken up with so many preoccupations extrinsic to sailing or haggling that I said, Okay, I’ll go with X minus Y; but remember, I get to keep the radiotelephone (value $5
,000)
.

A few days later the purchaser is on the spot at the boatyard in Savannah, his surveyor poking his ice pick into my
Cyrano’s
bottom to confirm what I had always known, that no sounder ship had ever been crafted, and the broker advises me over the telephone to Connecticut that the purchaser insists on talking to me. Against my better judgment I take the phone. He is the preternatural bargainer, who cannot sleep at night unless, during the day, he has shaken someone’s resolution to his own commercial advantage. He
had
to have the radio, he argued, affecting bonhomie, and adducing coy reasons why the radio was of little use to me without a boat to put it in. I told him I retained a perfectly satisfactory yawl. The broker came back on the telephone. I came close to calling the whole thing off, but decided instead to do a little bargaining of my own, so I fired my aesthetic Big Bertha. You see, the saloon of
Cyrano
was lit by a soft shower of multicolored lights that refracted off three original oil paintings by Richard Grosvenor, from whose fingertips the roiling seas come as water from a faucet. The effect of the lighting was spectacular and moved a thousand people, over the years, to near speechlessness with pleasure. Okay, I said to the broker, tell him he can have the radio, but I get to keep the oil paintings. I felt as though I were offering him the Sistine Chapel without the ceiling. The broker warned that the buyer was a man of mercurial temper and mountain-hard resolution. I replied that he could have God or Mammon, but not both. Fifteen minutes later the telephone rang, and I cannot remember a moment of greater dismay. “He says sure you can have the paintings. He was going to take ’em out anyway, give them away, and put up some nice brass lamps.”

That was not quite the end of the transaction. When the boatyard gave over the bill to my young captain, he was appalled. He figured it to be about three times the justified amount. “They know you have to turn over the boat by the first of August to the new buyer unencumbered, so they’re just holding you up.” For instance, he said, there was an item: eight hundred dollars to varnish and paint the whaler. “It couldn’t have come to more than two hundred in time and materials.” What to do?

I called my friend back at 8
P.M
. and, fortunately, found him in a plucky mood. Would he arrange, with two or three companions, to slip aboard sometime between midnight and dawn and sail the boat out of Savannah Harbor, northeast thirty miles to Hilton Head in South Carolina, removed from Georgia jurisdiction?

“Then we can quarrel over the bill at our leisure, without jeopardizing the deal.”

My friend was indignant enough to take to the idea (“even though I’ve got to live here in Savannah after
Cyrano
is gone”). He rounded up three spirited friends and, armed with a bottle or two of liquor to guard against the terrible early morning cold in Georgia in midsummer, they tiptoed on board, loosed the lines, and floated out with the tide before turning on the engine. By dawn they were ten miles from the most irate boatyard owner-pirate on the East Coast. I worried when, by noon, I hadn’t heard from them. I called the Coast Guard, and learned they were safe: they had simply run aground coming into Hilton Head. I served notice on the boatyard owner that I was willing to go to arbitration, but that I would subtract from any final figure the cost of my legal defense. We settled. At about one half. At that, he took me for two or three thousand.

This wasn’t the very first time I’d had to deal stealthily with boatyards. Three summers earlier, the Westerbeke engine in my yawl,
Suzy Wong
, committed its ritual annual suicide. (I’d had six new or totally rebuilt Westerbekes in fourteen years.) The local yard quoted a figure to rebuild her, and Reg suggested we get a competitive bid from a yard in Long Island, just by La Guardia Airport. Danny got someone to tow the boat over, and exactly one week later I was advised by Mrs. Flynn a) that the engine had been rebuilt; b) that the bill was for
$2,100
(approximately the price quoted by my home yard, to which I’d have preferred to give the business); and c) that the money would have to be paid in cash before I could reclaim the boat.

I react adversely to ultimatums. The boatyard owner, without any commission whatever (he had been asked, merely, for an estimate) had undertaken to do the work, setting his own price. That was on Friday. On Sunday morning Danny, Christopher, and I drove to the yard, parked at a safe distance, and having established that there was no watchman on duty, vaulted the fence and approached
Suzy Wong. My
boat was secured to two huge eye-bolts on the slip by a chain led around the mainmast and the after-mast and padlocked in place.

We went to City Island and there made arrangements to charter a whaler that would take us over water to the boatyard at three that afternoon. We arrived with a basket of tools, and instructed the skipper in which direction to head. We tried to look innocent, but we correctly surmised, later, that it was he who, on getting back, called the yard, and then the police.

Bounding onto the slip, my son Christopher unsheathed a hacksaw, and I was astonished at the ease with which it sawed through the heavy steel links, understanding finally the old business about the hacksaw in the cake being the key to instant manumission for the prisoner. I dove down to start the engine, only to find it cleverly immobilized. One or two vital parts were missing. So who needs an engine? I asked. And Danny and Christopher, thoroughly in the spirit of the heist, repeated, “Who needs an engine?”

We raised the mizzensail, slid the boat out into Flushing Bay, headed her into the wind, raised the main, then the genoa, and three hours later, the two forward sails down, we coasted into the slip at Stamford for a perfect landing.

I wrote out the script for our Mrs. Flynn because, after all, when you go to all that much trouble, you should get some amusement from it. Anticipating what the boatyard owner would say turned out to be as easy as expected, and Mrs. Flynn reported that the script had proceeded as perfectly as if rehearsed.

“Mrs. Flynn? This is John, at John’s Yard.
Suzy Wong
has been stolen.”

“No, Mr. John, she wasn’t stolen. Mr. Buckley went and took her away yesterday.”

“That’s stealing.”

“No, Mr. John. There’s no such thing as stealing your own property.”

“But he owes me my bill!”

“Who commissioned the work?”

Splutter at the other end. Followed by, “I’m going to call the police.”

“You do that, Mr. John. You tell the police Mr. Buckley stole his own boat.”

Further splutter.

I offered arbitration, but Mr. John said he would prefer eleven hundred dollars. With arbitration there is always the risk that you will be paid what you deserve to be paid. Technically nothing, but what the hell, okay
$1,100
.

In any event, the new owner took possession of
Cyrano
. When she was last sighted, I should add, she was a part of the entourage of
Freedom
, our winning 12-meter sloop in the 1980 America’s Cup Races, parading back into Newport from the race course, and in all honor I must report that Reggie, who espied her from a distance, reports that she looked like a million dollars. Dear old money-guzzling
Cyrano
belongs to someone who can make her look like a million dollars, so that her raiment will reflect her inner nobility.

2

After losing
Cyrano
, we took to chartering boats for our own use. In the Caribbean, with Dick Clurman and his wife Shirley, regularly at Christmastime; and, occasionally, in the spring. In the Aegean, with Van Galbraith and other friends, and family. It was the third time out in the Caribbean that we came on
Sealestial
. Six weeks earlier we had joined a couple in the Fiji Islands. I kept a journal.

Saturday
[October
21, 1978]
. But yesterday was Thursday, the international dateline having been traversed, and by the ache in our bones and spirits yesterday seemed a week ago, a thousand hours having been spent in the cramp of the economy section of a jumbo jet filled SRO. For my wife Pat and me the ordeal, if not, exactly speaking, intolerable (as a historical fact, we survived it), was only just short of that. We cannot imagine surviving what our companions went through. Barbara, Bindy, Vane, and Drue are the stuff that made possible the Battle of Britain.
They
had flown from London nonstop to Los Angeles where we, after spending a leisurely day there, met them at the International Airport. A mere one hour after they landed we were all off on the 747 to Hawaii, seated cheek by jowl. I longed for the arrival there on the assumption that the great plane would immediately empty, leaving us room to stretch out on the next leg. Surely not
everybody
flies on to Fiji, I thought smugly; to which the reply is: Nowadays practically everybody
does
fly on to Fiji, notwithstanding that Fiji is as far from Hawaii as London is from New York. Exactly as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north of it. If you leave the main island of Fiji (there are about 300 islands in the
250,000
-square-mile island group) and head straight south, you will eventually hit Auckland. For those who care about these matters fastidiously, a nice way to remember where Fiji is is as follows: What meridian lies exactly opposite Greenwich, England? 180 degrees west longitude, obviously. What is one tenth of 180 degrees? Eighteen degrees. And indeed, that is the southern latitude that runs through Fiji, which gives you the coordinates. I thought it would be amusing to feed into my Hewlett-Packard 97 computer (about which more in due course) the question, “How far is it from Fiji to London?” and, “What course would one give to the navigator starting out?” I tapped the data into my little machine, only to have it-after struggling fitfully in a paroxysm of flashing, hiccupping figures—stop dead with the word, in red-light tracery,
ERROR
. I could not understand this, and so tried again, only to be accosted once again with
ERROR
. It struck me that this is a pretty abrupt way to talk back to a purchaser, in a competitive market, of a machine that costs
$750—
a machine, moreover, designed and sold by terribly polite people. I reflected on it, and then programmed the query again, but this time using 179 degrees west longitude instead of 180 degrees as the starting point, and the answer, after orderly gyrations, calmly popped out
8,789
miles at 001 degrees azimuth. The problem was that the machine had been asked to settle the question whether, in going from Fiji to London, you should head north or south, the distances being unequal. The machine, uninstructed in the matter, declines to assert itself.

Before trying out the 179 degrees alternative, I thought to consult with Vane—we were all seated about a table in the hot noon sun, by the swimming pool, ordering sandwiches and drinks, having slept for three or four air-conditioned hours in the luxury of the Regent Hotel at Nadi, where the planes fly in. I had had no experience of Vane (pronounced VAH-nee) at this point, other than our sleeping on each other’s shoulders during the cattle run from Los Angeles, and clearly he thought to apprise me once and for all of a difficulty that has plagued him over the six decades of his hyperactive life.

BOOK: Atlantic High
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