The Deflatable Dinghy

We toil and strain toward a faraway goal, sacrificing whatever we must in order to stay on course to get there. We scheme and plan and concentrate much of our energy on hitting that distant target and set aside swaths of our lives, be it university, an apprenticeship, climbing the corporate ladder, etc., in hopes that one day we might reach the summit we seek and attain the life we have selected. That course is called by some “ambition” and for many it is how they are raised to think life should be set out.

 But then there are those magical times for a few lucky people when a simple bit of frolic meant purely to amuse oneself and with no serious intent in mind at all can start them out on a whole new journey, unplanned, unexpected and probably undeserved. A journey that takes them to places never considered to do jobs never contemplated and point toward a wonderful future hitherto unimagined. Like that destitute time way back when, in Antigua…..

 The Deflatable Dinghy

Back then he knew pretty much nothing about marketing. He was just a young guy out in the world to see what there was to see, experience what he could and have as much fun doing it as possible. Had he known about marketing he might well have done something along the lines of what he did, for it certainly got him noticed at a time when he needed to be and helped promote the product that would become his career for many years to come. But he didn’t know any of that then. He was just having fun.

More or less destitute once again, and in a foreign country with no support network, he needed something far more secure than the odd jobs on boats by which he was eking out his day to day survival. Although having no inkling of it at the time, one of his more off-the-wall pastimes was about to provide the very promotion required to raise his profile and help steer his path more toward the direction it desperately needed to go.

He was living, actually he was “squatting”, on a cockroach infested power boat that everyone reckoned had been abandoned in the mangroves. It was still sound but badly run down and apparently no-one associated with it had been aboard for the better part of a year. The batteries had been dead for months, the engine didn’t run and the bilges, which he bailed periodically by the reliable old bucket-and-chuck-it method, smelled of stale who-knew-what. One of the heads still worked, which was an obvious blessing. 

Somebody from another boat had lent him a very old, soft bottomed, frequently patched, rubber dinghy which proved to be as much a deflatable as it was an inflatable. They also lent him the very essential pump with which to regularly fill it with enough air to keep it buoyant for a while longer. He had to remember to pump it up before stepping into it after being ashore, for it would generally become so soft that if he didn’t pump it any weight placed in the centre (such as a person stepping into it) would result in the middle section sinking while the fore and aft sections folded upward in what appeared to be an attempt to meet each other around ear height of the person then standing knee deep in water and slowly submerging. 

He’d scrounged a couple of oars, one wooden and one blue and yellow plastic, from other sources and so was able, though not exactly in style, to make it to and from shore or back and forth to the odd jobs on other boats which kept him in food, beer and cockroach spray.

He was not too put out by his relative poverty though, for in English Harbour the company was good and for the most part you were not judged by your status or financial means, but by your ability and character.

The inadvertent marketing initiative he created for himself came in the form of his recreational use of that deflatable/inflatable dinghy. He would amuse himself by jury rigging different sail designs fabricated mostly from the oars, a semi bald besom he’d found on the cockroach ridden hulk, and various lengths of frayed and different coloured line he found washed up in the mangroves. The sail was always his old green rain poncho with the rusted grommets that seemed miraculously to be able to withstand any and all abuse without ripping out.

He would row out through the anchored fleet from the stagnant air of the mangroves, stopping periodically to pump up the leaky hull chambers, and upon reaching the outer precincts of the bay before hitting open water where such a craft would definitely not fare well, he’d erect the latest version of his rig. He’d then casually sail back, downwind, zigzagging through the anchored fleet with an air of insouciance becoming such a makeshift craft.

A typical rig would have the wooden oar for the mast resting on a rusty tea tray to spread the load over the rubber bottom of the boat where water always sloshed. The besom would form the gaff lashed close to the top of the oar with a foot or so of overhang facing for’ard. The backstay was a discarded piece of a larger boat’s main sheet, too thick by far, and only just long enough for the task. The forestay was his left foot placed half way up the “mast” pushing it forward. The shrouds were mismatched pieces of worn out halyards that ran from the top of the “mast” to the rotting grab lines either side of the dinghy’s sponsons. He wasn’t sure what the correct nautical name was for the tensioning line that ran from the front of the “gaff’s” overhang through the anchor ring in the bow and back to where he sat in the stern, but he called it the cunningham. 

The rudder was the plastic oar in the only functioning ro’lock which was on the port side (row forward to turn to starboard, backward to turn to port). The sail, of necessity, was loose footed with the luff and the head lashed as best he could to the mast and gaff with whatever small stuff he could find. The leech was tensioned by the sheet which was another piece of tatty old halyard tied to one of the poncho’s indestructible grommets which doubled as the clew.

Really needing three hands to operate this rig, one for the cunningham, one for the sheet which he would play against each other to obtain sail tension and trim, and one for the steering oar, he had to improvise by employing his spare leg and wrapping either the cunningham or the sheet around his right shin which he would then move back and forth, or side to side, depending on whether the need was to ease off or take in which ever line was connected.

Needless to say he could not sail to windward and even a close reach was not possible, but off the wind his “yacht” sailed surprisingly well, and as for downwind, well, anything will sail downwind, but this ocean greyhound was not too shabby at that point of sail, all things considered, as long as he had recently pumped the chambers up and bailed as much water out as he could.

Obviously gibing was an issue as the besom/gaff could not pass under the over-sized back stay, but he got around that by rowing out to a position that presented an angle on the wind such that he’d never require a gibe before reaching his destination.  To overcome the problem of the “sail” preventing him from seeing most of what was on the lee side he kept the hood of the poncho lashed in a rolled position and just poked his head through the hole from time to time and looked around.

Yes, it was a ridiculous sight; a tanned and hairy young man clad only in an old pair of tattered shorts cruising through the plush sailboats of English Harbour with a big grin on his face in a rag tag raft that would have left Robinson Crusoe ashamed; but it was an amusing sight none-the-less, and certainly an eye catching one. And, as he found out when passing some of the boats, or when recognised in the bar ashore in the evening, it was a great conversation starter. It earned him a number of beers from people who wanted to joke about his boat or congratulate him on his ingenuity, and bit by bit he started to climb the social hierarchy.

The most interesting aspect for him though was the fact that although he was an experienced sailor of merchant ships and had two circumnavigations of the globe and a dozen or more trans ocean crossings under his belt, the assembly and usage of his jury-rigged sail boat seemed to hide the fact that he actually knew very little about sail boat sailing. The misassumption being made by the dozens of experienced sailors around him was that anyone who could take those sparse and decrepit resources and convert them into something that actually sailed had to know what they were doing.

As a result of the notoriety his well watched voyages earned him, he was invited by a group of wonderful, yet semi wild and oft kilted Scots to crew on a beautiful 49 foot sloop during one of the Wednesday afternoon races.  Being both fit and capable of following orders he performed respectfully enough to be asked back the following week. This eventually led to being invited to help sail the same sleek yacht during a week-long circumnavigation of Guadeloupe where his sailing skills rapidly developed, not to mention his ability with a couple of the wild Scotsmen to paddle clandestinely ashore and crash parties at Club Med.

Soon after that he was asked by an American family, who had often watched him sailing his junk-yard boat past their own beautiful yawl, to help them sail it from Antigua to the British Virgin Islands. So, with the deflatable dinghy, that had inadvertently marketed him so well, now back with its rightful owner, he left his stranded hulk in the mangroves, bade farewell to the cockroaches and set off for islands and adventures new, sailing this time on a craft that could actually point higher on the wind than a beam reach, toward the next chapter of his life.

Not long after arriving in Tortola he found himself no longer sailing under canvas, or the modern versions thereof, but back on a power driven vessel once more; and what a vessel that was!  The grand old 146 foot, three engined yacht was formerly owned by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and maintained in the manner they’d had it furbished. He’d signed on initially as a deck hand but soon, as a result of his merchant navy officer background, became first mate. 

Some of the stories from his sojourn on that vessel may well appear elsewhere in this series, but to bring full circle the story of how successful the inadvertent marketing strategy of the deflatable had been, several months after his arrival, while working on deck of the big power boat, the wild Scots from English Harbour came sailing, proudly kilted, into the very marina where he was berthed. This was to be the end of their voyage from the UK and they were planning to leave their boat in the British Virgin Islands where they hoped to find someone to look after her until they might re-join her sometime in the future and sail onward. Not only did he agree to be that person but it was decided he would spruce the boat up some and see about putting her into the charter trade with himself as skipper. 

And so began a new career that spanned several years and established him in the British Virgin Islands where he finally, after so many years of semi destitute travel, settled down (… least he thought he had).

Over the next 30 years he often looked back at that deflatable rubber dinghy that was so obviously past the end of its useful life on this planet, and smiled as he retraced the line that emanated from its leaky bow to where he stands today, marking straight and true the course his life was to run through some of his best times and most notable achievements. 

If he hadn’t just for the hell of it jury rigged that rinky-dink mast and sail, zigzagged his grinning way through the plush boats of English Harbour and attracted such favourable attention back in the early eighties, what other path, he wondered, might his life have followed? Would he have climbed as he did from the penury of a squatter on a cockroach ridden hulk to become, among other things, the founding VP of a Rotary club, or a director in a chamber of commerce, or would he have remained a penniless itinerant still languishing in some stagnant mangrove stand in some corner of the world where he’d washed up on the tide? 

Who knows?  But there is one indisputable fact about which he will always be certain.  He learned more about marketing from that deflatable and dying wreck of a dinghy in Antigua than from any of the management courses he attended in the USA afterwards as his successive careers unfolded. For none taught him that when the chips are down that’s when you just get up and do something….. anything ….. even if it’s a little off-the-wall ……. to market yourself and set in motion whatever chain of events you can that might lead to positive change. And to never think that you don’t have the resources to do so, for there is always something you can conjure up….. no matter how unlikely …… no matter how ridiculous …… that can be enlisted to serve the cause.

If a person is honestly open to opportunity and change then they never truly know where life will take them no matter how well they have it planned. Ambitions and desires can be good motivators but if pursued too rigidly can cause an individual to miss so much that’s out there. Oft-times though we need to trigger those opportunities even though we might not know what or where they are. As the old adage tells us, if we keep doing the same things we will get the same results, which is fine if we are happy with those results. But if, like so many folk bemoan, we are not then we need to do things differently to trigger those different opportunities. Especially if we find that the pursuit of our ambitions and desires have led us onto a path that really is not what, or going where, we thought it would be.

Back in the day when this story happened I really had no ambition other than to see as much of the world as I could by whatever means it took to do so. I was free of any restrictions and eager to find those triggers. That steadily changed though with years and responsibilities and now my kids are at that stage of their lives when they can choose their careers, knuckle down and lock themselves into paths that lead them on toward their ambitions which society has encouraged them to have.  Or ……… they can do what they’re actually doing with my blessing; setting themselves loose on the world to see what opportunities might exist if they create a few off the wall scenarios that might pull a few triggers.

…… I really wish I’d kept some design plans for the various rigs I used on that deflatable dinghy. Reckon they would be a great asset to pass on to my kids to help them get a real head start in life!