© 2002 Dave Archer / All Rights Reserved
I was entering my late twenties and nearing the end of a year in Alex Horn's Gurdjieff group when rumors of buying a private island began to circulate. Since The Group had collectively purchased a ranch, then put fifty acres of grape vines in by hand, paradise didn't seem all that farfetched. The Group was about two hundred strong, equally men and women. Everyone worked at good jobs and we had some wealthy members. Raising the money would not be that much of a problem.
And of course, when we found our island, we would need a ship.
One night, at a Red Mountain Ranch weekend, during a group dinner beneath the stars, one of the men stood to announce a likely schooner in Hawaii. My heart leaped when the call went up for volunteers to crew the ship across the Pacific to San Francisco. It was also announced that, "If you owe the Work (meaning money) you can't go unless you're paid up".
I was sitting at dinner with my girlfriend Nancy. She read me saying, “You really want to go don’t you?”
“Yea, but I owe. I mean, I’m really behind this time”.
Through a wicked smile, and with firm conviction in her voice, Nancy looked me in the eye and said, "doesn’t Alex always say not to listen to him? That a man makes his own way? You should go”.
Thank you Nancy.
The schooner Goodwill was a fine ship indeed. Built of three quarter inch plate steel in 1922, the pride of the A.G. Spaulding sporting goods family, and famous as the fastest "big schooner" on the sea. She had won the Trans Pacific Yacht Race to Hawaii twice, using the largest sail in the world, a spinnaker covering a quarter of an acre. Shortly before we sailed, we were shown a movie of the massive spinnaker in use. After that, I think we were all relieved to know it wasn't even on the ship. The Dacron sheet we saw in the movie, truly awesome, once set, contained so much wind power, it could only be “lowered” by triggering explosive bolts high on the mast ––– then as the sail flew into the sea, it was hauled on deck, hand over hand, by dozens of hearty seamen.
The Goodwill was a two masted gaff rigged schooner 161 feet long, up for sale by the owner, Ralph Larrabee, a wealthy industrialist. Mr. Larrabee had purchased the vessel in 1950 for thirty five thousand dollars from the U.S. Government who in turn, had gotten her from the Spauldings as a tax write off for one dollar, then used her as a training ship. At one time when Ralph owned her, the Goodwill was valued at 1.5 million. He wanted to sell I think, mainly from personal problems. Lack of funds was not one of them. He was suffering the final stages of drinking himself to death, and dreamed of passing his legendary ship on to folks, who, with his advice of course ––– believe me, we heard that lecture every night of the trip ––– might bring her back to her former glory.
Ralph lived on board the Goodwill with his "girlfriend," Patricia, docked at a pier in Honolulu where the couple had been rotting along with the schooner for some years. Normal maintenance dictated a trip to Mexico once a year where the Goodwill would be completely refitted. When we arrived in Honolulu the proud vessel lay in sad shape. Frayed and rotting lines were in evidence everywhere, as well as torn sails, cracked varnish and crumbling paint.
My first view of the the Goodwill was after stepping from a cab onto a dock in Honolulu. I remember glancing and thinking, “Huh ...she’s not so big”.
My wake-up call came at the base of the mainmast where I met a gargantuan column of spruce rising one hundred feet to the crow’s nest, with another fifty foot section topping that, and bigger around than my arms could reach. Suddenly my knees felt weak and springy. Humbled, and with no turning back, I silently recriminated. How could I ever have thought I could do this? Sailing the Pacific ocean on this ship was insane. I was no sailor.
Ralph Larrabee was 65. In North Beach he would have been called “a bad news drunk,” and been 86'd from the Coffee Gallery. True to the American Dream, Larrabee had made his considerable fortune building a Southern California tool and die company ––– begun in his garage as a young man ––– over the years it had grown into a phenomenal business. When I met Mr. Larrabee his company had recently fabricated enormous gears for a new telescope on Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii.
Ralph’s 6AM alcoholic shakes were severe to say the least. He would pour a good sized glass full of straight vodka and drink it down, shuddering like an old tractor kicking over on a cold morning, then pour another. After two glasses Captain Larrabee entered what was generally considered the best phase of his day. It didn’t last long, but during those “sober moments” he could tell perhaps, one great sea story. Usually though, within an hour or less, Larrabee lurched over the line, dissolving into morbid self pity, almost always accompanied by blubbering tears, crazy rage or both.
At the dock in Hawaii one day, a pontoon helicopter landed near the ship and some businessmen in suits waved what I took to be important papers, attempting to gesture across the water to Ralph. He stood at the rail waving them off with a blast of vindictive strong enough to lay down an Iowa cornfield: “Away! ... Away! Fuck you! Get out of here god damn it! Away! ... never ... never bother me. Away! Away! Away!”
Another insight into Ralph’s narrowing reality tunnel happened one night in the main salon when we were still docked in Hawaii. His girlfriend Patricia, at least twenty years his junior, walked in and sat in his lap, which obviously annoyed him, still, not enough to push her away. Ralph just went on talking, so Patricia began to kiss the top of his bald head, with little smacky kisses, while begging him for dime to make a phone call from a pay booth on the dock.
Her baby–talk was astonishing.
“Ralphie–poo give Patsie–pookins ten cents, okay, because Patsie-pookin’s needs to call mommie ...”
Ralph finally tried pushing her off his lap. Patricia held on like a sumo wrestler. Finally, in disgust the millionaire dug into a pocket and came up with a handful of coins. Patricia reached for money and Ralph pulled his hand back, clamping his fist tight, then shooing her away, like a pesky fly. Patricia then surrendered in his lap saying, “Ralphie–boy ... please”. The man sighed and begrudgingly opened his hand, one finger at a time, not missing a beat of the story he was telling. Patsie-pookins then took two dimes instead of one and Ralph blew up. He called her "a god damned whore" in front of everyone and made her put the extra coin back. I supposed at the time, this demonstration of supreme frugality was indeed why, Ralph Larrabee was a multimillionaire and I was worth about ten dollars.
Ralph and Patricia’s bickering were a shipboard constant. Once we were well out to sea Patricia took to “entertaining” us every night at supper. Ralph hated it. The salon was a beautiful mahogany lined room with two large gimbaled dining tables, bookshelves and an upright piano. When Patricia discovered one of the crew could play, she insisted he accompany her every night for impromptu “dinner music”. She “sang” in breathy imitation of a lounge broad, but completely seriously, unbearable to watch. She thought she was good. Patty would have been thrown out of a karoke bar. After the first night, most of the crew ignored her, except for Ralph who yelled for her to stop. One night Patricia was concerned because most of the men were growing beards. She made a grand entrance during dinner wearing a full length sparkling evening gown with elbow length white gloves, a cigarette burning in a long holder. Then with the piano tinkling an indiscriminate “cocktail” riff, she improvised a loopy song for us while cloyingly reaching out and caressing our stubbled faces:
“Men, men, men ... I have to say, all the beards I see growing here today ... are sending me so far, far, far away ... away ... away ... into a lather ... and I hope you will lather up ... since ... we live on board the Goodwill, to ... gether ... in close quarters, we must be, well ... groomed ...”
Ralph Larrabee suddenly started shouting, “Shut up you fucking cunt!”
Patricia continued. Ralph then got up from his chair, staggered over to where she was singing and hauled off and slugged the poor woman in the jaw so hard he knocked her out cold. Patricia crumpled to the floor in a heap of elbows, calves, cigarette holder and gloved arms. We were stunned. Then Ralph grabbed her by the feet and yanked her unconscious body down a passageway to their quarters, where he pulled Patricia through their cabin door, then stepped out over her body and slammed it behind him yelling, “... and stay there!”
One of the members of our Gurdjieff group was the brother of a southern California yacht broker named Milt Reynolds. Milt was around thirty five and Hollywood handsome. Among his many claims to yachting fame were not only winning important races, but selling a boat to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Milt would be our sailing master, a formidable job considering that almost none of us had the slightest seagoing experience. It was his unenviable chore to teach a “crew” of landlubbers the ropes, so to speak. First, that ropes on shipboard are lines. Not only that, he only had three days to do it before we sailed. And that each line had a name such as “throat halyard” and “peak halyard,” etc.
The problem was, there were so many lines that when Milt Reynolds shouted orders during “dry run” exercises, we often grabbed the wrong ones, eliciting thunderous warnings from him. After a few “dry runs” Milt went below for a large roll of white adhesive tape from the medical locker. Then using a felt–tip marker he lettered tags for each line.
After that, “TAKE UP THE PEAK HALYARD!,” he’d cry, and seven guys would trip over each other trying to find the right tag. I glanced over at Milt many times to catch him standing by the wheel slowly shaking his head in despair.
On the evening of the third or fourth day, Milt gathered the crew together, including the four women who had volunteered to do what he described as the most difficult job at sea. “Cooking for any crew, but especially one this big, is a damn thankless job,” he explained the first day.
“If you don’t believe me, just wait until you are cooking three meals a day in rough seas!”.
He continued, “We’re sailing for Kaui tonight. Let’s get with it. And you should be concerned. As you no doubt realize, the Goodwill is one big mother of a ship. Anyway, the wind is right, let’s sail!”
Then he took on a gravely serious tone and continued, “Listen up! Is there anyone here who can't swim?”
Only Mike Watson raised his hand.
“Then Mike, whenever you are on deck, wear a life preserver. But get this, if anyone goes overboard, life preserver or not, you ... will ... be ... lost ... at ... sea ... and you will die at sea. Take another look at what it says on that St. Christopher medal in the salon. It’s there for a reason”.
We were all familiar with the large solid gold medallion embedded in the bulkhead over the gimbaled dining tables. In bas relief was pictured a minuscule boat in an endless sea. The inscription read:
Saint Christopher Protect Us For The Sea Is So Vast And We Are So Small
“If anyone falls off this ship it’s ‘Man Overboard!’ of course, and keep yelling it as loud as you can. And throw off this marker,” Milt said, pointing to a cork float with a tall flagpole tipped with a day–glo orange pennant flag. “We might be able to see the flag but don’t count on it. Helmsman check the exact course! That would be our only hope. One degree off and by the time we get back we will never find them. A ship like this does not come about fast. Cut the lines. I mean use your knives and cut the lines. And just hope that you never have to do that and if you do get the hell out of the away fast, and I mean fast! Because lines will explode like dynamite and all hell is going to break loose. The gaffs will come down hard. Watch out! Get out of the way! And lines and canvas will be all over the deck and the wind will rip the sails to pieces, especially these sails because they're old. If that happens we will go under diesel and come about as fast as we can, but the truth is, there will be no hope of finding anyone. It takes too long. Take my word for it. We won’t find them. And then instead of this trip being an adventure it’ll end up a catastrophe. Believe me you have never felt as bad as losing a friend at sea. To the end of your days you’ll never get over it”.
Then Milt reached out and grabbed a step on a ladder. The steps were made of steel rods wrapped in cord, tightly tied between two thick cables called “shrouds,” that rose two thirds of the way up the forward mast. “Whatever you do, stay off of this starboard ladder. Never climb this ladder. It’s so rotten I could yank this step off with one hand. The port ladder isn’t much better. Stay off it too, but if you must climb for some reason, always, always keep both hands on the shrouds, never the steps”.
Sailing to Kauai that night was exhilarating, as we sailed most of the night with steady wind. Then, with the sun rising, we sailed into a pristine bay of teal blue water rimmed with blazing white sand, lined with lush palms. Dolphins flanked the bow, leaping together, seeming to glance over at us few lucky enough to be on the bowsprit.
I have never felt more alive.
The bowsprit was fifteen or so feet long. Beneath it hung a basket of rope, like a circus net for catching low-wire sailors. At the tip of the bowsprit was a small curved pipe–rail with a place for a single person to stand, always the favorite place to be. People made fun of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack on the bow of the Titanic, but he was perfect. Jack did exactly what any person with lust for life would have done. On the Goodwill, we traded off with each other, otherwise, we never got to be out there alone. Leaning out from the tip of the bowsprit into that hip-hugging rail was simply to fly, while sensing tremendous power holding you there. Then, even better than Jack, down, down, skimming the water, so close sometimes the sea will pour over your feet, and you see flying fish so close, and dolphins, and then rising up high in the wind again you go, pausing there, for a few delicious seconds, hovering, then down again. There is nothing finer in the world.
We anchored in the bay and rested, discussing the trip, energized by our accomplishment ––– Milt’s accomplishment. Let me say that right.
Calling the crew together Milt warned, “Okay, we did okay on our island hop, I mean we got here ––– nobody went over the side ––– the drills were good for us, but the real test is from here to the Golden Gate Bridge and that’s a long, long way. We are headed into open seas tomorrow. Hear this: there can be unholy storms out there and we don’t want to be tested because the Goodwill is in bad shape for that, not to mention us”.
Our one day on Kauai was spent exploring. Several of us found a stream and investigated a pristine forest grotto from a flat bottomed whaleboat. Completely alone in paradise, or so it seemed at first. Up ahead at one point, we saw smoke rising in the jungle, a thin wisp floating up as straight as a laser through still air, then billowing at the top, some forty feet up. We left the boat and moved through lush ferns like a band of stalking pirates. Creeping through the thick greenery, parting bushes, quietly advancing while huge toads hopped away from our feet. I felt like a ten year old Captain Kidd. On closer inspection, the smoke was issuing from the exact center of a small bridge over a stream. It turned out to be the dying coals of a small campfire where someone had recently eaten a can of Van Camp’s Pork & Beans and left the can.
The next morning we sailed for San Francisco, and into an adventure to rival any voyage to the gold fields in 1850.
Because, In mid Pacific, about fifteen days out, Mike Watson fell overboard.
I was with him when he did.
The two of us had come on deck that fated stormy morning to stand a forward watch together. We were sailing a “fresh breeze” closer to a “near gale,” with wind over twenty five knots, pushing thirty. Milt always wanted two men on watch at the bow. That morning, white water was clearing the deck, sometimes knee high. And that morning, Mike Watson happened to notice a free bit of line ––– in nautical jargon: a "deadman" ––– flying in the wind from the rotten starboard ladder. Holding his open knife in his teeth then, and without a thought as to Milt's previous warning, Mike began climbing the rotten ladder like some character from Treasure Island. I glimpsed him doing this and was about to yell, “get off the ladder,” when in sudden horror the step he was on gave way from the shrouds, and Mike fell into the frigid Pacific ocean on yes, the one day he had forgotten to wear a life preserver.
I was fifteen feet away and have never forgotten the look on his face. Frozen there, one ghastly “long” second of eye contact, then gone. I know one thing. That look is why an executioner pulls a hood onto a condemned prisoner's head, that unfathomable mixture of livid terror mingled with a very odd (nearly comical) sort of curiosity.
All I know is, I never, ever, want to see that look again as long as I live.
I jumped to the rail. The waterline was fifteen feet below and Mike was already gone.
“Man overboard! Man overboard!”
No one could hear me over the wind. I kept yelling and threw a marker over the side, then ran to a funnel shaped vent and yelled into the crew quarters so loud my voice gave out. Then ran aft yelling all the way. Soon everyone was on deck cutting lines. Instantly the Goodwill became the wreck of the Hesperus. As Milt had warned, the heavy spruce gaffs brought the sails crashing down. And the wind rent the sails with such force that anyone hit could have been fatally injured. Manila lines flew over the deck like Paul Bunyan’s bull whip, cracking off explosions of fiber into the air.
“What’s the course! What’s the course!?,” Milt yelled.
Under power we slowly came about. Then, in the fever of the moment the helmsman made a serious error, actually bringing the Goodwill completely about, that is 360 degrees instead of the appropriate 180. Milt took over the wheel and brought the ship around again while we all tried desperately to contain the torn sails and secure them. Under diesel at last, after a long ordeal, we were headed toward Mike, we hoped.
Mike's girlfriend white knuckled the ship's rail with the presence of a carved figurehead, scanning the overwhelming sea.
Ralph Larrabee staggered drunk to the rail shouting, “I am the captain of this ship and no one is allowed overboard!”
Ralph was soon told to go below if he couldn’t help. He pulled himself together and helped as best he could, quite a lot actually, eventually rallying enough to take the helm.
Gazing into the churning sea, into the whipping waves and white caps, straining for a glimpse of Mike, we saw all sorts of things. Plastic bleach bottles trailing long bundles of seaweed, Japanese glass fishing floats, pieces of wood and plastic bags. In all the days preceding the mishap I’d spent countless hours watching the sea and hadn’t seen much of anything. Now, because of the urgency, flotsam appeared everywhere. Crew members were calling, pointing with excitement, then groaning with disappointment. We searched for a long time. Early on, Milt had sent a man up to the crows nest with binoculars. Too much time was slipping by.
Milt kept calling up to him, “Anything?”
Finally, in desperation, the man called out, “Only the albatross!,” his voice muffled in the wind.
“Fifteen points off the port bow!”
The huge bird with at least a six foot wing span had followed us from Hawaii to the mid–Pacific. It was always somewhere with us, nearby, demonstrating it’s perfection of skimming over the water, clearing the troughs and ridges by inches.
An albatross at sea is without a doubt the most beautiful flying creature on this earth. Leaving Hawaii we had soon taken the bird as good omen, spending hours watching it weave the wind and spray. Did it fly also at night we wondered? Every morning, no matter how early, there it was still, flying exactly as it had the day before. Milt of course, explained to us landlubbers how from the beginning of time sailors have considered them sacred.
“Listen up!” Milt yelled. Mike’s gone. He can’t even swim, shit! ... let’s go for the albatross.”
A course was set for the bird and to everyone’s utter astonishment, there we found Mike Watson, bobbing beneath his avian angel. The circling bird was actually pointing Mike out to us, flying in a tight circle. Because if that bird hadn’t flown high that day, the lookout could not have seen it, even with binoculars. Yet these birds almost never fly high, much preferring to ride the updraft, feet and inches off the water. Without doubt, that day, the albatross flew high to show us the exact location of Mike Watson.
On our first pass several crew members threw life preservers toward Mike. The bright orange floats fell short, bobbing far from him. The one I threw landed about a hundred feet away from Mike. It might as well have been a mile because the forces in the sea were such that he was without power to reach it. I looked into my friend’s face as we passed. He was doomed, with skin almost as white as the foam. Yet somehow, he’d taught himself to swim, or at least float. Mike Watson was being inundated by waves. He would completely disappear in the wild water, then miraculously he’d bob up again. On the first pass, Mike called out to us in the voice of a child, “I can’t stay up!”
Milt quickly stripped naked, yanked on rubber frog feet and a life preserver then balanced on the stern rail. After the next pass, he signaled for reverse engines and backed down on Mike. White water suddenly roared over the stern. Milt held tight. “When I tell you to kill the engine, kill it fast or we'll be sucked into the prop!”
The Goodwill backed down until Milt yelled, “Cut!,” and dove headfirst into a wave crashing over the stern. He swam to Mike with two life preservers carried over his arms, then held him afloat and began barking orders to us from the sea.
“I can’t hold him. He’s in traumatic shock and we’re both going down! Get a skiff in the water”.
Clem Starck, an ex–merchant mariner, therefore one of the few crewmen onboard with any seagoing experience, volunteered immediately. Clem jumped into a small rowboat that was then lowered into the sea, and immediately swept away from the ship.
“Oarlocks! I need oarlocks!,” he called, waving a useless oar in the air.
Before we left Hawaii Milt Renolds had given me a specific job one afternoon. That of making sure every skiff onboard had the correct oarlocks tied inside it with jute cord known as marlin. I’d checked , made sure each set fit properly, then carefully tied one pair into each dingy. Where were they now? I ran to the bosun’s locker, a large wooden trunk that was part of the deck and finally located the oarlocks by rummaging all the way to the bottom. Obviously, someone had gone around behind me and carefully removed them.
There were three sets, still tied with the marlin I’d used, two by two. I grabbed them and ran to the rail. Clem Starck was a thirty yards away from the Goodwill looking mighty small. I had one shot. I had been the worst baseball player in the history of my hometown. I threw anyway. The oarlocks soared high ––– and willed by every heart on board I’m sure ––– fell exactly into the middle of Clem Starck’s skiff.
Alas however, they were the wrong size.
I died inside.
By then Clem was too far away to throw another set. The last we saw of him, Starck was moving away from us at a rapid rate, kneeling in the skiff, using one oar to paddle like a canoe. It was madness. He would rise up the walls of huge swells, mountains of water, then fall from view into a trough and be gone for what seemed like minutes, then rise again, white water crashing. We could see him frantically using a boot to bale water. Now the man aloft was watching Clem.
“Don’t take your eyes off him!,” Milt roared from the sea.
“Get another skiff in the water!” Some men threw another dingy over the side and two crewmen, a fellow named Larry, and another named Steve Ashton, stripped naked fast, put on rubber frog feet and life preservers and leaped into the sea. They made it to the skiff okay and managed to get in, only to discover they too had no oarlocks. Again I threw into the wind with all my heart and ten million chances to one, the oarlocks landed perfectly in their boat. Wrong size again. Jesus! They sat on their knees side by side and paddled as best they could, trying to reach Mike and Milt.
What happened next was one of the most fulfilling things I have ever experienced in my life. Larry and Steve’s small boat somehow made the oddest looping path possible, like a wind blown bumper car, through an impossible crazy sea and eventually, after a torturous trip came together with Milt and Mike. Impossible. Their coming together was nothing less than full-out magic in broad daylight. Later they told us “paddling” was a joke. Chaos moved those four men together. There is no other explanation. It was impossible. The probability of a chance encounter in mid ocean: nil. See, at one point they were far apart. Then, over time, they came together. We all stood locked to the ship’s rail as Larry and Steve pulled Mike and Milt into their skiff.
Later I imagined the scene from above, an albatross’ eye view if you will, and with no ship in the picture. I visualized the two men’s heads bobbing together in the sea. Then the two naked men in a dingy, overwhelmed by waves, “pretending” to paddle, completely unable to achieve the slightest effect in the forces around them, separated by hundreds of yards of mad water, with no hope of ever reaching each other. Then, it “happens”.
Not by chance.
Later, in group discussions about the experience with Alex, this was seen as Gurdjieff’s “C” Influence, or “Conscious Influence.
Milt called from the skiff, “Make a pass, heave a line!”
The ship's “heaving lines” had been another of my jobs in Hawaii. Milt had shown me how they were all tangled and twisted on the pin rail. He instructed me how to lay them down the deck, get the kinks out, then carefully coil each one the proper way, in case of emergency.
“Just hope we never need them David”.
Now I stood, heaving line in hand, realizing I had no idea how to throw a line, “Who can heave a line?," I called.
Neal, the hired navigator, took the line and laid it at least twenty yards directly over their boat.
The problem now was, if we pulled the four men in too close to the ship the Goodwill could crush them. For those who don’t know, the term, “fresh gale” means business. Milt kept warning us off.
“No! Let it out! Let it out!”
Then came something more astonishing than the two previous mysteries combined.
It was as if the sea and the wind became “informed,” or enchanted somehow and the sea calmed. We were convinced, later, that once again, our focused will demanded success. Nature answered. When emotion ran high enough and our combined will was pure. To me, the essence of magic.
In Ken Burns’ film of the Lewis and Clark expedition, William Clark wrote in his journal of how, in the freezing snow of January in 1805, when the supply of meat was running low, the Mandan enacted a sacred ritual to call in the buffalo herds. I thought immediately of my experience at sea.
Clark wrote, “A buffalo dance for three nights passed in the first village. A curious custom. The old men arrange themselves in a circle and the young men go to one of the old men with a whining tone and request the old man to take his wife, who presents herself naked except a robe and sleep with her. All this is to cause the buffalo to come near so that they may kill them”. Two days later the prairie was covered with buffalo.
Talk about high emotion and combined will.
We pulled in the skiff and reached over the side, while Milt and the others tried to lift Mike Watson from the bottom of the skiff. We could not reach down to him from the ship. Milt yelled as loudly as he could into Watson’s ear, “We can’t lift you up there Mike! You have to climb or you’re gonna die! Climb Mike! Climb!”
Watson rose like a movie corpse with some help. There was a ladder hanging off the side of the ship, but it was too short. With near superhuman achievement then, Mike worked his way up the ladder hand over hand. I’ve never seen anything like it. He had no human strength left to do it, yet to save his life he did. Finally, we could reach him, and pull, and soon he was aboard. Milt, Larry and Steve then easily climbed the ladder leaving the skiff to blow, lost forever.
The lookout had lost Clem long before. Now we went looking for him.
The same scenario ensued with all hands looking into the sea for any sign of our friend. Precious time was wasting. On we went. Then came a moment I will never forget. I still get chills remembering the call.
“I can see the albatross circling, ten points off the port bow!”
Could the bird be showing us where Starck was too? This was too much.
Under full power, crashing through walls of water we motored toward the bird. And there was Clem, paddling like a Norse God training to invade Ireland. I remember he had tied his yellow rain jacket on an upright oar in the front of his skiff for a “sight” flag.
Bearing down fast on Clem, brutal seas lifted the Goodwill’s bow thirty feet off the water, then sent it crashing down again, completely under. One wave whipped my feet out, shooting me down the deck and smacking my head into the “dog house,” HARD. Milt was aft at the helm receiving instructions relayed down the deck from the bow. He called the engine room and tried to slow the Goodwill. Slow to respond, on she crashed. Clem, seeing he was about to be crushed, stood tall in his dingy trying to balance against the sea. It was all he could do. The Goodwill's bow buried itself in white water directly in front of him, then began to rise again. Clem jumped, grabbing the rope basket under the bowsprit, and hanging there from the bottom, where he was then literally pulled out of his skiff, and high into the air above it.
A thick steel cable ran from the bowsprit to an iron rod jutting perpendicular beneath it called the “dolphin striker,” then to the hull where it terminated below the waterline. This was the umbilicus of the ship holding the tension of the masts. The Goodwill pitched down into the sea again. This was amazing. Because the dolphin striker crashed into Clem’s skiff and split it in half. I mean, we saw one half of the skiff go up in the wave to starboard and the other half go up to port. Then, as the bow pitched up again, tons of water parted, and there hung Clem Starck, on the underside of the rope safety basket unharmed! Men crawled out onto the bowsprit and grabbed his hands, locking wrists, then pulling him to safety.
Mike had been taken below by the women, who stripped off his wet clothes then crawled into bed with him, holding him tight, warming him with their bodies under piles of blankets. Later Mike told us he'd recovered quite quickly, that way, actually.
At every breakfast, lunch and dinner and almost every spare moment between, for the whole rest of the trip, we relived the amazing details again and again. Pulling the story apart and putting it back together with every nuance until all was known. And every person among us wholeheartedly agreed that we had experienced something of a different order of things.
On the chart that day a carefully lettered, “Watsonville” was written to designate the incident. That night I wrote this song:
The albatross is a mighty fine bird
He flies on the ocean low
He comes a skimming ‘cross the water
Tipping’ into the spray
Surveyin’ everything below
He’s a mighty fine bird
He flew to the end
I only know one thing
He saved my friends
The Albatross is a mighty fine bird, you know
I was standing on the foredeck
When my friend yelled out
“Lord it’s lettin’ go!”
He fell from the riggin’ into the sea
Carried down below
“Man overboard!,” went up the cry
We slashed the halyards, let the sails fly
And came about into a moanin’ sky so slow
Then the crew looked out on a ragin’ sea
From the aft, the starboard into the lee
And everywhere there was nothing but the rolling sea
White water whippin’ taking him away
Until a man aloft cried “There–a–way!”
I see the bird’s a circlin’ ––– Come about!
A prayer to Heaven he was shouting out
And we headed for the bird and we found out
That the albatross is a mighty fine bird ...
Nearing the entrance of San Francisco Bay we radioed ahead and most of The Group showed up on the Golden Gate Bridge to welcome us. The crew women had not only handled the cooking with grace, but in Hawaii they had purchased yellow t–shirts and red cloth. Then at sea, they sewed sections of the red cloth, like epaulets, onto the shirts. These were the colorful, if funky “uniforms,” we wore under full sail into San Francisco harbor. All sails had been repaired at sea and from a distance at least, we looked magnificent. Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge we could see our friends running from both ends of the bridge, waving to us like ants waving tiny neck scarves and hats. As we passed below some even threw scarves and hats off the bridge. We docked in front of the Trident restaurant in Sausalito and The Group came on board to celebrate. I sang “The Albatross” from the rigging to great approval. I got as drunk as, well, a sailor, and got into a fist fight with a fellow crewmen. I discovered him in my bunk actually, having sex with the navigator and we got in a fight over it, complete with black eyes.
In the dry–dock survey, twenty thousand electrolysis holes were found in the hull. They would have required spot welding and power sanding at two dollars a pit, adding forty thousand to the price of the ship, which due to her sad state of repair, Ralph Larrabee was offering for a quarter of a million dollars. With many other major repairs necessary to return the Goodwill to her former glory, our group decided to pass on buying the ship.
Ralph Larrabee returned to Hawaii, then two years later, attempting to sail the Goodwill from Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja, to Ensenada, Mexico, hit Sacramento reef, four miles off Cabo San Lucas. The hull of the Goodwill was ripped open easily, due I suspect, to its unseaworthiness, sinking quickly. Officials said that although lifeboats could have made it to Punto San Antonio, the coastline there was rugged, desolate and without fresh water.
In a news photo of the wreck, the proud ship stands upright on the reef, broken masts jutting twenty feet out of the water. From the air it was noted that lifeboats were missing from the deck. Tragically however, Ralph Larrabee, aged 67, and Patricia, along with the chief engineer, a Colombian cook, and numerous others along for the voyage ––– were never found. First reports stated nine were lost, then upped the number to thirteen or more. Milt had often used the word “complete catastrophe” to emphasize in his lectures, the seriousness of the hazards of sailing a ship as large as the Goodwill.
And that is exactly how the Goodwill died. In complete catastrophe, with an albatross no doubt, her final witness.
The story continues. Many
people in this world knew Ralph Larrabee kept gold coins in a safe in
the floor of his Captain's Quarters, coins by size and number of
extraordinary value. They knew, including one of our members, Jon
Adams, who was part of the boat brokering in Hawaii before we flew to
crew the ship, that Ralph showed he and his wife his stash, and
evidently had shown it to many others. His pattern was to get cockeyed
drunk and show-off his coins. Ralph Larrabee's company dove on the ship
within days, if not sooner. The gold was missing. Ex-crew members and I
have now talked at some length by telephone, and have pieced together
this scenario. Ralph was on his way as usual for dry-dock work in
Mexico. We know his crew was small, and mostly Mexican, and not people
he particularly knew, but could have been planted on him as "crew,"
with the goal of getting the gold. Cabo San Lucas is a place where it
is not impossible to get ashore, to be met on the coast by lookouts
with a four-wheel drive truck. It is a truly barren place, with no
water, and yet, those areas can be accessed with off road vehicles.
What we think might have happened is, once at sea, the crew dispatched
Ralph and all others (missing one boy who made it back to Mexico, or so
the "legend" now goes, and disappeared.) The lifeboats were missing,
and the Goodwill sank so fast, no one would have had time to make a
single lifeboat ready to be launched. She was gutted on a reef and sank
in minutes. No bodies were found below deck. This says to me, Ralph and
others were thrown off the ship by pirates, dead or alive, then the
Goodwill powered on while the safe was cracked, (he probably left it
open,) and lifeboats were prepared, then three or four guys made it
ashore and shot off a couple of flares, and now, you know ... the
(possible) REST of the story.
Davy Jones has the truth, except for one young man, who may still be alive.
Only one thing is
absolutely sure. The gold was gone and Ralph could not have saved it
because his beloved ship sank too fast. I believe when she hit the
reef, the criminals who did the heist must have already been headed for
shore in the best lifeboat, with the gold.
All hands were missing
without a trace, except for one young Mexican man, who somehow "got
away," or was part of it. Was he just lucky in the sea that night
and made it to shore and somehow got help in the middle of absolutely
nowhere? No one could make it out on foot without a lot of water and
survival gear. The place is completely isolated. I am intrigued by him.
These are questions that might be answered by a mysterious young man
somewhere in Mexico, or by now, anywhere, who would of course, be much
older, and perhaps not as difficult to find as first considered. There
would be no employment record with Larrabee, but there is: a story, and
the name of a Ship, and a mystery of missing gold, which everyone
loves. If the story was featured in a television piece in Mexico, the
story could researched and perhaps the "mysterious young man" could be
This is one for a documentary mystery show with a good research budget.
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