The First Voyage of Al Fishman (Fiction)

When Al Fishman was in his middle fifties the company he worked for was acquired by a national chain and he was eased out. He had a modest pension, his house was paid for and he figured his income was adequate to enjoy a long retirement. After a few weeks his wife, Ruth, was not too happy to find Al under her feet all the time. She had her own routine and Al was disturbing it. She encouraged him to find a hobby. They lived not far from the sea on the south shore of Long Island. Several of Al’s friends had small boats; one of them was an instructor at the local yacht club. He persuaded Al to sign up for a beginner’s sailing course, this was given two nights a week at the high school. Al also started subscriptions to a few sailing magazines and soon he was discussing the relative merits of chartering in the Caribbean or Bahamas with fellow students on the course. He went to the library, which had an extensive collection of yachting books, many written by cruising couples recounting their experiences sailing round the world. Slowly the idea began to form in his mind: that was the ideal way to retire. Why, he and Ruth could buy a boat, get a little experience and then the world was their oyster! They could sail anywhere. But despite invitations from his sailing friends Al never actually set foot on a sailboat.

That summer he began to scan the ad pages of the Long Island Boater. He tentatively suggested to Ruth that perhaps they should buy a sailboat, although he did not go into details. One day an advertisement in the classified columns caught his eye–a fairly new thirty-six foot sloop with four bunks at a very attractive price. Waiting until Ruth was out shopping he phoned the number listed; a woman answered. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘my name is Al Fishman; I’m interested in the boat for sale. May I speak to the owner, please?’ In an almost apologetic tone she replied that the boat was hers. She went on to explain that the boat had belonged to her husband but he had passed away three months earlier. He asked how much water it drew and as the woman went into details it became clear why the asking price was below market; the boat had been built by her husband and was made of wood. These days nobody wanted a wooden boat; they required too much attention. Still, the price was right and it was nearly new; her husband had launched the boat only the year before. The vessel was at a boatyard in Mattituck, about an hour’s drive from his home. Al thanked her and said he would think about it. Over the next few days the idea of owning a thirty-six foot boat grew on him. He had assumed if he bought a boat at all it would be a day-sailer to start with, but here was a real cruiser with bunks and a galley. And how impressed his nautical friends would be–he was starting at the top! With his heart beating a little faster than usual he called back and made an appointment to meet at the boatyard. As he drove east to Mattituck, thoughts churned in his head; probably, he thought skeptically, it was knocked together from plywood and looked like a floating orange crate.

A short, dowdy-looking woman was waiting at the ramshackle office of the yard. ‘Mrs. Levitt,’ he enquired, ‘I’m Al Fishman; I’ve come to see the boat you’re selling.’ ‘Hello,’ she said and held out a hand. She led him past cradled boats towards the water. ‘I’ve not been here often since Bill,’ she paused, ‘died. It was all very sudden, just a couple of weeks after he put her in the water he had a stroke.’ Al told her how sorry he was to hear that. She stepped onto a rickety wooden jetty. ‘There she is–Sea Breeze–it took Bill six years to build her.’ To Al’s inexperienced eye she looked great; the white hull gleamed in the sun. When Mrs. Levitt produced a key and opened the door to the cabin he stepped into the cockpit and followed her below. Her husband had indeed been a craftsman; the woodwork was immaculate. The settees were upholstered in a tasteful blue. ‘Bill loved this boat,’ said Mrs. Levitt, ‘he often said she could sail anywhere.’ This last remark resonated strongly with Al; this was indeed what he wanted to do. ‘Has it got an engine?’ he asked. ‘Oh, yes,’ she replied ‘a Yamaha diesel.’ She glanced at him sharply and Al realized he had sounded a bit naïve. ‘It’s behind those steps – take a look.’ He fumbled with a metal catch and swung the steps aside. ‘I don’t think the battery is charged,’ exclaimed Mrs. Levitt, who was peering at some instruments, ‘I could get Mr. Tucker to start it,’ ‘He runs the yard,’ she added by way of explanation. ‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ said Al. He thought desperately of nautical questions he felt he should be asking. ‘How about the sails?’ he ventured. ‘They’re at the house,’ she replied, ‘they were new last year. Bill bought a mainsail and two jibs.’ Al drove home boiling with excitement; he had hit the jackpot on his first try.

Al broached the possibility of buying a boat to Ruth without specifically mentioning Sea Breeze. She was vaguely encouraging. Al realized there were many practical details to solve; not least was how to get the boat home from Mattituck. It could be trucked, of course, but that would be expensive. To sail home he would need help from his more knowledgeable friends; an option he rejected. He wanted the first sail to be more like a honeymoon, not a drunken party. Then a solution appeared in the same classified columns he had seen the boat advertised – ‘Sailing tuition and yacht deliveries by Coast Guard licensed captain’, followed by a phone number. Al called and introduced himself. He was talking to Captain Fred Lumley, also a retiree. He explained he needed help getting a sailboat from Mattituck to the Great South Bay. Al asked him how much it would cost; Fred was cautious said he would have to see the boat first, but if it was OK he charged $200 per day. ‘That seems fair,’ said Al. ‘I’ll be back in touch.’ All that remained was to negotiate a price with Mrs. Levitt. This was not too difficult; she was eager to sell; summer was almost over and soon she would be stuck with winter storage charges. Al sold some securities his mother had left him years ago and within a month he was the proud owner of Sea Breeze. He called Fred Lumley and arranged to meet him at the boatyard. There he confessed his complete ignorance, and asked Fred to sail the boat home with himself and Ruth as crew. Fred was a taciturn man of few words. He examined the boat carefully, started the engine, checked the radio and with Al’s eager help bent on the sails. ‘She’ll do,’ he said, ‘when do you want to sail?’ Al had already arranged a winter berth near his house. ‘We could go anytime,’ he replied. Fred went to his car and found a set of tide tables, thumbing through he muttered to himself and said, ‘How about next week, say Wednesday? We could leave about noon and get to the Bay in a day. Of course, it depends on good weather,’ he added with a lopsided leer. ‘Make sure she’s fueled up,’ instructed Fred. ‘And put a couple of blankets aboard. Have you got foul weather gear?’ Al made a long list of things to do and alerted Ruth to his plans for the Wednesday departure.

On Wednesday morning, Al packed a cooler with drinks and sandwiches, he and Ruth met Fred at the marina which was to be the new home for Sea Breeze. They left Fred’s car there and drove to Mattituck. Ruth had not seen the boat before and was surprised at how big it was. Mr. Tucker came to see them off. Al asked him what he owed for charging the battery and refueling. Mr. Tucker raised his hand, ‘I’ll mail you,’ he said. ‘I know Bill would be right pleased to see the old girl under sail again. Bon Voyage.’ Fred started the engine, Al busied himself loosening lines, and they backed into the creek and turned towards Long Island Sound. It was a clear day with a light northwest wind. While they were still under power Fred showed Al how to handle the tiller steering, he was a quick learner and after half an hour Fred said they should hoist the mainsail. Al steered while Fred went to the mast and pulled the halyard. Ruth sat primly in the cockpit with a nervous look on her face. When the sail was up Fred took the tiller and turned the boat downwind. As the wind caught the sail, Sea Breeze heeled and Ruth let out a piercing shriek. ‘Oh God! We’re tipping over,’ she cried. ‘It’s OK,’ said Fred, ‘yachts lean when they are sailing. It’s perfectly normal. Don’t worry.’ Ruth was unconvinced, and sat white-faced, gripping the cockpit coaming. Al unfurled the jib and Fred shut down the throbbing diesel. Sea Breeze sailed sedately about a mile from the green Long Island shore. ‘Now,’ said Al, ‘this is more like it. Isn’t this terrific, dear?’ Ruth looked daggers at him and moaned, ‘I’m scared.’

After about four hours they approached Orient Point; ahead lay turbulent Plum Gut. Sea Breeze bucked and rolled in the short, choppy waves. Ruth turned from white to green and retched over the side. Al was properly solicitous, ‘Lie down, dear,’ he said, helped her to a bunk and covered her with a blanket. ‘Give me a bucket,’ she groaned weakly. He put the handle of a plastic bucket in her hand, which drooped limply over the side of the bunk. When Al returned to the cockpit the sun had set and the lights of the Connecticut shore twinkled in the distance. Ahead the powerful beam of the Montauk light flashed on the horizon. Al was entranced, Fred decided it was a good time to take a nap and he showed Al how to hold the proper course. At Montauk Point they met the swell of the Atlantic and Ruth was sick again. After an hour the wind died, they dropped the sails and Fred started the engine. Ruth complained it was noisy and she could smell fumes. As dawn lightened the eastern sky they entered the inlet at Shinnecock and negotiated the shallow sandbanks to Great South Bay. They tied up at lunchtime; Fred finished off the sandwiches and drank a warm beer. They all drove in Fred’s car back to Mattituck. At the yard Al thanked Fred warmly for a wonderful first voyage and settled up while Ruth sat in their car, drumming her fingers on the window frame.

On the drive home Ruth let Al have it with both barrels. ‘I am not going in that smelly, noisy, rolly thing again,’ she said firmly. ‘I think you should sell it and get a smaller boat that you can sail yourself.’ A brilliant pun flashed through Al’s mind, ‘Yeah, and I can call itRuthless,’ he quipped. ‘Very clever,’ she snapped and they sat in silence for the rest of the drive. After breakfast the next day, Al said he was just popping over to the marina to check out a few things on the boat. ‘And why don’t you just pop by a broker on the way’ said Ruth heavily ‘and list it for sale?’ As Al tinkered on the boat he thought about the trip and Ruth’s unexpected reaction. His dream of sailing to the Caribbean was fading rapidly. He sat in the cockpit and suddenly reached a decision. On the way home he dropped in on a friend who was an attorney. When he got home Ruth was fixing some lunch, ‘Well, did you have a nice boatey morning?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ Al replied, ‘and I stopped in on Jack Stein.’ ‘Who’s he’ she asked, ‘a broker, are you going to get a different boat?’ ‘No,’ replied Al, ‘a different wife!’