This sweet affliction cuts me down every few months in the full prime of my life and for weeks on end it leaves me weak in the knees, feverish in the head, delirious in the darkness, sleepless in the dawn and roughly 25% as efficient as my financial commitments tell me I’ve simply got to be. I could cure the affliction with one stupendous wad of money but, since the disease itself saps my earning power, the circle I’m in is as vicious as a dope addict’s. I may turn to crime. The accursed pleasure of my life is — and has been almost since the birth of memory — the lust to own my very own big sailboat.
I have owned a number of sailboats and loved them. None has ever been big enough. I can’t see myself dropping their dinky hooks in the hot harbors of spicy tropical isles, or laying their topsides gently against a Tasmanian wharf. I want a sailboat in which I can stand up, walk around, go to bed, and cook incredibly fragrant breakfasts of flying fish in the light of a strange sunrise.
She must have a diesel engine, but she must also sail the way an Arctic tern flies. With strength and unspeakable grace. I want her the way a skinny, pimply, lovesick teenage boy yearns for a cheerleader who’s already a beautiful woman. In his dreams, she’ll gently make a man of him and together, they’ll ride into heaven on earth.
Murray Stevens cured me for a while. Murray is the son of David Stevens. David is the old-age pensioner from the Lunenburg shore who builds marvelously swift wooden schooners in his barns, sails them himself, and routinely wins races for the international schooner championship. If there’s anyone who builds big wooden schooners as well as David Stevens it’s Murray and, since building them is his livelihood, the anti-yacht advice he gave me was as altruistic as any I’ve ever received. We were aboard his father’s 46-foot thoroughbred, Kathi Anne II and, as we crossed the finish line miles ahead of the best schooner New England could come up with that year, I slyly revealed my passion.
“Listen, Harry,” Murray replied. “I divide the world into two kinds of people. There’s the sane people and then there’s the people who want to own big pleasure boats . . . Now suppose you really had $25,000. And suppose you bought a boat with it. Well, right away, you’re losing something like $2,500 a year in interest on that money. And then there’s your insurance and your haul-outs, your storage, maintenance and club fees. That brings your annual cost up to $3,500, maybe $4,000, and you know what you could do with that? Every winter, you could go to the West Indies for a month and you could charter a sailboat. You could get in as much sailing down there as you’d get in a whole summer of Nova Scotia weekends.”
This brief, friendly lecture was so effective I did not suffer another attack for seven months. Was it too much to believe that Murray Stevens had cured me forever? I dared to hope. But the return of the fever is as certain, as predictable as the blossoming explosion of balloon spinnakers
on a downward leg of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference.
And early this past winter, at boat-show time, the fiercest attack of my life hurled me to the floor, left me gasping and thrashing around, bumping into walls, bubbling at the mouth, and blithering on about depth sounders, shoal drafts, two-speed winches, roller reefing, genoa gear, spray hoods, bow pulpits, cleats, clews, cocks, heads, halyards . . .
My wife knows the symptoms. She pours me a stiff slug of navy rum to calm me down so I’ll get some sleep before the next day’s madness. In the morning, I jump in the car and tear along the South Shore to the fibre glass boat factory in Mahone Bay and then on to the Stevens’ sheds near Lunenburg, and then back to the bulletin boards and boatyards of the Halifax yacht clubs, and then to Dartmouth and some yachtbroker’s office, and then home again to the boat ads in the afternoon newspaper and the telephone. That night, I succumb to the hypnotism of four yachting magazines, go to bed late and, like a 10-year-old on Christmas Eve, spend the whole crazy night mentally caressing what I desperately hope will be tomorrow’s supreme possession.
The search, the insane craving, go on for days. They return for weeks. I plot the financing. Could I pay for her over 15 years? What if I gave up smoking, drinking, the car? Could I get a big, new mortgage on the house? Do banks smile upon victims of yacht fever? I phone boatbuilders in Toronto, Quebec, New England.
I phone the owners of the most mouth-watering local yachts, men I’ve never even met, and I fire questions at them at suppertime. A woman’s voice complains in the background. “It’s getting cold,” she says, but I plunge ahead anyway. “Well look, Bill — do you mind if I call you Bill? — what I really want to know is how stiff she is in a good breeze of wind. How’s she do in the light stuff? How many sails you got? You happy with her engine? You mean you’d let me come aboard some evening? Oh no, I couldn’t impose. How about tonight? Right. You just finish up your supper and I’ll meet you over at the club.”
I bring home bagsful of glossy brochures from every boat show. I’ve pestered salesmen at so many boat shows I swear the older ones recognize me. They see me coming with my little list of questions. There’s a fleck of saliva at the corner of my mouth. My smile is thin and weird. My eyes look funny. The salesmen think I don’t see them ducking behind a fin keel, chortling, and sneaking out for drinks.
Each year the prices shoot up. Fibre glass and good wood are agonizingly sensitive to inflation and, quite literally, last year’s $20,000 yacht is this year’s $25,000 yacht. This does not calm the fever; instead it excites it. If I don’t buy her right now, I tell myself in the hour before dawn, the next price increase will put her even further out of reach.
I’ll have to get her soon and I only hope that, when I do, I won’t discover that the deepest pleasure lies not in the having but in the yearning. Can it possibly be that unrequited love is actually a blessing?
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