by Geraldo Rivera | Mar 30, 2005
Skipper's Log Hampton Bays, Long Island August 1976
Sailing came into my life relatively late, in my 20's. Coming literally from the wrong side of the tracks, a post-war, working-class development north of the L.I.R.R. tracks in West Babylon, the feeling growing up was that sailing was reserved for the privileged kids from towns like Babylon on the Island's South Shore. Like the tastes of champagne and caviar, I wondered what sailing would be like, envious of the dashing preppies with sun-tanned grace, blonde sisters and waterfront homes.
Looking back, the boys were poseurs, clerks from Abercrombie and Fitch. The surfer/sailor style ideal lost its appeal for me when I bought my first motorcycle and leather jacket. But the ocean's attraction never waned.
CHAPTER ONE The First Boat
My ticket out of blue-collar, suburban Long Island was the same one that introduced me to the sea. With the loving assistance of my high school principal, a Daddy Warbucks look alike named Russell Van Brunt, I was accepted into the Maritime College of the State University of New York. Mr. Van Brunt had been a U.S. Navy captain during WW II, and stationed in San Juan held the island people in special regard. As the only family of Puerto Rican descent in the school district at the time, we attracted a disproportionate amount of his caring attention. He counseled and convinced me that a life at sea was preferable to the track I was on toward the end of high school, essentially non-violent juvenile delinquency and petty crime.
After a summer spent taking remedial English and math courses at community college in Brooklyn, I started at Maritime in fall 1961. John F. Kennedy was president, the Cuban missile crisis would soon become the closest we came to conflagration, and I learned about the sea as a cadet and midshipman in the Navy ROTC.
Upon completion of the four-year program, cadets receive both a bachelor's degree and a reserve officer's commission. And while I never finished, the two years spent there were crucial to my evolution as a man and as a sailor. Called Fort Schuyler, after the revolutionary war-era fortification that housed most of the campus classrooms, the then all-male college lies at the intersection of the East River and the Long Island Sound, on the Bronx side, just under the Throgs Neck Bridge. There were no dormitories then. We lived on board a 500 ton converted troop transport docked in the literal shadow of then big new bridge.
As a member of Schuyler's rowing team, every morning in the pre-dawn hours I was on the water. We didn't use the racing shells popular in civilian colleges. Our eight-oared craft with coxswain were the heavy monomoys, double-ended lifeboats found on most ocean-faring vessels. We rowed in competition with the crews from visiting ocean liners, against the other state academies, Maine, Massachusetts and California, and against our most bitter rivals, the United States Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, located just a mile across the Sound from Schuyler on Long Island's upscale North Shore.
The main event of the season was the annual International Seamen's Race.
Featuring the five crews from the state and national academies, the race was run over a one-mile measured course in the Narrows in New York harbor off Brooklyn Heights in front of a large crowd lining the waterfront park that parallels the Belt Parkway.
While the drama of those races run has stayed with me over the years, the sensory memories overwhelm even the joy of victory or agony of defeat. Rowing through the river mist after first light but before sunrise, there is a salt tang as potent as a sizzling steak or a lover's perfume. Spending countless hours sitting on my bench as starboard stroke oar, inches from the choppy waters of the Sound, I can still conjure that scent. To this day, carried on an ocean breeze it fills my head with remembrance of Schuyler and the promise of the sea.
The 'Francina' was my first sailboat, a vintage, gaff-rigged wooden sloop that came into my life shortly after prosperity. It was the summer of 1976, and I was the roving reporter on the original cast of ABC's 'Good Morning America'. Already twice divorced, I was engaged at the time to a lovely heiress with whom I rented a summer home in the Hamptons on Peconic Bay. Francine gave me half the sailboat for my birthday. I paid half the $3,000 purchase price, named the boat after her, and we were underway.
While the boat outlasted the relationship that ended soon after the season, we had a good run exploring the surprisingly untarnished region of bays, insets and islands found between the north and south forks of Eastern Long Island.
With 'Francina', I learned the basic physics of sailing, understanding how wind is converted into momentum. Indeed, my advice to all novice sailors is to start small. Once you learn how to use wind to make your boat go forward, you can theoretically skipper any other boat, however large. The outer limit of cruising life for 'Francina' was Block Island, Rhode Island's outpost of New England-style life located 20 miles off Montauk, Long Island's easternmost point. In that taste of real ocean between the island and the point, a sailor can experience every condition likely to be encountered on the vast expanse of open ocean, only smaller and closer to safe harbor and refuge from a storm.
In those soon familiar waters, I became proficient in skippering my boat through relative thick and thin. But I am still learning, narrowing the gap between a master sailor and me to the difference between someone fluent in a language and another who just makes himself understood. Both can experience plenty, but only one can weather any storm.
At twenty-feet, not much longer than an automobile, 'Francina' had the classic lines of the craft piloted by the watermen who for centuries harvested the fish and shellfish of the Sound and Great South Bay. I still have a photo of a boat that could be her sister-ship dated 1910 with three grave and formally dressed bearded guys standing on board, all looking like the pre-civil war abolitionist John Brown.
A gaff rig describes a boat with one big main sail thats' high point is held aloft by a boom that spreads the sail upward at an angle from the mast. In front of the mast is a smaller triangular sail called a jib. The beauty of a boat this small and rigged this way is that one person can handle her. Solo sailing is not only one of life's most liberating pastimes, it is also a practical necessity.
Remember that spouses, significant others, even best friends and children usually fail to maintain a skipper's enthusiasm over time.
(to be continued)
((I've been distracted, so here are the next two chapters. Hope you are having a pleasant Spring 2005.))
CHAPTER TWO Trading Up
Skipper's Log Miami Florida June 1980
As you begin to feel comfortable at the helm, all sailors dream of expanding horizons, bigger boats and deeper seas. My first passport to those blue water daydreams was 'New Wave' a forty-four foot sloop that I bought in Miami in 1980. It was at the beginning of the end of another relationship, and looking back I wonder if I didn't buy the bigger boat as a way literally to escape when the time came. That is a powerful lure for restless men in tight spots: the potential of sailing away from responsibility and around the world.
It almost never happens, that gesture is both too seedy and too grand, but would-be sailors beware, your new hobby can and often does exert a powerful impact on the rest of your life. When the Zen of being in love is amplified by being on board a sailing vessel, nothing is as intense or creates as powerful an aura. There is no love like being in love at sea. There is where I have had the most sensual experiences of my life, most powerfully with Erica. But there was also time spent among the castaways and the runaways, using the boat as an excuse, an escape and a rendezvous. Sailing can heal and sooth a broken heart, but it can also aggravate a marriage as badly as an undisclosed bachelor pad.
Built of fiberglass by a now-defunct St. Petersburg, Florida based company called, Gulfstream, my first sail with New Wave was down the Miami River and across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas 75 miles away.
Alone with my wife Sheri, who had given birth to our son Gabriel less than a year before, the trip was an effort at reconciling our marriage after an extremely rocky and ultimately decisive estrangement. As a rookie big-boat sailor, I alternated between wild joy and heart-stopping fear depending on where we were and how well I was handling our journey. I remember hands rubbed red and raw from fighting to furl a runaway jib as we careened toward an island breakwater in full gale. The other, after getting the sail down, was neglecting to have mooring lines or fenders ready as we flew toward a looming cement deck.
"Throw me a line, Captain," the dock master shouted through the stiff breeze.
"Now toss me one still attached to your boat," he added impatiently after I threw the whole thing, neglecting to hold on to my end.
There are few experiences in life as humbling as being exposed as a green hand by an old salt. At Ft. Schuyler, I remember a craggy faced, gnarly-handed sailor who seemed to predate the age of steam and taught seamanship. 40 years after it happened I can conjure how it felt that day on the training ship to forget the mechanics of a bowline under his withering gaze.
But you live and learn and even on this first solo trip in a full-sized cruising vessel, it all worked out.
After leaving our first anchorage at Cat Cay on the edge of the Gulf Stream, we sailed east a couple of days, finally anchoring miles from anywhere in the midst of the great underwater desert called the Bahamas Bank. The Bank describes thousands of square miles of shallow seas and ample legends. Deep inside the 'Bermuda Triangle', this is one of the locations given for the lost continent of Atlantis and is an area where flights of aircraft and uncounted vessels have disappeared mysteriously, often without a trace.
I always thought those lost ships could be attributed to the fact that the Triangle sits so close to South Florida, which has the world's largest population of powerful boats driven by dopey novices, but something happened that night that remains a mystery even to skeptical me.
At around midnight, Sheri and I were awakened by an intense bright light that seemed to hover motionless, and then slowly approached the anchored sloop, flying just above the surface of the calm sea. I grabbed the compressed air horn and loudly blasted it, the sharp noise shattering the still night. When the burning light kept coming, I ran forward, yanked up the anchor, started the boat engine and started to motor off.
But the light followed.
Wherever I turned the sloop the light remained just off the nose of the vessel. Finally managing to turn away from it, I motored at maximum rpm's until it fell far behind. Half-buzzed on rum drinks, I have no better explanation than that for what Sheri and I both saw.
It is my only UFO experience, although life at sea has provided much drama, often in cinematic settings.
CHAPTER THREE Sailing Away From A Career In Ruins
Skipper's Log Key West Florida January 1986
Much of sailing is pondering your next move. In fact the ratio of pondering to actual physical sailing is probably five or even ten to one. Busy with our real lives, work and family, we plan and re-plan trips, buying books, charts and relevant histories well before we set sail. At our desks, distant ports become as familiar as homeport, while still far over the horizon.
It is the nerdy underbelly of cruising, this armchair hobbyism, outdoorsy manly men poring over guide books like substitute math teachers anticipating two weeks off at a low budget resort and trying to get the most bang for the travel buck.
More profound than the question of where next to point the bow, is the issue of what we will be sailing in, what the next boat is going to be.
I started thinking about Voyager or a boat like Voyager years before I saw her. Although New Wave had become a great friend during the fifteen years from 1980 to 1995 that I sailed her up and down the East Coast from the Canadian Maritimes to the Panama Canal and to every port in between with a reason for stopping by, she was too fragile for the grand journeys I had in mind.
Representatives of Gulfstar, New Wave's now defunct manufacturer once assured me that I had put more deep-water miles on the sloop than any of the dozens of 44's they'd built. The furthest we got together was Southern California, where the boat actually became my home during hard times. Flat broke and for a time unemployed, I lived on board at the Marina Del Rey after getting fired from ABC News.
The story of how I came to join all the other divorced and melancholy men living on their boats at L.A.'s big marina represents one of the stormiest periods of my life.
To make a saga short, in December 1985 I was fired after complaining too loudly and publicly that my boss, the legendary television news and sports pioneer Roone Arledge killed a '20/20' segment that alleged a romantic relationship between the sex symbol of her time, Marilyn Monroe, and the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy and his brother, the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. I alleged Roone might have killed the controversial story because of his close friendship with RFK's widow, Ethel.
Still reeling from the devastating career blow of getting unceremoniously even scandalously thrown out of ABC after fifteen prominent years there, I announced a grand sailing adventure. The notion excited me, though a big part of the motivation was to escape those eyes glaring at me and wondering if they were watching the premature demise of yet another personality self-destructing, at 42, another early flame out?
At a time of great conflict and upheaval in the region, it was something noble to do. Sailing through and documenting the trouble spots of the Caribbean and Central America during the region's most violent and dangerous era was not only something to keep me busy, it was also an acceptable answer to the question of, "...what ever happened to Geraldo Rivera?"
It got off to a bad start. Saying a teary goodbye to my Mom and Dad at Marina Jack's, the facility near their condo in Sarasota, Florida a crew consisting of my then girlfriend, later wife C.C., brother Craig and me had especially rough going on the normally placid trip down the Gulf of Mexico to Key West at the end of the Florida peninsula.
There, while preparing to leave en route to Havana, Cuba, I was blown over when the dock master came out to tell us that the shuttle Challenger had just exploded in the skies over Cape Canaveral and that if we came onto the dock we could still see the smudge in the northeastern sky. Aside from our shock and sorrow at the loss the crew, including the schoolteacher Christa MacAuliff, the loss was even more keenly felt because I had been one of the dozen or so semi-finalists attempting to win the competition to find the first of us to go onboard the shuttle. Widely publicized at the time, the Journalist-in-Space program was immediately discontinued in the wake of the shuttle disaster and another of my diminishing career options, admittedly a day-dreamy long-shot, went up in that terrible smoke.
I filmed the trip down to Havana, using my own money to hire Carl Hirsch a brave and skillful Miami-based shooter with whom I had covered the Guatemalan insurgency and the Nicaraguan Contra War for ABC News. My vague plan was to document our planned trip to California and sell it as a free-lance project. I hoped to at least earn enough to cover the cost of the journey.
Approaching the Cuban coast, we got a good shot right off the bat when a gunboat came steaming down on us at full speed with a kid who looked fifteen in the prow barely visible behind an enormous pair of mounted 50 caliber machine guns pointed right at us.
We had been told by the Cuban UN attache with whom C.C. and I negotiated this rare permission to sail in from the United States, that we had better be at the location, at the scheduled time, in the boat we said we were sailing in on, and with the people on board we said we were going to be with. And now the cocky kid with the machine guns was right where they said the Cuban Coast Guard would be to escort us into Marina Hemingway in Havana.
All concrete and depressing, the Marina was a huge, shabby public works project that looked like what it was, a donation from the East Germans. The Cubans gave us a minder; he was a friendly, skinny, poor but proud Communist named Jose who never left us alone the entire time we were there. We had mojitos at the Floridita Bar, Hemingway's favorite Havana haunt, bought bad chickens at the meager market and left after a few days, glad to be gone.
From there, it was around Cuba's western shore across the straits to Cancun, Mexico and the more agreeable nearby Isla Mujeres. Then it was down to Belize where we met a mellow and friendly Harrison Ford who was staying on board the vintage yacht 'Mariner III' in Belize Harbor while there filming 'Mosquito Coast'. That was more fun than later spotting U.S. Special Forces troops secretly training members of the Contra rebels at a clandestine Honduran military base on the Coco River near the Nicaraguan border. We stumbled on that scary scene inadvertently, during a search for diesel fuel after New Wave had nearly run dry in the Roque Islands about twenty miles off shore.
We later went up the narrow walled endlessly deep Rio Dulce in Guatemala's incredible fiord, then through that miracle of 20th century engineering and American imperialism, the Panama Canal, which the Panamanians are operating with the same efficiency as we did. That is, except for the violent lawlessness allowed to creep into the Atlantic side's principal city Colon, once manifesting itself in my friends getting chased and threatened with armed robbery and worse.
At this point, late January 1986 our journey had been going on for two months, and I was getting increasingly worried about running out of money. As the principal support of a huge and extended family that included both of them, I remember getting angry at C.C. and brother Craig because they were so carefree, confident I'd land another job and so, enjoying the trip a lot more than I was. That is when a company called Tribune based out of Chicago tracked me down in Panama through my agent Jimmy Griffin at William Morris. They convinced me to abandon the trip and fly to Chicago to host a live, worldwide two-hour broadcast to be called, 'Opening Al Capone's Vaults'.
I ended up doing it for the money. They paid me fifty thousand dollars, which was my monthly nut at the time, and said they would think about a broader relationship if the first one worked. It did, after a fashion, resulting in the discovery of little loot and much ridicule, but also gigantic ratings and later the 22 job offers that short-circuited my planned trip from the Panama Canal on to Los Angeles.
Two Craigs, my brother and Craig Alexander an expert sailor from Marion, Massachusetts along with a young Costa Rican fisherman named Francisco took the boat the brutal 3,000 mile-long, upwind slog from the Canal to Marina Del Rey, after which New Wave was never the same.
So at that point, I wanted a rugged, explorer class vessel with unlimited ocean faring potential, one that would have taken the ride like the one from Panama to California in stride. That dream was like a shape shifting vision I would sketch and re-sketch in my head, going through the different types, sloop, yawl, ketch, then hull type, steel, aluminum, or fiberglass, then length, at least fifty-five, no sixty feet. After five more years of that imagining and looking through Yachting Magazine ads, the project was fine tuned even further by a new requirement, a shallow draft.
Married in 1987 to C.C., our main home was an estate called, 'Rough Point' on a river, the Navesink in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The depth at dock's end was just seven feet.
Coming up next, how I found Voyager.