Aboard the Tropic Tramp

by S. H. Linden


He sailed in about dusk on a twenty-six foot Block Islander. He did it with such ease that I was almost mesmerized. After he had tied up, I asked him what make of boat he was sailing. I had never seen a boat with that look out here in Marina del Rey.

Bearded and big, he looked at me for a couple of seconds before answering, as if checking me out to see if I was worthy of an answer. “It’s a Block Islander,” he said with a slow smile. “Let me go to the head, and when I come back, come aboard for a drink.” Time passed; I went aboard.

After exchanging first names, the man and I seemed to hit it off, and the few drinks stretched into a couple of hours. As we drank, I studied my host closely. He looked like a man who was more comfortable at sea than on land. Yet, his voice threw me: it was cultured and had a pleasant timbre to it. Then I began to think, maybe this man was an actor or a radio announcer by profession?

But I was wrong on that score. I discovered he had been a commercial fisherman for about forty years and had sailed most of the world’s seas. I also found out he had been a friend of Sterling Hayden and Spike Africa, a grower of Japanese bonsai trees, and was now selling boats up in Santa Barbara. He told me he had made the trip down to escape from the hustle of selling. He just wanted to relax a bit before starting up again.

But I could tell that was not the real reason. What this man needed was to be out to sea again, alone with the wind, the birds and fish. That’s what he wanted.

* * *

After a few days he was gone. No goodbyes, no sounds, just an empty slip. Six months passed and now it was summertime. Then one day my phone rang and I answered. It was Harvey Siegel, the owner of the Block Islander. He was back in Marina del Rey again. “Come on down for a drink and see my new boat. I think you’ll like her.”

It was the most beautiful John Hanna-designed boat I had ever seen. And Tropic Tramp was her name. Boats like the “Tramp” stand out in crowds, just like champion race horses. They never seem happy until they’re beating into a stiff sea with a good captain at the helm. Like “junkies,” these children of the sea want one more fix. And a good fix for them is another circumnavigation. Old “Tramp” had done three of them.

The man who built her back in the late ’70’s — Paul Snow, a Wilmington, California, boat builder — couldn’t part with her until he’d done two circumnavigations. And who could blame him? Tropic Tramp was a world cruiser, fifty-three feet overall, thirty-nine feet on deck, twenty-six tons of the best materials made by man. Her Ford marine engine was seventy-five big horses.

Down below, the ceiling had heavy tongue-and-groove beams. Any rogue wave crashing down on that coach house was going to come away with one hell of a disappointment if it thought it was going to cave that sucker in.

Beautiful wooden doors, with window panes of sea scenes made out of leaded glass, separated each compartment. Grab posts were made out of two pieces of different colored woods, then machined into beautiful rounded posts. You could store fishing rods, all sorts of gear, and tons of food supplies in that cabin, and still have room for a mother-in-law, if that was the way you thought.

I suppose you could say sailing the Tropic Tramp was like dying and going to boat heaven. But Harvey had no intention of taking the “Tramp” to heaven. He had bought her for chartering the seven seas. And “Tramp” loved the idea.

* * *

That evening, after a few drinks with Harvey and a friend of his who had come aboard, we decided to take off the next day for the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara. The next morning, the sun came up with a clear sky following, and we found ourselves heading up the coast for Paradise Cove, our first stop.

Arriving about dusk, Harvey knew exactly where to anchor. Pointing, he said, “Over there is too much kelp and it will snarl the anchor. Over there is too much surge. We’ll anchor right here.”

That night, Harvey cooked up a great meal which was topped off by some good wine that I had brought along. What Stu, Harvey’s friend had brought was his sense of humor gleaned from years of tending bar at the famous Hollywood eatery “Barney’s Beanery.”

The next day we had a bright sun and a fresh breeze when we weighed anchor. Each one of us took turns at the tiller, or helped Harvey with the sails. Now at last we were really under way for the Channel Islands. To get there we had to pass across the freighter lines. And I must tell you, those big freighters never looked like they had anyone on board.

About an hour into the sail, I started taking some pictures because I was happy to be alive and having this experience. I guess the joy of feeling a bright sun on my back, and a fresh breeze blowing on my face, brought out the creative side in me. I felt life on Tropic Tramp needed to be captured for posterity.

After a while, on the horizon and surrounded by a light mist, we could see Anacapa Island. But Harvey said we wouldn’t be stopping there since Santa Cruz Island was much more fun.

Then eventually as time went by, the sun came out again, Santa Cruz Island lay in front of our eyes, and it looked beautiful.

Harvey slowed the big Ford engine down and began shouting out the names of the coves we passed. Each one looked interesting. “That’s Smuggler’s Cove! Chinese Harbor! Prisoners Harbor! Pelican Bay! Boys, this is where we’re going to anchor. We’re here!” And as I knew he would, Harvey had chosen the prettiest anchorage on the island. We dropped anchor, sniffed the breeze, and looked at the island that was going to be our home for the next two days. Believe me: what I saw, I liked.

The first thing Harvey did was bring out a fishing rod and drop a line. Then we boarded the dinghy and headed for shore. We took a couple of hikes in our weekend there, found a tree in which Harvey had carved his name forty years ago, and visited a sea cave.

In that dark grotto, we heard a big bull seal warning us to stay away from his women. And he meant it, too, because in that dim light, he sounded like he was eighty feet long and twenty stories high. When we came out of that cave, the dinghy engine started acting up and finally conked out about twenty yards from shore. We just sat there, Stu and I, looking at the beauty of the island while Harvey fiddled with the engine. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a whale surfaced between us and the island. We watched in fascination, wondering what he was going to do, but he did nothing except swim lazily along the shoreline.

That weekend, the night air smelled of barbecued meat and fish. Harvey had actually caught one! Sounds of soft music wafted across our stern those starry nights, while our captain cooked, and we ate our evening meal. I remember the wine tasted good and flowed freely. When one bottle was finished, another was brought out. And under a clear moon, that weekend, we were three men without a care in the world.

During those nights, sitting in the cockpit, the talk turned to old girlfriends, or places we had seen or dreamed about. Then, when all bases had been covered, we went below and played gin rummy. I think I won Tropic Tramp about twelve times that weekend? You see, I may not know how to sail as well as Harvey, but I’m a damn sight better gin player than he is.

* * *

Finally, Monday came and Tropic Tramp had to go back home and go to work. We weighed anchor and sailed for Santa Barbara in silence. Stu and I took a train back home to Los Angeles after thanking Harvey for a wonderful trip.

But before we left for the train station, I took one more look at “Tramp,” who was gently rocking in her slip. I ran a hand along her side and admired her lines again. I actually talked to the “old girl,” and thanked her for taking me on my first trip to the Channel Islands. Call it my imagination, but I swear I could almost hear her say “You’re welcome.”

Sadly, I never saw Tropic Trampo” again. At the end of that summer, the recession was well on its way and Harvey had to sell her. A couple planning a world cruise bought that wonderful boat.

To this day, I often think of “Tramp.” She was my dream boat, and I wished that I had had the money to buy her and give her what she wanted. But I couldn’t. Yet, I’m happy for this old ship, because I know somewhere on the high seas, Tropic Tramp is basking in a hot sun or maybe even sailing in a warm rain. But this I guarantee you: she’s having a ball. And for an old girl like her, that’s the way it should be.


Copyright © 2012 by S. H. Linden

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