Showing posts with label sailing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sailing. Show all posts

31 January 2012

Stranger than Fiction – Sailing Stories

Sometimes life coughs up coincidences no writer of fiction would dare copy.

                                                                                            Stephen King
    Stephen King’s observation about the strange quirks that real life can dish up was on my mind while my wife Pat and I were on vacation, under sail in the Caribbean. When contemplating the grand scheme of things I generally tend toward agnosticism.  But one thing seems clear to me:  while I can't discern much about the order or design of our sometimes crazy universe, there does seem to be a sense of humor underlying it.  Things seem to happen that really shouldn't -- when the play-by-play announcer says that a particular ball player has never homered twice in a game, that is the time when exactly that seems most likely to occur.

  Sometimes the world's humor is simply unbelievably coincidental.  But in any event there are odd little rhymes that repeatedly seem to be tossed our way.  And as Stephen King acknowledges, some of those coincidental happenings can be so strange that were they to be used in a fictional narrative editors would likely roll their eyes while muttering “forced.”

    Since I was sailing when I was thinking these thoughts – indeed, I am in the saloon of the Royal Clipper in Martinique as I begin drafting this piece – it is probably only natural that two of the real-life stories that occurred to me, and that are probably too unbelievably coincidental to ever be offered up as fiction, involve sailing. 

    Sailing has been part of our lives for years.  Over the past two decades we have owned a series of sailboats that have provided our weekend escapes from Washington, D.C. to the near-by Chesapeake Bay.  These sailboats have included a 28 foot 1967 Pearson Triton, a 32 foot Hunter Vision, and finally a 38 foot Morgan center cockpit.  Since retiring two years ago we have moved over to “the dark side” and now own a 1982 35 foot Carver diesel motor yacht, Incommunicado.

a typical Pearson Triton
    The first sailing story reaches back to 1990, when we still had the Pearson Triton.  I was an attorney in private practice at the time and one of the cases I was handling involved a failed production of West Side Story that had played briefly at the Kennedy Center before folding.  The case initially involved a simple issue -- an attempt by a party to collect a relatively small amount after a check written during the course of the show's production  bounced.  The case should have been a three day wonder at most.  But instead the lawyers and the various parties watched in growing horror as the litigation developed a life of its own – counter claims and cross claims piled into the docket.  The case eventually dragged on for over five years and became the type of litigation that every attorney encounters a couple times during his or her career – a case that simply refused to go away.  Borrowing from Mr. Dickens, it  was a Jarndyce and Jarndyce. 

    I represented the company that had provided stage management for the production.  There were many other lawyers in the case, but I became particular friendly with the attorney for the Kennedy Center, Jim Hibey, another private practitioner.  Jim and I got to know each other pretty well as the case ground along at the pace of a glacier trying to move up hill.   One Friday afternoon, after a particularly excruciating day in Superior Court during which absolutely nothing was accomplished and tempers flared, Jim and I found ourselves standing together on the stairs of the courthouse, our collective shoulder slumped and our collective wits at end.  “Boy, do I need to get away from this,” I muttered.  “Me too,” replied Jim.  “At least it’s Friday.”  We waved and parted.

    An aside here:  When I need to get away from a bad week I am fairly well located.  There are lots of great things to do in Washington, D.C. on a summer weekend.  To the west are the mountains.  Traveling east you can easily reach the beaches of Delaware and Maryland. Closer to home there are theaters and all of the museums and restaurants you could hope for.  In other words, choices abound.

    As I drove away from Superior Court, however, I was thinking about the Chesapeake Bay.  So when I got home I said to Pat “let’s take the boat over to St. Michaels this weekend.”  She gathered the kids, and threw some necessities into our boat bag while I phoned the St. Michaels Inn and Marina and secured reservations for a slip.

St. Michaels Inn and Marina -- slips and poolside
    There are many great sailing opportunities in the Chesapeake, and St. Michaels is one of our favorites.  It is a beautiful colonial town, lying about 29 miles away from the slip we then occupied in an Annapolis marina.  So we drove to the boat that Friday night, and Saturday morning we set sail, cruising south east down the Chesapeake, then north east up Eastern Bay and finally south east down the Miles River.

    Late in the afternoon, after a great sail, we were an invigorating distance away from Washington.  When we reached St. Michaels we pulled in the sails and motored to our designated overnight slip at the marina.  After tying up, I left Pat and the kids in the boat while I walked toward the pool and the marina office to check in.  Boy, was it ever good to be away.

    As I walked along the edge of the pool a voice from behind a book said “afternoon, Dale.”  I looked down, startled.  Stretched out on a lounge, also forgetting the week he had just been through, was Jim Hibey.

Herrington Harbour South
     Story number two is, I think, stranger still.  It took place in 2003, after Pat and I had moved up two sailboats to the Morgan 38.  By then we had also retreated from the hustle and bustle of Annapolis and moved south to Herrington Harbour Marina in Rosehaven Maryland.  Herrington Harbour is still the marina of our dreams.  Not so much so that Morgan 38.  As noted above, it is a thing of the past.  But that is another story. 

the Morgan 38
    When we bought her, the Morgan was a huge step up for us.  Configured with two cabins and two baths, the boat could easily accommodate a live-aboard lifestyle.  We, by contrast, were day sailors, sometimes weekend sailors, and even more often we did not take our boat out at all, preferring to use it instead as a stationary condo, albeit with masts.   When we first purchased the Morgan I was in love with the boat and enthusiastic.   I channeled this enthusiasm to a degree, particularly in the land-locked months of winter, by surfing the internet looking for other owners from whom I could learn more about our new toy.

    I soon found a link to Chris Mooney, who owned the same model Morgan that we did and who then lived on the Texas Gulf shore.  Chris and I struck up an email correspondence and about a year later he and his companion Barbara quit their respective jobs and took off to the Caribbean, living aboard their boat Moonsail and exploring the many islands of the West Indies.  Before they left Chris set up a website to chronicle their journeys, and emailed weekly updates of their itinerary to a long list of friends, including yours truly.

     As I have previously noted, Pat and I sail the Chesapeake Bay,  which is a most forgiving body of water.  The bottom is generally sand or mud, so running aground is, at worst, embarrassing, and the shore is always within sight.  Our marina, Herrington Harbour, (where we still have a slip) has a fine swimming pool, a sand beach and good restaurant -- all  a short stroll away from our boat.  Its Caribbean ambiance may be a bit ersatz, but it is not bad for 38 miles from home. 

   Chris, by contrast, was doing the real sailing in the real Caribbean.  He and Barb were (and are) out there navigating coral reefs, clearing in and out of foreign ports, and sailing long reaches between sparsely populated islands while all the time either avoiding or weathering tropical storms.  As I followed Chris' website and read his postings from various Caribbean islands that we had visited only under the supervision of captains more capable than me, I would marvel to Pat about Moonsail's log.  Here was a couple sailing the same boat that we owned who were off doing things that we would never have the courage or skill to do ourselves.  

    One summer Chris and Barb headed north in Moonsail, no doubt looking to escape the Caribbean summer.  I think they eventually got as far north as Connecticut before beginning their journey back.  On their way south to the islands in early fall they sailed down the Chesapeake, having crossed into the bay through the C and D canal in Delaware Bay.

    After a long day of sailing down the Chesapeake Chris and Barb were looking for a comfortable slip for the night.  I had never told them that we kept our boat at Herrington Harbour South, but by the time they were sailing south of Annapolis our marina was a natural stopping point for them.  They radioed ahead and were assigned a slip on A dock – the same dock where our Morgan, Double Jeopardy, was tied up and where our Carver, Incommunicado, now lives.  When they reached the marina Chris entered the rock lined channel protecting the harbor and steered Moonsail toward A dock  Then, during the course of executing a turn that I make every time I have taken any boat I have ever owned into the bay – Moonsail hit the rock wall at the end of the channel.  The collision  took out her rudder. 

Incommunicado in her slip at Herrington Harbour South
   I don’t think I could write this story as fiction with a straight face.  O. Henry perhaps could, but I cannot.  The coincidence underlying the story is so symmetrical that it doesn't ring true even though it in fact happened.  The idea that I long feared what Chris accomplished on a daily basis, but that what I accomplished every time I steered our boat out of my slip ultimately proved his undoing sounds simply too contrived to be believable had it not actually happened.  It reads like a cobbled together story constructed solely to support a moral at the end.

As Stephen King observed, funny what life coughs up sometimes.

21 October 2011

Writing Aweigh

Size Does Matter
"Dear Sir: We regret to inform you that 90,000 words is a little too long for a short story in our magazine."

Over the past couple of weeks, some of our blog posts here at SleuthSayers have really gotten me thinking about the differences between short stories and novels.

And there are quite a few actually. Including, of course, the length. Short stories are ... well ... short. Or, at least, they're supposed to be. And novels are (wait for it! ... wait for it!) longer.

But, there are greater differences than just the size, in my opinion; their structures seem quite different to me -- in ways I can't easily put my finger on, but definitely feel.

Now, I'm not stupid enough to believe that all these things that I perceive to be different, are necessarily perceived to be different by everybody else. Likewise, other writers may notice differences that I don't. Nor (contrary to anything you may have heard my wife say) am I egotistical enough to think I can provide an exhaustive list of the differences between the two formats. (Though there are undoubtedly entire libraries filled with writing books that strive to do just that.)

What I can do is share my experiences (aka misadventures) in dealing with short story writing vs. novel writing, and hope that it sheds some light on the subject-- particularly for the layperson. Writers, however, may also find my thoughts amusing. (My wife certainly seems to; she never stops laughing at me.)

Writing the Sunfish

I often think that writing a short story is quite like constructing a small sailboat -- like a Sunfish, maybe -- in your back yard. It's an activity undertaken in an almost carefree attitude of adventure. You get the equipment together, roll up your shirt sleeves, maybe crack a beer (or in my case: jam a cigar stump in the corner of your mouth) and dive right in.

You know how it is (or can surely imagine it): Laying the 14-foot keel, bolting the tall mast into place, cutting and fastening the framework together, steaming planks to warp them into proper shape for the hull siding, tapping the finish nails into place, giving the screw driver just the right amount of torque as you seal the deck boards to the frame, applying a few coats of high-glass marine-grade paint, attaching the halyards and other lines, attaching the sheets.

Then you load it onto a trailer, drive to a nearby body of water and slip the boat into the waves. You hold it close-in, keeping the painter in your hand, hoping it doesn't sink. And, if it stays up a few minutes, you tie her to the dock and drop the centerboard, slide in the rudder, and run up the sails for the first time.

Maybe she lists a bit to port. So, you check her for extra weight on that side, maybe add a counter-balance to starboard to fix her trim. You caulk over any small leaks, maybe tighten up the screws on that wobbly tiller, sand down the edge of a hatch cover so it will batten more firmly.

Finally, I think I've got something that's seaworthy, but a bit out of the ordinary. A sailboat that will catch a buyer's eye. So, I load it back on the trailer and haul it home. There, I ask my wife to take a look at it. She's willing ... but professes not to know much about sail boats (which isn't true; I know). So, she hangs the kids on the laundry line to keep them out of trouble, and walks over to take a gander.

After awhile I ask: "What's wrong with it?"

"Well. It's too pointy."

"Too pointy?"

"Yes. At the front part."

"That's the bow; it's supposed to be pointed--so it can cut through the waves. You know?"

She shakes her head. "Not that pointy. That's not like the front of a boat. It's more like the front of a supersonic jet fighter. It shouldn't be that pointy. At least, that's what I think." And she walks away to take our kicking and screaming kids down from the laundry line.

At this point, I invite a few members of my writers group to take a look at it. They read it and like it, but make some other suggestions. (Should the mast be that tall? One of them really likes the paint scheme; another one thinks the colors clash. I ask about the bow being too pointy. They discuss it, but decide they aren't sure, and can't be certain why they can't be sure--but somehow maybe something's wrong with it. Maybe I should sand it down a little, round it off a bit; that might be better. But it's hard to tell.)

Finally, my critique group leaves, and I park the boat in a storage shed -- along with notes about their comments -- and leave the boat alone while I work on something else for awhile. A month to six months later, I roll the boat back into the sunlight, and take a look at it.

That's the really nice thing about small boats -- or short stories for that matter: you can see the entire thing at once. Looking at the boat in the bright sunlight, now, I can see that the bow does seem a little too pointed, but the real problem is lack of balance between the lines of the bow and the lines of the stern. I very carefully make a small change to the stern, then invite my critique group out for another look. (At this stage, my wife balks at giving me anymore input; she'll just say: "It's a boat. I don't see any difference.") But, the critique group comes out and says: "That's it! You rounded off the bow, and it looks great. (followed by) Wait .... no you didn't. What did you do?"

I added a four-inch fantail on the stern; I think that balanced it. They nod and look it over again. Yeah. That was the problem, and this seems to have fixed it. Now, all I have to do is ship the boat off to a potential buyer, and see if s/he will bite. If not, I'll ship it off to another one, until somebody decides she's a keeper.

Writing a novel, however, is completely different in my opinion. To me, writing a novel is like...

(scroll down)

. . . That's right. You guessed it. Writing a novel, to me is like . . .

Building an Aircraft Carrier in my Backyard -- All By Myself!

Building an aircraft carrier is, of course, a much more monumental undertaking than building a small sailboat.

No genteel fashioning of wooden hull planks, here! Instead, I need steel-toed boots and a welder's shield. And, I have to constantly keep the principles of engineering in mind, in order to ensure the structure I'm building can support all the decks I'm going to add above it. This is not something that can be approached like a weekend hobby; building a carrier will take months (maybe even years) of concentrated work.

Still, my heart sings with the joy of craftsmanship (or else the finished product will be dull and lifeless, unsaleable. OR, "un-sail-able" -- sorry, couldn't pass up the pun!). I take pains to carefully cut and assemble the inlay tabletop in the officers' wardroom. Fashioning a large wheel in the bridgehouse, that hearkens to the days of the buccaneers, I make sure it also provides contemporary control response, so my work doesn't seem dated.

And here, we meet another difference between sailboat-like short stories, and aircraft carrier-like novels. A sailboat has relatively few moving parts; it's pretty simple in constructional planning and operational terms. But, an aircraft carrier requires multiple, seemingly unrelated task-units, which must all function correctly and interdependently if the carrier is to do its job. It needs a fully equipped engine room and a set of four gigantic props, in order to enjoy powerful propulsion. And, a steam-fired catapult on the flight deck, to quickly launch fighters. I need to install reinforced anchor points, and arrester cables to recover incoming aircraft. An up-to-date electronics system to monitor aircraft in flight, as well as enemy submarines lurking below the surface.

At the same time, I have to take care of the human aspect of the crew who will eventually staff her. They need places they can hang their hats while below decks, bunks to lie comfortably in when off-duty, and a few television stations and movie theaters for entertainment -- not to mention bathrooms ("the heads" I suppose, since this is a naval analogy). And what happens when some of them fall in love with each other? Even the navy isn't quite sure how to handle that one!

Editing in the Bowels

Before long, of course, I begin to realize that the carrier would move more rapidly if I changed out one of the engines. But, after making that alteration, I worry that the bow may not be able to handle the hull pressure generated by the increased speed.

I can't see the bow from where I'm standing in the engine room, of course, so I make my way forward, finally reaching the inner bow , where I examine the struts to ensure I've beefed them up enough.

(The inner bow would not be the part you're looking at in this picture . The inner bow would be inside that part. See those guys standing there, looking confused? Maybe they just heard me knocking, and want to know who's foolish enough to climb down inside the bow of an aircraft carrier. The answer, of course, is: A writer.)

This shot of the bow does illustrate one of the differences between novels and short stories -- I can't see the whole carrier (or novel) at a glance, the way I can look at a small sailboat (or short story). I've tried all sorts of ways to get a better look at it. I've even backed way off, climbed a scaffolding, and looked from there. From that distance, however--though I can see the entire carrier, from stem to stern--I can't see enough detail for my view to be useful. So, I grab a pair of binocs--but then I'm right back to only seeing part of it.

Plus, a lot of the carrier -- most of it, in fact -- lies concealed below decks. Trying to figure out what I can cut out, down there, without weakening the ship to the point where the entire superstructure collapses about my ears, is very difficult and time-consuming.

The Shocking Realization

But, finally the day comes -- I've completed construction! A massive aircraft carrier stands finished in my backyard. Since my wife is across town at work, I call up my parents and invite them over to see the completed project. After receiving a guided tour, they congratulate me on having had such wonderful parents, who made it possible for me to grow up and build an aircraft carrier all by myself. It takes me a minute to decide that there's a compliment buried in there, but finally, with handshakes, hugs and smiles all around, they depart.

My kids arrive home from school, and I greet them with the momentous news. My 3rd-grade son is excited, but when I tell him that no, he can't play on the aircraft carrier, he says, "That's okay. Can I go to Stephan's? He's got a new dog!" My 16-year-old daughter physically shrivels at the news. "Oh, God, I hope none of my friends can see it! You're such a dork." Then she runs to her room.

But, all is rewarded when my wife returns home that evening. She walks out back with me, arm-in-arm, and gasps at the enormity of what I've created. "Honey, that's fantastic! I knew you could do it!" She throws her arms about my neck and kisses me.

Then she asks, "How long before we get paid?"

My cigar drops from my fingers to smolder unnoticed in the grass. Because that's when it hits me: I've built an aircraft carrier -- hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, rubber, glass, plastic and wood! But, I live in Scottsdale, Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix--surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert! How the hell am I going to get this thing to the ocean???

And that was what happened, a few years ago, when my wife asked me this. I realized that writing a novel is like constructing an aircraft carrier in your backyard, while writing short stories is like crafting a small sailboat.

Because: shipping a little sailboat to interested parties is pretty simple -- compared to moving a massive carrier cross-country to the ocean.

Thankfully, you don't really have to ship the whole thing cross-country. The powers that be don't want to see the whole thing, anyway -- at least, not at first. But, that's another subject.

I call that subject: The Hard Part of Writing.

Maybe I'll post about it another time. Meanwhile, let me know if anything I've mentioned sounds familiar (you writers) or if you are surprised by what I wrote here. Or, if you think I'm ready for the rubber room. (My wife just came in and says that's her vote.)

Until two weeks from now: I wish you smooth sailing, buddy! No matter what vessel you helm.