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GOING ALOFT: Chapter 19, The Kaiser

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John Wolfe’s ongoing series, ‘Going Aloft.’

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Among the cruisers we met in Nassau harbor was a mad German, the Kaiser, with whom we would eventually sail home. We first met him on Paradise Island’s harbor-side beach, at an impromptu cocktail party. He was mingling with the crews of the other yachts. An armada of grey inflatable dinghies were lashed to a palm tree on the shore. Since the intertidal zone is public property, even on a private island, we were free to drink rum and make new friends.

Photo by Saint

Photo by Saint

He had long black hair, curious dark eyes that sat recessed under his brow, a straight nose, and a soft-skinned middle-aged flabbiness around his face—just so that it looked like his skin was slightly loose on his skull. He approached us, and asked Captain in a friendly European manner if his boat was made of Ferro-cement. Captain, always eager to discuss boat-building, explained how he used Ferra-lite and polyester resin instead of the typical cement matrix, but otherwise the construction method was very similar. The Kaiser sniffed and said, “I just purchased a 50-foot se-ment boat in Hampstead, North Carolina.”

“Really? Which boat yard?” I asked. “I used to work up there.”

“It is a little place on the water called ‘Anchor Away.’ Quite nice.”

“Yes, that’s the place! We’re from North Carolina,” I explained.

It’s amazing how small the boating world can be.

“Is that your wooden ketch down the harbor from us?” Saint asked. “We saw you working on your headsail this morning.”

“Yes, that is me,” Kaiser replied. “And my boat is AWAB. It stands for ‘All Women Are Beautiful.’ You should dinghy over sometime; we’ll make a pasta.”

It was clear we had made a new friend. Kaiser expected to be in town for a while, as he had some time to kill while he was waiting for his wife and mother-in-law to fly into Nassau from Italy, where he lived.

“I have a beautiful little property in the wine country,” he told us one night over dinner, “a 500-year-old house that had been neglected. I fixed it up last year with my wife and a friend.”

“It seems you’re a pretty handy guy,” said Captain. “Do you know anything about electricity?”

“Ja, sure,” said Kaiser. “I just had to do it on OZMA. It’s really quite simple. You have to make a circuit, and make sure the ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ are connected. Easy, really.”

Captain had been looking for somebody to help us rewire the schooner for a long time, as part of preparations for starting the charter business. The previous system had been designed for the thousand-day voyage, and had so many redundancies built into it that no one could make sense of it but the man who designed it (a friend of Captain’s in New York, a large guy who would show up at midnight with a bag of cheeseburgers and a dozen beers and work nonstop until sunrise, wrestling with wires as Captain slept). So far no one had been willing to help us undertake a project of such gravity. Bear hadn’t time before we left North Carolina.

“I’d be happy to help,” said Kaiser. For the next two weeks, he came over every day and taught us about electricity. “Plus, bus and minus bus, ja?” he would say, implying it was the easiest thing in the world. Saint and Captain would look on in confusion, but for some reason, the simple logic of it resonated with me. I began to grasp the concepts of positives and negatives, closed and open circuits, resistance, ohms, series, switches, and the like. To this day I still think about electricity in a German accent.

We dove headfirst into the tangled nest of wiring in the engine room and emerged with a new, much simpler system. We used all the leftover parts and pieces from the old one: an electric Frankenstein.

“Ja. Good,” said Kaiser. “Now, I show you how to make a pasta.” Artist, Saint and I followed his instructions precisely on the pilothouse floor, mixing the flour into the egg and then cutting off a little bit of the dough and rolling it out with a wine bottle, then hanging it up like laundry on strings throughout the cargo hold until it was dry and ready to boil. We ate fresh pasta that night and drank wine, and the conversation between us all and Kaiser was alive, vibrant and happy.

He assimilated with our little crew more than anyone else in the harbor. He was the logical, practical, European counterpoint to our beloved cosmic Captain. He and Captain talked at length about their different beliefs, preferred substances, boats, building things. Kaiser was the only one who ever made Captain fall silent, after dismissing a description of a vision Captain had where he saw a green goddess after a puff of grass as “nonsense.” This word, we were to find out, was his favorite one in the English language. He used it as a weapon, daring to you find logic and reason where he knew there could be none; a cudgel that beat anything indescribable in scientific terms to death. It should have been a warning, but we laughed and thought nothing of it … until it was too late.

*     *     *     *     *

Our final night in Nassau before we sailed to Freeport to haul out the schooner, Kaiser and his young wife, Penelope (younger than I was, a fact Artist found exceptionally creepy), came over for dinner. Eventually, we fell into discussing Captain’s thousand-day voyage. Penelope, a beautiful, young Italian woman, who had grown up on a sailboat, cruising the Caribbean, couldn’t grasp why Captain had dropped his wife off near Australia after she had gotten pregnant a year into the voyage,. Actually, she argued heavily against his decision. “You should have stayed with her,” Penelope said. “Your wife was with child and you abandoned her to keep sailing.”

“We agreed beforehand that no matter what happened, I was going to complete the voyage,” Captain defended. “I had to do it to further the spirit of man.”

“What does this mean, ‘spirit of man?’” Penelope queried. “What are you talking about? This doesn’t exist.”

“It’s a good idea,” said Kaiser in a quiet aside to me, “the thousand days. It’s an interesting direction that had never been done before. Most people sail by distance; your captain sailed by time. Very nice, original idea.”

“What I did continues the ancient story of mankind,” Captain told Penelope. “It connects us to the future, and shows what we are capable of. It’s like going to the moon or building a cross-continental railroad. It furthers our species along in our story.”

“Yes, but your wife! Was she not more important than glory?”

“She understood. She’s a grown woman, capable of making her own decisions. We agreed beforehand. She knew she didn’t have to join me, and when she did, she knew the risks. She knew that no matter what happened, I would go on.”

“For a thousand days! That’s nearly two years gone! Unforgivable, in my eyes. Kaiser, you’d never leave me for two years, would you?”

“Ja, but I am not ready to go sailing for two years, you know?” he said with a smile. “I like to stay in port and drink wine.”

“And so do we,” I added. “But tomorrow morning we’re sailing out to Freeport to haul the schooner out. We have to paint the bottom, get a survey, and a few other little things so that we’re ready for charter when we get back. Will you still be here when we return?”

“Ja,” said Kaiser. “But Penelope, no. I’ll see you when you return.”

John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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