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Junket of Fools
Airdate: May 1976

Last Update: 11-02-2016

Show Description
As a deeply bitten Caribbophile (I just invented that great word-if there are Francophiles and Anglophiles, why not Caribbophiles?), I almost went out of my skull when, totally unexpectedly, I was invited on a sailing jaunt to retrace part of Christopher Columbus' great adventure. As a kid growing up in stark, frozen, featureless Northern Indiana, I used to gloat secretly over certain maps in my 5th Grade geography book as I was sweating out my time at the Warren C. Harding School. Now, I know that the vast majority of people find nothing in maps except u lot of squiggly lines and indecipherable numbers and enigmatic captions such as "horse latitudes" or "magnetic deviation." I have no sympathy for them. As Casey Stengel put it so well when describing the character of a notably inept shortstop he had just sent back to the deepest Minors: "He was a ribbon clerk. The world is full of ribbon clerks, and l ain't got no time for 'em." To me, a ribbon clerk has always been someone who really likes Miami Beach and habitually buys a Chevy. The world is full of 'em, and l ain't got no time for 'em. The phrase "Trade Winds" got me where l live, even in the 5th Grade. We had plenty of wind in Northern Indiana, but nobody ever called it anything but "that goddamn wind." It howled off Lake Michigan all winter, day and night, like demented banshees out of a frozen Arctic hell. I Imagined the Trade Winds as gentle breezes that blew forever over soft tropical moonlit islands and golden beaches laved by crystal-clear water; teeming with exotic fish. And the names of the places: Far Tortuga, Hispaniola, Barbados, the Lesser Antitles. Good God! I sweat with excitement even as I write these names today. Anyway, when' the invitation arrived, stating in measured prose that V. E. B. Nicholson & Sons Charter Yachts were planning to escort a small group of "journalists" on a sailing voyage to retrace part of Columbus' odyssey and that I was free to attend if I saw fit, all expenses and other bothersome details to be attended to by the aforesaid splendid V. E. B. Nicholson yacht brokers, I choked momentarily on the Diet Tab laced with vodka that I was swilling, a drink known in my circles as a Russian Eunuch. Holy smokes, I thought, a freeloader's dream! I was doubly shocked in that (1) I am not a journalist, and (2) the rare invitations that I receive are usually for free promotional showings of endless Burt Reynolds movies which, apparently, are sent to everybody in Manhattan whose name begins with an "S." With manic speed I whipped back my acceptance, before they could change their minds or come to their senses, which probably means the same thing. A few days later I stood on a rickety dock in Martinique, amid a rabble of " journalists," several of whom I was to come to know well in the next week or so, and some far too well I was wearing my notorious Hemingway scowl, which is well known among the habitus of several semi-posh East Side pubs I occasionally attend. I am not used to being a freeloader, and it is not easy to know what altitude to take - fawning gratitude, sullen truculence or cold, Olympian disdain. I quickly realized that these people I was with were not " journalists" at all, but members of that curious breed known to the trade as Travel Writers, which meant, of course, that almost to a man they were hardened, grizzled freeloaders many of whom hadn't paid for so much as a 7-Up in the past twenty years. Already, they had begun the murmurous bitching about any number of things which is a common practice among the species, designed, apparently, to keep the bill payers on the defensive. L was astounded too, to find that they each travelled laden down with more junk and impedimenta than is usually transported by an entire company of infantry foot soldiers prepared for an extended bivouac in a remote desert. Jostling one another for favored positions for whatever was being handed out, our little band of malcontents was ready to push off. At this point I think it might not be too far off base for me to delineate, for the benefit of the innocent, just what the typical travel junket is made up of. I suppose to many the word "junket" means an insipid strawberry-flavored gelatin dessert admired by grandmas and dieters. In our day, the word has a totally different meaning. A classical junket consists of a group of, usually (but not always), vaguely accredited Media types who are transported in King Farouk style hither and yon around the globe for the ostensible purpose of promoting whatever the sponsor of the junket wishes to be so plugged. This phenomenon has grown over the years to the point where it is a well established sub-industry. There are now professionals whose only function in life is to manage, guide, and put together junkets. In fact, there are "agencies" whose only business seems to be the creation of every conceivable junket for ever-widening number of clients who have been convinced that a junket is just the thing they need to put the old business back in the black. Garbage can manufacturers, whiskey distillers, toothpick manufacturers, all throw lavish junkets. I am not joking. I have actually been invited to such events, and I really am sorry that l didn't take advantage of the Toothpick party, which in its invitation promised "A thrilling, exciting visit to the Toothpick capital of the world, including a highlight trip to the most modern automated toothpick plant of our time!" Damn it, I'm sorry now that I didn't go. Naturally, since the junket has produced the professional junket givers, it would follow that there are also professional junket goers. They fall into several distinct categories: A. The person (they can be of all sexes) who describes him/herself as "freelance." Free lance what they never quite say, and it is considered very had form to ask for specifics. This type usually comes equipped with airline bags imprinted with the names of very obscure airlines. Air Libya and Air Ethiopia are favorites of the genre. This is a large contingent, and they all seem to know each other. B. Vague ladies who wear floppy sun hats and rope sandals. They continually complain when anyone lights a cigarette within a 400-yard radius. No one exactly knows why they're along or what they do, but they're always in the crowd, usually leading the complaints. C. A heavy-set, bearded man who sweats profusely and, it is rumored, once worked on The New York Times. He rarely leaves the bus and seems to sleep a lot. D. Bird-like lady photographer laden with tons of equipment which she continually asks others to carry. This type has never been known to eat anything at all, referring to mysterious "allergies" which prevent her from partaking of any known nutriment. E. Sad-faced male of indeterminate profession who is usually affable and seems to have spent the preceding decade at least on a continual junket. I, personally, have seen him on the only three junkets I have ever taken. He is, no doubt, on a junket right at this moment, somewhere in the world, and goes from junket to junket like a chain smoker. I believe he has given up whatever permanent residence he might have held and is now supported entirely by junkets. F. Loud-mouthed, bulbous-nosed slobbish male in his midsixties, 24-hour-a-day drinker, whose blatting voice echoes for miles. He is totally unaware of his boobishness and, in fact, firmly believes he is the life of the party. This type usually wears large native straw bats, black socks under Mexican sandals, and he implies that a word from him, in print or whatever, can make or break the industry that is throwing the junket. He is along only for the free booze. G. Very earnest, dowdyish girl in her late twenties who continually takes notes in a cramped band, expresses amazement at every sight, and invariably refers to all natives as "fascinating." There is something vaguely sad about her, and there is the feeling that she will spend her life living with cats and going to lectures. H. Sensual-appearing girl in her early twenties. She describes herself as a "production assistant" on a Midwest TV station. On the second night out she will begin her affair with E. She appears to have some sort of expense account, which makes it even more fun for E. I. Legitimate writer who actually does write things and is known by all the others. They all dislike him intensely, and they often pretend that they never heard of him. J. Friends. This consists of an elastic-sized mixed bag of people who merely know somebody running the junket, met someone at a party who gave them the invitation, or who just got on the wrong bus at Acapt1lco and have been with the group ever since. They usually act continually surprised to be where they are, and tend to have affairs along the way with guides, bus drivers and above all, crew members. It goes without saying that our junket in the Caribbean was nicely equipped with all these classic types. A professional junketeer, much like a professional partygoer, keeps the ball rolling, knows how to act and knows his trade well. Not realizing at the time my astounding good fortune, I was assigned to sail on Sealestial, which lay rocking gently at the dock in the soft, fragrant Marliniq11e evening. Sealestial is an Ocean 71, the world's largest production fiberglass sailing yacht, designed by E. G. van de Stadt from the lines of the famous ocean racing Stormvogel and built in Poole, England, by Southern Ocean Shipyard, Ltd. She is a sister ship to Ocean Spirit, the Ocean 71 that won the 2,000-mlle Round Britain Race in 1970 and was first over the line in the Capetown to Rio race the next year. The other yachts on the voyage were Lusiada and Venceremos. John Lloyd, the captain, a heavily bearded Englishman, one of that curious breed of Britons who spend their lives roaming the tropics forever, as though eternally fleeing the wretched climate of their tight little isle, greeted us with "Please take off your shoes. We . . . Er . . . Never wear shoes whilst aboard Sealestial." Behind me, predictably, there was a muffled rumble of antagonism from my fellow travelers. Already I was reinforcing my opinion that most travel writers spend their lives in the Hiltons of the world, judging countries by the quality of the room service and the price of fake Mayan jewelry. One travel writer of the class that wears crumpled silk ascots, sports a salt-and-pepper beard and thick bifocals topped off with a Swedish mariner's cap, was already letting it be known that his wife was not happy and was beginning to feel seasick at the sight of these lethal-looking yachts, which look nothing at all like the Greek cruise ships they were used to and apparently expected. The word "yacht" tends to fool a lot of people, conjuring up as it does images of dynastic Rockefellers and Onassises sipping champagne on vast, breeze-swept fantails to the offstage accompaniment of strolling guitar players. I heard one widely syndicated lady mutter "It keeps jumping up and down and it's still at the dock!" Several days later l caught a glimpse of her, ashen-faced, clinging to a canting deck as the yacht rocketed before the trade winds in true, classic Around-The-Horn style. The crew stepped over her prostrate form as they nimbly trimmed the sheets as though she were a hatch cover or a dead balloonish, her piteous whines lost in the rush of curling foam and snapping sails. I often wonder how she described the trip to her adoring blue-haired readers in Indianapolis and Des Moines. Believe me. It is crucial on a sailing yacht to have the good sense (or luck) to be aboard with a congenial company of fellow cruisers who know how to take it as it comes, give more than they take, and have a sense of humor. One whining bad apple can totally ruin a sailing voyage in a matter of hours after casting off. There is nothing this side of a space capsule which brings out the best and the worst in people more than a couple of days at sea. "I've seen divorces, partnerships broken, and attempted murders, all in the space of ten days," John told me one night over a brandy. ''On the other hand, I've seen people who thought they hated each other get together for life. It can go either way." Captaining a charter yacht has to be one of the world's most subtly demanding vocations. It requires all the tact and devious diplomacy o[ a U.N. Ambassador, the bland joviality of a maitre'd, the technical expertise of an airline pilot, all underscored with the steel discipline-dispensing will of a colonel commanding a battalion of Red Berets. A little knowledge of medicine, psychiatry, and the legal profession all help nicely. John Lloyd, Sealestial's captain from the day of her launching, is an ideal specimen of the breed. The first day we crept out of the harbor and inched up the coast under diesel power, perhaps wisely, to break us in gradually to the Sailing Life. John's crew are two Antiguans named Sam and Jippy and a Grenadian named Twin who turned out to be one of the best cooks I've ever known in my life. We anchored off St. Pierre, the sleepy town of twisting streets and blazing blossoms which will never recover its turn-of-the-century glories lost one Sunday morning in 1902 when Mount Pele erupted and gassed all thirty thousand inhabitants in seconds. The only one surviving was a citizen spending the night in jail, who went into Showbiz as a result, exhibiting himself at circuses and carnivals. Their tiny seaside museum displays melted dinner plates, singed dentures and even bits of petrified food left from that historic day. A few of my companions scribbled notes listlessly and we moved on. Our guide was a native Martiniquoise who had worked in Paris as a model, studied art in Germany, and was now, unaccountably, back home explaining to the tourists why Martinique is French. Back aboard Sealestial, a name which always made me feel a little uncomfortable since puns are usually the last resort of the truly humorless and should never be painted on the transom of anything more noble than a rubber rowboat, my shipmates and I sat down to one of Twin's masterpieces, a roast of lamb of such exquisite delicacy as to bring tears to the eyes. After dinner, some of my fellow fortunates and I stretched out on the deck, sipping cognac and looking up at the stars. Sterling Noel, a truly civilized gentleman in his seventies and the only real sailor among the lot of us freebies reminisced about his friends Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald and his days as a naval officer in Africa, assigned to the Free French. Our captain joined us, carrying a bottle of Martell. Somebody turned on the stereo and I found myself dancing in the dark with a blue-eyed, nicely modeled blonde. Faint laughter drifted over from Venceremos. The waves quietly lapped at the hull. And I thought of what a tough time Columbus must have had. The next morning, early - it came as a shock to many of us to find out that life at sea begins hours before any truly civilized person is even ready for his first cup of coffee - John diplomatically rousted us out, and we squatted, puffyeyed and muted in the rosy-fingered dawn, eating scrambled eggs and staring moodily into our coffee cups. We were experiencing that slow wrenching withdrawal from civilization into another, totally different life plane which is lived in those Light little worlds that sail with the wind. No telephones, no sound of distant traffic, nor the nagging knowledge of the dull workday ahead. At first I really missed all that, but gradually things changed and I found myself not reading newspapers, and Walter Cronkite had faded out of my mind like some ancient vaudeville act that I once enjoyed. I guess it was about four o'clock on that first day under sail when I knew at last l had found my true vocation: I really loved sailing on Sealestial, wearing the same pair of shorts and grungy Genessee Beer T shirt day in and day out, and hearing the rhythmic singsong speech of the crew as they talked endlessly among themselves and laughed at secret black Antiguan jokes. I never realized what a beautiful thing a sailing yacht slicing through the water at eight knots or better can be. I watched Venceremos, slightly astern of us tacking hard across our wake, heeling well over, sending up bursts of silver spray, her metalwork gleaming. And I knew thal I was looking at one of the great sights on this earth. The dark green hulk of Martinique framed Venceremous as we sailed the twenty or so miles to Dominica. Flying 6sh skipped and skimmed around our bow like pebbles and a pair of porpoises dove and surfaced a few yards to starboard, the sun catching their blue-silver eyes. I hunched down in the cockpit, trying to light my pipe, when the thought hit me. I am sailing the Trade Winds! That old Warren G. Harding map flashed through my mind. Martinique, Dominica, Hispaniola. Columbus may have died a poor man in obscurity, I thought, but he was a damn sight richer than anybody of his time. What a thrill it must have been for him to see those high humps of Dominica which lay just ahead of us rising out of that unknown sea. I wonder what the rigging sounded like on Santa Maria, or Pirlla. Now, that sort of speculation just isn't the kind of thing that occupies my mind on my daily rounds in Manhattan. Default, imminent mugging, who I'm supposed to meet for lunch and what his excuse will be when he's lute, getting a cab, and occasional brief thought that there must be a better way. Dominica was now close enough so that details on the island came into focus - high, green mountains; thick, green-black jungles; a whole different feel from Martinique. For me, at least, there hangs over Dominica the faint, undefinable atmosphere of some nameless menace. A scudding grey tropical rain moved toward us like some misty curtain. As we moved into the shallow bay at Portsmouth (Dominica is English and Portsmouth appeared to be a straggle of thatch and tin-roofed huts with a few tiny pigs darting about on the beach, pursued by tiny natives), John proved once again that for whatever their faults, the English have always had a sure sense of theater, which often is another name for Pomp and Circumstance. As Jippy and Sam ran up the Union Jack the stereo boomed out the 19th Century thunder of "Trooping the Colours," played by Her Majesty's Royal Marine Band. I caught John's eye as be smiled broadly through his beard. "By God, there always will be an England, in spite of the Labour party." He seemed to be making a bit of a joke, but I'm not sure. The rain hit us in great roaring gusts. Sealestial, Venceremos, and Lusiada pitched at anchor, buttoned up tight. Twin whipped up one of his elegant dinners and as the rain pounded on the cabin we ate by candlelight and put away three bottles of a better than average Chablis. The next morning we were off again at the crack of dawn, in a driving rain and a breeze which John laconically described as "a rather full Force Five." We were heading for Isles d'Saintes, those rocky little romantic specks of land which lie south of Guadeloupe. There is a very challenging stretch of water which Lies between Dominica and Isles d'Saintes. Sealestial heeled over smartly and the sheep among us beg:m to be separated from the goats. The Ocean 71 was designed for deep water long-distance racing. The phrase "mountainous seas" pops up constantly in writings about the world's oceans and by God, for the first time I knew what they meant. Our rail was under rushing water, rushing green water a lot of the time. John grinned as Venceremous dropped behind and Sealestial stretched her muscles. Our blonde clung with both hands to the rail on the high side, her feet planted like two iron pillars against the side of the cockpit. She kept muttering "We're going to tip over, we're going to tip over." John carefully explained that Sealestial had nine tons of lead in that keel and there was no way she could "tip over." I'm afraid that because he had to shout through a screaming gale and over the thunder of the heaving sea, it did not help his case. In fairness, I have to say that the same blonde two days later had gained so much confidence that she kept yelling to John, "Make it go faster. Can't you hook on some more of those sheets or sails or whatever you call them? How bout that big red and white balloon thing?'' She kept trying to climb the rigging and made obscene gestures to Venceremcus as she dropped astern. You sure learn about people when you take them to sea. We threaded our way past Queen Victoria, a pile of half submerged rocks which, when viewed under the right light and after enough Bombay gin, does look vaguely like the crusty old monarch, bustle and all. We anchored in the lovely harbor of Terre d'en Haut, Guadeloupe. Ten minutes later I was ashore and wandering around the streets of the town with a few of my fellow old salts, including the blonde. The settlement of the island itself was at Napoleon's orders. He shipped a gang of farmers from Normandy to the island to raise fruit and vegetables for the elegant tables of Paris. Naturally, they intermarried with the natives, and they remain there to this day, an odd beautiful golden skinned people who radiate a curious dreamlike aura and who wear strange Chinese-like straw hats. It is truly a poetic little town that is more French in many ways than a lot of mainland French towns I have been in. We bought some bread, long, hard, crackling loaves wrapped in the traditional newspaper and headed back to Sealestial. We heard rumors that one of the ''travel writers,'' the one with the ascot, had demanded immediate luxury passage home. Columbus's logs show references to sailing past these very islands, and the distinct feeling of timelessness in Terre d'en Haut makes you think that Columbus, Isabella, and Santa Maria are really not all that long ago. In fact, some of the exotic wooden-hulled sailing vessels at anchor looked as though they might have been on the drawing boards at about the time Santa Maria made her last voyage. Our merry little band of guests aboard Sealestial was fast becoming a tightly knit cadre of close friends. You share a tiny head with five people, trade T-shirts and smoke up each other's cigarettes, swig out of common beer bottles, and you create a snobbish crew convinced that their group, their captain, their way of life, is totally superior to the raffish, haphazard existence being lived on the other boats. The next day, we sailed back to Dominica for a pig roast on the beach. This turned out to be a very exotic fiasco. It seemed that endless thousands of Dominicans had converged on us out of the jungle. I found myself wildly dancing in the darkness, my bare feet thudding the powdered soil while thousands of blacks applauded. One yelled to me "Mon, you go native quick!'' I sweated and grunted, then suddenly we all fled back into the night as things began to get out of hand. It was a terrific relief to climb aboard Sealestial. You could hear the hoopla getting louder and louder on shore. During all the uproar, the 216-foot schooner Ariadne, a vast three-master built as a freighter in 1909 in Holland, had quietly anchored in the darkness a few hundred yards out from Sealestial. John Lloyd said "How about us paying a visit? I'd like to see something like that." We piled into Sealestial's rubber Zodiac and roared over. Ariadne had to be seen to be believed, a truly impressive vessel. The captain, a neat, compact German, Harry Paschburg, had discovered her in a small Swedish harbor in 1973. lie had her completely refitted in accordance with the original drawings, and now she sails in stately elegance throughout the Caribbean. Over a German beer, l said to the captain: "All this luxury is great for a lot of people, but give me the cruel sea and spartan quarters and . . . " Less than a week on the ocean and here I was blabbing off like a hardened world sailor. The captain grinned, showing a lot of teeth through his beard. "Veil, sen you would enchoy a Vinter Adlantic crossing vis us, ven se ship is pissing and rolling." l smiled grimly, flashed my Hemingway scowl, and muttered "Yep." The next day our flotilla set out for Guadeloupe. It was a gorgeous day - sun, cobalt blue water, and a new air of confidence and calmness among our little band. After all, we had been through hell together: mysterious pig roasts in the night, running out of cigarettes In Dominica, learning how to work the manual pump on the head. Finally, after a long, bumpy bus ride through the beautiful rain forests of Guadeloupe and the sadness of leaving Sealestial, we gathered at the airport for our trip back to default and potholes. The blonde cried; Lois cried. The crowd of "travel writers" had changed spectacularly. The ones who had been the loudest at the beginning were now strangely silent, perhaps with a new knowledge of how dumb they were; the silent ones had become loud and confident. John Lloyd had grinned at the erstwhile fearful blonde. "Good show, gel. You came around smartly. You'll be sailing again." In the first class lounge of our L-1011 I unfolded a National Geographic world map. Yep, there below Florida, a blank blue, the Caribbean: Martinique, Dominica, Isles d'Saintes, Guadeloupe; names to make the spine crawl with excitement. It was good to know that even hack in 5B at the Warren G. Harding School, I was right.
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