Recollections Part 7 - Together through Life! What's in a Winch Handle?
The great visionary, Henry Ford, once said, "Every object tells a story if you know how to read it". Here's a little story about how a man and his winch handle have traveled together through a wonderful and memorable life afloat.
My first sailboat was a nineteen-foot Lightning racing sloop named "Patriot. These are popular one-designs that are built with spacious cockpits for day sailing, and no cabin below. Mine was a derelict, wrecked and abandoned in a virtual urban war zone in Camden, NJ. The modest price of $175.00 was well within my price range and included free delivery to my father’s house. Although, a very small boat, she quickly became a very important part of my life.
Patriot was set down onto wooden blocks in my father’s driveway. There were plenty of holes on the topside. In fact, there was one for every piece of deck hardware that belonged in its place. It arrived with no mast, no boom, no sails, no centerboard, no floorboards, and very little hope of ever sailing again. Nonetheless, it was at that precise moment, as I positioned myself proudly in the cockpit where the helm should have been, gazing forward across the muddy, punctured deck and over the bow at a full audience of horrified neighbors, that Captain Mark was born.
I felt a strange and sudden passion unlike anything I had ever felt before. My father shook his head in disbelief, but soon came onboard to lend his support for what became, perhaps, the most remarkable nautical restoration project in the history of South Jersey. Piece by piece and hole by hole, Patriot began to take shape, and in less than a year, we began looking for a marina. Knowing precious little about the recreational boating facilities available on the Delaware River, we finally located a run down, out of the way marina situated on the Christina River, just outside of Wilmington. The launching went well as Patriot splashed down from the rented trailer into the murky waters of the Christina River. Morris, the aging owner of the marina stood anxiously by, waiting to see how fast the boat would sink. But, to everyone’s surprise, she stayed afloat. It was time to start sailing!
If experience is the best teacher, then the Patriot was the Ivy League education of sailing and seamanship to me. An intense curriculum of maritime misadventures defined my four-year apprenticeship as master and commander of this lively little ship.
One of the greatest lessons I learned during these formative years is that no matter the size, boating is a very expensive way of life - and if you can find a bargain in the crazy world of boating - GRAB IT!
Back in the 70's and 80's, the only source of marine supplies in the NJ - Delaware area was M&E Marine Supply, a huge and very well stocked retail outlet located on Rt. 130 in Collingswood, NJ. M&E was huge and seemed to carry every item imaginable related to boating. They even carried the distinct and expensive smell of boating. I quickly learned that a bottle of "marine" soap could cost four times as much as just plain soap. During the restoration period, I made dozens of trips to M&E in search of the bits and pieces of gear that would make Patriot seaworthy once more, each time looking for a bargain, yet rarely finding relief from the excruciating pains of coughing up the retail prices.
Then, one day, several years later, I was shocked to learn that M&E was going out of business and that everything in the store was being liquidated at half price! Needless to say, though sorry to see them go, I went wild on a shopping spree for anything at all that might be useful on a small one design sailing boat. To my surprise, two weeks later, everything was marked down 75%. Although, the inventory was greatly reduced, I was still able to find a few goodies on the shelves. A week after that, I drove by the store and the sign read - "LAST DAY - EVERYTHING MUST GO - 90% OFF! I looked at my watch. "Ten minutes til closing time"! I slammed on the brakes, made the jug handle U-turn and screeched into the parking lot. I entered the store and there was absolutely nothing on the shelves. The lights were starting to shut down and the employees were huddled in conversation as if giving ceremonial last rites to a maritime institution. I blurted out, "Is there anything left?"
Just then, one of the employees broke free from the huddle, walked over to the counter and said, "Sorry man, the only thing left in the whole store is this big old winch handle" He reached behind the counter and pulled out the shiniest piece of stainless steel that I had ever seen. "Barlow, from Australia", he said. "Regular $100.00, you can have it for ten!" At this point, I had a Star racing boat and the largest piece of line on the whole boat was 1/4", nothing even close to a winch, and if anything, the handle might have made a decent anchor. I started to turn and leave when, suddenly an inner voice shouted out, "BUY IT! One day you will NEED that winch handle!"
So, I bought it. And for over 25 years, it has been with me aboard every cruising boat I have ever owned - and every sailing trip I have ever taken. It is the one and only piece of equipment that I still possess from my earliest days of sailing. It's got lots of dings and finger prints on it now, and hopefully, there will be many more to come.