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Soul Music

At Sea — October 2004


Illustration: Joseph Daniel Fiedler

The first time I really put boats and music together was when I was a kid just back from Vietnam and my mind hadn’t quite settled down yet. Credence Clearwater Revival was topping the charts with “Proud Mary,” which had a refrain that went, “rollin’... rollin’... rollin’ on the riverrrrrrr.” The song peaked in popularity just about the time I bought an aluminum skiff with a humongous outboard, a 40-hp Evinrude.

It was a match made in heaven—or maybe hell, if you viewed it from the perspective of the local sheriff’s department. Barely out of my teens, I was having serious trouble transitioning back into civilized life after a combat tour in Southeast Asia that had entailed, among other things, lively excursions on patrol boats bristling with big, loud, .50-caliber machine guns.

But the skiff helped, and so did the stirring strains of “Proud Mary.” For starters, they both facilitated the numerous fishing trips my brother Mike, my friend Lee (an ex-door gunner who wore Ray-Bans even after dark), and I took on the river that meandered through town. They also briefly fostered an activity that was as memorable as it was therapeutic. To this very day, I can still recall with stunning clarity the way that song used to reverberate between my ears as the three of us would stow 12-gauge pumps aboard the skiff, along with a profusion of empty plastic milk jugs, and roar off to take turns blasting the jugs out of the water while bearing down on them at wide-open throttle. The depth of the psychic relief afforded by such insanity was lost on me at the time, but I understand it pretty well today.

Mainstream 1970’s rock ‘n’ roll saw me through an ensuing stint of newspapering and the years it took to graduate from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. That and Gordon Lightfoot’s folk-rocky “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” During my last two years at the academy, I sailed as a cadet with guys who had actually served aboard other Lakes ships that fateful night, guys who were tough, worldly, and about as emotional as a shovelful of iron ore. Whenever Lightfoot’s song played on a radio, they’d either pause briefly if talking or if not simply stare off into the distance, momentarily tranced out. To both them and me, there was something about the song that went beyond catastrophe, capturing what was important but otherwise inexpressible.

A couple of years later, down in Morgan City, Louisiana, I switched from rock to easy-listening shortly after landing a job as a boat-driving mate on 200-foot tug/supply vessels, a gratifying accomplishment preceded by a long stretch as an able-bodied seaman (AB). The work of ABs in the early 1980’s on the Gulf Coast was boring at best. So, while busting rust off steel decks with a chipping hammer for hours, I was wont to enjoy a little Springsteen or some Pink Floyd to ease the monotony.

But the mate’s job changed all that. I can’t think of a job this side of brain surgery requiring more concentration and calm than driving a Morgan City tug/supply boat during the mid-1980’s, particularly when it came to transiting the twisty, highly trafficked Atchafalaya River after dark in the fog. Not that doing such a thing was necessarily safe or even legal, but it was common back then when Merchant Marine officers like me, threatened with firings and layoffs during an oil-biz downturn, were doing crazy stuff to keep their jobs.

Henry Mancini. Burt Bacharach. Perry Como—the soothing orchestral tones of these guys are what I associate with the years I spent on the Atchafalaya. Even today, whenever I hear “Moon River,” low and mournful, I get a deep, subconscious urge to stick my head into an old Decca radar and start steering with an NFU jog control.

A more energetic theme surfaced when the oil-field business finally tanked and I moved aboard my own boat, complete with candles (for light, not atmosphere), a giant cooler (for booze, not food), and a battery-draining cassette-tape player. My work life changed at the same time I began my un-air-conditioned stays in a mangrove-fringed South Florida marina; I started making voyages on oceangoing tugs to places far away. Recordings of Peruvian and Chilean bands began rattlin’ the ol’ cassette-tape player. How vividly I recall those long-ago nights when, not cruising the high seas on tugs, I’d lay on the plastic cushions of my V-berth, in clammy pools of sweat, listening to folk tunes of the Andes at full blast, while bullfrogs croaked, mosquitoes buzzed, and neighboring yachtspersons yowled uncouth insults.

Things weren’t totally bad during this era, however. In addition to the World Music I was discovering, I stumbled across singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett’s stuff, thanks to an engineer I did a trip to Haiti with. Eddy owned every album of Buffett’s. Moreover, he’d periodically attempt to emulate his hero, although Eddy couldn’t carry a tune in a five-gallon bucket. Nevertheless, I subsequently acquired many of Mr. Margaritaville’s albums myself and enjoyed them on the job and off.

These days, Buffett’s songs are still tops for boats in my book. As proof, consider the delivery trip I did several years ago with little more for music than Buffett’s Banana Wind album. As things turned out, the CD played almost steadily for the ten days it took two other hardy souls and me to shepherd a feisty Nordic Tug all the way from Fort Lauderdale to St. Thomas, without tangling too significantly with a hurricane that was bashing around the Carribbean.

But here’s the best part. Instead of hating the dang album at the end of the trip, I came to love it and continue to do so, mostly because it’s extraordinarily evocative.

Ah, yes! Monster seas. Dog-drooling seasickness. Flaring tempers. No coffee. Every time I listen to the album now, I can’t help but think, man, what a great time we had!

This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.