Back in 1976, when I was about 30, a wealthy friend of mine named Antonio made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was to fly to Hong Kong, where I’d be the First Mate on a sailboat he’d bought and wanted to be delivered back to the US. I’ve done a variety of boat deliveries, they’re always good fun. I wrote about another boat delivery in several parts here, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. So I said sure, I’ll deliver a sailboat, no problemo.
I had a passport already. He gave me $15,000 in $100 bills to be used in fitting the sailboat out for the trip. I started off for Hong Kong but first, as I mentioned at the end of my last post, I stopped off in Hawaii to see the folks at the psychotherapy house. It was about six years since I’d last seen them.
I’d heard that they had moved to a farm in Captain Cook, on the Big Island of Hawaii. I went to the town, but I couldn’t find them. So I just went early in the morning to the Post Office, found a place to sit near the PO Boxes, and waited for them to come to get their mail. Hey, everyone has to get mail. When a couple of folks I knew showed up, I went up to them. They laughed, they were glad to see me, but it seemed they were troubled.
They took me to their new home, which was on a coffee plantation. The new place, to me, had a dark and menacing air. I found out that one of the people who used to live in the house when I lived with them had left his two young daughters with the group and just walked away … I knew the daughters, of course. They were older this time, and both of them seemed ineffably sad.
What I didn’t know then, but I found out later, was that after I left the group, and after their father had left the girls with the group, that Dr. Hawkins had become involved sexually with both girls when the younger one was twelve and the older was fourteen … yuck. Power leads to corruption. Looking back, I can see why both of them seemed so sad.
I also found out later that after she left the group, the older of the two girls moved to Alaska, became a prostitute, and was eventually murdered by a serial killer … yikes! Talk about low esteem and self-loathing …
But I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew was that it seemed like a shadow had fallen over the place. I went to the big group therapy meeting in the evening. It was full of recriminations, with little in the way of the joy and laughter that I’d seen before …
I’d planned to stay a couple days, but I didn’t like the vibe at all, so I said goodbye. I flew back to Honolulu and prepared to take the $15,000 to Hong Kong. Then, as now, if you took more than $10,000 out of the country you had to jump through stupid hoops and fill out lots of papers. Not something I wanted to do.
So I got some surgical stockings, the kind that are used for people with varicose veins. I wrapped the money around my calves and ankles and covered it with the surgical stockings. I got on the airplane. We flew through Korea. For some reason, we all had to get off the plane, and we stood around in a biting wind. It was January. But my calves were nice and warm, wrapped up in money. I’d heard that being rich can insulate you against cold weather, but I’d never experienced it in action …
Before I left, someone had told me that no matter what I thought about Asia, it was going to be different than my wildest imagination. He also said that if I was walking along the street it was my responsibility not to step into a hole or have a brick fall on my head. I thought about that as the plane flew into the old Kai Tak airport. The approach at that time used to run between high walls of skyscrapers on both sides of the airport. From the airplane just before we landed I could see right into the windows of the apartments and look at people going about their daily business. Scary.
So I landed in Hong Kong. Customs didn’t notice the money. The first night I stayed in a hotel on about the eighth floor. When I got up in the morning I was looking out the window when, to my shock, I saw something waving around just outside my window. I went and looked. It was the upper end of a bamboo pole. I couldn’t open the window, but when I looked down I could see workmen outside the building, one floor down, on a seven-story bamboo scaffold. They were adding the eighth story onto the scaffolding.
I thought “Didn’t see that kind of scaffolding back on the cattle ranch, you’re in Asia now!” … I made my way down to the yacht club. I’d been told that the captain would meet me there, and he did. We went out to the boat.
My friend had arranged for the purchase of a sailboat in Hong Kong harbor. Unfortunately, his taste in boats wasn’t all the best, and the choice of boats available at that time wasn’t large. In the end, the chosen boat did make the trip, but my goodness, she was a whore. It was a wooden boat, made in Taiwan. It was good quality, with a master stateroom in the back, and three smaller berths up forward. But it hadn’t been to sea in quite a while. It needed a whole host of things to make it seaworthy. Then on top of that, it needed a trial voyage to see how well it would handle weather and what else it would need.
She was a tubby round 50-foot long wooden sailboat. She had a bowsprit, that wooden pole that sticks out in front of the boat and is bothersome in any harbor. She was gaff rigged, meaning the boat had a huge wooden pole called a “gaff” at the top of the mainsail. The boat was a “staysail schooner”. The photo below shows what a staysail schooner looks like. That’s not the boat itself, but the same size and rig. Staysail schooners are very rare these days, and for a very good reason. It takes four trained gorillas to hoist up, trim, lower, or handle the sails. But that was the sail setup.
See the flag at the end of the diagonal pole at the right of the picture? That diagonal wooden pole the flag is flying from is the “gaff” I mentioned above. It is big. It is heavy. If it gets loose and swings around it can do serious damage. As a result, it always has to be lashed in place with ropes called “preventers” to prevent the gaff from running amok. It’s a pain in heavy weather, and it’s even worse when there’s no wind to keep the sail and the gaff pressed to one side.
But I didn’t know that then. I’d sailed a lot, but never in that kind of rig.
The skipper’s name was Roy. He was the finest captain it was ever my pleasure to serve, and I’ve worked with some good ones. He had an amazing ability, which I did not see until later in the trip. This was that the more chaotic the situation became, the calmer he got. I went through a number of storms with him, and I never saw him get upset. I saw him get angry, at incompetence. But facing the screaming wind and the pounding waves seemed to send him into an internally tranquil state. It was a quality I have striven to emulate ever since, with varying degrees of success.
Fitting out a boat in Hong Kong is an unusual experience. I recommend it to anyone with a warped sense of humor. Hong Kong does everything differently. To start with, the city has its own special sound. Hong Kong makes a particular noise, a strange hum, at all hours of the day and night. Near as I can tell, the sound is mostly made up of three parts. One part is this ceaseless sound of a million people talking and cajoling and whispering and shouting in Chinese. The second part is the rumble and growl and screech of the endless car and truck traffic that packs the streets of Hong Kong. The last part is the soothing sound of mah-jong tiles clashing against each other in the lanes and byways of the city, a background much like the sound of the sea. I grew to love the sound and to take comfort in it.
Hong Kong also had its own smell, an ever-changing blend of cooking oil, and sweat, and garbage, and oriental spices, and mud, and ocean. Intoxicating.
For a while, it was difficult for me to make sense of people’s faces. Initially, it was true what was said about the proverbial Asian “they”, that “they” all looked alike to me.
But one day I was riding on the bus. I looked across, and there was a woman sitting across from me, and I thought “She looks like my sister Jean.” And it was true. She did look like Jean. But it was nothing about her face that was the same. Instead, the woman’s face had a certain kind of tiredness that I’d seen in my sister Jean’s face sometimes.
And it was curious. At that moment, the scales fell off my eyes. I looked around the bus. Suddenly I could see echoes of people that I knew in all of the faces around me. In one corner was an old man, and I could see he was upset about something. Another woman in the back was distracted by some inner issues, I could see the internal debate. Suddenly, the faces were all different. They didn’t look the same. I could see and begin to understand what was going on.
In Hong Kong, I must’ve looked like a total rube. There were so many things I hadn’t ever seen. One clear image in my mind is of a man delivering meat on a bicycle. The end of one of the pieces of meat had fallen on to his rear tire. I could see the black strip where the rubber of the tire had run against the meat. The bicycle turned in at the delivery entrance of a big hotel.
Another time I needed some metal work done. I was directed to a small shop up a side street. The shop was perhaps 10 feet (3 m) wide and maybe twice that deep. Everything in Hong Kong is tiny, floor space is at a premium. So the metal shop stored all of their pipes and bars and rods of steel underneath a removable floor of plywood. When they needed a particular size or piece of metal they just pulled up the floor, dug down, pulled out the piece they needed, put the plywood back down, and kept working. When they were working on a long piece of steel, sometimes one end would just stick out into the street. One of the shop guys would stand out there and route foot traffic around it until the machining was done, then it would go back into the shop.
One day, I came across a butchers shop. The owner must have heard something about sanitation, about the importance of washing meat to keep it clean. So as I was walking by, I saw that the butcher had taken the various joints and cuts of meat outside and laid them out on the sidewalk in front of his butcher shop … and he was hosing them down with a garden hose. I stopped, astounded. I watched as he hosed down the top side of each piece of meat. Then he flipped it over on the now-wet sidewalk and proceeded to hose down the other side. When he was done he picked up each piece, gave it a final rinse, took it back in his shop, and replaced it on the shelves for sale. I was starting to see why the Chinese never ate anything raw. They even boiled their lettuce, another surprise to me.
And of course, as life would have it, about the 3rd week of my stay in Hong Kong I saw a headline in the local newspaper. It said, “Man Killed by Falling Brick.” Indeed my friend was right. There were things about Asia that surprised me no matter what I thought I knew before I went.
I met a charming young woman there, we weren’t lovers, but we greatly enjoyed each other’s company. She spoke passable English. We would travel around the city and she would explain what people were doing and answer my questions about customs and habits. She also helped greatly when I needed some obscure part for the boat, she could translate for me. Her name was Lai-Fan, and wherever she is today I wish her well. She had a laugh like the sound of falling water. We had good times.
We needed to get the boat hauled out of the water and the bottom painted. So we cranked up the anchor for the first of many times during the entire voyage and moved the boat around to the back side of Hong Kong island. We motored to Aberdeen, the fishing port where thousands of people live afloat, on the Chinese sailboats called “junks”.
In Aberdeen, as shown in the photo above, rows and rows of junks floated with families living on board most of them. Many of them went out fishing, but others were just residences, or floating restaurants, or storehouses, or whorehouses, or who knows what … I never went there at night, and not much during the day. A long string of Chinese boats moored side to side seemed like the kind of place where it would be easy for a gringo to disappear.
I kept coming across more strange customs I’d never seen. In Aberdeen a few times I ate lunch at the outdoor table with the shipyard guys that were working on the boat. When I eat a fish I put the bones on the plate. But the Chinese workers at the shipyard didn’t do that. They put the bones on the tablecloth. Given the number of flies around, it seemed to make sense, because the flies mostly hung out around the bones and were distracted from our lunches. At the end of the meal, the diners scraped any other scraps off of their plates onto the tablecloth. The tablecloth was folded in from the corners to catch all the bones and scraps, and then it was carried back into the kitchen for disposal. Makes a certain kind of sense.
I was also surprised that most of the roadwork gangs, the people that cleaned the ditches and fixed the potholes and shoveled the dirt, were women. In 1976, that wasn’t true in the US. At that time, there were few women in physical labor at all.
And I loved the Hong Kong habit of drying their clothing on long bamboo poles that they stick out of the windows of their high-rise apartments. On a sunny day, entire streets looked like a forest of multicolored flags flying everywhere on the faces of the buildings.
Another surprising thing I saw was what the moms who lived on the junks do. When a mom thought that a baby needed to go to the bathroom, she’d hold the baby out over the side of the boat. They held the babies lying flat on the back, with one hand holding the baby beneath the knees and thighs, and the other beneath the back and shoulders.
Then the mom would fold the kid in the middle like they were closing a book, pressing the baby’s knees up to its chest. Squeezed like that, the baby would immediately take a dump into the ocean, and then the mom would unfold the baby and bring it back into the boat for further attention. It reminded me of squeezing the water out of a wet towel. When I saw that I thought “Nope … we didn’t see much of that on the cattle ranch, this Asia is indeed a very strange and wondrous place.”
As usual, I had a variety of jobs in fixing the boat up. Besides the Captain and myself, there were three other crew members— Long John, SEALboy, and Bert. Long John actually had some sea time and was useful around the boat. SEALboy claimed that he’d been a US Navy SEAL and was an expert in all things nautical, that he could navigate in thick fog by dead reckoning … his boasts were endless but he didn’t get much done. Finally, Bert had never been to sea and was like a puppy, full of enthusiasm but about as likely to knock something over as to do something productive.
The plan was to first get the boat ready for a trip down to the Philippines. This was to serve as the sea trials, to let us know what else would be needed for the actual voyage to the US.
I ended up in charge of the installation and care of the electronics. I also worked on various re-rigging projects, as we replaced all suspect or old rigging. I took the sails in to get the new ones made, and dealt with their endless excuses as to why the sails weren’t ready.
The sails were the last thing to get done. I kept going in and asking if the sails were finished. “Not done yet.” Finally, after some days, the man said “Oh, good news!” Finally, I thought. I said, “So the sails are done?”
“Oh, no, but they are in the process of completion.”
The process of completion? What does that even mean? I said bad words in Chinese that Lai-Fan had taught me for just such emergencies. They got a good laugh out of that, a ghost-person like myself swearing in execrably bad Chinese. I think they took pity on me, it wasn’t long before the sails were completed.
Finally, we’d done everything that we could think of to get ready. I’d provisioned the boat for the run to the Philippines, the new sails were on board, water tanks were full, I said goodbye for one sad, final time to Lai-Fan, we cleared Hong Kong customs and at long last, after weeks and weeks of preparation, one fine evening we headed out of the Hong Kong Harbor to cross the South China Sea on the way to the Philippines.
As always … to be continued … Part 2 is here.