by Ron Thweatt - Hermitage Tennessee - USA
This month we welcome Captain Ron Thweatt as a regular columnist. He has some time on his hands and lots of sailing experiences so we invited to write a little for us each month. Here is his first offering.
Captain Charlie Self
Invite someone to go sailing?
Be careful YOU could create a monster
Old Sailors Never Die they Just get a little Dinghy?
Ever wonder how most sailors got into sailing? I remember going to Elm Hill Marina on Percy Priest Lake, located in Hermitage Tennessee, every weekend; I would also stop by 2 or 3 times per week after work.
I would walk the docks, and stand with amazement at all the boats setting in their slips. As I would walk I would come upon boats with their lines tied so tight the boat would be rubbing and bouncing as the waves came into the very dock that was supposed to keep it from harm.
At first I would just shake my head, but then after seeing what damage a piece of unprotected wood could do to gel coat, I decided to retie the poor thing, the same thing one would do for a dog who had gotten its too short rope wrapped around a tree.
It was then I thought the same type person who would tie a dog up and not let it run free and a person who would tie a sailboat up with its dock lines too loose or too tight must be of the same mindset. That’s when it hit me.
If I cannot own a boat I could become the “Midnight Dock Walker,” kind of like Zorro or Mighty Mouse. By the way, for those under 35, Mighty Mouse always came to save the day.
So I started walking and looking and as I did I had the chance to not only retie boats, but in some cases I would have to climb aboard just to check why the cockpit was full of water. It only took a few seconds to see leaves or duck poop clogging the scuppers, so I would just swish around the drain and with great enjoyment watch as the water ran like a scared rabbit out of the drains.
Yep, I had arrived - I was actually on a sailboat. As I sat there waiting for all the water to drain, I could only dream of being at the helm. I started looking at all the “ropes” and dull finished round things the ropes were wrapped around. Then I decided to start asking questions?
I found most people on their boats were more than proud to tell me ropes were lines, unless they were used to pull up the sails, then they were called halyards and the round things that made the funny sound were winches. These were used to make pulling in the sheets easier and this would adjust the head sail.
Wow! Ropes are halyards, “clinkey” round things were winches and lines were sheets, and if this was too much for me to handle I should just keep on walking.
Week after week I made my walk and my stand. I had the opportunity to see boats sailing in and out. I would watch the sailors scream at each other, then the boat would look like it was about to turn over. I would see the sheets wrap around little doors in front deck of the boat and then hear the Skipper with the stick in his hand scream at some person, in most cases a lady. Then the lady would bark back, all the while the little black door thing was being torn out of the boat and would go overboard.
In my minds eye I had seen and could see this as a calm, gentle, soothing way to spend my time. Now I was beginning to have second thoughts.
At that time in my life I had and still do, I am glad to say, a wonderful wife who suggested I look into a sailing class. To my surprise, no one offered one in our area. After all, this was the 70’s when only rich people and doctors had sailboats. I was about to give up when I was approached by a small man with a beard, who came up to me at church. His first question was, “Are you Capt Ron?” My reply was, “Yes on the Ron and no on the captain. I have no boat.”
“Do you like boats?” he asked. “Sure!” “And I hear you walk the docks doing strange things like retying boat lines, cleaning out scuppers, and reinstalling sail covers.” Strange, this man looked like one of Santa’s elves.
How did he know about my midnight walks and how did he know about my growing obsession about sail boats? The answer was simple - the dock master told him about a man who had been seen reattaching bow lines and draining boats as he walked…
Little did I know one of the boats I had attended to was the Oday 25 this little man owned.
That’s when I met Charlie Self… Charlie was working with the US Weather Station in Nashville and had been the first person to have a BIG sailboat on Percy Priest Lake.
I had my first invite to go sailing on the next Saturday. I can still remember that day, even though I can’t remember where my glasses are most of the time now…It was a clear day and the wind was blowing about 5 to 10. It was also the first time I had ever given any thought of wind speed except during storms.
Capt Self asked me to come aboard and then told me to store my bag below, BELOW WOW I was going Below!!! The boat was just as I had dreamed - teak, plaid covers on the plush bunks, a sink, head with a sink, galley with another sink. “I could live on this,” I said out loud.
Then I heard the sound of the outboard come to life and while it was warming up, Capt Self said to me, “ I know you can put a sail cover on but can you take one off?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Then have at it and, oh, by the way, watch for red wasps.” When I pulled the cover off, there were no wasps, but lots of spiders.
After shaking and folding I was asked to please go forward to release the bow lines. As I did, I felt the boat start to back up and I was still on IT! YES! I had arrived!
After clearing the bow ,Capt Self reached back to the outboard and then we were off.
It was then I heard the command I had dreamed of, “Take the Helm, keep her heading straight for the two buoys in the channel.” “Sure,” I replied, as I tried to figure out what they were.
The sound that was to stay with me for the rest of my life - you know the sound of a sail going up, with the guides banging against the mast then the final snap…Pow! And as the boom came over, the big white sail started to flap and the command came from the Captain, who was still by the mast, “Pull the main sheet in, it’s the one with the ratchet block attached to it on the traveler!” OK, I had never spoken this language before, so I just saw this big pulley attached to a rope banging back and forth and pulled it. AND I felt it, a feeling almost as great as my first real kiss? OK, it was better. The boat heeled over and I found by applying pressure to the stick in my hand I could make the boat move faster and change course.
Just as I thought, I can do this, and so far no one has barked at me, so I must be doing Good. Capt Charlie suggested I put 2 wraps on the winch, which I did and was taught a lesson. There is a right way and a wrong way - I know the difference now. The clicking sound was like music. Then another sail went up, the head sail, and the boat started to move faster and faster. I thought we were doing about 30mph.
As Capt Self returned to the cockpit he looked and just smiled, then he asked with his gentle voice, “Having fun yet?”
All I could say was, “Yes, Sir!” The day was great. I learned about getting too close to the shore, what happens when you do, how to crank up the keel, how to make the boat go faster and how to always have one hand for yourself and one for the ship.
I learned new words, and not just the words - I was taught what they mean. This was the beginning of my long addiction with boats.
It all started with one question, “Would you like to go for a sail…” Over the next few years I would be asked this question many times and I would always reply the same, “Sure, what time?”
I asked if I could bring a friend and Capt Self was always glad to have some one to help with the work. Then another and then another and soon I thought it was time to have my own boat.
I got a small Snark from JC Penney, cost $700, and would fit on top of my Ford LTD, then another, then another… you can see where this is going.
As time went on I found myself walking the docks and looking at bigger boats and hearing my name called from different boats, “Hi, Capt Ron. What’s going on?” “ Just walking,” I would reply.
Then I saw Capt Self’s dock neighbor walking away from his boat. “Good afternoon,” I said. And the reply was, “ No.” So, my question back was, “Why?” Answer: “Put my boat up for sale.” “Why?” Reply: “Bad back.” Question: “Can I look at it?” Reply: “Yep.” As I pulled myself aboard by the shrouds, I could see this was a hard thing for the skipper to do so I gave him a hand.
The Boat was a 2 year old O-Day 25 just like Capt Self’s boat but with internal ballast.
“How much are you asking?” and the reply surprised me: $11,000, thinking I had only paid $18,000,00 for my 3 bedroom home not far from the lake it seemed a lot but after having my wife come look we shook hands and wrote the check. When I asked when he would like to come remove all his added equipment the reply was, “Keep it - I will never need it again!” And he walked away and never looked back..
I could not wait to call Capt Self. ‘I did it. I have a boat just like yours and its even next to you.” He replied, “That’s good.” Now, Capt. Self was never a man for talking a lot and a very private man.
I had no idea that Charlie, as he had me call him as we got became closer friends, had cancer. I would clean my boat each week then clean his boat. As time went by, I could see green mold growing on his sail covers. I would clean them, pull the sails up, wash off the spiders and give him a call with a report of how his boat was doing.
Charlie put a new Honda with a lifting bridle on with the idea it would make it easer for him to get in and out of the slip and as time went by I could see the boat had not been moved.
I got a call one day, not a call I enjoyed. It was Charlie with a soft voice, even softer than his regular voice, “Could you come see me on your way home from work?” Of course.
I walked into his home where he sat in a chair, surrounded with sailing books, magazines and stuff off the boat. He also had an I.V. in each hand and looked very serious.
“What can I do for you?” I asked? “Sell the boat for me.” “ Do what?” “Sell the boat for me.” As his eyes started to tear up, he said, “I am not going to live much longer and I would like you to help me get rid of the boat since you know lots of boat people, so my wife does not have to deal with it after I am gone.” My reply was also with a teared up eyes, “No problem.”
I made a few phone calls and sold the boat for more than Capt Self was asking and suggested he take the new Honda outboard off and sell it separate form the boat and install his old outboard, he agreed .
The sale was made. I had removed all of his personal things, along with a winch handle his kids had given him for Christmas the year before, it was a nice one and I thought it would be great for him to have around.
I delivered the check with all the equipment and as he looked at the check he smiled with a reply, “WOW, you know how to get rid of a boat fast! How did you do it?” “Simple, I just took the man and his wife sailing on the boat, put the tiller in his hand and told him some of the times we had together. His wife wrote the check while under way.”
“Ok..” was his reply. Then with a smile, “You see the Honda - I would like for you to take it as commission on the sale of the boat.” “Even though I need a new outboard and could not afford a Honda 4 stroke with all options, I cannot take the motor for free, how about 500.00?” “No I insist you take the motor.” “OK! But would you sell me that old winch handle? I could use an extra one my boat and it is a locker type”. As he looked he said, “Ok, good. How about $500.00?” he smiled and said, You’rer getting a good deal. I had to pay $15,000,00 to get that handle - it came with the boat”. We shook hands and I left after giving him a hug.
The next day I started thinking of all the places I had sailed over the past 4 years since I had been out with Charlie the first time, all the people I had met and also all the people I had taken sailing and then they got boats..HE had no idea how many people he had allowed into my life just by asking me to go sailing one time.
These people would become my circle of close friends for the next 28 years. I wrote him a letter. I put lots of personal things in the letter, things that came from my heart. About the sound of the winch, the sound the sail made on our first voyage ,the feeling of freedom that had been embedded in my mind as the water rushed by the bow and most of all thanked him for allowing me to become part of his crew and for showing me a way of life I thought would never be possible for me and my wife. You see, I had Polio as a child and even though I could not run, jump,and had some problems getting around, on a boat I was free. Free to dream and I would tell people that when I sail at night I could be anywhere and it would look the same just little green and red lights reflecting on the sail, the sound of water rushing by, the sound of my wife below making coffee and the sight of my children sleeping in the forward bunk, while their Dad was getting his Sailing FIX.
Capt Self Passed the next week, His wife told me he had the letter in his hand when he died, and that it was one of the things that made him smile in his last few days and he would always say…”I don’t understand? All I did was take him sailing.”
I was asked to be a part of his service when I got to the church everyone had on their“Sunday Go To Meeting Clothes” as we say in the south, and I had on my sailing shoes, flowered shirt, and old sailing paints. I had a nice white rose attached on my shirt by his first mate, his wife.
Then the other shoe dropped, after the Preacher man thanked us all for being there he made the statement while trying to come up with some thing to say about Charlie Self he came across a simple letter given to him by his wife, It was MY letter, never intended to be read by any one else but MY CAPTAIN…
As the preacher read the letter, people started to agree and cry it was all I could do to hold back my tears, then he finished by saying “I think this says all you need to know about Charlie Self,” and added, “Even though his name was Self, he was always thinking of others.”
When we got to the grave yard and started removing the solid oak casket from the hearst, I looked up. It was a perfect sailing day and although the morning had been calm, the wind started to blow about 5 to 10 and I said out loud, “I can just hear Captain Self now…Just my luck, wind 5 to 10. What a great day to sail and they’re going to put me in the ground?”..
Little did I know this preacher man loved to quote other people and repeated my quote as the casket was lowered in the grave.
Then To myself I said” Fair winds, Capt Self, with just enough puffs to keep you on your toes. I will see you hat The Harbor”.
Its been over 30 years since I made my First Voyage with Charlie, I have owned over 30 boats, still have the same wife, sold the house and bought a condo, My little kids have kids of there own now and I have had to sell my last boat.
You see, I, too, have a health problem that has taken me from my second love of Sailing My Wife being my first.
I must have really got hooked on this life style, When the doctor told me I had to quit work to continue to stay alive and I also would have to give up sailing or I would die in a year adding, “What do you say?”
I replied, “ I have to think about the sailing part.” “Why?” he asked. My reply was simple, “Have you ever been at the helm of a boat with the wind blowing around 5-10 mph?” “No,” he replied. Then is said, “I bet you have never seen that time of day when the water and the sky turn the same color, it’s kind of purple just before sunset and when you look at your wife you can see the sun reflecting in her eyes and she has THE smile, the kind of smile she only has when we were sailing that says, “I am at peace, thank you for bringing me.” Then as you head for the harbor you here the night sounds coming, the smell of coffee perking on the swing stove below, and the gentile sound of my wife singing. I DO NOT WANT TO LOOSE THAT!.
Well, I sold the boats, but still have sailing stuff,as my neighbors call it, hanging all around the place, I still have the swing stove and love to make coffee on it. Our condo faces west and over looks the lake and if I get all my house boy things finished, I can make it to my chair on the patio just in time to see the magic happen in the sky. I will never loose my memory of Sailing.
I have a little Nutshell Pram, made at the Wooden Boat School standing in corner of my covered walk way and when people ask why, I say, “Its true.” “What’s true?” they ask.
“Old sailors never die - they just get a Little Dinghy!” Most reply with a smile and OK.
Capt Ron Thweatt, Husband, Father and GrandFather