I located a boat in Texas. Practically a new vessel, with less than fifty hours on the engine, sitting on an inland lake near Austin. The floorboards weren’t even scratched. She was priced to sell; the catch was, she was bare bones, not equipped for oceangoing: no electronic navigation, no long-distance radio-telephone, no self-steering gear, no radar; no nothing, not even a compass or a stove. She had been delivered stripped for inland sailing on Lake Travis. She was four years old, called Star Chaser.
The current owner was caught up in the “Savings-and-Loan Debacle” about to go bankrupt. The boat was offered at a 40% discount.
I liquidated precious metal to pay cash.
Betsy dropped everything and made the trip with me to close the deal. From my point of view, and hers, there was no romance at this point. We were headed off for adventure, like kids too young to know better. She was thirty-four, I was thirty-nine. Of course her mother, sister, and friends advised against such a drastic move, and we agreed. There was no practical justification, it was just the only thing either of us wanted to do.
The enticement and thrill of going to take possession of a sailboat augmented our potential for marriage and raising children together. We shook hands on a verbal contract to go on exploring possibilities, see where we wound up.
Crossing the Mississippi River, driving through the swamps of Louisiana, on a mission to buy a yacht and make it ready for sea, we had the glamour of thieves stealing time. We were free of ordinary life, and everyone we met caught the excitement.
Betsy was gorgeous, not quite a conventional beauty — tall and big-boned, her blonde hair flew like the flag of an independent nation. Everyone assumed she belonged to me. If I asked her to do anything, it was necessary, and she managed it, quickly and gracefully. We were a working team.
We took possession of the yacht on Lake Travis, half an hour out of Austin. The name Star Chaser was not bad. I considered keeping it for good luck.
I pressure-washed the teak woodwork on deck and had the boat looking spiffy in a couple of days.
I was pleased with myself for the price I’d paid. I had “stollen” the boat, as they say, a good feeling to start with, knowing I was going to spend a lot more money making her seaworthy. I made the first list of projects to complete. It was three or four pages long. Job one was to get her hauled out of the lake and transported to the ocean.
Something I learned that I never told Betsy, that I refused to think about under the spell of a new beginning—talking to the dock master, I learned that the former owner of Star Chaser had hired a captain to run a charter business doing sunset cruises on the lake. The business had gone flat with the savings-and-loan upheaval. The hired captain, an alcoholic gone dry, started drinking again. One night he took a crowd of friends out for a moonlight cruise and ran the boat up on the rocks near the hydroelectric dam.
The yacht turned out not to be seriously damaged, was only wedged among the boulders for several hours. The drunken captain ordered the other drunks to abandon ship, sent them back to the marina in a dinghy to get help.
Assessing the damage, he evidently found a section of sprung fiberglass under one of the bench seats in the dining area, where I found it.
Below the sprung section, he had scratched the word “Death”, and drew the nautical symbol for a shipwreck: one horizontal line and three vertical, the center vertical longer than the other two, enclosed with an oval, as on a geodetic survey chart. He had been careful to get symbol just right.
The hull was not compromised. The sprung glass was a surface wound. A Hans Christian was built to survive a pounding.
The drunken skipper, about to lose his ride as a charter boat captain anyway, due to the economy, must have been convinced the yacht would sink when help arrived and the hull was pulled off the rocks. Rather than face the consequences of falling off the wagon, he shot himself in the head.
After I was told that, I found several tiny spots of blood on the cushions in the main saloon, a few pinhead-sized speckles that popped off when I scraped them with my fingernail. It must have taken some doing to clean up the balance of the mess. I couldn’t find any other evidence, save the word and symbol he had scratched in the shallow bilge under the dining table.
The excellent price I had paid turned to ashes. Now the vessel carried the weight of an omen I could not decipher. I decided to let it mean nothing to me, but I kept it from Betsy.
I took eighty-grit sandpaper and rubbed out the name Star Chaser.
Then I was captain of a nameless boat.