The Wit and Wisdom of Bruce Van Sant: Excerpts from ‘Margarita Cat’

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Every subculture has its anthropologist. Down-island liveaboard cruisers have Bruce Van Sant, author of Margarita Cat: Sketches of the Cruising Life. In this month’s PassageMaker magazine, reviewer Milt Baker included Margarita Cast in his 13 nautical books worth considering for Holiday gifts.

Anyone wishing to purchase “Margarita Cat” may do so by visiting Van Sant’s website ThornlessPath.com or Amazon.com or CruisingGuides.com. Peter Swanson and Bruce Van Sant have been engaging in spirited debates for 10 years, having met on the “Thorny Path to Windward.”

Anyone wishing to purchase “Margarita Cat” may do so by visiting Van Sant’s website ThornlessPath.com or Amazon.com or CruisingGuides.com. Peter Swanson and Bruce Van Sant have been engaging in spirited debates for 10 years, having met on the “Thorny Path to Windward.”

I’m editor-in-chief at PassageMaker, and at the moment I happen to be in the Dominican Republic, where Bruce hangs his rakish Panama hat. I’ll be visiting him this week, so I thought it apropos to devote this edition of my new Southbound blog to Bruce's book.

Van Sant spent 40 years navigating that cruising subculture I mentioned at the beginning, but coming so early into it, he never really fit in with the American cruising crowd as it swelled to a movement. His apartness has given him a unique, often hilarious perspective of what happens when Middle-America decides to escape by sea. Van Sant’s mind does not work like most of ours, so when he puts his thoughts in writing, as he has done in “Margarita Cat,” the result is an oddball classic in a genre of one.

Van Sant, in his 70s, has swallowed the anchor and now lives in the city of Puerto Plata on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic, one of his haunts during his latter career as charter skipper and cruising guide author. His Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward has long been a classic for anyone seeking to take a boat from Florida to the islands.

Van Sant’s new book is an entirely different breed of cat; it is a collection of vignettes and observations from the author’s early career as an engineer in Europe and Asia, to his experiences aboard his 52-foot ketch Jalan Jalan and his last boat, Tidak Apa, a Schucker 440 trawler. The great irony of Van Sant’s life is that he abandoned his “normal” career only after doctors misdiagnosed the seriousness of a little known genetic ailment and told him he only had five to 10 years to live. That was decades ago.

 Bruce Van Sant relaxes on his Schucker 44 trawler. He sold it about six years ago and "swallowed the anchor." He now lives in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.

Bruce Van Sant relaxes on his Schucker 44 trawler. He sold it about six years ago and "swallowed the anchor." He now lives in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.

I have organized excerpts from the book, abridged like those Readers Digest pieces, under a theme I call “The Wit and Wisdom of Bruce Van Sant.” Each excerpt has a headline that is mine and mine alone and based solely on the context of the abridged text, not necessarily the entirety of its chapter within the 240-page book.

ON BUDDY-BOATING

At first they cruise the islands in packs, drawing their boats up tight together at night anchorages God built to hold half their number. Conestogas of our time, they freight our cities’ ragged souls across prairies of sea. They have no Indians to maraud their prairie schooners. They have no pirates they don’t bring with them. So they create their own bogeymen. They circle their sea wagons about the largest boat in the harbor, the one with all the electronics and the salty-whiskered skipper with the clipboard full of weather faxes.

They meet around the fluorescent campfire in his saloon and debate the morrow’s dangers on the trek south. The skipper of the large yacht sits at his nav station listening and stroking his beard, playing tonight a sage and nautical wagon-master on the Wagons South Show. The men love to scare themselves to death. The women ignore them and talk about home and children, letting the boys play men.

ON DRINKING AND DRIVING

Charlie had sunk a little too deep in a bottle of Barbancourt when he turned into the Turks Passage. He had fallen asleep at the wheel. When he ran into the Salt Cay breakwater, Charlie broke three ribs. His Haitian crew, Oclané, had lain sleeping on a stack of rice sacks near the stern, and he had come adrift into the string bags of onions and bushels of slightly overripe tomatoes.

When Charlie disentangled himself from the spokes of the ship’s wheel, he turned around to see Oclané rising up out of the mess aft, arms gyrating overhead, bearing down on Charlie in the open steer hut. Oclané had got covered by smushed tomato sauce, and he wove and stumbled in the piles of loose potatoes, eggplants and cabbages, as he hooted “Ooooo-oooooo-hoo.”

Creole sounds to a non-speaker as if it only has syllables like la, ba, oo and oh. Haitians also have a penchant for dramatizing everything with real OH’s. But what with Oclané rising out of the cabbages, covered in tomato gore and backed by a purplish dawn sky hanging over the ruins of the old salt pans mansion, and ululating like a zombie, Charlie lost his mind—along with his bladder.

ON THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Two American couples in an old timey motor yacht came in and moored next to me. Quite proud of their boat, an old classic ElCo motor yacht once belonging to their state’s governor, they made sure all the Haitian officials knew they had a rich and famous boat.

The women aboard brought some street kids onto their boat without paying to have the kids put on the approved dock access list. They gave the kids a tour of the yacht and fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on deck. When the port officials found out, they hopped up and down and threatened everybody but the “celebrities” with jail time.

Seeing themselves as having participated directly, and with great humanity, in the work of Save The Children by their charitable invitation to peanut butter and jelly, the cruisers, justifiably outraged, complained to the police when the children came back to steal. The officials took a serious view of offenses against tourists in their fragile tourism sector, but most seriously when against celebrities. The de facto state security police, the dreaded Ton Ton Macoute, took direct charge of the situation. As a result of their investigations one child got crippled and two badly and bloodily beaten.

They sent one child home with a compound fracture to find his loot. I saw him walk out of the police station with a bone protruding from his arm, his torn and bloody shirt binding the tear in his flesh. It surprised me to see him voluntarily walk back into the police station a half hour later clutching a small bundle.

That evening I had a chance to talk to one of the women from the yacht as they prepared to leave the harbor. I asked her what had happened at the police station. She said they got told to wait in an anteroom while they interrogated the kids in the next room. All the thumping and screaming made it obvious the kids caught hell. They didn’t know how much hell until an officer came out and asked if they had brought back all her plastic bracelets.

“No, but they don’t matter, just, for God’s sake, please, please stop beating the children!”

The officer saluted and returned to the other room where the beatings, of course, continued. The boy with the broken arm, now bound up, went out for a while. When he returned he had a few more of her trinkets. He’d still held some back. But this time she didn’t tell.

Panicked by the sight of such brutality against a child, the couples rushed to their yacht and vroomed out of the harbor at high speed. I got one of the expensive new dock lines they left behind.

The child probably didn’t want to give up his bit of brightly colored plastic, a link to the goddess-mother from the spaceship. She who had him experience motherly warmth, perhaps for the first time in his life, along with peanut butter and jelly. She who promised to carry him off to another and better star.

So they broke one’s arm and the other’s teeth.

ON WORK

I define work as doing something you don’t like, when you don’t feel like it, for someone you dislike, for too little recompense.

ON WHY WOMEN ARE HARD TO TALK TO

 Having read the Stoics Epictetus and Xeno, late at night in the laundry room at the Governor’s Club, the lesson had crystal clarity for me. You answer trick questions not trickily, but dead on. And you take the consequences, which often excel those that would have accrued had you answered deception with deception.

A woman generally answers not what you actually ask, but the question she thinks you would have asked next, had she simply given you a direct and honest answer. An example:

“Hey, hon! I got a promotion! Want to go to a good restaurant for dinner?”

“You know I have nothing to wear!” angrily, as if you had asked her why not.

“But you’re so beautiful it won’t matter what you wear,” with less enthusiasm.

“How much was the raise?” calculatingly, but now neutral, as if you had answered, ‘I’ll buy you a whole new wardrobe’!”

“Not much, but it’s a promotion! Come on, hon!” pleadingly, losing hope.

“Well, maybe we could go to Pizza Hut,” pleasantly, maybe the good cost conscious wife—but also maybe a put-down. Still playing both sides of the street, however.

Stoics knew their women, all right. They also knew that answering stoically drove off the sneaky women, and it ensured that your little corner of the gene pool got only the genuine article. I always answer women’s questions stoically.

ON AMERICAN PROVINCIALISM ABROAD

Working on a third and, I determined, last Bermudez (a rum), I gave it up and thought instead of what my friend Harold La Borde said on my last trip down to Trinidad. He had asked me why the American yachtsmen never read local newspapers. They seemed not interested in any subject outside their immediate space and time. They seemed to lack all curiosity for local events, local politics.

They cluster, I told him. They stop cruising, and they create bubbles of back-home air. Like charter guests with their first night jitters, the escape artists drink and talk, talk and laugh, dispelling uncertainty. They travel inland only in groups, noses pressed against the window glass, marveling at the strangeness outside the bubble from which they dare not escape.

ON THE REWARDS OF MARRIAGE

We’ve got a harborful of life-wasters here, and the town, like most harbor towns, crawls with drugs and whores. Occasionally some decent fellows stumble in from their sailboats and hang out for a while. Some look like middle-aged Peter Pan wannabes wearing their goofy stringed floppy hats and cutoffs. Some yacht clubbie wives come with them, bitter because the guys forced them to leave behind their hair-bluing séances at the salon, their Mah-jongg games at the club and their baby blue Cadillacs — their diplomas for making it to sixty and still staying with the old bugger.

ON HOW TO HANDLE A NAKED MAN

The upper deck of the Kon Tiki already bristled with tee shirts, some of which leaned over the stern rail pointing and laughing at Durable’s foredeck. Barney went on tiptoe to peer over the wheelhouse coaming to see what the tourists found so funny about his boat. Charlie lay spread-eagled on the fore deck in all his hairy white nakedness.

“Oh Jesus! Damn!” he breathed, banging his cup on the chart table where half a cup of Java slopped over the chart of St. Thomas. “Irene! Get up here! Quick!” He grabbed the towel that always hung by the companionway and began mopping up the mess on the chart table.

The knot of passengers on the top deck of Kon Tiki grew apace as those on the lower deck scrambled up the stairs to get a better view of Charlie. The Kon Tiki crew hauled in the gangplank and began casting off lines with the air of men who have seen everything.

Irene popped into the wheelhouse from below. She immediately saw the crowd on the Kon Tiki. Following their pointing arms and their laughing eyes she rushed to the windows and beheld Charlie in his innocent splendor. Charlie had skin as white as the belly of a beached fish from the top of his bald head to the soles of his bare feet, but for notable exceptions such as his sunburned boozy face, the upper part of his turkey neck, each of his callused and blotchy hands, and finally, his proudly red and purple… (editor’s note: Let’s just say Charlie was excited.)

“Oh Jesus!” Irene breathed, and followed Barney out the door.

Barney and Irene rushed over to their senseless crew. Barney began hauling Charlie this way and that, first by the arms then by the legs. Too heavy to lift, he lay pegged to the deck, and if they dragged him over and around all the foredeck gear, he’d surely get some major bumps…

“Come on, Reenie! Grab a leg here!” Barney dragged on an arm and a leg. Charlie grunted. His amorous state did not diminish with all his mishandling. Irene grabbed the other leg and began to pull. They only succeeded in spinning Charlie around.

The Kon Tiki by this time had pulled away from the dock. Crew and passengers now stood port side on the upper deck, giving the ship a perilous list toward the Durable as it slid by to her port. Barney and Irene looked at each other. “Leave him here,” said Barney, “I’ll get the tarp”…

Aboard the KonTiki a burly woman in electric green leotards shouted at Irene loud and clear above the general hullabaloo, “Why’n’cha pick him up by the handle?”

Margarita cats, a seafaring breed

Bruce Van Sant has always sailed with a special breed of Abyssinian cat, grabbing feral kittens out of the scrub of the Frailes keys off Venezuela’s Margarita Island. Over the years, Van Sant came to identify himself with the Margarita cat. From the book, here is Van Sant’s mini-history of the breed:

Out of Ethiopia, holy to the ancient Egyptians, Abyssinian cats roved through Phoenicia, Greece and Rome. They followed Caesar’s legions into Gaul. The race endured among unconquered Celts until boarding ships in the 16th century ports of Honfleur and St. Malo where they crewed with the Corsaires to the Spanish Main.

Into the late 20th Century the cats lived unmixed in the Indian and pirate redoubts of Margarita Island off Venezuela. After resolution of the island’s status with Venezuela, tourist influx and emmigration from the mainland began to dilute the race. Even so, the originals still live ferally on the uninhabited Frailes keys. They live on shellfish and rodents, and water from rain puddles and cactus.

Extrovert, willful, intelligent and incessant talkers, Abyssinians do not make good “lap cats”. Known as curious explorers who sensibly take no unnecessary risks, they also make formidable hunters. Margarita Cats became aimless wanderers of the sea, or what we used to call cruisers.

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