Friday, July 28, 2017

Tristan Jones

A small craft in the ocean is, or should be, a benevolent dictatorship. The skipper's brain is the vessel's brain and he must give up his soul to her, regardless of his own feelings or inclinations.

Get used to the qualifier "maybe" as I tell you these tales.

So, there I was at some bar on an uninhabited island near St. Martin.  I believe its name was Tintamarre.  Although no one lived on the island, a French woman with a disdain for Americans [I told her I was Canadian so that she would serve me] would boat over in the mornings with the tide, set up a plank of driftwood on a couple of barrels, and serve drinks from some coolers ["Drink Gatorade!"] to the nomadic yachting crowd who would inevitably find her and her establishment.

At the time, I was crewing on board the S/V Polynesia, a 250 foot schooner out of Miami Beach.  As I was searching for good stories and anything cold to drink, I found myself engaged in a two-hour conversation under a palm tree with the past commodore of the famous Bitter End Yacht Club in Virgin Gorda who had sailed over 200,000 nautical miles through the Leeward and Windward Islands.  He regaled me with stories of his adventures both at sea and on land, and gave me a flavor of what life may be like when one surrenders to the wind.  It was enthralling, of course, and almost enough to encourage me to quit teaching philosophy at a dreary boarding school in New England and never leave the Caribbean.

The S/V Polynesia
When I got back on board the Polynesia, I mentioned to another crew member that I had met the commodore.  The crew member gave a derisive snort and said, "He's no commodore.  I don't think he can even sail.  He probably rowed over here in that...thing."  He motioned to a small, disreputable rowboat that looked more like a poorly re-purposed bathtub.  "That's Whiskey Pete.  He's always around somewhere.  Everything he says is complete bosh.  He used to sell hardware over in BVI.  I don't know what it is, but every port seems to have a Whiskey Pete.  They're fun to listen to, and they tell great stories, just know it's bosh."

I eventually found that to be true; there was and is a Whiskey Pete in every port.  Apparently, there can also be one in the non-fiction section of bookstores, too.

So it follows that there comes a time for all of us when the heroes of our youth are revealed to be merely human.  It is not an easy moment, but it is necessary for mental and emotional growth.  If at first one is disappointed, perhaps a tad cynical, about those who have let down our naive hopefulness, for normal people this is mollified when we realize that our heroes, like us, have their moments of failure, along with their moments of success.  As in Christianity, we all have the capacity to be both sinners and saints, often simultaneously.

About a decade before my Polynesian days, on one of those rainy days on the Jersey shore from whence much of what has vexed me during my life has come, I was wandering around a boardwalk bookstore [yes, boardwalks had bookstores back then; it was a more literate time] looking for books about sailing.  While I had rented and summarily wrecked a small sailboat the summer before, I was undaunted and wanted to actually learn how to do it without becoming a hazard to navigation or a drain on the budget and patience of the U.S. Coast Guard.  While technical manuals were to be had, they were...technical.  I was looking for something that might grant me an understanding of the essence, the soul, of sailing.  That's when I found the maritime visage of Tristan Jones.

His books took up an entire shelf, each with a simple, dramatic title: Wayward Sailor, Seagulls In My Soup, The Incredible Voyage, The Improbable Voyage, and Ice!  Each was a log of his adventures at sea in a collection of boats, usually rather small and generally tended only by him.  In much the spirit of Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Francis Chichester, and even Bob Manry, Jones sought ill-defined, sail-driven adventure and, having taught himself how to sail, then taught himself how to write and create a persona [what is nowadays called a "brand"] that would ensure book sales.

Whether or not his tales were burdened with truth is another matter.

As Joseph Conrad, a sea captain before becoming one of the English language's greatest stylists, wrote in the opening of his novella, "Youth":
This could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak the sea entering into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel, or of bread winning.
Born as Arthur Jones in 1929 in Liverpool, the son of an unmarried mother and unknown father, and raised mostly in orphanages, Jones found his way out of squalor through the traditional route available to men of his social class, namely through the military.  Once he was of age, Jones joined the Royal Navy and remained in service for the next fourteen years.

However, the Royal Navy of the post-WWII period was hardly that of Lord Nelson and his fleet of oak heart.   Jones spent most of his service in the bowels of various metal ships, tending to the boilers.  Still, his desire for adventure was not daunted; in fact, it was probably exaggerated by the routine drudgery of military life.  When dismissed from the navy in 1960, he found himself released in the Mediterranean, where he purchased a small, cabin-equipped sailboat and plied his trade in any way that he could, including those that weren't entirely legal.

However, even that maritime life was not quite exciting enough, so Arthur began his transformation.  If one is to become a hero, one needs to embark on an heroic journey.  As is common with other English adventurers, Jones settled on an obtuse, but compelling, goal.  Its satisfaction would result not only in his first popular book, but in his re-birth.

Jones' quest led him to Israel on the first stage of his odyssey to sail the Dead Sea, the world's lowest body of water.  As this was sometime in the early 1970's [maybe, Jones' dates have always been a little nebulous], when Israel was occasionally at war or otherwise under attack from its neighbors, the local authorities were not enamored of British eccentricity.  While Jones was not permitted to use his own sailboat, the Barbara, he was allowed to borrow a boat belonging to an Israeli naval officer.

The S/V Barbara.  Maybe.
Having satisfied the first part of his hero's journey, Jones then sailed across the Atlantic, traded Barbara for another, smaller boat [named Sea Dart] in the West Indies, sailed to Peru and transported the Sea Dart to Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes, now to sail the world's highest body of water.  Not satisfied with this quixotic, two-part journey, Jones hauled the boat, often by hand, all the way to Brazil to sail the Moto Grosso to Argentina.

The S/V Sea Dart
Well, that's his story, anyway.  Somehow, Jones made it to New York City, found a small, cheap apartment in Greenwich Village [remember those?], and wrote what is still regarded as his finest book, The Incredible Journey.  While maritime narratives are among the most common tales published [seriously, find a bookstore in a port popular with an upscale crowd and there will be a surprising number of true, or "true", sailing stories, often in their own section], Journey revealed an eloquence and sense of fun that made it highly readable and certainly memorable.

Realizing that he had created an opportunity that could guarantee an income and satisfy his sense of self, Jones began the process of becoming his own literary incarnation.  Arthur Jones, the English discard, would become Tristan Jones, the Welsh son of a sea captain.  Instead of squalor in Liverpool, the new Jones would have been born on board his sea captain father's tramp steamer, somewhere off the coast of Tristan du Cunha in the southern Atlantic.  [Hence his new forename, you see.]

To quote from Jones eventual obituary:
It all began with a breach birth in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha - hence the Christian name - in May 1924. Mrs Jones was the ship's cook and both she and Tristan's father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. "By God, this one will always land on his feet!" the ship's mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. "He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he'll never drown!"
That's a fine yarn, isn't it?  Complete bosh, of course, but still a compelling story and one worthy of a drink or two at a seaside tavern.

Well, why not make some other adjustments, too?  Since his naval career was dull even by the daunting standards of general military service, Tristan Jones would age himself by five years, moving his birth date from 1929 to 1924, so that he could plausibly have been in the Navy during World War II, where Arthur's dull days as an engine oiler would be transformed to Tristan's lusty derring-do during the 20th century's greatest conflagration, service that included voyages on the infamous Murmansk cargo run and being wounded by a terrorist bomb in Aden.  [Note: Jones did suffer a serious injury to his leg at some point, although those who knew him thought he may have done the damage himself after stumbling on his way home after too many drink-rewarded yarns at a local pub.]

These, and other dramatic adjustments, gave Jones all he needed to become an in-demand public speaker, a well-known international sea dog, a member of The Explorers' Club, and a published author.  From his Greenwich Village apartment, Jones published several more books detailing his adventures in the Arctic in Ice! [which is bosh], his days in the Royal Navy in Heart of Oak [great bosh], his boyhood at sea in A Steady Trade [legendary bosh], his post-Titicaca adventures in Adrift [mostly true!], and his circumnavigation in The Improbable Voyage [maybe, who knows?].

Jones does offer an honest bookend of sorts to his career, something that is the basis for Outward Leg, the name of his second best book and second most famous boat.  As has been mentioned, at some point Jones had suffered a leg injury that was then exacerbated in NYC after a collision with a taxi cab [maybe; take that second portion of the story with some salt, will you?], requiring his leg to be amputated.  Instead of seeing this as the end of his solo sailing adventures, and relying on the fame of "Tristan Jones, the last of the adventurers", he commissioned the construction of a sailing trimaran, designed to be operated by a one-legged solo sailor.  With that, the adventures continued, although rather more real from this point forward.  Whether or not it was intended, Jones, both Arthur and Tristan, would become a true hero to the growing number of physically challenged sailors who refused to let accident or happenstance remove them from the sea.

The S/V Outward Leg
Jones would eventually move to Thailand, suffer many health issues, including the loss of his other leg, and die in 1995 at the age of either 66 or 71, depending on which Jones one prefers.  His obituaries, of course, would recount the tales of Tristan Jones, offered in lurid and loving detail by those who had enjoyed his books.

About a decade after his death, a biographer discovered the real world of Arthur Jones and would challenge the existing record.  While this was tough news to Jones' legion of fans, it has to be noted that, whether it was sailing the lowest and highest bodies of water in the world, or learning how to circumnavigate with one leg, there is much of the true story to admire.  Also, whether Arthur or Tristan, Jones loved the sea and boats, and that love is obvious on every page he wrote with an inspiring eloquence.

All of his books are still in print and may be purchased in new, used, or electronic editions.  For a time, the Sea Dart, now owned by a Jones fan, would tour the country on a trailer so lovers of the books could see it for themselves.  I don't know whatever became of it, but it really doesn't matter.  I have my own boat with which to create my own stories.  Heck, maybe some of them will be true.