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THE GREAT GORDON

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                             grabbing life




                    THE GREAT GORDON

     “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark
     should be burned out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled
     by dr y rot… the pur pose of man is to live, not exist. I shall not
     waste my days in tr ying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
                                             — Jack London




   T     HE INTERNATIONAL JETTY in Durban held an endless
fascination for me. It was a short wooden dock that jutted out into
Durban harbor and served as a place where any transient sailor could
tie up and ready their boat for the next leg of their voyage around the
world. There was always an eclectic group of hardened adventurers,
social misfits and seasoned sailors rubbing shoulders and swapping
stories. On any given day you could hear a half dozen different lan-
guages spoken. I simply could not get enough of it and every spare
moment I had I would sit on the side of the dock, too shy to say hello
to anyone, but within earshot of any conversation. I would while away
the hours dreaming about sailing away to some exotic land.
    Toward the end of high school I read the book Dove, by Robin Lee
Graham. Robin Lee Graham was of course the Californian teenager that


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set off from Long Beach in his 24-foot sloop named Dove in a quest
to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the world. The book
chronicles his trials and tribulations, highs and low’s and ultimate success
when he returned to California five years later. They also made a movie
about the trip and one evening, after my fifth viewing in five days, I went
home, found a piece of paper, and wrote the following:
      My goal in life is to sail around the world, to meet a beautiful girl, and to fall in
love.
      I folded the sheet of paper into a small square and taped it closed so
that no one would ever be able to read my thoughts. I carried that paper
with me everywhere I went knowing what was written on it. It even made
it through basic training in the army with me. I did not know it at the time
but what I had done was put in motion a set of circumstances that would
chart my life. As things unfolded I did indeed sail around the world, not
once but a few times. I met and fell in love with many beautiful girls and
now, looking back, I realize that the book, the movie and that single act of
writing down my goal led me to a life of sailing, travel and adventure that
many, most of all me, consider charmed.

                                          f

    A week after my early release from the army I rented a room in Durban
and got a job working as an apprentice sailmaker. Liz would come down
on weekends and with a bit of runaround cash in my pocket, life was good.
One of my jobs at the sail loft was to pick up sails that needed repairing
from the boats at the international jetty and it was there that I met Lynn
Lindsay, First Mate and Captain’s girlfriend on one of South Africa’s better
known yachts. The boat was called Dabulamanzi, the Zulu word for “sweet
water,” and was owned by tycoon businessman Gordon Rennie. The boat
had been based in the Seychelles islands and was en route to Cape Town
for the start of the ’79 Cape to Uruguay yacht race.
    Gordon Rennie was a larger than life character. He was tall, very
handsome sporting a thick mane of shocking white hair and had made his
money the old fashioned way. He bribed, extorted, cajoled and worked
exceedingly hard and with great ambition to become one of the countries


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                              grabbing life

richest men with his fingers in hotels (Holiday Inn), car rental (Rennies
Rentals) even antacids named simply, Rennies. He was admired for his big
game hunting exploits as well as his sailing accomplishments.
     South Africa at the end of the 70’s was facing a brain and money
drain as many educated and rich people saw the handwriting on the wall
with a bumbling white government trying to hold onto the last vestiges
of power over an increasingly militant black population. The smart ones
fled to Australia, England and Canada and those with money looked at
ways to stash their cash in a foreign bank account. To stem the flood the
government made it illegal to have an overseas bank account, but there
were those, Gordon among them, that had too much to lose to simply
acquiesce. He stashed some of his vast fortune in a Swiss bank account.
Unfortunately, for him anyway, the government found out and because of
Gordon’s public stature, they decided to make an example out of him and
prosecute him to the full extent of the law - (and, as so often happens, in
the press.)
    For a guy like Gordon, who was a proud and patriotic South African,
the public humiliation was too much; he locked himself in a hotel room in
Johannesburg, and according to police reports, drank a bottle of whiskey
and slashed his wrists. The maid service found him three days later, still
alive. The press had a field day. Not only had Gordon been caught with
the Swiss account, he had botched his own suicide. Things could not have
been worse.
    When I met Lynn Lindsay in Durban none of this had happened yet.
Lynn must have seen something in me, some naive enthusiasm perhaps,
and she suggested to Bill, the captain, that I join them on the race to
Uruguay. They might, she said, have use for my skills behind a sewing
machine. It was a warm, wet Durban afternoon when Lynn popped the
question. “Why don’t you think about joining us for the race?” she said.
It was a short sentence that would change my life. The next day I quit my
sailmaking job, told Liz that I would be back from Uruguay before she had
time to miss me, and joined the crew of Dabulamanzi as lowly deckhand,
definitely an unpaid position.
    By the time we arrived in Cape Town to prepare for the race, Gordon
and his latest exploits were plastered all over the papers. He was in hospital


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 recovering from the slit wrist incident while we wondered if our participa-
 tion in the race was still on. A week before the start Bill received news to
 ready the boat. We were going to race to Uruguay after all. Gordon had
 his lawyers tie up the issue with the Swiss bank account and he viewed the
 month long passage to South America as a way to fully recover, and, if we
 won, as a way to redeem himself in the press.
      We worked feverishly to get the boat ready and one afternoon, a
 couple of days before the start, I looked up to see a young, well dressed
 man standing on the dock. He was looking for the captain of the boat.
 I found Bill in the engine compartment covered in grease and swearing
 furiously in his Eaton accent. He told me to tell the guy to bugger off
 but the well dressed stranger was not leaving. He said it was urgent that
 he speak with the captain.
      Later that day Bill called a meeting. Gordon was due in town that night
 so for the meeting it was just the crew. “I have something to say,” Bill said,
 his Eaton accent more refined than it had been earlier in the day. “That
 chap that came by the boat earlier.......... He’s one of Gordon’s psychia-
 trists. He told me that we had to abandon the idea of sailing to Uruguay
 with Gordon aboard. He said that Gordon was still suicidal and would
 probably jump overboard at some point during the voyage.” There was
 a collective groan from the crew. For all of us the race to Uruguay was a
 lifetime dream and now, just a few days from the start, it looked as if it
 might be over. Bill was only 23 but exuded a wisdom well beyond his years.
 He took in the mood and then brightened up.
     “If Gordon wants to kill himself then that’s his problem,” Bill announced.
“We have all worked long and hard to get the boat ready and we are going to
 race this thing to Uruguay.”
      And so it was two days later, with a strong southeasterly wind whipping
 up Table Bay, that we set off for South America some 3,500 miles away. I
 remember looking over our transom as Table Mountain dropped into the
 water behind us and wondered what the future held. I had no idea that I
 would never really ever go back to South Africa. I had found a following
 wind and the wide world was waiting to be discovered.
      The passage to Punte del Este took 28 days, almost all of them sailed
 under full size spinnaker with a steady trade wind blowing us ever closer to


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 our destination. At each watch change we would gather in the cockpit and
 chat with the other watch before ducking below for some sleep. For the
 first few days Gordon had been cantankerous. I couldn’t help staring at his
 wrists where the scars were still pink, and felt a small measure of sympathy.
 He was, however, making it difficult for us to like him. One night, at watch
 change, we huddled in the cockpit drinking coffee and chatting about life
 on board. Someone said, “If Gordon wants to jump overboard let’s hope
 that he gets on with it, he’s being a major pain in the arse.”
     “Absolutely,” someone else chimed in. “If I see him at the rail about
 to jump I’m going to give him a swift kick to make sure that he does not
 change his mind.” We all laughed and then went below for some rest.
      The passage across the South Atlantic was one of the best crossings of
 my life, not only because I was young and impressionable, but because the
 weather was glorious and all of us on board Dabulamanzi relished each and
 every day, Gordon included. He soon got into the rhythm and dropped
 his argumentative stance. I celebrated my 21st birthday, and just short of a
 month after leaving Cape Town we sailed into the harbor at Punte del Este.
 We were one of the first to finish. That night Gordon offered to buy us
 dinner at the yacht club to celebrate. Gordon may have been rich, but he
 was not generous and we were surprised by the sudden invite.
      After a massive meal of Uruguayan beef and copious quantities of red
 wine Gordon stood. He tapped the side of his glass and spoke, quietly at
 first and then with more intensity.
     “Here is a toast to new beginnings,” he said. “To a new life for all of
 us. Dabulamanzi is not going back to South Africa. We are going on to
 the Caribbean and whoever wants to stay with the boat is welcome.” He
 looked directly at me, the youngest on the crew. “There is a big world out
 there full of promise and opportunity. I know that you want to go back
 and see your girlfriend but there are girls aplenty out there. See the world.
 Have some fun, make some money.”
      He then lowered his voice. “I want to thank you bastards,” he said.
“You all know that I have had some rough breaks recently. The dishonor
 I brought to my family at times seemed to overwhelm me. I had every
 intention of jumping overboard during this trip. I was going to go out in
 style, but I heard you all talking in the cockpit that night….” We looked at


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each other guiltily remembering the night he was referring to.
   “Yes,” he continued, “I heard what you said about giving me a kick in
the backside to help me overboard. Well I was damned if I was going to
give you bastards the satisfaction. Now I am glad that I didn’t kill myself.
Twenty eight days at sea and I feel like a new man. So cheers.”
    With that the great Gordon Rennie raised his glass and toasted us. We
had, in an obscure, roundabout way, saved his life.
    I stayed on with Dabulamanzi all the way to the Caribbean. Liz waited
patiently but I could sense from her letters that she was getting restless. I
was heading for England and points beyond with no fixed plan to return
anytime soon. I had tasted the open road and wanted more.

                                   f

    Just up the street from our childhood home lived a fat kid by the name
of Julien. Poor chap, he was one of the few kids that was overweight and
with a name like Julien he was constantly teased. We called him Gillian.
One time he sat on my chest pinning me down and pulling my ears so hard
that they split from the bottom up.
    One day Julien and his family moved away and we never heard from
them again; until I finally returned to South Africa almost a year after
I had joined Dabulamanzi. Julien was back. He had changed his name
to Rob, lost the weight, got into terrific shape and was tall, dark and
handsome. He was also living with Liz. They are still married more than
30 years later.




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