Quest for Fire
September 30, 2004
About half a million years ago, modern man's lowbrow ancestor, homo erectus, made a marvellous discovery: fire. As well as cooking meat and plants that otherwise would have been unpalatable or indigestible, fire provided early man with heat, light, and protection from dangerous predators. Fire was probably the single most important innovation to elevate us above our knuckle dragging cousins. Today, most people tend to take fire for granted. Not David. He remains constantly amazed by the marvels of combustion. He'd be perfectly happy spending his days crouched in a circle around a pile of burning branches, rubbing elbows with some Palaeolithic pals.
Before we bought "Little Gidding", we lived in a high rise apartment building that prohibited outdoor barbecues. Apparently, a previous tenant had been a little careless with a propane tank and nearly immolated himself and his neighbours. The ban on burning was a great hardship for David. Food cooked on our electric range just didn’t taste the same as morsels charred on an open flame. David lost his appetite and became listless. Eileen would find him furtively staring at a flickering candle in our darkened bedroom.
The day after we closed the deal on our sailboat, David rushed out from work at his lunch break and bought a propane-fired grill at a downtown marine store. After work he dropped in at the marina with his brand new purchase. He opened up the cockpit locker of our new (to us) boat. Sitting on top of the fenders and extra dock lines was a stainless steel charcoal grill. We had neglected to check the contents of the locker before we bought the boat. Later that evening, when David explained we were now the proud owners of not one, but two barbecues, Eileen said, "Well, it shouldn't be a problem returning the one you just bought. It hasn't been used and we still have the sales receipt."
David was horrified. "You can never have too many barbecues!" he exclaimed. "What if we run out of propane? Then we can use the charcoal grill. And if we have a bunch of friends over, we now have twice the cooking capacity." Despite Eileen's protests about limited storage space, we set off to go cruising with two barbecues carefully stowed in our cockpit locker.
In those early years, David preferred cooking with the charcoal grill because of the glowing coals, swirling smoke, and the taste imparted by carbonized wood. Eileen was not nearly as thrilled at the prospect of ingesting various carcinogens with her meal and didn't like waiting until the wee hours of the morning for the coals to be just right. There were also a couple of windy incidents when flying embers almost incinerated every downwind boat in the anchorage. Not a good way to make friends. Mostly out of convenience, we generally used the propane grill, reserving the charcoal one for special occasions.
In the fall of 2000, after six years of having both barbecues on board, we were making preparations to sail offshore from the Chesapeake directly to the Lesser Antilles. In a classic case of poor timing, Eileen just happened to read the book "The Perfect Storm" a few days before our scheduled departure. It was late in the season and weather guru Herb Hilgenberg was predicting a rough passage. Eileen put the book down and announced, "We're going to die."
"Don't worry," David reassured her. "The boats that fared best during that storm deployed sea anchors. We'll buy one as extra insurance."
David returned from the marine store with a new sea anchor, a bridle, extra lines, and floats. He opened the cockpit locker and tried to cram everything in. It wouldn't fit. "Jettison the extra barbecue," Eileen said. David protested. Eileen made it clear that it was either she or the barbecue that was going on the passage. "Stainless steel barbecues are not known for their flotation characteristics," she said. We left the charcoal grill on the dock and twelve days later made landfall at the island of Sint Maarten.
(You will be relieved to know we have never had the occasion to deploy our sea anchor and David to this day scowls whenever he sees it in the locker.)
We've continued to use our one remaining grill almost every day. It usually takes at least gale force winds and driving rain to keep David from firing it up. Currently, the boat is on the hard in Florida attracting hurricanes. The grill is securely stowed away. We might lose our spars and rigging to 100 knot winds, but the barbecue is safe. In the meantime, we're doing a road tour of the eastern seaboard, watching the weather channel whenever we get the chance. Until a few days ago, we had been without a barbecue for several weeks and David was getting very grumpy.
Last weekend, Eileen was invited to perform for the New York station of the Cruising Club of America at its annual clambake in Fairfield, Connecticut. As it turned out, "clambake" was something of a misnomer. When we arrived in mid-afternoon to set up our sound equipment, caterers were tending huge pots on open gas flames by the beach. Inside the steaming pots were mesh bags bulging with mussels, clams and lobsters. Pieces of chicken and sausages were sizzling on a charcoal grill. David perked right up.
It was a great feast. After we had finished eating, and before Eileen began playing, several CCA members stood up and described their summer sailing exploits. One had cruised Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea and had fraternized with the king and queen of Norway. Another had crossed the Atlantic and was planning on sailing back this winter with a little detour to round Cape Horn. Eileen whispered to David, "Wow, these people have really impressive sailing credentials." David eyed the mound of shells and bones in front of him. "Personally, I think they have really impressive grilling credentials."