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My Old Man And The Sea

A satirist and his larger-than-life dad may have disagreed about some important fundamentals in life, but both loved boats and each other. Here, a son remembers some wild days aboard with his legendary father.

William F. Buckley navigating across the Atlantic Ocean

Bill Buckley navigating across the Atlantic using his trusty sextant, taking a noon sight to determine his boat's position. (Photo: Christopher Little)

My late father, William F. Buckley Jr., was an avid sailor. He had learned to sail as a child in upstate Connecticut, on a not-very-big lake. When I was growing up, we lived on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. He had then a 38-foot wooden sailboat, a sloop named Panic — a name my long-suffering mother found ... apt.

In my father's study in the garage, he kept a framed photograph of Panic taken by a news photographer at the start of the 1958 Newport-to-Bermuda race. In the photo, Panic is lying on her side at a more or less 90-degree angle, its mast submerged in the water — an undesirable nautical posture technically called a "knock-down." It was thrilling for me as a 6-year-old to hear my father's crewmates describe the sensation of thousands of gallons of the Atlantic pouring into the cabin at the start of a five-day ocean race.

I should point out at this point an important detail, namely that my father was a great man. I don't mean that in the usual platitudinous way. It's a straightforward statement. He wrote more than 50 books and many thousands of articles, founded a magazine, taped more than 1,500 episodes of his television program, "Firing Line," and influenced the course of modern American political history. You don't have to take my word for it. You can look it up.

Looking back, I now understand that his greatness was consistent with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much sail up. Great men take too many risks. More timorous souls — souls like myself — tend to err on the side of caution. When we see a storm coming, we look for a snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as my mother used to put it, "Bill, why are you trying to kill us?"

William F. Buckley at his home in Connecticut in 1985

Bill at home in Connecticut, 1985.

Great men are also impatient. This particular aspect showed up most vividly in my father's manner of docking. Most people, when guiding a 10- or 20-ton vessel toward a dock, approach slowly. Not my old man. His technique was to go straight at it, full speed.

At one point, he owned a 72-foot schooner with an 18-foot bowsprit. With my father at the wheel, going hell-bent-for-leather toward a pier, that long bowsprit became a jousting lance. What vivid memories I have of people scattering like sheep at our approach! One time, someone actually leapt off the dock into the water in an attempt to escape. Over the years, my father took out entire sections of docks up and down the Eastern seaboard. His crew bestowed on him the nickname, "Captain Crunch."

But there were fun times, too. When I was 6, my father contrived a treasure hunt. He bought an antique wooden chest and filled it with silver dollars and some of my mother's jewelry. He and a friend sailed across Long Island Sound one weekend and buried it on a sandy spit called on the chart Eaton's Neck, but which I will always call "Treasure Island."

Pup told me that he had come into possession of an old treasure map, something out of Robert Louis Stevenson, scratched on thick parchment in blood-red ink, the location of the treasure indicated with compass bearings. I couldn't sleep the night before we set out, I was so excited.

We sailed across. After digging up half of Eaton's Neck, we found the treasure. I can still remember the thrill as my fingers scraped the chest's wooden lid beneath the sand. When we got home, my father said it would be a nice gesture to give my mother the pirate jewelry. OK, I said grudgingly, but I'm keeping the silver dollars.

William F. Buckley with son Christopher on Cyrano

Young Christopher and his dad, 1975. 

It had been such an adventure that I persuaded my father that there must be another chest buried there, somewhere. I was quite persistent. In due course, he relented and procured another chest, which he filled with another fistful of my mother's jewels, this time adding — without telling her — a few pieces of her prized Queen Anne silver. He sailed across and buried it.

On the weekend appointed for the treasure hunt, Hurricane Irene struck. The Hurricane Katrina of her day, Irene hit with such force that she rearranged the entire topography of Eaton's Neck, making nonsense of my father's compass bearings on the treasure map.

We sailed over the next weekend. We dug and dug. And dug. By the time we were finished, Eaton's Neck looked like it had been ravaged by a thousand prairie dogs. We never did find the treasure. For all we know, it's still there. How thrilled my mother was to learn that her jewels and Queen Anne were now a permanent geological feature of Eaton's Neck. I wonder what the reaction of the insurance company was.

"I'm not sure I understand. Was the jewelry stolen, Mr. Buckley?"

"No, we buried it. Is there a problem?"

The next hurricane landed poor old Panic atop the Stamford Harbor breakwater. My father used that insurance payment — over the years, there were many — to buy a successor yacht, a sweet, 42-foot Sparkman and Stephens yawl, Hong Kong-built, named Suzy Wong. She was a real honey, all teak and mahogany and carved Buddhas.

Every summer we would cruise the waters of Maine aboard Suzy. Sailing in Maine was always an adventure. The water is scrotum-tighteningly cold, the currents swift, the tidal drop pronounced and the bottom unforgivingly rocky. We'd drop anchor, have a merry, kerosene lamp-lit dinner, then drift off to sleep. Soon, invariably, there'd be a sound under the hull: thunk, thunk, thunk. This announced beyond reasonable doubt that our anchor had slipped and that we were now positioned over a sharp rock on a falling tide. Depending on how many bottles of wine had been consumed, the grown-ups were not always quick to respond. In due course, my mother's voice would call out in the dark, "Bill! What do you propose to do about that sound?"

William F. Buckley with son Christopher sailing 1986

Christopher and William F. Buckley in 1986.

My mother deserves a word of appreciation here. She had been raised as a debutante, a beautiful, delicate orchid from Vancouver, Canada. Now she found herself cooking for eight men aboard a small boat with no hot water, and scrubbing the toilet. She would mutter darkly, "I was made for better things."

In those nonrefrigerated, pre-microwave days, a lot of our food came in tins. These were stored below the floorboards in the ship's bilges, which invariably filled with oily seawater, causing the labels to decompose. As a result, we never knew what, exactly, we'd be having for dinner on any given night. If we were lucky, Dinty Moore beef stew. If not, we might well dine exclusively on Harvard beets and creamed corn. Some tins contained crepes Suzette. My father, not a cook himself, loved to douse them in copious amounts of Grand Marnier. At the climactic moment, he would drop a match into the skillet, causing a Hiroshima of flame to lick the cabin top.

Losimg Mum And Pup book cover
This ­article was excerpted from Christopher’s
acclaimed tragi-comic memoir about losing
both parents in one year.

Some afternoons, my father might say, "Shall we have lobster tonight?" He'd steer for the nearest lobster pot. As a child, I found this thrilling beyond belief, for it was established lore that a Maine lobsterman could legally shoot you dead on sight if he caught you plundering his livelihood. After laborious heavings on the line, the trap would come up, suddenly alive with frantic, jackknifing lobsters. The trick was getting them out without having them clamp down on your fingers. My father would then put two bottles of whisky into the lobster pot as payment. I always wondered what the lobsterman thought upon bringing up their trap, to find two fifths of Johnnie Walker Black inside. Did he scratch his head and say, "Reckon Mr. Buckley's back"?

Sometimes we barbecued on a little grill that hung off the transom. One night, as I was cooking six expensive filet mignons that my mother had asked me please not to burn, the grill suddenly swiveled 180 degrees. Six steaks and charcoal briquettes plopped hissingly into the dark, swift waters of Penobscot Bay.

My friend Danny and I grabbed a flashlight, leapt into the dinghy, fired up the outboard, and roared off into the night. The current was running 5 knots. It was tricky work corralling the fugitive filets. We ran a few of them over, turning them into Salisbury steaks. No one asked for salt that night.

William F. Buckley book covers

In addition to his political books, Bill Buckley wrote three popular sailing memoirs.

Such were our adventures. Larger ones loomed. My father always had the notion of sailing across the Atlantic, and this we did in 1975. The story is told in his book, "Airborne." We set off from Miami on June 1. A month and 4,400 miles later, we dropped anchor in the shadow of Gibraltar.

He taught me on that trip how to navigate by the sun and stars with a sextant. It's a skill that today, in the age of satellite navigation, fewer parents impart to their children. As I look back, it seems to me one of the most fundamental skills you can hand down: finding out where you are, using the tools of our ancestors.

I was 23 now. I'd spent a year between high school and college working on a Norwegian tramp freighter. I'd gone around the world, been in rough situations among rough people. I'd steered a 20,000-ton ship through 60-foot seas in a Force Ten gale in the South Atlantic. I knew my way around a boat.

Steaming to Bamboola book cover

One night, I relieved my father on the midnight-to-0400 watch. He told me to put on my safety harness. "Yeah," I said, "I'll get around to it." He let me have it, in harsh words — perhaps the second time in 23 years he'd spoken to me that way. Falling overboard at night in the middle of the ocean without a safety harness isn't a thing to be taken lightly.

I obeyed, but later that night, still simmering over my affronted manhood, I made an entry in the log to the effect that Captain Crunch could take his safety harness and shove it where the sun didn't shine. The next morning, upon examining the log, he smiled, delighted at the mutiny.

What a trip it was! We sailed into the Azores, accompanied by a thousand dolphins; camped out in the crater of an extinct volcano; sailed through the spot where Nelson sank the French and Spanish fleets; and finally through the place that had once been called "The Pillars of Hercules," end of the known world. We had such a good time, in fact, that my father declared that we must sail across the Pacific, from Honolulu to New Guinea. We did, 10 years later.

I was now 33, recently married.

"By the way," I said to my new bride on our honeymoon, trying to sound casual, "I won't be around much this summer." She was a pretty good sport about it. The first time I'd brought her to Stamford to meet my parents, my father insisted on taking us for a sail. It was a bright, beautiful summer day, but the wind was blowing 25 knots, with 6-foot seas.

She had been in a sailboat exactly once before, on a flat-calm lake. The waves crashed over the cockpit, hurling her to the deck. She smiled bravely and said, "Is it always like this?" My mother, hearing this account after we got home, drenched to the skin, acerbically remarked, "Yes. With Bill, it is always like that."

Off we set across the great Pacific. We made our first landfall a week later, at a strange little archipelago called Johnson Atoll. It's here that the United States stores its most lethal nerve weapons. For that reason, any ship sailing into the harbor is greeted not by lovely ladies bearing leis and rum punches, but by grim-faced Halliburton contractors aiming 50-caliber machine guns at you. Welcome to Johnson Atoll!

We made our peaceful intentions clear to the frowning colonel in charge. It was an ironic encounter, for that same day, back home in Stamford, Nancy Reagan, then First Lady of the U.S., was spending the weekend at our house with my mother. The colonel was totally unimpressed with my father's desperate name-dropping and informed us dourly that we must be on our way.

William F. Buckley and his son Christopher out for a daysail

Father and son endure a typical Buckley daysail! (Photo: Christopher Little) 

We made three landfalls on our way to New Guinea, each one something out of Gauguin. After the weeks at sea, we were avid for R&R; for a swim that didn't involve someone having to stand shark guard with an assault rifle. For cold beer and hot showers. For a stretch of sleep longer than four hours. But the moment we dropped anchor, my father would look at his watch and say, "OK, it's 10 o'clock now. What say we shove off at 2?"

Danny and I would look at each other and shake our heads. I was learning that for my father, it was the voyage, not the stopping. Great men are not idlers; their idle is set too high. They're built for speed. I myself was built to lie on the sand and drink beer and be fanned by island ladies. But I am not a great man.

White House Mess book cover

And so at 2 o'clock, it was up anchor and off to the next idyllic atoll, some thousand miles away. I scribbled in my journal, "We are racing through paradise." My father liked that and used it for the title of the book he wrote about the trip.

We did, however, manage to convince him to stop for a whole day at a place called Kapingamarangi. You may not be familiar with Kapingamarangi, but it's there on the chart, 350 miles northeast of New Guinea. We sailed in over the reef into a turquoise lagoon fringed with white sand and swaying coconut palms. Natives came out in a launch to greet us. This was 1985.

"Is there anything you need?" we asked, thinking perhaps batteries, antibiotics, tools?

"Among my people," the headman said gravely, "there is a great hunger for video cassettes."

There was a plane in the lagoon, still shiny-bright beneath the water. It had been there for 40 years. I scuba-dived on it, saw the "U.S. Navy" markings, the bullet holes that had brought it down, hem-stitched along the fuselage. A quarter-mile away was a sunken Japanese vessel, the object, perhaps, of the American plane's last attack.

"What happened here?" I asked the headman.

He shrugged. "First the Japanese bombed the crap out of it, then the Americans came and bombed the crap out of it." World War II in a nutshell.

We were navigating again by sextant and celestial navigation. But my father had always been on the cutting edge of the latest gadgetry, and so we had with us a prototype of a satellite navigation device made by the Trimble company. My father had gone to enormous pains to procure it from his new best friend, Charlie Trimble. It was the size of a steamer trunk and had more dials and knobs and oscilloscopes than Dr. Frankenstein's entire laboratory. My father would crouch before it for endless hours, twiddling the knobs, calling out numbers to us, which we'd plot on the chart.

William F. Buckley and son Christopher embracing after a long journey

Photo: Christopher Little

"Where does that put us?" he would groan hopefully.

"Here," I said, pointing to a spot in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest.

It was back to basics, to the sextant and the stars he preferred. I can still see him standing on the deck at twilight, searching the sky for Spica and Vega and Deneb, one hand wrapped around a stay for support, the sextant in his other, calling out "Mark!"

A month after sailing out of Honolulu, we anchored in Kavieng Harbor on New Ireland Island. That night we had a celebration as liquid as the vast Pacific. I toasted him, "To Pup," I said, "who shot the sun, shot the stars, but who most of all shot the moon."

That was to be our last long sail together. My father was getting older now. So was I. I was a father of two. Then came the episode of October 1997.

We'd made a date the month previous to have an overnight sail to Treasure Island along with Danny, our old sailing partner. I took the train up from Washington, D.C., to Stamford. Along the way, I looked out the window and saw gray, stormy skies. I checked the weather in the paper. There I saw the word "Nor'easter." To anyone who's grown up along the Connecticut seashore, this is not a word congruent with "overnight sail."

My father was standing there on the train platform to greet me. This had always been a welcoming sight. Then I noticed, through the train window, that he seemed to be holding onto a sign post, as if for support. Had he injured himself? No, for when the train door opened, and I went to disembark, a violent gust of Northeast wind blew me back into the train. I crawled out. Loose objects in the railroad parking lot were being blown about.

"We'll have a brisk sail," my father said.

Danny was there with him. I looked at Danny. Danny looked at me.

"We're going out in this?" I said, incredulously.

"Sure," said my father nonchalantly.

We arrived at the marina. The wind gauge indicated steady at 45 knots, gusting 50. To put it in context, hurricane force winds start at 64.

"Pup," I said, shouting to make myself heard above the wind, "ought we to be doing this?"

"Take in the fenders," he merrily replied.

He had brought a friend of his, from San Francisco, as it happens. Poor, innocent lamb. He had never been on a sailboat before.

"Should I take a Dramamine?" he asked me nervously.

"Nah," I said. "You'll be too scared to throw up."

And so off we sailed into the storm. This was in my father's last sailboat, a 36-foot fiberglass sloop named Patito. We somehow made it across Long Island Sound, through a screaming, dark night and 15-foot seas. I kept the radio tuned to the Coast Guard frequency. I thought of my two young children. I thought of my warm bed in Washington. I thought, What the **** am I doing out here?

The next morning, after a sleepless night at anchor listening to the halyards slap furiously against the mast, dawn arrived greasily. The wind had increased. It was now gusting to 55. The radio reported that half a million homes in New England were without power. Various governors had declared a state of emergency. We had gone for an overnight sail in a state of emergency. I proposed that we row ashore and flag down a passing car. Or perhaps a passing FEMA vehicle.

"No, no," said my father. "We'll be fine."

It was daylight now, so we could see the seas we were up against and there was nothing pleasant about them. Perhaps you've seen the movie, "The Perfect Storm"? Somehow we made it back across Long Island Sound. My mother had spent the morning on the phone to the Coast Guard, who kept saying, "But Mrs. Buckley, what are they doing out there in this?"

Good question, I thought, gulping down a brandy with trembling hands. I simmered for a few days and wrote my father a blistering letter. Never again, I vowed.

Since then, I've taught my own son to sail. I remember the first time I placed his small hands, along with mine, on the tiller and taught him the feel of the boat and the wind and the sea. I thought back to when my father had first taken my small hands in his and taught me the rudiments of the same art. Now I was imparting to my son what my father had passed along to me: something elemental, thrilling, and joyous.

My father is gone now. I wonder: As he approached the Pearly Gates, no doubt at the same speed he used to approach the pier, did the angels scatter? I often find myself thinking back to that night in '97, an experience I desired never to repeat. But now I think I would give almost anything for just one more sail together, even in a howling Nor'easter.

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Christopher Buckley

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Once chief speechwriter for then Vice President George H. W. Bush, Christopher Buckley has been awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence. He’s published 20 books, including bestsellers "The White House Mess" and "Steaming to Bamboola." His novel "Thank You For Smoking" was made into a movie. His newest, "Has Anyone Seen My Toes?" will be published this month.