Somewhere, in looking for ways to pass the time, I came across a job listing that interested me. I can't remember where I saw it, the internet then was little more than a pamphlet and not the rich, glossy-fronted porn magazine it is today, so it must have been posted on a bulletin board in the ship's store at the Panama City Marina or in the local newspaper. Someone was looking for help in renovating his boat, no experience necessary, willing to train; an apprenticeship of sorts. I wanted to learn all about boats and had my days free, so this seemed perfect.
I met the owner, Nick Bond, at that marina's store so we could talk and agree on a few particulars, and then he took me to his covered slip to show me the boat where he and his wife, Caroline, lived. She was beautiful. The boat. All boats are female and all boats are beautiful. This one was a 46-foot Chris-Craft motor yacht called The Southern Cross.
Nick was in the process of sanding down the hull for painting, among other projects. He was doing it all with the boat in the water, which was not such a good idea and, now that I think about it with the benefit of hindsight and in the "green" culture of the 21st century, probably illegal. We spent whole days standing in a jon boat that floated in the narrow space between the dock, a neighboring boat and The Southern Cross with power sanders plugged into extension cords which ran the length of the hull and were draped and hung safely out of the water on lines tied here and there. The jon boat had a slow leak.
So there we were, day in and day out, standing in a metal jon boat in water to our ankles, arms overhead clutching the hull to pull the small boat towards the large one, fighting to keep our balance, with an electric tool in one hand. We sanded all day with all of the flecks on us and in the water.
Though she was beautiful, she was not without flaws. As we sanded, we'd find soft spots where the mahogany had rotted. We would dig this wood out and fill it in with a powerful, quick-setting epoxy and strips of fiberglass cloth. Topside, I sanded and painted with non-skid paint, down below I crawled into the "engine room" to replace bilge pumps.
Nick and Caroline rarely took The Southern Cross out in the bay, and I never did get to ride on her, but every once in a while he would fire up those big, beautiful diesels and I could just imagine what kind of power she'd have at sea. And their plan was to take her to sea. Nick was from England and Caroline from South Africa and the long-range goal was to get The Southern Cross ship-shape and take her to the British Virgin Islands for charters. The idea was to market to corporations for retreats and incentives; good plan.
In the meantime, Caroline was working at the hospital and, as far as I could tell, footing the bill for repair and renovation costs, and that included me as I got a handful of cash every Friday. Nick, therefore, cut costs wherever he could, afraid, I believe, of having to tell his wife what he'd spent her paycheck on that day.
The Bonds had an interesting habit every evening when Caroline came home from work. A little dialogue that I came to look forward to and anticipate, imagining it was just for me.
Nick: What would you like for supper, dear?
Caroline: I don't know, what would you like?
Nick: How about a curry?
Caroline: A curry would be lovely.
Every night they had curry. I knew they were having curry and they knew they were having curry, but they still insisted on the discussion. I never was invited for curry although Nick did offer me a cup of tea once. I was excited to have tea prepared by an actual Brit, but it turned out to be the worst cup of tea I've ever had.
There was another helper who would show up irregularly, and when he did show up he was usually drunk or on his way to being drunk, no matter the time of day. Lenny was from England as well and, in fact, he and Nick grew up only about 20 minutes apart, but didn't meet each other until Panama City. He was the kind of Brit I imagine you find in the pubs over there, bitching about the queen or his futbol club or whatever it is they complain about while drinking. But he was one hell of a craftsman. Drunk or sober, Lenny could fix anything and dole out advice, which he did often and gently. He was always willing to explain to me the best way to do the work. It drove Nick mad, I could tell, that Lenny was better at spackling with epoxy or woodwork after three tallboys than Nick was after morning coffee.
Lenny just stopped showing up at one point. I can't even remember the last time I saw him, but I assume it was as he left for a "lunch" of Budweisers down at the marina store.
Nick eventually ran out of money to pay me. Or Caroline did. He was trying to get work refinishing someone else's boat that summer and offered me the job of helper on that, too. He said if I wanted to stay on and help with The Southern Cross, then when the money came through for the other job, he'd pay me back wages. I declined. You can't really trust a sailor, or a Brit who can't make tea.