William F. Buckley Jr. Braves the High Seas, in His Fashion, with Champagne & Scarlatti

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

William F. Buckley Jr., 54, is well-known as a conservative (TV's Firing Line) and best-selling author (Who's on First). His reputation as an adventurer is less appreciated. Last month he set out from the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to sail the Atlantic with four friends, four paid crew members and one intrepid photographer, Christopher Little, aboard the 71-foot ketch Sealestial. It was Buckley's second such crossing; the first was the subject of his 1976 book, Airborne. Why would he try it again ? "The wedding night is never enough," he says. After 30 days at sea, the Sealestial landed in Marbella early this month. Before beginning a book about the voyage—Atlantic High, to be published by Doubleday next year, with photographs by Little—Buckley wrote this account of the trip for PEOPLE.

Well, how was it?

The radiotelephone hadn't worked, so I hadn't spoken to my wife since leaving Bermuda. The floor of the customs shed at Marbella, just around the corner and up 30 miles from Gibraltar, was rocking, just like the boat deck. It took concentration to keep the champagne in my glass from spilling, though Danny, Christopher, Tony, or Reggie would have filled the glass immediately even though they were all busily talking at the same time and writing out telephone numbers in various parts of America to hand over to the lone, sleepy operator. She hadn't had so much to do at midnight at Puerto Banus Marina since the night the narcs came and busted an innocent-looking, gleaming, white pleasure yawl—so much like our own 71-foot Sealestial—and walked away with a hundred million pesetas worth of Moroccan gold and a half-dozen extremely unhappy young smugglers.

"Oh, fine. Everything fine. Rough sailing the last thousand miles. Very tough stuff. Then there was a whale...Whale. W-h-a-l-e. Dead. Circled around it: It was being eaten by sharks. And there was the survivor...No, not one of ours. A Belgian. He fired his last flare and our friends from Woods Hole spotted him from their ship and lugged him out of the water. What was he doing in the water? Well listen, ducky, he wasn't out swimming...I'm not being sarcastic. He was sailing single-handed, three hundred miles out of Bermuda, and suddenly the bottom of his boat was swept away, but he had his life raft. It was either a whale that hit him or a sub. A submarine. I'll tell you about it. But not now. Everybody's waiting to use the phone. I'll call you tomorrow from the airport in Madrid. Thanks, darling. Me too."

I pass the phone to Danny, and he pours me some more champagne, but he misses the glass by about a half inch. I thrust my glass in the right direction, exhibiting that flawless sense of timing, that capacity for decisiveness under stress, that I share with Captain Hornblower. I cocked my cap on my head and, glass in hand, said to my fellow sailors: "I'm going back to the boat." They cheered. They'd have cheered if I had said: "I'm not going back to the boat." Or if I had said: "What makes you think you have the right to get drunk just because you've sailed 4,500 miles across the ocean?" What I couldn't have said, not even in jest, was that crossing the ocean in your own boat (chartered, to be sure) is routine stuff. Especially, I couldn't have said that their company was routine company, because when you decide to do it—spend thirty days in an elongated canoe however fancy—you must choose the company carefully. Oh, so carefully.

I made it the fifty yards down the quay to the boat, lit by the full moon that had paved our way from Gibraltar. Up until then the winds had been fierce, right on the nose—the notorious levanter. The next time you find yourself on the western approach to the Strait of Gibraltar make it a point to have on board an almanac that indicates the hour of high tide at Gibraltar. Because, you see, after high tide there is a half hour of stillness. Then, for six hours, the water rushes in from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, at very nearly five knots. Then for six hours after that, the water turns around and flows back into the Atlantic, though at a reduced speed. So there we were, tacking against an easterly, and I decided to go on over to Africa, and maybe snuggle along the same coastline the pirates used to love, to snatch a little protection from the wind. If only I knew whether, by tacking across twelve miles to Gibraltar, the current would carry me toward Italy (good) or New York (bad).

But we had no tide book, so I said brightly: "We will use the radiotelephone!" "C'est le bateau de voile Sealestial, je veux parler avec Radio Tangiers." Silence. We tried Gibraltar. Silence. We tried the emergency channel on the radio telephone. Silence. At this point I thought to cut through ship-telephone protocol ("This is Whiskey Oscar Nine One Eight Seven, calling Gibralter Harbor Radio. Whiskey Oscar Nine One Eight Seven, calling Gibraltar Harbor Radio, do you read, do you read?"—a half day of that kind of thing and you find yourself telling the cook you want your steak medium well medium well). "This is a sailing vessel desiring from anyone at sea the time of high water in Gibraltar, please give it to me." Tried it in French, tried it in Spanish. My voice became more peremptory, combative—like Jimmy Durante launching hostilities against a refractory piano. But the fact of it is if no transmission is going out, nobody is ever going to answer you, never mind that with naked eye you can see five, six freighters, oil tankers, destroyers, all of them with radios turned on to the relevant channels.

So I figured: What the hell? We have a fifty percent chance the current will be with us, and will waft us east. At worst, we'll be blown and carried back; and spend the night in southern Spain, maybe at Cape Trafalgar, where we can pay our respects to the statue of Lord Nelson. But we gambled and we won, and when the current carried us round Gibraltar, the sea, as if directly instructed by Neptune, turned to glass, as if to say: "You've had enough. You win. Now we'll roll out the carpet for you." The sun drifted down, and there was the medley of greens and blues and pinks, laced with silver which, albescent, slowly displaced all else, as the sun receded and the moon's intensity rose. We sat in the cockpit, our ninetieth and last meal together, and the sensation slowly gets to you, the sensation that animates every sustained energetic enterprise. It is so—I suppose—on finally reaching the top of a mountain. It is not so different from what happens when you write the last pages of a book. I suppose winning a political victory after long and hard endeavor is a cognate sensation. It is very special, and what it brings is the peace of fleeting self-satisfaction.

You need to go back to the logbook, or to a journal (if you kept one) to equip you to distinguish one day from another. Many different things happen, and the distractions and variations are, on board, intensely interesting. But the story line is simple. Here's what we had: a 41-ton (unloaded) sailing ketch, a racing boat designed for luxury cruising. It has 3,400 square feet of sail when everything is up. Then there is a motor, 108 horsepower, that consumes two gallons per hour at seven knots, which means about three and a half miles per gallon. You have six hundred gallons of fuel and five hundred of water. You have a radiotelephone (that doesn't work), a machine that dispenses a barometric weather chart (that doesn't work). You have a shortwave radio, and radar, and one thousand and fifteen gadgets of various kinds of which only three are absolutely central: a sextant, a chronometer and a compass. The first two, adroitly exploited in combination, will tell you where the third should be pointed in order to reach first Bermuda, then the Azores, then Gibraltar.

Mediating between the sextant reading and the compass is a small library of almanacs and tables. You plod your clerkish way through these—or, you bring along a little, palm-sized machine, courtesy of Hewlett-Packard, which my protean friend the English professor has programmed. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that it actually speaks to you in English, eliciting, in unambiguous language, exactly those data it wants. For instance: "YEAR?" Could any misanthrope, any Luddite, facing that softspoken, alphanumeric display board, deny the machine the satisfaction of punching out: 1-9-8-0? Score one more for the memory chip, which knows where the sun, moon, stars and planets are located every second of every day of every year, from now until the year 2049.

Do you worry, crossing the Atlantic? In a way. If, when the sea is exercised, someone should fall overboard, the chances are fearfully high that you have seen the last of him. Moral? Don't fall overboard. If there is a fire at sea you are in bad shape. Again, the moral is obvious. A standard cruising book, a part of the ship's library, reads, "Force 11—Winds 64-72 mph. Chances of yacht's survival in such conditions very low." Ah, but I have sailed in winds exceeding 72 mph! The price of survival and progress toward your destination is Extreme Discomfort. For several consecutive days, on one leg, we could not drink an entire cup of coffee without spilling some of it. What we had to worry about in particular on this trip was Christopher Little, because he opted not to permit any part of the boat to go unphotographed from any angle, and so on a typical watch we would 1) take the log reading, 2) record the barometer, wind speed, and direction, 3) adjust the sails, and 4) haul Christopher to a spreader, a masthead or a spinnaker boom, with his laundry bag full of equipment.

Tedium? If you are off watch, you can read: read gluttonously. I even started (though did not finish) a certain novel by Henry James. You can devote yourself endlessly to navigation, if the subject interests you: you lie in wait...heh! heh!...for the relevant stars and planets, presetting your sextant to the anticipated arc, and then, Bang!—down goes Vega at one o'clock. Bang! You've got Spica at three o'clock. Bang! Jupiter bites the dust at five o'clock. Fifteen minutes later you have a tiny penciled triangle on your plotting sheet, for which the sailors have a naughty expression—and your boat is right in the middle of it. You rise from the navigation table and climb up to the cockpit, with studied nonchalance, and say something like, "Hmm. We've had a little northerly set. Change course from zero nine two to zero nine four." Walter Mitty never experienced a more exhilarating moment.

And, then, sometimes there is no wind at all, and you stop in the middle of the ocean, strap in the mainsail, and go swimming. Everyone tends to behave like Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer in the swimming hole. Reggie does an imitation of a World War I German submarine. Danny is on deck with the .222 magnum, in case a shark should surface, mistaking us for dead whales. Tony, for the first few days of the trip, notwithstanding that though he is only three years out of Harvard he is very nearly a professional sailor, looks like a dead whale, until his stomach finally settles. Van, at dinner, pouring one of the wines we selected at St. Thomas from fourteen nominees, is fussing with a new game they are playing in London, in which success is defined by artful replies to oddball questions, e.g., "What's the name of the surviving Japanese kamikaze pilot?" (An acceptable answer: "Chicken sukiyaki.") Tom feels awful, and is stretched out on the cockpit during a midnight roller coaster, up fast, and d-d-down slow, right, left, steady back on course, flecks of moon darting through the clouds, waves chasing after you, higher, sometimes, than you could touch on tiptoes, arm upstretched—but Tom listens. In a plastic bag, to protect it from the salt spray, is the battery cassette player, Fernando Valenti playing Scarlatti on the harpsichord. Tom's misery is leavened by occasional gasps of pleasure. Reggie likes to play Ghost during the long hours at the wheel, and the dictionary (an American Heritage is on board) is constantly being trotted out to serve as arbitrator. When, during a dead calm, that dictionary ruled in Reggie's favor in a duel with me, I annealed my companions in antipathy by announcing that I could see to it that the next edition of the Heritage should alter the word to conform with my spelling of it. "You will note," I said, looking vaguely at the horizon, as if distracted by the responsibility of transcribing the cloud formations into a meteorological forecast, "that I am listed in the Foreword of that dictionary as a Consultant." Oh well, I had planned to go swimming anyway.

I stepped gingerly over the lifeline, grasping the shroud with my left hand: The other hand was not available, as there was still the champagne glass. The boat, mothballed in moonlight, was dead: Everyone was ashore, telephoning, reveling, roistering. There was no breeze, no sound. I walked aft to the stern cockpit, and maneuvered down the stillness of the companionway to the master cabin, flicked on the reading light, dropped my pants, shoes and socks with a single downward motion, and slid between the sheets. For the first time in seven days, no need to fasten the canvas leeboards that had kept me, during those screeching moments of heel, from being tossed onto the floorboards. I picked up my journal, and began to write. The dozen words I managed I cannot, at this moment, decipher. They are illegible. But I know what they say. Know what they express: Gratitude.

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