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Wednesday, 20 February 2013 14:20

By chance, by sea, bye bye

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op frBy John Beckman • Columnist

Thirty-five years ago, I moved into my first dorm room and this small-town lad had high hopes of the excitement and new people he would meet at this big university hundred of miles from his sleepy town. I surveyed the 60 or so inhabitants at the Introductory Floor Meeting that day and noticed a few “possibilities” for friends and a bunch of “forget-its.”

Among the latter was a short, loud, monied know-it-all, Jewish guy from New Jersey — “Nothing in common here, I thought. People like this annoy me.” But as might have been guessed, I’d soon sing a different tune. Once the partying and shenanigans began, we found our vast differences to be great compliments, and the next semester, we moved into a house off campus together with three other guys and the “Moose Breath Club” was born.

I left Syracuse University a year later for West Virginia University while “Moosie” stayed on to graduate there, but I took with me an unlikely friendship that would endure during these many years and regularly surprise me, if given half a chance. In the three and a half decades since, we’ve shared successes and defeats, births and deaths, marriages and divorces and the rest of what life threw at either of us. Sometimes years would pass between face-times, but it only took a moment at each occasion to renew our bonds and start the laughter and the scheming once again.

It should therefore not have come as a big surprise when he called me this past Christmas and asked if I wanted to go sailing on his new boat in the British Virgin Islands in three weeks. I knew my passport had expired and told him I’d check everything out and see what I could do. The next day I found my old passport and went to the courthouse to check on a Quick Renewal. “Three weeks to be safe ...” said the woman at the desk, “or you can go to Atlanta and get it quicker in person.”

Neither was a great option for me, so I went online to find an e-solution to my international identity problem. I found PassportExpress, who said they could get me my new papers in one week for an extra $150. I wanted to see my old pal and clicked “Proceed.” Next came flights to coordinate with the St. Thomas to Tortola ferry schedule. Once again, fate gave me a wink, and I found one flight that landed 45 minutes before the last ferry of the day at 5 p.m. So with a flurry of online purchases and a little luck, it looked like a go — if everything worked as planned.

Sleet began falling as I left Cullowhee before dawn for the Charlotte airport and followed me and my jumpy nerves most of the way, hoping no accident would slow my pace and nothing would throw a glitch my way. I checked in with new passport in hand just as the icy rain began to hit the terminal. Once on board, the captain announced that we would need to de-ice the plane and would be delayed about 45 minutes for takeoff. My thoughts went to the perfectly timed ferry connection, minus the perfection. When we finally landed I raced off the plane, hailed the first cab and told her to “step on it.” I arrived at the ferry dock at 5:15 p.m. with little hope, but once again, chance smiled at me when I was told that “the ferry would be running an hour late due to mechanical problems, we apologize for any inconvenience.” Safe again. Karma or dumb luck, I’ll take it.

The ferry finally arrived on “Island Time,” and we floated from U.S. St. Thomas into Soper’s Hole on Tortola just as darkness did the same over the tropical harbor. I spotted Moosie and his son motoring the dingy toward the dock for my pick-up. A quick trip through customs (Tortola is British), and I was climbing into the dingy with my friends, headed toward YOLO (You Only Live Once), a Lagoon 450 catamaran as she sat patiently on her mooring ball. With quick and welcoming introductions to the guys’ girlfriends and the captain on board, we were celebrating times old and new and toasting crazy good luck, the serendipity from years ago and the great week of sun and sail that lay ahead well into the gently rocking Caribbean night.

The next day, we set sail through Sir Francis Drake Channel toward Trellis Bay on the east end of the island for the Full Moon Party, which just by coincidence happened to be its huge fat orb that night. After dinner on board and the fall of darkness, we all loaded into the dingy and puttered across the bay toward the beach bars, bonfires, stilt-dancing “Jumbies” and calypso bands for some serious sand dancing with folks from around the world.

Just for laughs, I had packed a ridiculously loud, electric-orange, shag vest a friend had given me as a gag at Christmas. At their urging, I wore it that night to the beach bash and wound up meeting dozens of strangers as a result, sharing 10 times that many laughs before the night was done. I met a young couple from Charleston, S.C., there teaching a sailing school who commented on my fashions.

As it turned out, they had an interest in organic farming, so we traded emails and invites for visits to each others’ lives when we got back stateside. “Sounds great,” we agreed. With probably 300 people assembled with the common goal of dancing, drinking and laughing, it was easy to find a place to have fun and someone to share it with.

And so it was to be for the next six luck-filled days: pulling into each port for the last or perfect buoy, or finding the ideal evening venue as we checked off island after island, sails open wide each day, and our mouths the same each night. From the wave-cut Baths and Caves of Virgin Gorda, to Pelican Island, Anegada’s Cow Wreck beach, Willy T’s & the Soggy Dollar Bar (so named because there is no dock and boaters must anchor and swim in, drink, and swim back out), the sights were ever-changing ocean paradises. We saw sailboats of all sizes and shapes and mega-yachts measuring 300 feet and costing more than $100 million. (Don’t forget to add in 10 percent per year for maintenance. This sea-faring stuff can be an expensive hobby.)

I was always the last one to turn in at night, swimming in the thoughts and sights of the day under starry skies, and one of the first to rise with the sun for a different swim in the turquoise blue surrounding our boat. I wasn’t about to spend my ship time sleeping. During the few quiet hours, there was interesting reading aboard of sailing guides with hints of BVI’s history. (Google William Thornton, or Blackbeard and Dead Chest Bay, or wrecks of the Caribbean and U.S. Purchase of Virgin Islands for some great recounts).

All too soon, departure day from the palms and warm blue arrived. I loaded into the dingy one last time for the splash to the ferry dock and the air trip home. Having to admit that our time together had ended, we traded hugs, goodbyes and see-you-soons. On the drive back from Charlotte, I thought about all the last week had brought my way, how chance had played the strong hand in it, and I was just lucky enough to be the card holder during it all.

I got up the next morning and went back to work, sea legs and all, and tried to set the Caribbean aside and get back to my mountain-not-beach life. I was catching up on things pretty well when I received an email a couple days later from Full Moon Lynn, from the Charleston Sailing School. Circumstances were bringing her and a friend to Asheville and could they come by the farm to see what we’re doing? Without hesitation, I shot back “Sure, BVI friends always welcome!”

They showed up Friday night, and we had great time talking and laughing late into the night and sharing like old-time friends, even though we had met only days ago by chance, on an island 3,000 miles away. It’s interesting to me that a “fate-full” sail with a fluke-found friend has already expanded the circles I travel in within a week, and that serendipity, chance, and happenstance may deserve more credit than many care to admit, if given an opportunity to display their magic touch.

John Beckman is a farmer, builder and writer in Cullowhee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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