Call me Ishmael.
Put Muddy Waters on the stereo.
Throw in about 900 cases of Pearl beer, Lake Waco, and the yellow Moon Cricket.
And our sailing story can begin.
It was the early 1980s, and I was the new $185-a-week, night-side police reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald.
After a few months on a mediocre paper in a butt-ugly town, I had about lost the will to live. Thankfully, two slightly more senior staff at the paper — who must have made at least $275 a week — bought the Moon Cricket for many hundreds of dollars.
The price was low because she was a bit rough. Her owner had died from a heart attack while sailing her on Lake Waco. The “death boat” washed up on the shore and sat abandoned for a year or two. No one wanted her. Seems there is bad karma related to boats that kill their captains.
But young journalists have no fear. So when my mentors took me under their wings, I was “delighted” to spend countless miserable scorching hot days under the Moon Cricket’s belly, as she rested out of the water on a huge sling, using a razor blade to poke holes in thousands of hull blisters to release trapped water. Phase two was re-fiberglassing her hull – a miserably hot, smelly, painstaking process that had to be done perfectly if she were ever to speed through the filthy brown waters of Lake Waco.
My new friend (who shall be called Capt. Buttface to protect his good name, ahem) was nothing if not a perfectionist. Worse, he actually knew how to sail, owned the boat and outranked me at the paper, so I had to do his bidding.
Also, he bought most of the beer.
Eventually, the Moon Cricket was seaworthy. Seaworthy in the sense that the re-fiberglassing work done by Capt. Buttface was best practice perfect. I can boast that the small, hidden part of the hull that I was responsible for had no globs of excess fiberglass larger than, say, a baseball.
According to Capt. Buttface, who STILL lovingly remembers these details: “She was a flat top, 22-foot racer. With a 7/8th fractional rig and adjustable swinging keel … Foot-and-a-half shoal draft downwind, but capable of five-and-a-half feet when heading upwind. Big advantage in speed on downwind legs and angle to the win when beating. She had a V-berth up front and two 3/4 berths in the stern, but sleeping was better above decks in the 7-foot cockpit. She carried a spinnaker, main and a 150 genoa. Most of all, she was fun. A party barge to be sure.”
So in 1981, if there was moonlight and even a puff of wind, after putting the paper to bed at maybe 1 a.m., Capt Buttface and I would grab a bachelor’s ice chest (a Hefty bag filled with ice from the No-Tell Motel), fill it with critical sailing gear (Pearl, Brown Label or whatever beer was on sale, plus pretzels), and drive to Lake Waco, listening to the Blues.
Then, somehow, Capt. Buttface would sail her out of the slip, into the lake, silently, which was no mean feat on a “moonlighter”.
We’d sail awhile across the 7000-acre lake which had been created by the Army Corps of Engineers, then drop anchor and spend hours discussing how we’d someday be famous writers but, in the meanwhile, we should pretend to be interns at the hospital and try to bed nurses. With enough beer, plus the occasional belly-flop into the Lake, these plans seemed highly plausible. And they took our minds off the fact we were working for a putz newspaper in the Heart of Texas.
“A rope is a rope, except when it’s on a boat. Then it’s a sheet.” Capt. Buttface drilled me on key sailing lessons that he’d learned as a child, all of which I was totally keen to absorb, after just one more brew, thank you so much.
It was the morning after after just such a moonlighter, when there were no hangovers and the wind was blowing like a mother. Capt. Buttface had that gleam in his eye. I’d seen it many times before. He’d get that gleam when, as my editor, he’d force me to do something incredibly stupid, like check a fact in a story or spell the police chief’s name right. Or when he was figuring out how we could totally kick other media’s buttooskies on a big story, which we did all the time, by the way.
But on this morning, the gleam in his eye was that of a weathered sailing man with a cunning plan.
Capt. Buttface planned to go with the wind on a “broad reach”. The Moon Cricket would just fly down the inlet and then, in one magnificent motion, come about back into the wind, which would slow us to a crawl. We’d drop the mainsail, gently come to rest against the dock, and ever-so-casually step off, right in front of Elmer, who was at least 1,000 years old and owned the wharf.
Despite the gale conditions, Capt. Buttface exuded confidence. Even at 23, he was a man you’d follow into battle, or hustle pool with in a biker bar. Don’t ask. His tragic flaw was being a very poor judge of young sailors, e.g., moi. You can take the boy out of Oklahoma but … he still sails like a likkered up plowboy.
So there we were, gale winds and white caps all around us, mainsail about to burst, absolutely flying. Capt. Buttface was making approximately the same number of calculations required by the captain of Apollo 13. He’d already given me my orders. I only had to do one thing — drop the mainsail when he gave me the signal. Which was “Billy, put down your beer and drop the mainsail.”
The first bit went brilliantly to plan. Elmer and others were watching as we flew past on the opposite side of the inlet. Seriously, we could have been pulling a skier. Capt. Buttface came about, the wind hit the mainsail, and it was like we’d put on the brakes. Truly, it was a beautiful, beautiful thing. Then Capt. Buttface, knowing his sailing prowess was about to become legend, gave me the signal, and I dropped the mainsail.
Well. Not exactly.
Because at the base of the mast, there were two ropes. I mean sheets. I untied one of them. Unfortunately, it was not the one that dropped the mainsail. It was the one that released the boom from the mast. So the long, aluminum boom that held the bottom of the mainsail, started wildly thrashing about, risking our lives and forcing the boat to list.
Thirty years later, I can still see the horrified look on Capt. Buttface’s face, as he realized that an Okie had sunk his sailing legacy.
His eyes got HUGE. His nostrils flared. He inhaled an entire Marlboro in a single breath and put down his beer, not spilling a drop. He tightened his grip on the rudder, as his nautical brain computed drag coefficients, wind velocity, keel and rudder settings. And also how he would kill me, if we survived.
Realizing I had done something very bad, and keen to make amends, I had fallen to the deck, gasping for air, and emitting a loud “BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA” as we raced toward Elmer’s dock at ramming speed. I was nothing if not helpful.
What happened next remains a mystery to this day.
Either by sheer force of will, or by dipping his butt into the water and inhaling 10 million gallons of Lake Waco, like a jet boat motor, the Moon Cricket slowed, and ever so gently, came to rest perfectly against the dock. Like a feather. It was well and truly miraculous.
All hail Capt. Buttface!
Put on some Muddy Waters.
And give the man a beer.
He earned it.
Click HERE for more Waco stories, frequently featuring Capt. Buttface.