down under

Brian Hancock lets you in on something good.

chasIn the late 70s I met a man from Tasmania. Word on the docks was that his name was Chas from Tas and that he ‘was a legend in his own eyeballs.’ I was intrigued. Who wouldn’t be? But in the late 70s I was a rookie. I was the nipper on board and nippers didn’t talk to the experienced sailors unless spoken to first. Chas didn’t notice me and therefore didn’t speak to me. It was OK because although he was small in stature his overall look was that of a wild man. His bleached hair was a tangled mess that flopped over two bulging eyeballs that even from afar I could see were bloodshot. Below the eyes an angular nose protruded, and below that a wild and bushy mustache matched the twins above; two wild and bushy eyebrows.

Chas was animated, telling stories, and those within earshot sat wrapt as he reeled off one yarn after another. I was forward of the mast and out of earshot. Plus I was taking in the moment. We were motoring out to the start of the Fastnet Race, a biennial event that attracted sailors from around the world. It was going to be my first Fastnet and I was excited even more so because of the forecast. It was almost certain that we were going to get walloped by a cold front gathering strength as it skewed north toward the coast of Ireland. By this time tomorrow, I thought to myself, we are going to be in a full gale, and I was happy about the prospect. I was 21 and out to find as much adventure as I could. I may have been the nipper on board but I was a fearless nipper and ready for anything. I had no idea just how much fury we were going to experience in the next 24 hours.
We had a good start and short-tacked along the south coast of England trying to stay out of an adverse current. The crew was working well together and back aft in the cockpit there was a lot of laughter. No one seemed too concerned about the approaching storm and, taking their cue, I too was not worried. But that all changed as we headed out into the Irish Sea. I went below for my 8 to midnight off-watch and while in the bunk I heard things start to get nasty. The boat was heaving between crests and troughs at times free-falling until the hull slammed into concrete-hard water sending shockwaves through the boat and up the rig. At midnight when I came on watch we were in a full gale. Spindrift lashed the crew as cresting waves broke all around. We were on a close reach and driving hard but it was hell. The anemometer was pegged at 60 knots which was as high as it went and I was told that it had been there for the last hour without budging. I was thrilled. Every now and then the nav lights of another boat would suddenly appear and then quickly get swallowed up by the breaking seas. I had no idea at the time but we were in the middle of one of the worst sailing disasters in recent history. By the time the storm had abated 21 people would be dead and over 75 yachts either wrecked or abandoned.
Our crew on Battlecry sat huddled on the windward rail holding on as the boat pitched and rolled in an increasingly worsening seaway. I was near the bow, Chas was closer to the stern. None of us said anything, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Then I heard Chas speak. “I would love to be sucking the oil out of a sardine can right about now,” Chas said in a loud voice. It took a few seconds for it to register and then most of the windward rail evacuated to the leeward rail to throw up. We had all been on the edge and doing OK until the thought of salty oil swimming with dead fish registered in our brains. That was typical Chas and he just laughed. The man really was a legend in his own eyeballs.
Chas, along with the daughter of the owner of Battlecry, who helped with editing, recently released a memoir of his life as a renegade, a sometimes pirate, a professional ocean racer and a true legend in the day when being a legend meant sailing in shark infested waters that really were shark infested. Chas was a professional sailor living out of a seabag and traveling wherever there was a boat race and a skipper in need of competent crew. From the Philippines to Australia to Europe and parts inbetween there was always a race going somewhere and Chas was always on one of the better boats. He was a hard drinking, hard driving man whose idea of a shower in the morning was a few drops of Visene in each eyeball and a sleeve across the nose. I am happy to say that we became friends. We survived the Fastnet storm together and after that saw each other at many different regattas.
One year I was racing the Newport to Bermuda Race. It was a bright sunny morning in Newport and Chas stopped by the boat. He had given up sailing and had taken some land job and was down at the docks to say goodbye. He was dressed in a safari suit. (Now that might need some explaining). A safari suit is what people in Africa and Australia used to wear to work in the middle of summer. It consisted of a matching shirt and shorts with knee length socks and comfortable shoes.You looked like a British tourist on safari for the first time, in other words: Ridiculous, but at least you were comfortable when the mercury rose above 90. Chas was in his safari suit and told me that he was happy to be “sitting this one out.”
We arrived in Bermuda after four days of hellish upwind sailing in the Gulf Stream on a leaky boat with a smelly crew. After crossing the finish line at St Georges we motored to Hamilton, the capital and as we approached we were attracted by the sound of reggae pulsing from the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and the promise of chilled Dark and Stormy’s. I wandered into the yacht club and walked through the entrance, past portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh looking down at us with a very disapproving gaze. There in stark contrast were a bunch of weather-worn sailors gyrating on the dance floor clearly a few Dark and Stormy’s into it, and there right in the middle was Chas. Yup Chas. He was still in his safari suit although it was no longer freshly pressed and ready for the office. It turns out he was saying goodbye to one of the boats and was talked into doing the race. No gear, no problem. While the rest of us packed foul weather gear and numerous changes of clothes, Chas packed just his Visene. A true pirate, a renegade, an awesome sailor, and a legend in his own eyeballs.
I urge you to read his memoir.