(Short story by Nick Finneran. Nick Finneran’s books are available at leading bookstores and www.nickfinneran.com)
Every once in a while, you have a sailing season that truly stands out. You start the season in a certain place, and end up somewhere else entirely – geographically and spiritually.
I will assume that you have never heard of the Italian Pirates of the Caribbean. Many years ago, while I sailed the Caribbean with my cousin Tony in the in the 1940s, I had started translating an old family biography that told the story of my great great great great uncle, who’s name was Captain Benozzo Di Napoli. The biography, entitled La Historia de los Viajes di Capitan y Pirata Benozzo Di Napoli (The History of the Voyages of the Captain and Pirate Benozzo of Naples), was found in the closet of an old Paris convent at the turn of the century. By the early 1950s, I had translated the beginning and the ending of the Historia, but there were so many stories in-between that I had not translated.
Captain Di Napoli was a Mediterranean merchant captain, originally from Naples, who escaped from a Spanish prison galley, and sailed the Caribbean in the 1670s as a privateer. He commanded a tight-knit group of oddball Italians, Irishmen, Englishmen and Spaniards. Benozzo Di Napoli’s adventures on the Spanish Main are not nearly as well-known as those of Sir Francis Drake or Sir Henry Morgan, but they are remarkable nevertheless. My uncle captured an entire Spanish salt fleet in 1674, quietly sacked Panama City nine years after Morgan (after they had supposedly made the city impenetrable), and was reputed to have had the most contented crew in the Caribbean.
I had started translating the Historia di Benozzo for my parents in the 1950s, and a little bit in the 1960s, but I never finished. I procrastinated for fifty years. Last year, I committed to complete the translation of our great family epic.
So, early in the sailing season (mid-May), fully focused on my task, I spent several days in the cockpit of my sailboat on Cape Cod, and tried to get back to the task of translating the Historia di Benozzo. However, as much as I tried to write, the words just would not come out. I understood the story, as it was written in seventeenth century Castillian Spanish, but I when I tried to tell the tale in English, I failed terribly. In June, I sailed my boat to Cuttyhunk, and spent more days lazing about, trying to write. No luck. I would write a page or two, read what I wrote, decide that it was junk, throw it away, sweep the deck, jog on the beach, smoke a cigar, sweep the deck again (cigar ashes), drink a beer, and take a nap. When I was a young man, when I had first started translating this biography of a thousand pages, the words had come forth like fire. Now, in my eighties, there was nothing.
I tried writing in the cockpit, and I tried writing at the navigation station. I tried writing during the day, and I tried writing at night. No luck. “How crazy is this?” I wondered. I have kept a journal my entire life. I have written something nearly every day. Now, with my mission clear in my mind, I could not put pen to paper.
After a long Saturday that yielded zero results, I smoked my cigar on deck and looked up at a phenomenally brilliant night sky. I was in Cuttyhunk harbor. Cuttyhunk is a small island at the end of the Elizabeth Island chain, off the coast of Cape Cod. The water was flat glass. As the stereo played Dean Martin’s C’est si bon, I broke open a bottle of port wine that my wife had given me, sang to the fishes that broke the surface every few minutes and I danced a little bit on the bowsprit. Then I stretched out on deck and watched the heavens.
One minute I was laying flat on my back on deck, with my eyes wide open into the night sky, trying to figure out exactly what color was the moon. The next minute I was dreaming that I was having a conversation with my old friend Hondo Maria Garcia, the charter boat captain who I had worked for in Nassau in the late 1940s.
“You didn’t finish your tuna sandwich tonight, Guapo.” said Hondo.
In my dream I was twenty years old, sitting at a little rum shop in Eleuthera. For some reason, I was wearing a large hat, which kept falling down in front of my face. I think it was a cowboy hat or a sombrero. I looked at my hands and saw that I was tanned and had no wrinkles in my skin.
“You look worried, Nick.” said Hondo.
“I’m okay Hondo. I really want to finish translating the Historia di Benozzo . . . for my parents,” I answered. “Y’know, they’ve been dead for quite a few years now, and I’ve procrastinated many years with this thing.”
“Ah, yes. The Historia di Benozzo,” said Hondo, with a big white-toothed grin. “It’s a noble mission, Nick, but you’re really not much of a pirate anymore, are you?”
“Not a pirate anymore? What do mean, Hondo?” I asked.
“Enjoy your family, Nick,” said Hondo. “Take the wife and grandkids to Disneyland. Relax yourself a little. Go to church, amigo.”
“What do mean, Hondo?” I asked. “I think I am relaxing myself! I’m more than eighty years old for Chrissake.”
But Hondo was gone, and I awoke with a light rain falling on my face. I went below, changed into my pajamas, and slept restlessly through the night, knowing that a week of rain was rolling into Cape Cod from the south.
I slung out of my bunk the next morning, drank a cup of black coffee under the dodger, and contemplated my old friend Hondo’s words of wisdom. I pulled the anchor, sailed through Quick’s Hole, and turned northwest into Vineyard Sound. As the Atlantic mist thickened through the morning, Naushon disappeared from my port side, and Martha’s Vineyard disappeared from starboard. But I didn’t care. I had sailed this route a thousand times in my life, beginning at twelve years old. My heavy forty-foot cutter knifed through the whiteness. I would be in Wood’s Hole by late afternoon for some beer and little necks, unless I saw fish along the way. Nobska Light came into view, and the Nantucket ferry passed across my bow. And the wet air made my arthritic hands ache a little bit. Goddamn arthritis.
“What the hell did Hondo mean I’m not a pirate anymore? And why the hell couldn’t I write?”
Later that afternoon, I called my cousins, Tony and Casey Finneran.
“You want to go WHERE?” they exclaimed.
Copyright 2012 by Nick Finneran.