The Adventures of a Yacht Broker; Circa 1990
Sailing To Germany
a short story by Don Robertson
It was a tough time to do business selling boats in Toronto. The economy was shaky and boat values had dropped to the point where a lot of people owed more on their boats than they were worth. Everyone and his brother seemed to be reinventing themselves as yacht brokers and some days it felt like there were three salesmen for every customer.
In the middle of spring when we should have been swamped with business, we were all scratching away in the office, trying to dig up deals. However it was one of those gorgeous days in May that holds the promise of an endless summer, and lifts the spirits a little.
A young man in his mid to late twenties came purposefully through the door. He was handsome, fit and strong, confident and had purpose to his manner. He had the determination of youth, coupled with the enthusiasm of someone without the experience to tarnish the beauty of new ideas.
He told me, in a strong German accent, he had been over here on a study/pleasure trip for a few months and wanted to buy a sailboat to sail back to Germany. Alone. Did he have any trans-ocean experience I asked? No, he said. Had he done much single-handed sailing, I asked hopefully. Not really he said, but he thought he had enough experience to pull it off. It wasn't all that big a deal really, was it? Did his family know what he was doing? No, he wanted to surprise them.
I looked at him silently for about two seconds. It is absolutely astounding how many thoughts you can process in two seconds. I thought he was too young, too good-looking, too intelligent and had too promising a future to die a cold, lonely, undocumented death in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Then I thought no, he wouldn't even get to the middle. I thought about how he was a lay-down. How badly we needed more sales. How all anyone would have to do is show him a boat, tell him it would look good in Germany and he would buy it. I thought about a decent little steel boat with a diesel engine we had just listed at the right price. I thought if I don't sell him something he will go to every vulture on yacht broker row and some mooch who was a stockbroker last week will sell him whatever is on his list and not too far away. I thought it wasn't up to me to tell people how to live, or to advise them on what adventures to partake in this life; my job is to sell boats. I thought I should grab him by the neck and shake him. Tell him he is being a goddamn fool. I thought I should drive him to the airport and tell him to fly home. I thought I should call his mother. I looked him in the eyes and I asked myself if I really wanted to sign this kid's death certificate. All in two seconds.
Well, I did make a fairly serious effort to talk him out of it, but it was like talking to someone in love. His mind was made up and the door to the decision-making area of his brain was welded shut. I showed him the steel boat.
In no time at all I had an accepted offer with a quick closing. No mean feat considering the owner was living aboard the boat. It seemed nothing was going to stand in the way of this young man's folly.
I told him he had to get a qualified marine surveyor to go over the vessel, and that he had to tell the man what he was going to do, and that he had to follow all the recommendations the surveyor made to make the boat seaworthy for a trans-Atlantic voyage. My conscience was hoping the survey report would awaken the kid's common senses and make him see the light.
Now in our business a yacht broker really should not be recommending a marine surveyor to someone he is selling to, as we are hardly at arm's length. As a result of this conundrum I would hate to tell you how many times I have seen the buyer get really poor advice from somewhere and buy a boat he should have run from, or passed on one he should have bought. Nevertheless my lawyer had long ago made it clear that we “don't know any marine surveyors“ and shouldn't get to know any if we wanted to stay out of court.
This kid was as green as grass and didn't know anyone in the country to get bad advice from, let alone intelligent direction. I broke all the rules and called a man I knew. A man who knew what he was doing and who would say whatever was needed to be said.
When the surveyor showed up on the appointed day and was apprised of the whole situation, he looked at me and didn't say a word. But his eyes spoke loudly and clearly with a half hurt glare that said, in the best British tradition, "Couldn't you have called some other bastard to do this?"
When I had an opportunity to speak to the surveyor alone, I told him to feel free to blow the deal even if there were not too many problems with the boat, but only if he could talk the young man out of the whole idea. Well, the damn boat didn't really have any serious problems, it was reasonably well built and in good condition. It needed heavier rigging for the ocean, a better bilge pump and so on, but nothing that could even slightly discourage our man on a mission.
I ran into the surveyor a few days later and he asked me what the young man was going to do. I told him he was hell bent on going and was in the process of readying the boat. I spoke of my not feeling very good about the whole deal, and he said he had similar feelings, but that it wasn't up to us to make decisions for people. He said that our job was to be as honest and thorough in our work as humanly possible and let the customer make his own decisions. I said yes that was right and after all he was a very intelligent young man who could no doubt assess situations as they happened and look after himself.
Neither of us believed a damn word either of us was saying, but hearing it all made us feel a little better.
The day came for the young man to leave: he was heading for New York where he would get the rigging upgraded. I made a last ditch attempt to suggest that this whole thing may not be a good idea, and that he should at least try to find someone else with experience to go with him, but he motored away, impatient to get on with it, the same way another man would run to a cab to go to the airport to start a vacation. For some strange reason I made him promise to contact me when he arrived in Europe.
I turned on my heel and walked back to the business of surviving in my world. I put him out of my mind as much as I could. I felt I knew with certainty I would never see or hear of him again. And neither would his mother. Nevertheless I would think of him whenever there was a quiet moment. I would look at the empty chair across from my desk and I could see him sitting there, like a ghost. I could hear the youthful determination in his voice. I could see him balancing on the fine line between confidence and cockiness.
The routine grind of running a tough business caused the weeks, then months to trundle by, and the memory of the young man to start to fade.
I was standing at the reception desk one morning when the daily mail delivery thumped on the counter. Sticking out cockily from the pile of bills I saw a small odd shaped letter with unusual stamps. I picked it up and realized it was from Germany. Time stopped. People who were walking around the office froze in mid-step like they were in a corny Star Trek episode. Their mouths hung open in mid-word, but there was no sound at all and I was strangely aware of the sunlight streaming in through the window. This went on for an eternity. Well... it seemed that long. It was long enough for me to walk back to my private office and close the door.
It was a short handwritten letter from the young man himself. He described his frustration at how it had taken him much longer than anticipated to get across Lake Ontario and then to the canal. He seemed to have no accurate conception of the size of the lake, or North America for that matter because he also said it just took forever to get down the canal to New York City. And as a final indignity when he got about 100 miles out in the ocean, the wind died and he was becalmed for a week and a half! He said he got fed up as he was very much out of time for this trip, turned around and motored back to New York, sold the boat, and flew home.
Damn, not only did he get away with his skin, he didn't get any sort of kick in the teeth or so much as a slight shake of his confidence from the whole experience! He was just annoyed with himself for wasting so much time!
The feeling I had reading his letter is hard to describe, relief for sure, astonishment and even annoyance that it seems he hadn't learned a hard lesson, or any lesson at all for that matter.
I am not a religious person, at least not in the usual sense. I don't know for sure what life and death is all about, but I am sure that no one else really does either, regardless of how complicated their rituals are. But at that moment, and in spite of myself, I experienced the tired old cliché where I thought there might be a God after all. But was He intentionally looking after a naïve youth who had another destiny, or was it just that He somehow managed to hear two seconds of high voltage thought from a tired yacht broker on a promising day in May?
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