This is the full, unretouched, inside story of Rufus the Houseboat—and the movie rights are for sale. It answers at least three age-old questions: a) Can a simple, fat, unsophisticated houseboat make it in high sea society? b) Can one find true love and happiness with a semi-flat bottom? c) Really?
This is an article from the July 8, 1968 issue
The cruise began one morning not too long ago when six of us backed Rufus smartly out of a slip in Miami and took one last fond glance at the look of pure anguish on Al Wagner's face. We swung the 40-foot monster around and aimed it at those garish pink apartment houses studding Biscayne Bay. "All right now," we chorused. "Which way are those Bahamas?"
Little did we know—as they used to say in Flying Aces and Amazing Stories—little did we know that we were headed off on a trip full of high adventure, low comedy, perils and exploration out there on those lonely isles where no man has ever set foot. Well, not many men. Well, at least not us. And little did we know that we were participating in a campaign that historians will one day call the Liberation of the Houseboat.
Oh, I know. You used to see houseboats tied up alongside shanty piers in places like Lake Pokegama, Minn., and they always seemed to have somebody's wash hanging out on the line. But now, all at once, houseboats are different. Different, a whole new thing, a new incarnation, a bold generation turned loose. All at once houseboats can cross mighty oceans, ford deep rivers, swim channels, do the samba in high sea, wriggle across sandbars and poke inquisitively into hidden coves where keel boats can never hope to go. And we—the six of us—helped make it so.
Our cruise began—well, the planning for it began—more than a year ago, not long after I was assigned to cover the first Bahamas 500 ocean race. Two houseboats—real, 40-foot, high-powered houseboats, the first of this new breed—had entered the event. To get the story I had crossed the Gulf Stream aboard one of them, the one which placed first in class (the other one did not finish, but we shall not discuss that here).
Not long after the 500 I was rattling home on the Long Island Rail Road with a friend of mine named Roy, an editor.
"You know," he said, looking dreamily out at the brackish backwaters of the Sound, "you know, now that they have proved they can race these houseboats, maybe the thing to do is to find out if they can be adapted to offshore cruising. I mean to exploration and things. Something never done before. A new role. Even deep-sea fishing. Adventure. Say out there in...."
It was cold outside. "The Bahamas," I said.
"The southern Bahamas," Roy said. "They're warmer. You see, you could do a story on it. That is, if you made it back...." He looked out the window again and waited for me to rise to the bait.
Now Roy is not only an editor but a boater and a fisherman. You get him around boats and he automatically goes into this sort of neat, seafaring squint. He has spent a lot of time on large boats and he has a small one of his own in Port Washington, and whenever he sees a flock of birds dipping down over the waters of Manhasset Bay he will mutter, "Bluefish!" and jump into his boat and take off after them. Roy also used to be a Marine Corps pilot, which I hold in awe, because people who fly planes can usually find things. Like where they are going.
"Look," I said, "I've got it! We could do it. If you came along we could make it, see? You know how to navigate. We could get charts and things. Compasses. You know, all that stuff. And you could chart...uhh, courses, see, and we'd know where we were. Which would be a great help."
Roy agreed it would be a help.
We have a mutual friend, Art, who is also an editor—silver-haired, suave, handsome, well-groomed and low-key. All of which is a front. Beneath it all he is a savage, unrelenting angler, a stalker of the wily bonefish and dolphin and marlin, a man whose piercing glance can penetrate the seas. In short, a man able to guarantee that we would eat on the trip.
"I'll ask Art if he can go along," I said.
"Just mention fish," suggested Roy.
And that was how, almost a year later, Art and I stood on a pier in Miami ready to board this houseboat. Already aboard were about 1,000 yards of nylon line, two anchors, several cartons of food, one jar of martini olives, two copies of Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas, four sacks of charcoal, stacks of charts, an inflatable life raft, suntan lotion, one billy club, sunburn cream, five floating flashlights (we lost our heads), a first-aid kit, plastic dishes, a complete set of matched pickles, cigarettes, citronella candles, lucky fishing shirts, sneakers, two ice chests, one sea anchor, bug bombs, a flare pistol, about 84 pairs of dark glasses, gin, Scotch, Chianti, beer, money, one bottle of very dry vermouth and three wives. They were: Charlyne (Roy's), Peggy (Art's) and Joyce (mine).
"Now, then. We'll need a little fishing gear," Art said. "I know a place."
And he marched into this serve-your-self, one-stop fishermen's headquarters, where the clerks all fell silent and respectful at the sight of him. They formed a line and marched behind him, pulling things off shelves as he directed. He came back to the boat with a solid-gold telescope-handled fishnet, a long gaff with a savage hook big enough to seize a water buffalo and the biggest tackle box I had ever seen.
"Look at this," he said as he opened the lid and pulled it back. Three glowing white shelves rose silently up out of the interior, an explosion of hooks and line and leader wire, sinkers, plugs, jigs; fluffy little yellow-and-red things, things made of chromium and platinum and precious jewels of the Orient—and with hooks hidden inside them. Things with jade-striped bodies and tiny glass eyes; lures, little fake hand-painted minnows with "Eat Me" on their tails.
"I spent $250," Art said happily. "But then I'm not quite through. We've got to get some rigged bait, some ice chests and some shrimp and...."
"Just a minute," I said.
I went ashore and called Roy, who was then still in New York City tending to magazine business. They called him out of a meeting. "Art has just bought a few pieces of tackle," I said.
"I understand," he said. "I'll bring some more money when I come down."
The boat was beautiful. Big, fat, built like the chairman of the Ladies' Literary Guild, and beautiful. She was 40 feet of gleaming fiber glass, 12 feet wide, with a vee-hull in front that gradually blended back into a flat bottom. With outdrives down she drew three feet. With her props tilted you could run her across a wet lawn.
There was a little porch up front and just behind it a wheelhouse where cushioned benches converted to sleep two. Three steps down from that there was a center compartment complete with dinette set to seat four and a convertible lounge. Behind that a minigalley, with stove, sink, refrigerator. Then there was a tiny head, with shower and hand-pump toilet.
Toward the stern was the living room, with comfortable couches flanking either side. There were two steps up to a sliding glass door that led out to the back patio—a five-foot area that will hereinafter be referred to as the engine hatches. It was a high-speed home, all done in tasteful earth tones and burnt oranges—with a whole rooftop suitable for anything short of Democratic conventions.
In setting up the trip I had got in touch with Bob Rodman and Dick Genth, Chairman of the Board and President of Thunderbird Products Corp., the outfit that makes Drift-R-Cruz houseboats in addition to the cathedral-hull Thunderbirds and vee-hull Formulas—a progressive company that was the first to prove that houseboats can, indeed, go ocean racing.
Rodman and Genth agreed it was about time to expand the role of the houseboat, to prove that it was adaptable to cruising and to exploring. That it could, yessir, fit in out there among the sport-fishermen and motor yachts. And as the project took shape the ideas got a little wilder.
"We'll put a fighting chair on it," Roy said. "I mean a real one, just like on the sport-fishermen. And...."
"And outriggers!" said Art, his eyes glittering behind his glasses.
"Big tackle. You know: 80-pound stuff...."
"Oh, man, we'll catch so many fish out there you wouldn't believe it. We'll eat fish every meal. And...."
"And we'll name it the Rufus Parnelli Houseboat," I said.
They fell silent and looked at me.
"The what?" said Art.
"The...uhh, the Rufus Parnelli Houseboat," I said. "Golly, fellas, what a great idea, right? How about that, you guys? You know, we'll name it the Rufus...."
"I heard you," said Roy.
"...Parnelli, see, after the greatest Indy racing driver of all time, Rufus Parnelli Jones, who happens to be a friend of mine and...."
"Great. Jones will just love that," said Roy. "Real class tribute, having a houseboat named after you."
"Well, it's my story," I said.
By the time word got out that a band of maniacs was going to Further Liberate the Houseboat, several people had got caught up in the fever of the thing. The Tycoon Fin-Nor tackle company supplied two big 80-pound rigs, the better to catch monster fish. Sportsmen's Industries installed a $900 fighting chair right out of the American Psychedelic Journal. It was gigantic, fat, covered in white unborn Naugahyde with thick, padded armrests, and it glistened with bursts of chrome. There was a swing-out holder at one arm to put a tall, cold glass of something in while fishing and an enormous, wide footrest. There was a handle to make it swing around or lock in place. Art and I climbed up the ladder to the roof and stood looking at it in wonder.
I sat down in it, tentatively. It gave a soft whoosh and I sank into it.
"Nice, huh?" said Art.
I leaned back farther and braced my feet against the footrest. "I'm so glad you're finally here, Doctor," I said. "I've got this wisdom tooth back here that hurts, and I think there are some cavities here, too, that need filling." There were two big containers on either side, down low. "And I love the little bitty sinks," I said.
"They're for the big rigs," Art said patiently. "Rod holders. The rods go in these, see, and you sit there with all the gear hooked up to the outriggers and you're trolling out in the ocean and you sit there and watch that bait skipping along..." His voice grew tense. "...and all of a sudden you see this big billfish swoop up out of the depths and SLAM! It hits the bait and the line starts to go out, see, and it makes this wonderful, high zinging sound and you grab the rod and...."
"Art," I said, "put me down, you're hurting me."
Thunderbird also had provided another toy: a nine-foot Glasshopper—a dinghy made of glass, the better to see the bottom with while tooling through those stark, clear waters. It was mounted upside down on the roof, lashed down to chocks, so it could double as a bench.
To make the whole thing go, Kiekhaefer Corp. had installed two of its new 250-hp Mercruiser stern drives—enough power to make the Rufus stand up and sing Swanee. It sounded like a lot of power; but according to Al Wagner, a lean, intense gentleman who is Kiekhaefer's man in Miami, it was just right. Wagner and crew had put the engines in and then conducted a quick class there on the engine hatches. The Mercruisers were shining black monsters, all hunched over down in the engine compartments, driving counterrotating props that looked like they might fly a B-29. Al had brought along a couple of boxes of extra propellers. "You'll be all right," he said, not sounding convinced. "But everybody who goes down there bungs up a prop. Coral heads and rocks and things."
We all looked at each other and nodded. Then Wagner hung a 10-horse outboard on a stern bracket to propel the dinghy.
The morning we poked the Rufus out through Baker's Haulover it was sparkling bright, and the wind that had been howling across Miami for several days had disappeared. Even Al resigned his Mercs to their fate. "I guess it's never going to get any better than this," he said. "You might as well go."
So we sailed at 8:55 a.m., full of gas and breakfast, and pointed Rufus on a heading of 110°. We were off for Cat Cay.
Roy stood at the helm, jutted out his chin, and purposefully flicked down the Polaroid snap-ons that clipped over his regular glasses. The rest of us got on to those dreary, workaday chores known to all blue-water sailors: Art and I opened cold cans of beer from the refrigerator, Joyce got out the banjo-uke and we all sang a few choruses of Won't You Come Home, Bill Houseboat. And the adventure was under way.
We had all agreed on a Grand Circle Tour of the Southern Bahama Out Islands, avoiding—until we were heading homeward, anyway—that gaudy Steel Pier of the Atlantic: Nassau. We were aiming first for Cat Cay, to check in with British customs and add gas, then out across the Great Bahama Banks for Chub Cay, our first overnight stop. Then we planned to push the Rufus several times back and forth across that capricious region known as Tongue of the Ocean, where the Atlantic runs deep in among the islands. We would hit the Joulter Cays and old Andros Town at Fresh Creek, then aim off on a long, lonely run across the Tongue and Great Bahama Bank to the northernmost tip of the Exumas. The best-traveled route lay around to the north of New Providence Island and Nassau, but we had agreed that the best way to test the houseboat and our own navigation would be on a dash directly across, with nobody in sight for miles.
After cruising down the Exumas in what we hoped would be leisurely fashion, we would cross Exuma Sound to explore Eleuthera and from there curl back toward home. It was a two-week trip that would cover some 800 miles before we saw Dick Genth and Al Wagner again.
The Gulf Stream was mild, and Rufus surfed along, roaring happily in bright sunshine and water that turned from pale green to blue-black. Roy had it throttled at normal cruise—3,200 to 3,600 rpm—which kicked the big thing along at about 20 knots. We passed a couple of glossy cruisers that were chugging along at a...well, an old-fashioned houseboat pace.
We learned our first lesson fast. The side of a houseboat is a lot like the side of your Aunt Clarissa's barn, and any sort of wind pushing against the flat surfaces will cause the boat to go step-step-sliiide. We pulled into Cat Cay in a hot, gentle crosswind. The harbor was all tawny sand and lush green waters. There were old docks, all blown rickety by a storm, leaning there in the sun. We whooshed up to them, but the wind caught the side of the boat and Rufus went WHOMP! We clipped one stanchion, then another, rattling that old dock until we had succeeded in moving the entire island about 4° off its base. Roy was backing and pulling on the engines and yelling at all of us: "Put a line around there! No, hold it! Damn it, back off on that line. Here. Hold her bow in, for Pete's sake, hold her bow in!" We finally lashed it down with about 36 lines so it couldn't possibly get away, and all got off, somewhat shaken. I regained my dignity at Customs and Immigration.
"Houseboat, hmmm?" said J. L. Saunders, Her Majesty's agent. "We don't get many of them in here. What is she, a pleasure boat?"
I squared my shoulders. "She is a pleasure-boat-slash-sport-fisherman-slash-houseboat," I said.
He looked out the window at it, doubtfully. "Who is the captain?"
"I am, naturally." Saunders looked up over his glasses at me. Then he shrugged and continued filling out the form. I listed Roy as the mate, Art as the cook and the girls as the crew. Then, my entry papers stamped, I strolled with a studied rolling gait back down to the dock, where they were all standing around the gas pump.
"O.K., my hearties," I said. "You may strike the quarantine flag, and let's get my boat out of here. And you might tell the bo'sun to pipe up a tot of rum for all hands."
More sure of our seamanship now, we wheeled away unscathed and charged off across Elbow Bank. Now everybody took a turn at the helm as we headed out across that sparkling, azure water, flying fish skittering along in front of us, sending off little sparkles of spray like diamonds in the sun. It is a long run, through a world of intense light, un-filtered by smog, with a clear circle of horizon all around. By now we were down to our dress uniforms; I was wearing a pair of faded chino shorts and my St. Christopher medal, and the others were all pulling off clothes as we neared Chub Cay.
"There's the Northwest Channel Light," said Art, turning from the wheel. Roy looked up from his charts.
"Naturally," he said. But we all looked proudly at each other as if we had just charted our way to the New World.
By 5 p.m. we were tied up at the Crown Colony Club. It has concrete, houseboat-proof docks—which is a shame, since we swept in smartly like old salts and eased it up gently, while on shore people cheered wildly and threw their hats into the air. As a reward there were fine, biting martinis-on-the-rocks for all hands. Then, with dinner the girls produced two bottles of champagne that they had chilled, along with the rigged balao and mullet, in the bait box. We toasted the Bahamas and went to bed.
The Great Attack on the Fish began next morning. Art stepped out from behind his privacy curtain wearing his blue-and-white-striped Cap'n Billy Budd shirt, which is extremely salty; a hideously battered straw planter's hat tied under his chin with a piece of string, shorts, messy sneakers, dark glasses and lips thickly pomaded with zinc oxide.
"Art, I just don't know how you do it," I said. "You're so smooth; you always manage to look as though you had just stepped out of a train crash."
"All right, now," Roy said. "We're going to troll in the Tongue of the Ocean, just off the reefs on the way down to Andros Island, where the ocean suddenly plunges from two to 900 fathoms. That's where the big fish lie waiting." We set out the baits and I took the helm. Which was a mistake.
There were four lines out behind the Rufus: two big rigs trailing balao and mullet from the outriggers; two 30-pound outfits trailing feathers from the rod holders. We also had a "teaser." This is a plumed device all done in yellow-and-white streamers, which drags along behind the boat and does a dance that would get it thrown out of town in Kansas City. It is calculated to rouse the passions in fish the instant they see it.
The Tongue was reasonably quiet, with a slight roll and chop, washed all bright in Bahamian sunlight. The girls did the breakfast dishes and stationed themselves all over the rooftop, dripping puddles of suntan lotion and telling each other, brightly, how they were going to cook all the fish we were about to catch for dinner.
Then, suddenly: "We got one!" Roy yelled. One of the smaller rigs was bending crazily, its line running out. What happened next was a bit confusing.
"Bring in all the other lines," Roy shouted, heaving back on the 30-pound unit, and everyone began scrambling across the roof in all directions like a riot practice. There was yelling: "Dammit, bring in those other lines or we'll get all tangled. Bring in the teaser. Bob! Cut the engines, Bob. Now to starboard. To STARBOARD, dammit. No, no. Straighten it out. There. Now come back on the throttles. Somebody got a camera? You, get out of the way. Don't anybody fall overboard." And then: "There he is. Look!"
Suddenly we all fell silent, frozen, as the fish slashed up out of the water, its body arched high in the sunlight. It thrashed violently and threw off a spray of jeweled water.
"Wow!" everybody breathed, and began scrambling around again. Art seized the gaff, tugged the champagne cork off the tip of it and stood poised, looking like the striped menace. I finally got around to cutting the throttles back, and Roy brought the fish around between the outdrives. It was a huge dolphin, looking teal blue and iridescent green in that deep blue water. It looked to me like it might weigh 25,000 pounds easy.
Art hit it a strong whap with the gaff, planted his feet and tensed the muscles along his back all the way down to his ankles. Then he gave a mighty heave and threw the dolphin up on the engine hatches.
This was tricky stuff, since here was a large, wet fish flopping madly in the midst of about 36 people crowded atop the hatches, running aimlessly, snapping pictures, yelling, sliding. And thus we learned Houseboat Lesson No. 2.
In the confusion, trying to find room in which to work, Roy and Art turned away from the dolphin for a split second. The fish noticed this (he did not get so big by being dumb). He gave one last, insolent flip, shook loose from the gaff—and did a half gainer back into the water. He took one of the small fishing rods with him and disappeared, cursing foully.
Everyone stood fixed into position like a tableau of sculpted tragedy, finally, gradually, coming back to life with little sad, jerky movements. Nobody spoke; we avoided one another's eyes.
"There goes dinner," one of the girls murmured.
"Well," said Roy, squaring his shoulders, "now we know what not to do. Come on, cheer up, everybody. We've got to get more organized and calm down. And don't worry about dinner. There are so many fish out there you wouldn't believe it. Now, then. Back to the attack."
Next time we were ready.
Charlyne was stationed in the chair, in her flowered Bonwit Teller fishing shorts, watching the baits, when the next dolphin grabbed one and ran roughly in the direction of Barcelona. But this time we were a management study in time and motion. I cut back the throttles to neutral; everybody brought the lines in smartly to give Charlyne room. Art pulled the cork off the gaff again and stood by, scowling fiercely.
And Charlyne brought the thing alongside.
Art gaffed it, then looked briefly up at Roy, standing on the roof. "Now what?" he said.
"Throw the sonofabitch into the living room!" Roy roared.
Joyce slid open the glass back door and Art heaved the fish with one smooth flow of motion into the living room, plop, between the two couches. Snarling, he grabbed the billy club and leaped in after it, and Joyce slid the door shut behind him. We all looked through the window as Art fell upon the fish, kneeing it in the groin and hitting it with the club. It was a big dolphin, about half Art's size, and the fight could have gone either way in the early rounds. But Art finally straightened up, looked out at us and nodded solemnly.
We all dined handsomely that night on dolphin—beautifully fried—with a festive red-checked tablecloth and gay citronella candles flickering, plus a good bottle of crisp white wine, which the girls also had hidden in the bait box.
Afterward there was black coffee and brandy and good cigars, topped off by the full, rich taste of Scotch on the rocks. Finally we took our drinks and moved up to the Starlight Roof, The Top of the Rufus, to sing the old songs.
We were anchored in a tidal stream alongside the southernmost cay in the Joulters, alone in the Bahamas, and the sound of six-part harmony drifted out over those empty silver beaches washed in moonlight. It had been a day of tragedy and high triumph, and we all finally climbed down the ladder to our beds, feeling like it must be early morning. Actually it was 10:30 p.m.
As I drifted off to sleep I could hear all around me the soft sounds of the semitropics: the gentle water lapping against the hull, the hot, soft wind rippling the curtains, the lyric, trilling night songs of the birds onshore and, from behind his curtain, Art lying in bed singing happily, "Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the mooorning...."
A few hours later I could hear the padding of bare feet all around the boat, and I half sat up, expecting we were being boarded by Yangtze River pirates. Art stuck his head around the curtain, said, "Ssst!" with those dead-white lips, and then: "You wanna go bonefishing?"
"I don't need any bones," I said.
"Bonefish," he hissed. "C'mon."
I put on my fishing costume—my pajama tops—and the three of us tiptoed into the glass dinghy, quietly sliding away across the flats in the eerie light. The water was like polished velvet, all ominously still, with huge, shadowy swimming things lurking in it. I could see them through the bottom of the boat. It was like the River Styx, and when Roy killed the outboard engine we drifted ahead silently, darkly. We were suddenly alone in a vast sea that was only about a foot and a half deep. It unnerved me.
"Do you think we ought to muffle the oars?" I said, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice.
"Shhh!" Roy said. "You'll spook 'em."
At first I thought they were kidding. But, no. I promise you, in bonefishing the trick is to get out of the warm security of your dinghy and walk across those fiats, casting off ahead to where the silvery bonefish feed on the incoming tide. Art and Roy plunged right away, half crouched as though the bonefish were going to hear their squishy footfalls. I got out and staggered near the dinghy, wading uncertainly and looking down into the water. Then, to my right, a mauve shark came swimming up and frowned sideways at me.
"Roy!" I said, shattering the stillness. "Roy, for Crissakes, there is a shark here looking at me." I kept watching the shark with my suddenly widening peripheral vision.
"Shhh!" Roy hissed, impatient. "Is he big enough to eat you?"
"I don't know. Just a minute, I'll check." I looked closely at the shark, trying to get a mental picture of myself inside him. "No, I don't think so," I said.
"Well, jeez, then," Roy said, "all he can do is nibble you to death. Come on."
I do not like bonefishing. I do not like it at all, thank you just the same. I mean, dedication is one thing, shark nibbles are another. But that afternoon those two fishing maniacs got up another expedition, and it got even worse for Charlyne and Peggy.
They were lurching across the flats, wading far away from the comfort of the dinghy, when another shark swam up to sniff at Charlyne's ankles.
"Roy!" she screeched, jabbing at it with her rod. "A shark."
Roy waded over. "Another little one," he said disgustedly. He jabbed the shark in the nose with the tip of his fishing rod and the shark swam away. Peggy, in the meantime, was having trouble with a different species. "What's that?" she yelped and began to climb Art like a fire escape.
Art investigated. "It's just a little ray," he said. "A little bitty ray. Never hurt you. Now come on down off my head and let me fish in peace."
They finally caught a couple of bonefish but let them go, proving, I guess, whatever it is that bonefishermen are trying to prove.
Through the sunlit days that followed, the Rufus cruised on, down to old Andros Town, where we spent a night ashore at the posh Lighthouse Club, then bravely back out across the Tongue of the Ocean again, finally swinging over to the Exumas.
They were golden days of lazing in the sun, swimming, fishing, eating, exploring in the dinghy, lying on the roof of the Rufus and thinking of nothing at all. At Highburn Cay we snorkeled off a beautiful little beach that produced a collector's horde of seashells. We fished the reefs offshore, feeding the crafty grouper from our dwindling supply of frozen shrimp. Grouper, as everyone knows, will take your bait and then step under a rock with it, eat the bait and saw off the line and send it back for a refill. Nobody ever catches grouper. We discovered, looking down through the dinghy, that instead of grouper, several tiny brightly colored fish were gathered around. They worked on our bait committee-style. Two or three of them would hold the line while another one delicately ate the shrimp, neatly avoiding the hook, fastidiously wiping his mouth now and then with the back of his fin.
At Norman Cay we sailed through sudden clear water the color of bright lime Jell-o, looking down at giant coral heads beneath us, like exposed brains there several fathoms down. By now, eight days out of Florida, the crew of the Rufus had all become, mysteriously, sailors. Roy, Art and I were all gray-bearded and burned the color of discarded cowboy saddles; the girls came in shades of tawny pink. Everyone could now handle the boat. In the Exumas we nosed Rufus into shallows, through unexplored coves and brilliant, clear-green hideaways—while other boats were relegated to the outside. Now, confidently, we swarmed over the houseboat, standing on the roof to search the water ahead, shouting directions to the helmsman, all sudden experts at finding channels through reefs by reading the changing colors of the bottom.
And it was then, poking far down the island chain, wandering in through the reefs in the slanting sunlight, looking for landmarks, that we found The Place.
Now, do not spread this around. But the World's Last Outpost of Pure Peace is Compass Cay in the Exumas. It sits quietly, battered by oldtime storms, its docks all wind-scrubbed to pale gray and leaning crazily at all angles. Its harbor needs dredging—deep-draft boats beware—and the approach, skirting right along the shore through a rocky alley, is tricky. It lies beautifully deserted except for Mrs. Hester Crawford, who runs the place alone with three sad-eyed, well-mannered dogs.
Compass Cay is a tropical paradise surrounded by water that comes up in a marvelous, wet crazy quilt of green and delicately tinted blues; there is a hump of coral rocks and tangled undergrowth and a path leading up to an abandoned club. Along the way there are a couple of dead jeeps, rusted into place as guardians. And across the island, on the ocean side, lies mile upon mile of scrubbed white beach, sand like talcum powder in the sun.
Overcome by the place, we tied the Rufus to the battered docks—no, we tied the docks to the Rufus, actually—and went ashore. We fed handfuls of shrimp to the dogs and decided to call them Patty, Maxine and La Verne. Except that La Verne later turned out to be Harry. No matter. We swam and luxuriated. I was even ready to go bonefishing again, and we pointed the dinghy up a narrow, twisting creek full of conch, starfish, sea urchins. And there they were.
We had stumbled, by accident, on the secret Atlantic Ocean Bonefish Parade and Assembly Grounds; they were suddenly all around us, dark flashes cutting through the shallow water, with an occasional silver tail knifing a wake along the edge as they dipped to feed.
"Wow," Roy breathed, unleashing his tackle, "so this is where they all live." Yet each time we cast anywhere near them the fish would jump, spooked, and skitter off into the mangroves on each side of us. Finally I stood up and looked through the tangle. There, on the other side, I could see a still, open pond.
"They all snuck over there," I said.
Art spotted a small opening, a leafy aisle through the trees. "Through here," he hissed, and determinedly flicked down his Polaroids. We nosed the dinghy into the opening and went in a few feet.
In seconds the mangrove jungle closed in, thickly, greenly, and the snarled, twisted roots of the trees laced themselves around the boat. Art looked back at us, slit-eyed. "We'll have to pull it through," he whispered.
"Why are we whispering?" I said.
"Shhh!" they explained. And Art carefully put down his rod and climbed out of the dinghy.
First thing, he stepped into an oozy, Cro-Magnon hole and began to stagger. Sideways, arms flailing helplessly, he staggered, lurching from hole to hole, splashing, reaching out to grasp at the tree roots to keep himself up. Roy and I looked at him—in that faded striped shirt, that floppy straw hat and whiskers, with that wild look in his eyes.
"Escape from Devil's Island," Roy muttered.
Art stopped and looked back at us. "Hurry, you guys," he said. "I can hear those bloodhounds now."
So I climbed out and began tugging at the dinghy, floundering through the water while Roy sat in the boat like Katharine Hepburn, shuddering delicately and urging me on. "C'mon, Bogey," he hissed. "Pull it through, man!"
And, sure enough, the bonefish were in the pond waiting for us. Thousands of them. Parading, pirouetting, dancing the boogaloo. And just as we were about to catch them, every single one of them, there was a great splashing and churning of water behind us. The bonefish flashed away in panic, and the three of us looked up. "Hippopotami?" said Art, his eyes opening in wonder.
Roy threw his favorite spinning rod and reel and eight-pound-test line and pink wiggle jig into the sunset. "No," he said. "Look."
And there were Patty, Maxine and Harry, belly-deep in the water, tails wagging wetly, barking hello in three-part harmony. They did a few choruses of "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me" and a few splashy dance steps, until there weren't any fish left anywhere on that side of the world.
We cruised on down to Staniel Cay, backing Rufus' cumbersome 40 feet into a narrow berth against a crosswind as if we had been doing it all our lives, so seasoned by sun, by salt and adventure that we no longer paid any attention to the reactions of the fancy people on the towering sloops and gleaming cabin cruisers. At the bar that night we were in a den of yachtsmen. They were all clean and crisp, and their women were in Balenciaga summer frocks. The men wore turtlenecks, tailored shorts with wide leather belts and real, solid-brass buckles. Everyone wore sandals, and occasionally in the candlelight there was the flash of jeweled rings and fingernail polish on the women.
We were in our Rufus uniforms: shorts, all wrinkled; saltwater-washed shirts; sneakers stained with barracuda blood. At the bar one of the men leaned over and explained to the others: "Those are the houseboat people." We loved it. Imagine. Houseboat people. It has a ring to it.
You have seen sailboats towing their dinghies, of course. Well, we towed ours just like real island hoppers—until one day it gurgled and almost went under. So we lashed it back on the roof, holding it down with rubber shock cord. And that night, while Joyce was plunking out tunes on the banjo-uke, I began absently plucking on the shock cords. The dinghy gave off majestic, thanking sounds like a bass fiddle. I played it the rest of the trip—the new sensation of the tropics, the world's only gut dinghy player.
We churned on, across Exuma Sound to Eleuthera Island. Ah, magic Eleuthera—it sounds like part of the intestinal tract; in fact, it looked a little like that on the map. We refueled at Davis Harbor and trolled again off Bamboo Point—"That's where the big ones really are," Art promised—and Roy promptly hooked a huge something.
"It doesn't feel right," said Roy as the line whistled off the reel. "It's not a marlin." But Art got out the gaff and leaned over the side. Slowly the line came in, bringing with it a monstrous shark, obviously madder than hell about the whole thing.
"So how do you cook shark?" said Joyce. I had a mental picture of Art fighting this one like Johnny Weissmuller. But he leaned over and cut the line.
We spent the night at anchor in Governors Harbor, which reminded us of a small Mediterranean port, and next morning roared north to Current Cut, sliding through that often-treacherous channel on a favorable tide. We dropped in on Spanish Wells, where we did our laundry ashore and bicycled through town, nodding solemnly to the solemn people. We slid around the northern tip of Eleuthera, past Devil's Backbone to Harbour Island, where tourism is the main occupation and there isn't a solemn face to be found. And finally we turned back west, toward Nassau.
All cruising yachtsmen hit Nassau; you don't hit Nassau and you're out of the club. But we were houseboaters—Out Island houseboaters. We pulled into Hurricane Hole, cooked pork chops on the dock and did not even bother to do the town.
Next day I caught the last—and the smallest—dolphin. Roy gaffed it and tossed it into the living room, where Art gave it a few halfhearted whaps with the billy. The voyage of the Rufus was coming to an end.
On the morning of our last day, as we prepared to leave Bimini, the weather turned. A snappy wind met us as we sleepily poked our heads outside, and over the radio we could hear the Miami marine operator saying scratchily that the seas would be from three to five feet—which the Rufus could handle—but that the wind was going to change from south to northeast by midafternoon. We knew that northerlies can be bad news in the Gulf Stream. We looked at each other and nodded soberly.
"We had better run for Miami now," said Roy, "or we're liable to be holed up here for a week."
Lashed down, buttoned up, the windows locked shut against the sea, we nosed the Rufus out through the Bimini Channel. Ahead of us the sea tossed irritably, waiting. It was suddenly punctuated with deep hollows, troughs, cross-chops. The houseboat began to wobble steeply from side to side. About 15 minutes out we took a few big seas over the forward hatch. Staggering into a huddle, we took a vote.
I searched around all through my stomach until I finally found my voice hiding down there. "I think we oughta go back," I said. "It's going to get worse out in the middle of the Gulf Stream."
"It'll get better out there," Art promised. "I think we ought to go on."
I couldn't get up enough delegates to win the election, so we lurched on, jouncing. And Art was right, of course: it got better in the middle of the Stream. Once, along the way, a Navy plane flew by on routine patrol, then did an aerial double take, switched back and flew low over us again, taking a closer look at the houseboat joggling all alone out there. Eventually, Miami, its hotel fronts poking up over the horizon, came up right on schedule. We swept under the Baker Haulover bridge at flank speed, welcomed ourselves home with two blasts on the horn and slid smartly into our berth. Experts. Veterans. Voyagers.
Al Wagner, his brow still plowed with furrows of worry, came around and looked at his beloved Mercruisers.
"All right?" he asked.
"Fine," we said. "Beautiful. Same props and everything."
Thunderbird's Genth came down to the deck and looked at the boat. "All right?" he said. "Fine," we said. "Very same hull we started out with and all."
Genth looked at the boat some more and then at us. "Well," he sighed, "you people have proved something, I hope."
"Yeah," we said, blushing prettily.
And that established, our role in history at last secure, we went back to New York City, back to the aluminum-and-glass canyons. And last night I was rattling home on the Long Island Rail Road with Roy, sitting there in our tasteful three-button sack suits, button-down collars, rep-stripe ties, clean fingernails and executive-length socks.
Roy looked dreamily out the window at the brackish waters of the Sound.
"You know," he mused, "now that it has been proved that a houseboat can do all these things, see..."
I tensed. "Now what?" I said.
"...maybe you ought to do a story on how these three New York families isolate themselves from civilization, see, and spend a summer—maybe living on bonefish—like Robinson Crusoes, on Compass Cay...."
I loosened my tie and unbuttoned my collar. My feet suddenly felt imprisoned inside my shoes. Compass Cay. White-sand beaches. Those azure waters. Warm breezes and hot sun. The mangroves and bonefish parade grounds. Moon-washed nights and the heady smell of tropic flowers. Patty, Maxine and Harry.
"I'll call Art first thing in the morning," I said.
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