Because the bogus demands of modern living do not appeal to him, a 40-year-old San Francisco suburbanite named Warwick (Commodore) Tompkins is making long-range plans to chuck it all and go to sea. Tompkins, whose confusing nautical nickname was given him by a New York newspaperman, insists that in 10 years he and his wife Janet will have hocked their earthly goods and will be sailing on a sweet, beautiful ketch of his own design, visiting fabled places and touching shores not yet touted in the travel ads.
On both U.S. coasts there are many sailors who feel as Warwick Tompkins does. Most of them will keep on suffering from land cramps and carry their sea dream to the grave. On the surface, Tompkins seems as quixotic as all the others. He plans to have a 55-foot hull built: narrow of beam and fast, yet easily handled by two people. Since his wife Janet is in favor of it, the dream seems truly good, except that Tompkins is a man of modest means.
To cut the cost, Tompkins plans to finish off the interior of his dream hull at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. Since the 300-yard lane leading to his house between other properties is barely 10 feet wide, it is not clear how Tompkins will get such a big hull home to work on. And, since the canted parking area where he plans to do the work affords a Volkswagen barely room to turn around without clipping a neighbor's fence, it is hard to understand how Tompkins will get his boat off the property if he ever gets it on. When he is reminded of these realities, Tompkins says, "Don't worry. I'll manage it."
Of all the restless owls and pussycats who would like to live at sea, Tompkins is the one most likely to succeed. He has a leg up on all the others. He has already lived his dream once in bits and pieces and is quite capable of putting it all together again. In the art of kicking over the traces and living each day for its worth, Tompkins is a master. In the complex and demanding art of surviving, living, loving, working, competing and playing at sea, he is very, very well apprenticed. Over the years, aboard four dozen ships of various rig and quality, Tompkins has served as swabber, as bosun and chips, as rigger, deck ape, watch captain, navigator, helmsman, tactician, strategist, skipper and impromptu chaplain. Although Tompkins usually drives an automobile with about as much verve as Stirling Moss' grandmother, he has a reputation for always driving a racing sailboat to the limit of its wire and cloth and with a special bit of magic.
April 24, 1972
In the fall of 1970 Tompkins was a member of the American six-meter crew that whopped the Australians in their home waters. Last spring, in the Miami to Montego Bay race, a bomb of a hull called Improbable (conceived by Tompkins while taking a shower one night and finalized by designer Gary Mull of San Francisco) covered 811 miles in three days and 20 hours, skunking all the titans and titmice of a 33-boat fleet. It is doubtful if any racing hull as small as Improbable—43 feet overall—ever before made such a long, fast run or ever will again. Riding the high winds to Jamaica, at times Improbable was surfing down waves with her speed-indicator needle pegged at the maximum 20 knots.
In this fancy age of cold-cured plastic hulls and instant navigation, the ocean-racing fleets on both U.S. coasts are growing fast, and there is a dearth of truly able hands. With no more than a burp of interest, a man of Tompkins' ability can usually get a berth in any race. On any hull seriously racing, it is generally considered that Tompkins' presence is worth a foot of rating on a long haul in heavy weather.
It has been said that God created the world in six days but that it takes 20 years to make a sailor. On this basis Warwick Tompkins is worth two ordinary hands, for he began his sea apprenticeship 40 years ago in the days beyond his remembering. According to his father, Warwick Tompkins Sr. (who was master of the vessel as well as an accomplice in the act), Tompkins Jr. was conceived accidentally aboard an old German pilot schooner called Wander Bird. The younger Tompkins made his first two Atlantic crossings aboard this 85-footer while still in utero and made two more passages as a mewling infant. His first berth on Wander Bird was a grocery basket atop the spare sails in the bosun's locker. When he outgrew the basket, he was bedded down in a bottom bureau drawer in the master's cabin.
At the age of nine months Tompkins Jr. was making his way from the sole of the Wander Bird up the crooked companionway to the deck. As a 2-year-old he climbed the shrouds to the crosstrees of the main mast, 65 feet above deck. When Wander Bird was becalmed on summer days, the young Tompkins was allowed over the side to swim in mid-ocean. At the age of four he was cavorting aloft with the insouciance of a gibbon, climbing Wander Bird's shrouds, swinging off and riding a halyard back to the deck.
In that same year Warwick's father sailed the old schooner around Cape Horn. The elder Tompkins did not make his Horn passage west to east as many a benighted sailor has done, nor through the straits as Magellan first did. He sailed east to west around the whole ball of wax, clawing to windward along the same hard track taken by the Dutch skipper Schouten long ago. Warwick Tompkins Sr. took movies of the Horn passage, including footage of his young son swinging around in the rigging and playing out on the plunging bowsprit. Although the film was generally well received on the lecture circuit in the '30s, it met with resistance. Some previewers thought the shots of the 4-year-old kid 65 feet aloft were fake. Others who wanted the film for school audiences felt that young Tompkins' antics should not be shown to city kids who might try the same foolishness on telephone poles and kill themselves.
A few years back Dr. Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian behaviorist, became acquainted with the early history and life-style of Warwick Tompkins Jr. Dr. Lorenz opined that anyone so well imprinted on the sea as a child could not help but be happy sailing on it. Although Lorenz is the last word in such matters, Tompkins' first recollection of the sea is one of distaste. He remembers crouching belowdecks beside his older sister Ann, crying in terror as Wander Bird was staggered by a sea that carried away 30 feet of bulwark.
Whatever effect the sea had on their psyches, without question it gave the two Tompkins children an odd perspective. Copernicus to the contrary, the Tompkins kids considered Wander Bird the center of the universe. After one summer spent sailing the coasts of Europe, Ann Tompkins asked, "Daddy, when does Stockholm tie up alongside us again?" Spying a building with three tall chimneys on an island, Tompkins Jr. described it as a "three-masted house."
By the time he was nine Warwick Tompkins Jr. had traveled more than 80,000 miles on the Atlantic and Pacific. Whereas there are many mature deck apes today who get fouled up in the functional simplicity of a modern sloop or yawl, at nine Tompkins could handle the whole mess of running gear on the gaff-headed, topmast schooner: more than 40 lines necessary to raise and lower seven sails and keep them flying properly on the wind.
Warwick Tompkins Sr. maintains that the sea fever he passed to his son on Wander Bird 30-odd years ago burned originally in his own father, an engineer named Ernest Tompkins, who wanted to go to sea and never did. Ernest Tompkins used up his adult life making and perfecting knitting machinery, but in the process managed to give his son a queer sort of exposure to sea living. When his business in Troy, N.Y. required him to go to New York City, Ernest Tompkins often took Warwick with him down the Hudson River aboard the old Albany night boat. Later, when he worked in Norristown, Pa., Ernest Tompkins would spend Saturdays with his son prowling around the Philadelphia navy yard.
The Albany night boat that once plied the Hudson River was a romantic old ship but scarcely the kind that would have captured the fancy of Conrad or Melville. In its heyday the old Albany night boat was a real swinger. A large part of its passenger list consisted of adults of both sexes traveling unaccompanied by their legal spouses. As for the Philadelphia navy yard, even 60 years ago when Warwick Tompkins Sr. was a tad, the odorous stretch of the Delaware River on which it was situated was in a state of decay. Nonetheless, Warwick Tompkins Sr. claims it was the sights and rich stench of the Philly navy yard, and the bright brass, the engine throb and the plash of the bow wave of the sinful old Albany night boat that first drew him to the sea.
As soon as he was of permissible age, near the end of World War I, Tompkins Sr. joined the Navy, serving aboard the battleship Arizona, which one World War later would end up on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Thereafter he made his way here and there in the world, working sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a sailor and sometimes as both.
It was Tompkins' job for one stretch in the year 1925 to take goods up New Guinean rivers and entice natives to sail out of the bush with him to work on plantations and in industry for a minimum coolie wage. Tompkins' crewmen were fuzzy-headed Papuans, some with bones in their noses. A few of the native laborers he brought out of the bush were practicing cannibals, but his crewmen were all at least one generation removed from the habit.
The last vessel on which Warwick Tompkins Sr. served as master was his own beloved Wander Bird, which is still afloat at the age of 93 in San Francisco Bay. In the '30s and early '40s—until World War II put an end to her roaming—a large percent of the crewmen who served on Wander Bird were Harvard undergraduates whose parents paid so their sons could sail with Tompkins.
Recently, in a nostalgic moment, Warwick Tompkins Sr. regretted that as the world shrivels and its peoples lose their distinctive character, sailors such as his son have less and less to enjoy. Along the sea tracks he most often sails, it is true, Warwick Tompkins Jr. rarely has shipmates as uninhibited as the Papuans who sailed with his father. Indeed, while there are a number of gray-haired and fuzzy-headed and long-haired Harvard men now in sail, the old crew-cut, blue-blooded, solid Crimson variety is virtually extinct. Although he lives in cramped times, Tompkins Jr. manages a loose life-style. But when it comes to jumping out of ruts and rejecting meaningless rituals, the younger Tompkins is his father's peer.
Tompkins Jr. enjoys the peculiar advantage of having lived his early years backward. Most sailors grow up ashore. Before they are worth much at sea they must learn to shuck off the formalities that afflict the lives of land children. Tompkins Jr. started his sea life unencumbered. Because of the good correspondence schooling his mother gave him aboard Wander Bird, when Tompkins Jr. came ashore the academics were easy, but the whole spectrum of child life dazzled him—the candy stores, the movies and the inexhaustible soda fountains. In his first years on land the variety of ball games that children played were an embarrassment. Aboard Wander Bird he had rarely handled any kind of ball (on the rolling sea, one bad throw or bounce and it was goodby ball). In his first game of kickball in a schoolyard he was so inept he wept. After a couple of years of perseverance, he now recalls, "When I threw a baseball to second base, it usually went in that general direction."
He enjoyed many of the odd offerings of land, but never its rituals. He refused to take part in his grade school graduation. As he now remembers that tasteless affair, "There was some ridiculous performance on stage where the whole class represented seasons of the year or things that happened in the seasons. At one point in the drama we were all supposed to chant, 'Oh, Joy! and Oh, Joy! Wise young graduates are we.' At that point I balked. My teacher was offended for some reason—maybe she had written the skit. In any case I didn't care. It was a bad thing not to care, I suppose, but I didn't."
Tompkins Jr. did not attend his high school graduation because it coincided with a prior commitment he had made to crew in a sailing race. Whereas the elder Tompkins never went to sea on his own until college age, his son took off halfway through his high school freshman year to crew on a schooner traveling from the Atlantic through the Canal to San Francisco. His devotion to the sea was such that when his draft number came up, he tried to arrange it so he could sail to Hawaii in the Trans-Pacific Race of 1953, do his two years of military in the islands and sail back on a boat returning from the 1955 race. "A cute idea," he says, "except that it didn't work."
In service he might have risen to the rank of motor-pool corporal or some equally exalted rating except that in those dark years, when the shadow of McCarthy was still across the land, his salty independence was not what the Army wanted. After being sworn in verbally, at first he refused to sign a loyalty oath. The military spooks investigating his case asked him if he favored revolution. Tompkins Jr., never one to give a simple red, white and blue answer, messed up his career by replying, "The question is ambiguous. There are several ways of thinking about revolution. Our country was founded on a revolution. It was saved despite a revolution. And I personally think the industrial revolution was pretty groovy." Eventually he did sign, but with reservations.
After military service he tried to give up sailing, considering it an anachronism. He took a job in Los Angeles with the Pacific Wire Rope Company. As he worked up from apprentice to foreman at the company, his record for truancy exceeded one his father had set on the Paris Herald 30 years earlier. In little more than a year he took off from work to sail in a race to Hawaii, in another to Acapulco and in another to Tahiti. For all his talents, Pacific Wire Rope finally decided they could not afford a foreman who kept disappearing over the horizon.
Remembering the ambition that grew in him as a high-schooler, Tompkins Jr. says, "I never wanted to make a million or change the world. My goals have always been simple: to be a good sailor and be healthy and live with a beautiful woman." Considering his devotion, the skills Tompkins has refined and his good health explain themselves, but it is wondrous that the beautiful woman with whom he lives considered marrying him or any sailor. The first time Mrs. Warwick Tompkins Jr. (née Janet Mosure) went to sea she endured 26 days of prolonged horror.
At the end of a Hawaiian vacation in 1954, Janet Mosure decided to return to California in dreamy style, as paying guest on an old 74-foot schooner called Idalia. In her declining years as a sea tramp Idalia had received about as much loving care as a medieval leper. When Janet Mosure set sail on her, the refrigerator had been repossessed and the radio and generator were not working. The cook who had signed for the passage did not show up. By the fourth day out of Honolulu, Idalia's head was leaking into the bilge, and the bilge was lapping around the bottom of Janet Mosure's bunk. By the 26th day, the Idalia had made less than 400 miles easting toward the mainland, was out of food and was derelict. By luck a Navy transport wandering out of the normal sea-lanes stumbled onto her.
After surviving the Idalia, Janet Mosure went back for more. Two years later in French Polynesia she signed aboard a schooner called Viveka that had raced to Tahiti and needed a cook for the return passage. While Viveka was readying for the return, Janet Mosure met Warwick Tompkins, who had sailed on another ship in the race. Tompkins was singularly unimpressed by the slovenly crew of the rival Viveka except for Janet Mosure, the dutiful, beautiful brunette who slaved to get her craft shipshape Bristol-fashion while her male companions were gadding about ashore. Tompkins was so taken by Janet that occasionally when he rowed out to sink his ship's garbage in weighted bags in deep water beyond the reef he asked her to accompany him, and she accepted. Most shipboard romances that start in a Polynesian Paradise last about as long as a hibiscus blossom. But when a man and a woman find happiness dumping garbage together, it is true love.
In the early '60s Warwick and Janet Tompkins tried charter sailing as a way of life and gave it up within a year. The charter boat on which they served as master and mistress was a posh, steel-hulled motor ketch, Caravan, described by Janet as a "35-ton sea cow." Despite many deficiencies Caravan suited the Tompkinses well enough, but the guests who paid $1,000 a week to be hauled around the U.S. and British Virgin Islands were a disappointment. Most of them brought their worst land habits aboard. In a series of letters to San Francisco friends, Janet Tompkins wrote, among other things, "After a couple of charters we concluded that what Caravan really attracts is a species of wealthy cripple.... They adore sailing, provided you don't get them wet, the boat doesn't roll, heel or spill their drinks...."
After giving up on chartering, Warwick Tompkins Jr. made his way as a one-man sailing service. If a rich man in Bangor wanted to cruise in his own boat in the Grenadines, Tompkins would sail it south for him. In addition to delivering boats, he counseled novices, intermediates and experts on how they might get better performance out of themselves, their sails and their hulls. At present he is a sales representative and counselor in the Northern California office of North Sails. He took the job at less salary than originally offered in exchange for a flexible work schedule that allows him to sail as he likes.
As his wife points out, although Warwick Tompkins enjoys the Lewis Carroll world of sailing hypertechnology, his tastes and interests far exceed it. In an ordinary day he feels the need to talk of many things: of ships (of course), but also of shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. In this respect he is the replica of his father. Today the elder Tompkins spends much of his time in a Southern California desert retreat 75 miles from the sea—and still 30 miles beyond the tongues of smog that lick ever inland. On the bookshelves in the elder Tompkins' place in the Morongo Valley there is sea lore and also a stimulating collection of books that are 100% salt-free. Four hundred miles to the north, on the bookshelves of his son's home, there is an equally broad range of reading matter. At the end of a meal during which the talk has ranged from birds and bees to birth control, the elder Tompkins excuses himself to take the dinner scraps outside to feed the coyotes of Morongo Valley. Two nights later, 400 miles away, in the middle of a dinner where the conversation has gone from ships to optics to opera to unethical medical practices, Tompkins Jr. excuses himself for a moment to put niblets of cat food outside for the errant raccoons of Mill Valley. Thoroughly salted though they are, both Tompkinses, p√®re et fils, cherish the fact that the world still supports an extravagant variety of land creatures. Not to mention an expanse of sea where a man can go when he wants to chuck it all.