Earlier this week one of my dearest friends passed away, or as Tennyson wrote, “cross’d the bar.” Len Kirkham was among the last of his kind, a sailor and builder of wooden ships during the final years of that era. The first time he sailed alone around the world, he took along only a world atlas and his sextant as a guides. It happened that he knew his way around the sea well enough to have navigated for his Prime Minister and to have earned a few national sailing titles of his own. He also served as navigator in the Whitbread Round the World race during 1973-74. Far from being one dimensional, he earned an MBA from the London School of Economics and two other masters degrees in hydrodynamics and history. His obituary, although short, gives one a hint of his remarkable life.
Several years ago I put down on paper my own story of discovering Len and how we came to be friends. I’d like to share it with you.
Midlife crises come in as many forms as there are persons to have them. Mine came right on time, at the age of fifty, and through it, I met someone who became one of the most memorable figures of my life. Having lived through the end of one career and the start of another, a divorce, remarriage and then a successful battle with my son’s cancer, I felt I was due my own selfish moment, which I went about in my own unique way.
During a long sojourn in Seattle for my son’s bone marrow transplant, I grew enamored with wooden sailboats through its Wooden Boat Center, where I would sail in the afternoons after completing my day’s work. The movement of a wooden boat through water while under sail is as natural and organic a motion as the wind through silver maples on a summer day. The boat can turn leaves of water into shiny spray as it glides effortlessly along. I wanted that experience for my own, and so, set about to find my own wooden sailboat.
After a time, I found the perfect boat, a thirty-foot wooden yacht, exactly my age, which I bought, sight unseen, and had shipped from New England to Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta, Georgia. Although its paint was cracked and peeling with age, it had beautiful lines. She had been drawn by the hand of one of the great boat designers and built with the heritage of classic Northeastern yachts. I knew on first Internet sighting that it was to be my red, convertible, two-seater sports car. Designed by William Roue of Bluenose fame and built at the yard of Smith and Rhuland in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in its heyday, she rode low in the water on her narrow lines with sweeping overhangs, bow and stern. She spared little room for cabin comforts and preserved her sleek body to slice through the welcoming waters that awaited her, or so I thought.
When “Amity” arrived on its flat-bed tractor trailer, I had her Sitka spruce mast set and then my yacht was slowly cradled into the water, where she unhesitatingly proceeded to sink. As I stood on her bow wondering “What have I done?” I noticed that the deck seemed to sag beneath my feet. I stooped to examine and noticed that the forestay – the wire that keeps the mast from falling on the captain – had peeled the deck up from the hull. Panic began to set in and I had the boat lifted back onto land. I knew then that I needed help. Instead of seeking out a therapist, I began the seemingly impossible task of finding someone in the rural South who knew the fine art of rebuilding wooden sailboats.
Sailors are not that different from those who prefer solid ground and can thus be alternately helpful and cruel. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up the phone and called the one person I was told who could help me. I had been warned that this character was difficult, but all agreed that he was my only choice.
“Ello, Mate”, he replied when I introduced myself by phone, “Yes, I’ve heard about you. You’re the bloke who bought that shipwreck and it brought down here.” After I asked for his help, he replied, “Well now, not so fast, we need to sit down and discuss this before I can say whether I can help you.” It seems that I was the one to be interviewed for this job.
Several days later, I drove down a gravel road and up to a large tin shed surrounded by old boats in various states of disrepair. “This is not a good sign,” I thought with anxiety. I opened the door to the “office” and was greeted by a cloud of Marlboro smoke, followed by a Springer Spaniel. I shook hands and sat down across a dusty desk covered with bits of boats. “So, I have to ask,” he began, punctuating his point by putting out his cigarette butt, “What in the hell were you thinking?” I then proceeded to suffer through the toughest interrogation of my life.
Looking me over with his long peppered mane and longer graying beard, he took a deep draw from his next Marlboro. I began to wonder what I had been thinking in seeking him out. We negotiated for a time, not over money, but over the quality of what was to become my resurrected boat. In the several hours of questioning, I happened to ask how he got into wooden boat building. It was then that the stories began to unfold.
Over the course of several years, he and his crew restored what turned from rotting timber to a new boat named “Spirit”, I sat for many hours across that desk and learned a great deal about his character. He was born in working-class England, taught himself to sail, raced for the Prime Minister, studied at the London School of Economics, became an investment banker, built a boat by hand and then sailed it home around Africa. He took it once around the world, stopping from time-to-time to do work for Lloyds of London. On the way home, while in the South Atlantic, he decided to go around once again. He was captured once by rebels as a hostage, and eventually slowed down enough to find his way to Texas, where he set up a shipyard.
In time, he married a genuine rocket scientist, who programmed and ran the space shuttle’s simulator. She was so good that they called her back to NASA to choreograph the shuttle’s mission to repair the Hubble telescope. They ended up in Buford, Georgia, after a few more adventures, where he set up shop as a shipwright. There he builds and rebuilds boats for owners who shared his vision for doing a job right, whatever the time required and with minimal regard for cost. We shared many hours in that office, as I listened to stories about his life and travels, after which he would tell me how the boat repairs were going. I have to confess that I enjoyed those times so much that I let the work linger on for what became several years, because I didn’t want to lose the excuse for listening to more adventures.
Spirit required a few replaced ribs and a great many hull planks from the garboards to the waterline. In good time, she found a home back North, where she sails proudly in her grand tradition. I then proceeded to buy another boat that, not surprisingly, was in need of repair.
I have cycled through three boats since then, but I still make regular stops at that smoky shed to check in on my friend. I pet his spaniel, Sammy, and learn about his trips to exotic lands where he builds marinas. I learn how he taught famous seamen to sail and the racing picture of him that hangs in the Hong Kong Yacht Club. Sometimes now, I hear the same stories repeated again, but I never let on. I have something rich to show and keep from my midlife crisis. I provide a believing ear and receive in return the riches of a life I wish I could have lived.
Both he and the dog are growing old like me, but each has bright eyes and a sense of joy at seeing me drop by for a visit. In spite of all his accomplishments, he values most the validation of others he respects. It is a pleasure for me to serve that role and to dream that someday, I will have stories to tell, like his own, and perhaps another aging wooden boat to continue our saga.
Len first developed cancer in 2000. He outlived his first surgeon, but began to succumb again to the disease about a year ago. I came to spend more and more time with him as the months passed and drove him for treatments from time to time. In his final days, his wife warmed me to be prepared because he was wasting rapidly. I simply answered “he is my friend.” I sat with him on the afternoon before he died.
He is gone now, but I still find myself wanting to plan my next visit, to ask him again about how he met Tristan Jones in the Azores and taught him to navigate, or how he found a picture of himself in the Hong Kong Yacht Club racing with the Union Jack flying from the stern of his wooden boat with a fleet of yachts behind.
I leave you with this:
Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea, But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam, When that which drew from out the boundless deep Turns again home. Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark; For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have cross’d the bar.