“A New Yorker at Sea”
Aegean Press, $11
By his own account, Nick Catalano was inexactly cut out for sailing. In this self-published book, the author early on notes that “the idea of sailing and the dream of adventure were always more appealing than the actual conditions at sea.” He finds that “sailing in any wind over twelve knots gave [him] the willies.” In local waters, that should keep him chronically on edge. Further, he “couldn’t master knot-tying, got very nervous at docking,” and feared his crewmates might “discover his on-deck ineptitude.” But Mr. Catalano gets kudos for persistence.
It soon becomes clear that “A New Yorker at Sea” is a reconstruction of sailing notes and a manuscript going back at least 20 years. The book offers a short, easy-to-miss frontispiece — a disclaimer of sorts — seeking to remind us that the dated subject matter still has relevance, and some of it does.
Considering the danger and discomforts of Mr. Catalano’s misadventures, it’s no wonder his book is fraught with foreboding and mood swings, from anxiety to self-celebration. There is no even keel. But then, stress comes with the territory if, for example, you are trying to race a yacht in a hurricane.
The first chapter finds the author crewing aboard the 30-foot sloop Cassandra, racing east down the Atlantic coast of Long Island. So is Hurricane Bob, which struck the East Coast in August 1991. Cassandra appears to have “finished first” by default, at an unspecified location in Long Island Sound. Competitors were scattered, dismasted, or capsized that day by the storm. A race like this one was most likely canceled.
Then, in a brief, five-page account, the author begins to emerge, this time with bravado: “Sailing in forty knots of wind should have terrified me, but there I was, urging the boat onward with the madness of a modern-day Ahab.”
The next three pages deliver a cursory account of island hopping in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean: St. Vincent, Bequia (a sailing hotspot favored by the trust-funded), the lovely Jost Van Dyke, and St. John. These disconnected snippets suggest that the author is certifying his experience while, paradoxically, discrediting his own seamanship.
Mr. Catalano refers to sailing people as “yachties” throughout this book. The author, whether or not a yachtie himself, ends the introductory pages with a peculiar insight: “In addition to the physical challenge of sailing, there’s the stress of making sure you operate according to Hoyle, or some wise ass will always be ready to criticize so he can score points with his guests and aggrandize his macho personality.”
These rudderless narratives finally arrive at the book’s larger storyline in chapter three. It begins with a cram course on famous sailors, particularly circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester, Robin Knox-Johnston, Susan Hiscock, and Bernard Moitessier. Why? Because the author has been requested to replace a crew member aboard the 52-foot cutter Bravura, which is attempting to complete its own circumnavigation of the world. The yacht is progressing, with difficulties, up the Suez Canal.
Next we find Mr. Catalano among the ruins of the city of Suez. Aging wreckage from the Yom Kippur War of 1973 is strewn about the Canal Zone. He fulminates against Egyptian cab drivers and hotel service. He calls to mind the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 and the murder of the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. Our narrator is, as a supposed friend to Israel, an ugly American, like it or not.
Clearly we are in another time zone in a different era. And for the first time, the book’s recurring lapses in continuity tumble us into an exotic and interesting read.
At the Suez Yacht Club, the narrator makes his rendezvous with the cutter Bravura, the boat’s owner, and another crew member. Formal introductions aboard the boat bring the reader another surprise. Nick Catalano, the author-narrator to this point, introduces himself as Joe Pisano, the replacement crew member.
So it is that Nick Catalano loses his place as narrator and acquires a pseudonym. (Notes on the book’s back cover help to confirm the Pisano transformation.) Through this rather facile name change, a fictional character takes the author’s place. “Virtually all of what follows is true,” writes Mr. Catalano in the book’s introduction. Hence, permission to embroider on the facts has been granted.
In any case, the yacht Cassanda will need all the help she can get on this voyage, which carries us through to the book’s unnerving surprise ending. The yacht’s engine is cutting in and out, and they are short on motor oil, beer, and water. Behemoth — and oblivious — oil tankers bear down on them in the narrow canal. At a pier, they are accosted by armed men on horseback. If they ever get out of the Suez Canal Zone, engine repairs will have to wait until reaching Malta, well over 1,000 miles away.
As it turns out, Mr. Catalano — as well as his doppelganger, Joe Pisano — has one practical yachting skill: He can steer a straight course. While clumsy with nautical terms and rigging, the man can hold a steady rhumb line. That is, he can steer a prescribed compass bearing to keep the ship on course, toward their destination, Malta.
How much seat-of-your-pants deepwater adventure fills the next 120-odd pages? Enough. During the period described, Middle East tensions were potentially dangerous. So was cruising the stormy Mediterranean without GPS navigation, prior to its invention. An unlucky boat might be blown off course and encounter, for example, a Libyan gunboat. (President Reagan launched air strikes on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in April 1986.)
While the author is not a natural raconteur, he has brought back from decades past a nautical tale nobody else can tell. And one nobody could enjoy without the advent of self-publishing. Happily, even if this nautical memoir was not written for posterity, it will not be consigned to oblivion.
Nick Catalano teaches literature and music at Pace University. He is the author of “Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter” and lives part time in East Hampton.
Jeane Bice is a writer and sailing instructor who lives in Springs.