How “THAT” Came About

Part VI


On Independence Day for Guatemala, we launched THAT.

Aside from announcing the date to friends and family, I made no other plans. The truth was, I was too exhausted to give a damn how it got into the water or who put it there. And, to some extent, I figured the gods owed me a launching since I had spent seven years of my life scrounging, sweating, and straining my mind, body, and marriage to the ultimate limit to build this boat. It turned out that Chung felt pretty much the same way, but he had a different notion about how to communicate with the ‘powers that be.’ All I did was give them a date; he sweet-talked them. But, I’m getting ahead of myself...

Three days before the launching date, Jim Brown arrived. He jumped right into the thick of things when he realized that the decks still weren’t glassed. The next thing I knew, he was on his hands and knees fiberglassing all three decks which, when viewed from that perspective, must have seemed only slightly smaller than a football field.

I hadn’t heard a word from the rest of the world. For all I knew, the vast majority of my friends and relatives were sane enough to consider pushing 16 tons of boat down 200 feet of rough terrain when both temperature and humidity were well into the 90s, a bit much. I could understand.

A couple of nights before the launch, I happened to be walking through the Catamaran Hotel dining room on my way to the bar. The place was packed. Carlos, the manager, bumped into me on the run.

“Place is busting at the seams, Carlos!” I said. “Independence Day insanity?”

“Independence Day, hell,” he snorted. “This is all on account of you.”


“Your family took up every room in the house.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not. Take a look at the dining room.”

“I just walked through the dining room.”

“Well, this time, look.”

I looked. He was right. There sat, among others, my 81-year-old mother, my son, my nephew, my son-in-law and his entourage (which included his banker, a secretary, and an accountant).

The morning of the launch dawned bright and hot. I woke to the sound of motors. People were pulling up to the shore in a steady stream... some in big, sleek powerboats...some in aluminum launches...some in rowboats and canoes. I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out to find Chung. Usually he was up with the sun, sharing our first cup of coffee with us but, this morning of all mornings, he was nowhere to be found. I met Yolanda coming down the trail on her way to the river with her plastic dish pan full of dirty plates and cups. She stared at me without smiling – a hard, bitter glare.

“Where’s your daddy?” I asked.

She looked back at Chung’s house, not saying a word.

I rattled the cane door when I reached the house, but got no response except from a chicken, which scolded me for shoving it aside when I opened the door. No sign of Chung, but I knew he was there. I could smell the hooch. Stumbling through the dark hut, I made my way to the back behind the partition where the family slept. There he lay, mouth open, lips fluttering in the breeze of his own breath, drunk as a skunk, and sound asleep. I wasn’t surprised; this was how Chung celebrated all the significant happenings in life. I could never convince him to celebrate after the event – so, he was always too drunk to help with a birthday party, funeral, wedding, or whatever. But, until this moment, it never occurred to me that he would celebrate the launching beforehand. Ah well, if the truth were known, I envied him. All that kept me from doing the same was the fact that it was my boat. I looked at him, lying there in oblivion, and suddenly felt a stab of guilt. For years, he’d worked hard on the boat, and what did he have to show for it? Nothing. And, before long, even I would be gone from his life, I who had been his employer and best friend for well over ten years.

I left the house and walked to the shop. A small group of bare and shiny-white torsos stood in front of the boat, eyeballing the situation.

“Hope you guys are wearing a thick layer of suntan lotion, or you’re going to sizzle like little white grubs in a frying pan. You been living under a rock, or what?”

“Something like that,” my son-in-law said. “You know San Francisco...smog and fog. All this clean air and sunshine is disgusting. If we don’t get our daily intake of heavy metals, man, we’re dead ducks.”

His banker, whiter than the rest but muscular from workouts in the corporate gym, took his accustomed role as boardroom director.

“First thing we need to do,” he said, “is knock out the center post in the doorway. Might sag a bit but looks to me like it’ll hold. Then, we need to jack up the stern end of the boat and get some rollers underneath the cradle. What have you got for rollers?” he asked, looking in my direction.

“Those pipe pieces,” I answered, pointing to a stack I’d scrounged from somewhere.

“That’s it?”

Art Mitchell laughed. “You’re lucky he got those.”

The banker managed things very well. He gave everybody a job and, by mid-morning, the jack was in place and the center post was gone. The roof sagged 12 inches but held – the boat cleared it by a fraction of an inch.

Once in position, we pulled the boat forward by means of two 1 ¼`` lines tied to the bows. My optimism led me to believe I might need a braking system, so I tied a line from the stern to the biggest orange tree.

“Uno, dos, tres, HEAVE!” came the first call. The lines were well manned. Where all those people came from I had no idea, but down the hillside were two solid lines of them, 85 in all, straining until their eyes bulged. They came from everywhere – the U.S, France, Germany, Canada, and, of course, Guatemala. I was struck by the diversity of the group. Next to one of my Kekchi Indian neighbors stood the banker from San Francisco, then my 81 year-old mother, then an American priest, next to him a pint-sized child from the village, then a French yachtsman, next the son of the ex-president of Guatemala, then a German pizza entrepreneur, and on and on.

Out in the bay floated Jim Brown, encircled by an inner tube, camera in hand, looking like a bespectacled sea otter.

The porch of the house, the river’s banks, and the hillsides were covered with spectators. Even the ducks were crowded out of the bay; there were so many boats and people.

“Uno, dos, tres, HEAVE!” Each time the call went out, a horrible, strangled groan rose from the throng as every man, woman, and child pulled on the lines with all their strength. And each time they did, the boat moved a half an inch. There were thousands of half-inches to go, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that, at this rate, we would be weeks getting her into the water.

Launching of "THAT"

“D’you ever consider building something smaller?” grumbled the banker as he brushed by me.

It was miserable, hot work. People left the line whenever they felt the need for a drink, rest, or food. I was surprised the first time I went into the house to find the table laden with cases of cold beer and soda, resting in tubs of ice. People had come prepared, and there was plenty for everybody.

We quit at sundown, with the boat little more than out of the shed. The bay was suddenly full of splashing bodies. Cooled off, they made their way back to motel room, boat, tent, or sleeping bag and fell asleep, sore and tired.

Back they all came at sunup, gluttons for punishment, every last one of them. By midday, discouragement had wormed its way into every heart.

The banker from San Francisco didn’t mince any words. “We’ll never get this son-of-a-bitch in the water. It’s not possible.”

He left, heading downriver for Livingston in a tourist canoe. I knew that everyone there felt the same way as he did, and I was no exception. He’d been good help, and I thanked him. He shook my hand and gave me a smile that he probably generally reserved for simple old men and infants. Funny thing... his leaving inspired me. I respond to the words, “It’s not possible” like a horse responds to a sharp kick in the ribs.

We put skinned logs under the boat, used more prying bars, and laid a board track all the way down the hill for the poles to roll on. By the end of the second day, we were halfway down the hill.

Expecting very few people to show up on the third day, I was surprised and touched when even more folks appeared. Evidently, they felt the same way I did... WHO SAYS IT’S NOT POSSIBLE? OH, YEAH? WELL, WATCH THIS. Little by little, the boat crept towards the river’s edge. They were a determined lot, my launching crew. There wasn’t a single one among them whose back, head, eyes, feet, hands, and hair didn’t hurt but, by God, they were going to get that boat into the water if it killed them. The last big push came sometime in the late afternoon. We were only a couple of feet from the water’s edge when we heard a voice hailing us from the hilltop.


I looked up. It was Chung, waving a bottle of wine above his head with one hand and a flaming candle in the other. After three days of bed-rest and booze, he was more than drunk, he had ascended.

Down the hill he came, stumbling and weaving, calling “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY GHOST!”

Launching of THAT

By now, everybody had stopped to watch. He approached the boat, made a deep bow to her repeating the only religious phrase he knew. “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE HOLY GHOST!” He poured a little wine onto her side, took a little nip for himself and then poured a trail of it on both tracks all the way down to the water, greasing the skids, as it were. That done, he pulled several candles from his shirt and a book of matches from his pants. He dug little holes in the ground in front of the boat, pushed a candle into each hole, and lit them. The last part was tricky business in this state, but he finally managed to light them all.

All this while, he intoned, “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, THE SON, AND HOLY GHOST!” in his deepest, most religious voice. Moving back from the lit candles, he bowed again to the boat and said, “I, WHO AM CONCEPCION ALVAREZ, I POUR WINE ON YOUR PATH TO MAKE THE WAY EASY, AND I LIGHT CANDLES TO MAKE THE WAY BRIGHT.” With that he turned, walked back up the hill, and seated himself to watch the final push. Minutes later, the boat was floating. I looked at Chung who looked at me. We did it, he seemed pleased that it was done by a shove from our friends and a small shove from above. I resisted the urge to point out to him that it might have been the Candy Man (a great fat fellow who owned a candy factory in Guatemala City) with his 26’ stink pot and 280 hp Mercury who finally pulled THAT the last few feet into the water. But, then again, who was I to say?

A great gasp passed through the crowd. They had done it! And, my God, what an enormous baby they’d delivered! She was so big, she took up a full third of the bay. I had jumped on board at the last minute so I could ride the bow into the water. Those onshore thought something awful must be happening because I was frantically leaping all over the deck. Actually, the deck was so hot that it blistered my feet. I didn’t waste much time getting below; I was anxious to see if she had any leaks. I found only one, a small seepage in the forepeak around one of the underwater windows.

She floated so high in the water that the floats were a foot and a half above it. Despite her enormous size, the weight of my body tipped her way over when I stepped to one side or the other.

I started the engine and motored her to the house pier. I had always thought of my house as fairly good-sized, but the boat dwarfed it to that of a small chicken house. Even though I built THAT from the ground up, until that moment, even I had no idea how big she really was.

We broke no bottle of champagne over the bow – I’d never liked the violence of that particular ceremony. It’d be different, I guess, if they made thin-skinned champagne bottles, but most seemed to be thick enough to withstand a major explosion. Instead, we sat on the foredeck – just our closest friends – to sip champagne and watch the setting sun. It was Jim Brown who said some wonderful words in honor of the occasion and made us feel as though THAT was properly and reverently delivered into the world.

A couple of weeks after launching, we stepped the after mast from the Rio Dulce Bridge. The bridge was 96’ off the water, and it was an impressive sight. A contingent from the Guatemalan Army stood by, as well as a film crew with cameras rolling. Uniformed and armed to the teeth, the soldiers gave the affair an official atmosphere. Traffic, of course, came to a standstill, and spectators lined the banks.

If the army had known how I had brought the rigging into the country, they might not have offered to officiate. I had to chuckle about that memory. The rigging had been left sitting in Belize at Hard Luck Charlie’s; three months afterward, I happened to be conducting a charter from the Catamaran Hotel to Livingston. On that trip my only passengers were a middle-aged American couple. After lunch in one of Livingston’s best restaurants, we walked to the dock. Just as I was getting into the launch for the trip back upriver, my old pirate friend, Caracol, hailed me.

“Hey, Mark! Is that rigging of yours still in Belize at Charlie’s?”


“Wha’d’ya say we go get it?”

“Sure. When?”



“Yeah, I got nothin’ better to do. Got a bunch of kids on board wanta go to Belize anyway.”

“Fine, but I have to take this couple back to the Catamaran. I’ll make it fast, but I probably can’t get back here until evening.”

“Okay. Meet ya back here 'long about 7-8 o’clock.”

That meant I had to cover 25 miles of river, deliver my couple, grab some clothes and money from the house, and motor another 25 miles downriver before sunset.

I gave that unfortunate couple from Cincinnati a ride they probably still have nightmares about. I floored it all the way up the river. They were soaked to the skin by the time we got to the Catamaran, and their eyes were fixed in the bright, unblinking stare of the terrified.

I pulled up to the Livingston dock at 7:08. Caracol’s boat, the Cool Goose, was bobbing up and down at the dockside. She was a real pirate boat: a mean-looking 45’ wood-planked Belizean gaff-rigged sloop with a 10’ bowsprit and so much weather helm that it needed three people at the wheel to keep her on course. Caracol himself was half American, half Guatemalan, and half nuts. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for the hell of it. He wasn’t a bad person – he was just a ‘good-time Joe’ with a thirst for excitement that was pretty near unquenchable.

The cargo hold of the Cool Goose was nothing but one big bed: wall-to-wall smelly mattress which had doubtless been the playpen for lots of naughty children. At the moment, it was full of French hippies, and there is nothing worse than a French hippie. A dirtier, more arrogant human being you won’t find. This group ignored me completely, which was just as well. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than sleep. I curled up as far away from them as I could and promptly fell into a deep, black slumber.

It must have been about 3 o’clock in the morning when I awoke with a start. I smelled danger. Something wasn’t right. I listened, every fiber of my being stretched out like an antenna. I knew from the sound of the water against the hull that we were scooting right along –7 knots maybe. And then I knew. Shallow water! Very shallow water! Clearly, whoever was at the helm was not aware of the danger. I jumped up and ran across the mattress, planting my feet onto soft-bodied French hippies all the way to the gangway. Every time I stepped on one, a noise escaped. They made musical stepping stones, burping and farting and moaning in various tempi and tones.

Caracol was at the helm.

“Hey, Mark! What’s up?”

“You’re over shallow water, man!”

“You think so?” he asked. He looked around, still unaware.

“I know so. Get out your lead line.”

He lowered it over the side and brought it up, read the evidence and gasped.

“Jesus! One foot.”

He slowed her down and proceeded like a cat on wet rocks. I was pretty pleased with myself: after all these years, I still had my sixth sense. When he found a little deeper spot, we anchored for the night.

The next morning, we unloaded our French cargo at Punta Negro, motored another mile to Charlie’s, unloaded the wind generator Charlie had earned for storing my rigging, and took on the mast and shrouds. We enjoyed a leisurely sail back, just me and Caracol, not hurrying, because we wanted to sneak into the Rio Dulce after dark in order to avoid Customs. It was a very dark night, thank goodness, and we sailed right on past Livingston without a hitch, unloaded the rigging at the house some time after midnight and, before the sun was up, Caracol was safely back at the mouth of the river where he waited until morning to sail in. Customs was there to check him in, totally unaware that he had spent the night unloading what amounted to thousands of dollars’ worth of taxable goods, 25 miles upriver.

We stepped the wooden forward mast from the aluminum after mast and, except for minor details, my boat was compete. I moved aboard. Bonnie did not.

Someone sent me a couple of paragraphs, written by a man named Jonathan Cape, which I have pasted into the photo album that chronicles the building of my boat.

They read:

Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay transition. I admit, doubtfully, as exceptions, snail shells and caravans. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.

It is for that reason, perhaps, that. When it comes, the desire to build a boat is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on the horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky, so that you can think of nothing else. You must build to regain your freedom. And always you comfort yourself with the thought that yours will be the perfect boat, the boat that you may search the harbors of the world for and not find.



It is now nearly six years since THAT was launched, six eventful years which have changed my entire life. But those are other stories.

The cast of characters deserves a curtain call...

Bonnie and Marquito now live in Kansas. Both are well and happy. Marquito, who I have recently taken on a camping trip, is a bright-eyed youngster of seven who tells me that someday he’s going to build a boat, too, and sail around the world.


Chung continued to live in his house on the hill behind the Casa de Media Luna with his three girls until New Year’s Eve, 1988, when, on his way home from work in his skiff, he was hit by a powerboat and killed. His three girls live and go to school in a very nice orphanage across the river from their old home.

Caracol came up too quickly from diving for lobster several years ago and died in an airplane on the way to Panama, where the closest decompression chamber then was.

Sidney, my burrow, made one last trip into the river mud to cool off and to his death because his new owner had gone to the city for the weekend, and no one was home to rescue the darn fool.

Martin still lives in the village behind the Casa de Media Luna, earning his way in the world, as he always has, as a canoe builder.

As for me: my new wife, Ann, and I are living in the Sacramento River Delta aboard THAT. She is working on a novel about our experiences together, and she cleans houses and boats. I work in Harris Harbor Boat Yard in Pittsburg, California. I’ve slowed down considerably since arriving back in the U.S., thanks to the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis. However, in early October, THAT is sailing to Australia. On board will be Ann, Ann’s 14 year-old son, Seth Kerlin, and me. My 87-year-old father, Walter, who emigrated from Australia in 1929, says that if we can be there by Christmas, he’ll meet us on the Brisbane dock.

We’ll be there.

THAT under sail

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier