The Spirit of Catherine
Cruising in a sailboat can be a very social lifestyle. We are always meeting new, interesting people. This is a story about a particularly interesting couple and their boat, the Spirit of Catherine.
We were sailing from St. Lucia to Trinidad when we first encountered the Spirit of Catherine. We had hit a couple squalls early in the evening, but since midnight we had been cruising along nicely with ten to fifteen knots of wind. We were making good progress and hoped to arrive at Chagauramas, Trinidad a couple hours after sunrise. Then I heard the call on the VHF radio.
“Security…..Security…..Security. This is sailing vessel Spirit of Catherine. Due to heavy rains in Venezuela many large logs have been washed down the Orinoco River into the Gulf of Paria. Several of these logs have drifted through the Boca de Monos with the falling tide. Use extreme caution near the Boca de Monos. This is Spirit of Catherine. Over.”
We would be heading through the Boca de Monos on the way to Chagauramas. While we would not be heading through this tight pass until it got light, we were certainly getting close.
I got of the VHF and replied, “Spirit of Catherine…..Spirit of Catherine, this is Shadowfax, over.”
This is Spirit of Catherine. Go ahead Shadowfax.”
“Thanks for the warning. I guess we’ll drop our sails and drift for the rest of the night. We sure don’t want to slam into one of those logs, over.”
“No, that could ruin a fella’s night. We’re hove to right now. If you look about a half a mile to the south you should see our lights, over.”
I poked my head outside. Sure enough. There he was right in front of us. I was a little shocked and embarrassed. I thought I had been keeping a pretty good watch and should have seen him long ago. How did I miss his lights?
“Ok, I see you. Thanks again for the warning. Shadowfax on the side.”
I dropped the sails and let Shadowfax drift. Then I checked my watch. It was 3:45. My wife, Lynn, and I usually do four-hour watches during the night. It was her turn to get up in fifteen minutes, but I decided to let her sleep. I made coffee, grabbed a couple cookies, and then went back out into the cockpit. The sky was clear and the moon was bright. It was very peaceful, but I was still perplexed by how close I had gotten to Spirit of Catherine without seeing her. By the time I had gotten the sails down I was within a quarter of a mile of her and could now see her clearly in the moonlight. I got out my binoculars to get a better view. I couldn’t read her name, but I could easily make out her shape. She was a cutter with nice lines, something like a Colin Archer design. She wouldn’t win any races, but she would certainly be sturdy.
I saw movement in the cockpit. The skipper was waiting for the sunrise just like I was. I wondered if he had also been checking us out. He sure seemed like a friendly guy on the radio. I decided to give him a call. He sounded like the type that might enjoy passing a little time chatting on the radio.
“Spirit of Catherine…..Spirit of Catherine, this is Shadowfax”
After a short pause he came back, “Go ahead Shadowfax.”
“Let’s switch to channel 68.”
“Spirit of Catherine switching to 68”
I switched the VHF from channel 16, the distress and hailing frequency, to channel 68, which is one of the channels used for inter-ship communication.
“Hello Spirit of Catherine. This is Bill on Shadowfax. I’d just like to say thanks again. Shadowfax is a trimaran. We’re built light for speed. One of those logs could have really messed us up, over.”
“Don’t mention it Bill. By the way, my name is James and my wife is Catherine. She’s resting right now, over.
“So is mine. Her name is Lynn. She usually takes over the watch at four, but since we’re just drifting, I thought I’d let her sleep in, over.”
“Well that’s nice of you. Sounds like you have a lucky wife, over.“
“I don’t know about that, “ I replied, “but I do what I can, over.”
“Where are you folks from?” James asked. I was getting the feeling that I was right about him liking to chat.
I explained that we had grown up in Trever City, Michigan, but had lived in Minneapolis for the two years before selling everything to go sailing. Lynn and I are in our early thirties, and he seemed pleased that we had embarked on this adventure while we were still young. “You two are doing it right. Do it while you’re young and healthy.”
Having given James most of my life story, I started getting curious about him. “How long have you owned Spirit of Catherine, James?”
“Well, I can’t really say I own her. She’s more like part of the family. I started building her in 1968. That’s the year my boy, Andy, went to Vietnam. Now that was a hard time to be a father. I needed something big to take my mind off the war. Otherwise I would have just gone crazy. I’d always been fascinated by stories of the sea. I grew up on the coast of Maine. I never did any sailing as a kid. My mother knew too many boys who were fisherman. I guess a fair number of them went to sea one too many times. She did everything possible to keep me away from that life, but there were always plenty of people around telling stories, and I also read a lot of books. Ever read the book by that fella Joshua Slocum? Now he had an adventure.”
“Yea, I’ve read that one.”
“Well, I got thinking that I’d build a boat, a good sturdy one that we could take to sea. I figured that when Andy came home from the war the family could take off and do a little sailing, but when he got back two years later the boat was nothing but a set of ribs. Building a boat was a lot more work than I’d guessed. Andy took one look at her and said that I was crazy. That really hurt. I had figured that once my boy was home, everything would be roses and rainbows again. But things don’t always turn out like you expect, do they? Andy had changed. The next year or so was rough. I was glad he was home, but I felt the dream that had held me together while he was off at war had slipped away, and nothing had moved in to take it’s place. I still had Catherine though. But now you’ve got me ramblin’ about things. I’m sorry for boring you with all of this.”
“No. No. It’s Ok. Actually you’ve got me very interested. You obviously finished the boat, over.”
“Yea, I finished her eventually. Andy went of to school in the fall of ’72. The day he left I started working on the boat again. I promised Catherine that I’d take her away to exotic islands, and I meant to keep that promise. She seemed excited, probably as much by my renewed enthusiasm as by the dream itself. The first thing I did was to plank up the stern and give her a name. Tradition says that you’re supposed to finish a boat before you name her, but I didn’t care. Every night when I went out to work on her I’d pause and look at the name, “Spirit of Catherine”. Catherine was embarrassed by the name at first and wanted me to change it, but eventually she understood how much it meant to me.”
“So how long did it take to finish her?”
“Well I worked on Spirit of Catherine for nine more years. And I wasn’t just draggin’ my feet. I worked hard, nearly every night and every weekend. I’d get home from work around 5:30. The two neighbor girls would often be waitin’ for me. They always wanted to help me work on “Cathy” as they called her. Sometimes they did help, but mostly they played. They were good company though. Catherine would get home from the hospital a little later. She was a nurse. She’d come out to the boat and ask me how it was going, give me a kiss, and then go in and make dinner. Around sunset she’d come out to get me. I’d often be trying to finish up just one more thing. Hell, I’d have probably worked all night if she didn’t come get me. Later, when I had the basic hull and deck done, she’d sometimes make a picnic and bring it out. We’d have our dinner in the cockpit and watch the sunset. Sometimes she’d even bring out a couple blankets and pillows, and we’d sleep right on the boat. We weren’t newly weds, but sometimes it felt like it. I was still crazy in love with that girl. Oh, but I’m getting sappy. It’s awful nice of you to listen to this old man’s rambling, Bill. Sometimes it does a soul good, and sometimes it’s a lot easier to do with a stranger.”
“I don’t mind at all. So what happened next? You’ve got me hooked, and I’d like to hear the rest of the story, over.”
“Well, let’s just say that one thing followed another, and here we are.”
“Well, that’s OK then. But I suspect we won’t be strangers for long. Maybe we’ll share an anchorage, and we can have a beer together. I’d love to meet Catherine, and I know Lynn would enjoy meeting both of you, over.”
“That sounds like it would be fun, but I’m afraid we don’t socialize too much. We pretty much keep to ourselves. I guess we’re in a different phase of our lives than most cruisers, and we don’t mix very well. But you could do me a favor if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all, over.”
“If you ever get to Maine, drop in on my boy, Andy. I guess he likes to be called Andrew now. He’s a big shot engineer. Designs bridges and stuff like that, but he still lives at our old place in Brown’s Harbor. Just ask for Andrew Parsons. Anyone in town can direct you to the place. Anyhow, just drop in and tell him we love him, Ok? It would mean a lot to me and Catherine”
“No problem James. Well, the sun will be up soon. I think I’ll wake Lynn up to the smell of breakfast. Thanks again for the warning about the logs, and I hope to talk to you again soon.”
“Thanks Bill. Good luck and stay safe. Spirit of Catherine switching back to 16.”
The sky was just starting to get orange, and I worked on breakfast. I was in a really good mood and went all out…fried potatoes, eggs, toast, and coffee with lots of milk just like Lynn likes it. She either smelled the food, or maybe it was the noise of me cooking, and got up.
“You let me sleep in. That was nice. Why are we stopped?”
We went out to the cockpit to have our breakfast, and I told her the whole story…about the warning about logs and the story of the Spirit of Catherine. When I finished she looked around and said, “So where are they?” I turned to point, but Spirit of Catherine was gone. There was nothing but water for miles around.
A couple years went by, but we never ran into the Spirit of Catherine again. I asked other cruisers a few times, but nobody had heard of them. Then one night we were anchored in Trellis Bay, Tortola and went to shore to have dinner at a little place called “The Loose Mongoose”. Lynn and I were having a hot discussion. Our cruising kitty was pretty much empty. We needed to decide what we were going to do with our lives. Neither of us relished the thought of selling Shadowfax and going back to work, but it seemed like the obvious choice. I was in a bad mood, and the boisterous group of cruisers at the bar was not helping. Then I heard somebody say, “If I ever meet the skipper of the Spirit of Catherine, I’m not sure what I’ll do first – kiss him or break his nose.” Our argument ended abruptly as I headed to the bar.
At the center of the group at the bar was a bear of a man. He’d obviously had a few. He seemed pretty excited and his face was very red. I was hesitant but too interested to hold back. “Excuse me, did you just mention the Spirit of Catherine?”
He reeled at my question. Then he looked me in the eye and in a very stern voice said, “Are you the skipper?” I was glad I was not standing too close.
“No. No. But I ran into the Spirit of Catherine a couple years ago.”
“Well then you tell me what kind of man leaves a woman drifting in the ocean and won’t even pull her aboard,” he barked. I had stepped into something that was very uncomfortable. The bar was suddenly very quiet, and everyone seemed to be looking at me.
“I’ve only talked to the skipper once on the VHF, so I don’t really know the him,” I mumbled. At the same time I felt embarrassed. James had seemed like a good guy when I’d talked to him, and in a way I felt like I was betraying some small bond of friendship.
The big man’s face contorted with emotion. He had seemed angry, but suddenly there were tears in his eyes. He moved towards me. I was still confused but no longer afraid. He gave me a big hug and said, “Hey buddy, my names Chuck. Let me buy you a beer.”
We sat down, and I told him the story of my encounter with Spirit of Catherine. I spoke quickly, leaving out many of the details. It seemed like a good idea to get the story out in the open as quickly as possible.
Once I had finished he took a long pull on his beer and then sat silently for a few moments. His eyes were focused on some distant point as he told his own story.
“We had left Man of War Bay in Tobago late in the afternoon. It was to be an easy down wind and down current sail to Margarita Island, Venezuela. My wife, Carol, and I had dinner and watched the sunset as we sailed along the north coast of Tobago. I was planning on taking the watch for most of the night, so after dinner I headed below for a couple hours of sleep. Carol was supposed to wake me at ten. The sea was pretty calm, and I slept well. I woke up on my own, and when I checked the time I saw it was 11:15. ‘I guess Carol decided to let me get a little extra sleep,’ I thought. I got dressed and headed up to thank her. Then I had the worst shock of my life. Carol wasn’t in the cockpit! I checked the forward cabin. No Carol! I yelled ‘Carol! CAROL!’ and ran through to the aft cabin that I had just left, but of course I knew she wasn’t there, and then out into the cockpit. The deck was clear. She was gone. She must have gone overboard.
“Let me tell you, that is the worst feeling in the whole world….to know that a person you love is in the water and you have almost no chance of finding her. I started to shake. ‘Stay cool. Stay cool!’ I told myself, but I realized that she was seventy-five minutes late in waking me. She must have gone overboard at least that long ago. How would I ever find her? I rushed on deck, got the sails down and started motoring back along the boat’s path. I had the search light out scanning the water, but it seemed so hopeless. It WAS so hopeless.
After a few minutes I calmed down enough to realize that I needed help. I got on the radio. ‘Mayday….Mayday….Mayday. This is Argonauta. My wife has gone overboard. Can anyone hear me? Please, can anyone out there hear me?’
“A voice came back ‘Vessel calling Mayday, this is Tobago Coast Guard. Please give us your name and position.’
“I gave them both and then added ‘but I think she went overboard a couple hours ago. I was asleep. You have to help me, please!’
“ The voice came back, ‘Where were you during the time when she could have gone overboard?’.
“I looked at the chart. My vision was blurred, and I really had to concentrate. ‘She could be anywhere from Bloody Bay to Crown Point. God that’s a lot of water.’
“The Tobago Coast Guard – let me add that I later found out that even though they have an office and several full time people, they don’t have a single boat – replied that they would get some fisherman to start looking for her and that I should stay in contact.
“I kept motoring and searching with the spot light. The Coast Guard called and told me that they had fisherman out in their pirogues all along the coast. Most of them didn’t have radios and were using flashlights, but they knew the area and would do their best. As I approached the tip of Tobago I started to see their lights on the water. At least there seemed to be people out looking for her.
“Then I heard another voice on the radio. It was a larger fishing boat with a radio. ‘Yacht who lost someone overboard, this is Sahara Dust.’
“‘Sahara Dust, this is Argonauta. Please help me find my wife.’
“‘OK skipper, stay calm. Can you give me a better idea of where she might be?’
“‘I don’t know. I was sleeping. She could be anywhere. Please help me.’
“‘Ok skipper, we’ll do our best,’ he answered, but I could tell by the sound of his voice that there was no chance. Carol was gone.
“The search went on for a couple hours with no success. It seemed hopeless. Then I heard a faint, broken up voice on the VHF. ‘This is sail…….sel Spirit of ………….a woman float………one and a half miles ………..coo Reef light…..315 de….magnetic……is sailing vessel Spirit of Catherine….there is a……man floating one and a half miles from Buccoo Reef…………degrees magnetic.’ She’d been found!
“I shouted on the radio ‘Is my wife OK? Can I talk to her?’ but there was no answer. I just heard the same broken up message again.
“Then the skipper of the fishing boat came on, ‘Spirit of Catherine, Spirit of Catherine, Is the lady OK?’ ……static….. Then ‘Do you have her aboard skipper?’ I could hear the fishing boat clearly, but the other boat, the one that had found Carol had faded out. I was absolutely overwhelmed with relief for a moment, but then I heard the fishing boat again. ‘Pull the lady on board, skipper. Pull the lady on board!’ His voice was rising. What was going on? Something seemed to be going wrong.
“I called out to the fisherman pleading for information. When he answered I could hear his engines roaring in the background. ‘I’ll get the lady he shouted’ and then there was silence.
“Once again I felt helpless. Something very important was going on and Carol’s life was in the balance. I tried calling the fisherman again and again but got no answer. I called the coast guard, but they didn’t know anything. All I could do was wait.
“After about a half hour, I finally heard the fisherman’s voice. ‘Argonauta, Argonauta, this is Sahara Dust. Your wife is safe. We have her onboard.’
“At that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to hold my wife, but the fisherman told me that after all she’d been through, he was not going to try to transfer her at sea. He was right of course. He gave me directions to meet him at the entrance to the pass through Buccoo Reef. When I arrived he had me follow him through the channel and showed me where to drop the anchor near his village. Then Carol was back on board! She was still shivering and was obviously shaken, but she was safe. I took her below, and she fell asleep almost immediately.
“I woke up in the morning to the sound of fishing boats. For a minute it seemed like I’d had a bad dream, but I knew it wasn’t and also realized that I had not thanked anyone the night before. I slipped out of bed, but I was too late to catch them. Most of the boats were already out.
“When Carol finally got up I made her breakfast, and once the fact that she was safe had finally set in, I started to get curious about what had actually happened. She explained that the dishcloth that was hanging on the lifeline drying had come loose. She reached for it quickly to make sure it did not go overboard, and the next thing she knew she was in the water. It was so stupid. Then hours went by. The next thing she knew she was being pulled out of the water by the fishermen.
“‘But what about the sailboat?’ I asked. ‘I heard a sailboat call saying that they had found you.’ ‘Why didn’t the sailboat help you?’ I asked, but she didn’t know anything about a sailboat.
“When Sahara Dust came back from fishing the skipper and crew came over to Argonauta. A number of other fishermen followed in their pirogues. I invited everyone on board and thanked them over and over. I especially thanked Frank, the skipper of Sahara Dust, and his crew Alix, Murdock, and Lucky. Then after many hugs and handshakes, and after all of the fisherman were convinced that Carol was fine, I finally asked Frank what had happened the night before. ‘There was some kind of madness going on last night,’ he said. ‘The sailboat told us exactly where she was, but the fool skipper wouldn’t pick her up. It didn’t make no sense.’ One of the other fisherman suggested that maybe the sailboat was doing a little smuggling and didn’t want to get caught. ‘Well I don’t care nothing about that when someone’s in the water,’ said Frank ‘I wouldn’t have asked no questions.’ ‘Anyhow, he sure got out of there quickly. When we finally got to her, we didn’t see no sailboat anywhere. I even checked my radar, nothing.’”
A few months later Lynn and I sold Shadowfax and prepared to return to shore life. We had gotten so used to being broke that it felt strange to suddenly have a lot of cash. Common sense told us to use it to buy a car, find jobs, and buy a house. We decided to ignore common sense for at least a few more months.
We bought motorcycles and decided to tour America, seeing friends and relatives that we had missed while we were sailing. Our tour took us from Florida to Atlanta and then up the east coast. It was in Boston that my thoughts turned once more to the strange tale of the Spirit of Catherine. We were staying with some friends there, and they loved hearing our stories of beautiful islands, playful dolphins, and scary moments too. “Were you ever really afraid?” they asked. I told them that my biggest fear was losing Lynn overboard and told them about what had happened to Chuck and Carol. When I mentioned the Spirit of Catherine and my own discussion with James, they said, “Why don’t you ride up to Maine and see if you can find their son. Or maybe James and Catherine are back, and you can ask them yourself what happened that night in Tobago.”
Two days later Lynn and I rolled into the small town of Brown’s Harbor, Maine. Just like James had said, all we had to do was ask. The old guy we talked to on the street gave me a funny look, but he knew the Parsons family and gave me good directions to the house. When we pulled up I immediately spotted a boat in the back yard. It was covered with some weathered tarps, but I could definitely recognize the Spirit of Catherine. James and Catherine must be back!
We rushed to the door and knocked. I was really excited about meeting James and Catherine face to face. The guy who answered the door was a little older than myself, and I guessed that he must be Andrew. I introduced myself and explained that I had talked to his parents a couple years ago. “Are they home?”
“My parents are both dead,” Andrew said with a suspicious look on his face.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I had known they were old. I should have realized that they might have passed away. “Well, when I talked to your father, he …ah….he asked me to give you a message. He said to say that they love you.”
“When did you talk to him?”
“It was about four years ago, off the coast of Trinidad. He warned us about…..”
Andrew was shaking his head and chuckling. “If you were the first, I’d say you were nuts, but you’re not. Why don’t you come in for coffee.”
As we sat in the kitchen, Andrew told the story of his parents. He told of his return from Vietnam and finding the skeleton of a boat in the yard…..of going of to school….and about his parent’s dream of sailing away. “My dad loved working on that boat. He and Mom used to actually sleep in it some nights. I thought they were goofy, but now it seems romantic.”
“I guess that’s why the boat hasn’t been sold. There’s so much of them in it, so much sentimental value. It’s been moved right back to where your father built it.” I said.
“No” Andrew said. “That’s not quite it. My mother died of cancer in ‘81”
“But….so she wasn’t on the boat with your father when we talked to..” but Andrew held his hand up to stop me.
“After my mother died my father quit his job at the bank. He spent the next two months working night and day to finish the boat. He said he had made a promise that he meant to keep. Then one day he called me to say that it was done.” Andrew paused “He died that night. You see, the Spirit of Catherine has never been to sea. It sits just as he’d finished her.”
By Dave Hess
Dedicated to Grandma Louise Nelson