Casting off with Travis McGee
I retire whenever I can afford it. When the money is gone, I go back to work. Salvage work. Retirement comes when you are too old to enjoy it completely, so I take some of mine whenever I can. — The Dreadful Lemon Sky My parents sprang the news when I was eight years old: We were going to live on board a sailboat.Mom and Dad had always been an adventurous pair, and their latest craze had clearly taken deep and permanent root. We sold our small house and small sailboat and bought a larger vessel, one intended to circumnavigate the world after their progeny had left for college. (And while that original scheme had to be revised a bit, they did indeed set sail on that same boat for a five-year voyage to points as far abroad as New Zealand. Like I said: Adventurous.)While I was still clawing my way through school, we took shorter excursions. Most holidays and vacations found us in the San Juans or traveling up the inside straits of Vancouver Island. Time away from land and our responsibilities. Time to enjoy the scenery.Time. Lots of it. Sailboats don’t move terribly fast. Sometimes they don’t move at all.
For a growing kid in a confined space—with electrical power carefully conserved and with no one having gotten around to inventing the Internet yet—books were my deliverance. Fleming. Christie. Burroughs. Le Carré. The middle-initial Bobs: Robert E. and Robert B.
And above all, John D.
John D. MacDonald’s hero Travis McGee endures in print three decades after the publication of the last of his twenty-one color-coded exploits (The Deep Blue Good-By, The Scarlet Ruse, et al). Born out of the author’s famously prolific work in crime novels and pulp magazine stories, McGee was a self-described “salvage consultant,” retrieving lost or stolen items from the thieves and the swindlers of Florida in exchange for half the items’ value. His quests were frequently violent, and surprisingly existential. JDM’s brilliance was in defining Travis as much through his philosophical asides—often debated with best friend and brilliant economist Meyer—as from his direct actions.
McGee described himself as a sort of battered knight errant. But the six-foot-four boat bum wasn’t a knight. He was a patron saint. His home was the Busted Flush, a libertine houseboat moored in slip F18 of Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale.
One of us, in other words. And the McGee adventures were something close to required reading, if you lived aboard.
Like a lot of heroic protagonists, McGee serves up a healthy meal of wish fulfillment for the reader (and, one suspects, the writer.) Our Trav is smart, tough, loyal, catnip to the opposite sex, mature enough to understand his own shortcomings, and moral enough to keep himself from becoming too much like the predators he hunts.
He is also—and I think this gets to the heart of his enduring appeal for sailors—fiercely independent. By his own admission not a “clerical type,” McGee works for himself, if and when he wants to. And when he doesn’t, the Flush offers him a quick escape from the few ties that he has. He rails against the tides of conformity and ambivalence. And wouldn’t we all like to believe the same about ourselves?
The sea has no mercy, and there is no such thing as “maintenance-free”. All you get near the water is either more maintenance than you can handle, or so much that you can just about stay ahead of it. The fee I pay for living aboard the Flush is a minimum of two hours a day of exterior housework every day I am aboard. — The Turquoise Lament
MacDonald captured life aboard boats perfectly in the little details: The glint of sun off water at different times of the day. The ebb and flow of weekenders and summer folk. The commitment to decent stereo systems. The drinking.
But the best indication that JDM knew a thing or two about boats was just how often he has McGee hard at work aboard the Flush—cleaning, repairing, and polishing—in a constant battle to keep sun and salt water from devouring his home. Anyone who’s owned a boat can attest. Most kids mowed lawns. I scrubbed the deck, and filled the freshwater tank, and sanded the teak wood each summer. McGee’s estimated cost in elbow grease, above, is a pretty accurate reckoning of what my parents paid during their twenty years aboard.
We may not all want to be McGee. His life—even without all the manual labor on the Flush—is a hard one, and time is not on his side. But there’s much in his philosophy to admire. The live-aboards I recall from my youth cut a wide slice across demographics, with families, young couples, retirees, divorcées, bachelors, and more. All of them were united in a desire to live their lives just a little bit outside the norm.
Cast off the boat, and cast off a few of your problems with it. Enjoy those days of sunshine while ye may. Travis and his hairy friend Meyer would lift a glass of Boodles Gin to that.