barnacle bill and the night of sighs

Barnacle bill IMAGE

Taking a break from the Memory Warehouse this week, doing some recreational writing.

[Delius \\ On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring]

Barnacle Bill and the Night of Sighs

The First Part of the Tale

Life on the water comes to some people as naturally as breathing, yet to others, a life afloat comes upon them suddenly, rather like a fish pulled violently from the sea. Some are born into the life, pulled along in the undertow of a parent’s passage through life. Still others happen upon a new way of life – perhaps a chance encounter with the sea at one of life’s critical junctures and a sudden tide turns within.

I think, or perhaps I’d just like to think, that I followed in the wake of my father’s best intentions. He wanted, more than anything else in life, to be a sea captain, to sail a copra schooner between the islands of French Polynesia, running the mail and provisions to scattered European settlements among those far-flung islands. At least he told me as much when we sat in front of the television, watching reruns of an old show called Adventures in Paradise. Yet it was hard to reconcile his life, his life as it really happened, with that other life, a far distant life that came to reside only in his dreams.

After doing hard time at a small college in California, small of course being a relative term when anything in California is discussed, I ‘worked’ in Cherry Point, North Carolina for a while, then in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan, and yes, even Iraq, before finally cashing out and moving back home, to Santa Barbara. I guess I’d had dreams of my own once upon a time, even if they were little more than the distant echoes of my father’s, yet after he passed those dreams took on a peculiar note of urgency. So, a year later, after my mother passed, I had a decision to make: keep their house and inherit all his miseries, or sell out and try to find a new path forward. Perhaps one my Old Man would have taken – under the weight of other circumstances.

Which was how, not quite a year later, I found myself tied up at a slip on Seattle’s north side, wondering why I had just done what I’d done.


Marinas are, of course, full of boats. Some people call these things yachts, but such people are often misinformed, you might even say that they are misguided souls. Yachts are toys that rich people pick up to amuse themselves, while boats are anything but. Boats are expressions of the soul, and as stupid as this may seem, you can look at someone’s boat and tell a lot about their dreams. And aren’t dreams just expressions of the soul?

Stroll the periphery of any marina anywhere in the States and you’ll find a breathtaking cross-section of the people who live here. In slips closer to shore you’ll find small powerboats good for an afternoon on the water, sometimes laying next to small sailboats – the owners of which often dream of fitting out their little boats to cross oceans and explore different shores. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide who owns which, but it isn’t hard to make out the two types. 

As you walk out the pier you run across larger boats in the fractionally deeper water; larger motorboats designed for fishing and the occasional overnight trip, and these reside next to real blue-water passage-makers, sailboats purpose built to cross vast oceans in relative comfort. The people on these boats have moved beyond the dutiful dreamer stage, too; they have decided to make the leap and are preparing to follow their dreams.

Walk even further out this imaginary pier of the mind and into the really deep water and you might run across a real yacht or two, but out here the old maxim still applies: if you have to ask how much these dreams costs you can’t afford them. Among the yachts out here you’ll also find the playthings of the idle rich, racy looking boats that for all the world remind you of penile implants. These toys change hands regularly, and yacht brokers salivate when these people walk in the door. Yet strange yachts appear out here from time to time, and strange things come to pass where dreams meet the full light of day.

I was tied off in this middle section, and wondering just how the hell I could justify my new, uprooted and disjointed way of life. I had been retired not even two years, and ‘confirmed bachelor’ fit my worldview to a T; I’d never been married and, as I thought bringing one more child into the world nothing less than a grievous felony, you could say that I was more than content to live out the rest of my life alone.

Well, not quite alone.

At the time I lived with Max. Max was then a not quite two year old Golden Retriever, and I think you could safely say that he liked people a good deal more than I did. He trusted people, even strangers, whereas I had never been able to make that leap of faith, and Max positively doted on women. I mean he loved them beyond all reason, and there were times I thought he simply couldn’t get enough of them.

We all have our failings, I guess.

When a new woman appeared on our pier Max would sit bolt upright, his nose pointed into the wind, scanning the walkway that passed in front of our new home. When this new woman appeared his tail would start swishing away, then he would look at me – willing me to get down on all fours and assume the position: nose forward, tail straight out, and to get ready to pounce and retrieve.

But a few minutes later he would slink back into the cockpit and slump down beside me in utter despair. Resting his muzzle on my thigh, he would do his level best to ignore me after that – for at least five minutes, anyway – then all was forgiven and it was time to move on again. And that was why I had chosen to live with Max, and those of his kind, whenever I could. 

But into every marina a little rain must fall, and in our marina this rain took on the form of an eccentric old soul who most referred to as Barnacle Bill. I assume his name might have been William, or even just plain Bill, but that would be an unwarranted assumption. Barnacle Bill appeared to be in his 70s, but given this lifestyle he might have been forty. Or eighty. You just couldn’t tell, even when he spoke – which is to say he spoke gently, if at all, and he sounded British. Not English, mind you, but very British. 

He was white-haired and as thin as a reed, with skinny legs and knobby knees that had been operated on, and he usually walked – with great difficulty, I might add – to and from his yacht in bare feet.

And yes. I did say yacht.

For Barnacle Bill lived on one. A big one. A seriously big fucker, as a matter of fact. Whether he owned the thing or resided somewhere down in the bilge was a matter of some debate around the marina, but one thing was certain. No matter the time of day, be it seven in the morning or coming up on midnight, Barnacle Bill smelled like he’d just finished a bottle of rum. 

Or perhaps it was just his after shave. I never figured that one out.

He wore old khaki shorts and always had on a worn out polo shirt, but his shirts were always white. If the sun was out he had on Wayfarers, and while there was a stainless steel Rolex Submariner on his wrist I never saw him look at the thing. When he walked by in shoes you would invariably see grey felt Stedmann clogs that looked disreputably old, and on those rare occasions when he walked up to a large, white tricycle that had baskets front and rear, he would pedal off to a nearby market in search of fresh vegetables and salmon fresh off the boat.

His yacht, for, as I have said, it was indeed a yacht, was tied off at the end of my pier, and the thing looked like something out of time, a huge thing from a bygone era, and again, I assumed, like we all did, that the yacht couldn’t possibly belong to him. Dark grey hull, varnished mahogany superstructure and acres and acres of teak everywhere else you looked, the yacht also had two hideously tall masts that stood taller than the tallest pines in the nearby forest. The name of the yacht, Haiku, seemed to fit the man perfectly, though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why.

Every now and then a woman visited, but she rarely remained onboard for more than an hour, and what transpired while she was there was anyone’s guess.

When I bought my boat, which I dutifully named the Tiki IV, the brokerage helped secure my slip in this particular marina, and the location was a good fit for my immediate needs. Though she was new, Tiki IV needed a few odds and ends to let her be handled by me, myself, and I, and it was thought the additions would only take a few weeks to complete. 

And yes, I actually believed that.

But when you’ve been around boats long enough you soon realize that “a few weeks” can mean anywhere from a month to a year, but usually somewhere in between. You need to be, in other words, flexible. Or not ‘time challenged’ – in the current vernacular. You also need to understand that when you are quoted a price for a project, the final cost will be twice what was originally quoted. 

At a minimum. 

If you’re lucky.

Yet that did not appear to be the case where Haiku was concerned. If something wasn’t running ‘just so’ the appropriate tradesmen were mysteriously summoned and their work invariably completed in record time, and the old man in his khaki shorts and white polo shirt would shuffle by in his felt clogs as if all was right in the world. Because in his world things most certainly were. You could count on that.

And then one day there he was. Barnacle Bill, standing beside my cockpit looking up at me. There was an odd twinkle in his eye, and it was the damndest thing I’d ever seen in my life, but then again, so was his smile.


“You’re the pilot, right?” he asked, his eyes smiling.

“That depends,” I replied.

“Oh? On what, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“If you want me to fly down to Mexico to pick up drugs, then fuck off. All other inquiries cheerfully accepted.”

His head bobbed back fractionally, quizzically, then his smile deepened just a tad. “I see,” he said – as his eyes settled on Max. “No, no drugs involved. Does he bite?”

“The dog? Or me?”

“You’re a rather stand-offish prick, aren’t you?”

“That’s the rumor,” I replied. Our eyes were locked-on now, as if we had suddenly engaged in a duel to the death. “Is there something I could do for you?” I added, reluctantly, and certainly not out of an abundance of caution, or even guilt.

“I am going to Chinook’s tomorrow for lunch, and wanted to know if you’d care to join me.”

Not at all knowing what to say, let alone how to say it, of course I smiled and said something polite like “Of course,” but to tell you the truth I can’t remember what I said – because by that point Max had stood and hopped down to the dock. And this Max had never done before. But worse still, Max stood on his legs and stretched his hands out and placed them on the Old Man’s chest. “I’m so sorry,” I said, hopping out of the cockpit and down onto the dock. “Max? What’s gotten into you?”

But the Old Man leaned over, and Max tentatively scented him before he licked his chin.

“Now that’s a good fella,” the Old Man cooed soothingly as he rubbed the sides of Max’s face, and just under the ears where he loved it most. And then he looked up at me and smiled again. “How does eleven-thirty suit you? I like to get there early, before the crowds.”

And I seem to recall saying that would be fine – but really, I just don’t remember. The moment is lost now, gone in the shuffling of dreams.


He came by at exactly eleven-thirty. Very prompt, and quite jolly, too – given the circumstances. Max hopped down and joined us as we walked up to the parking lot and over to a little car hiding under a tan protective cover, and the Old Man unwrapped an ancient Porsche Targa, then he folded the cover and tossed it behind his seat before asking Max to hop in and take a seat.

And here I have to back-up a little. 

Max was usually confined to quarters when I left the boat, but the Old Man assured me it would be fine if Max joined us – yet I had my doubts. Max was just two and hardly what most people would considered trained, and let’s not even mention that he lived to chase seagulls – and females of any breed. Getting him on a leash was usually a two handed chore as that usually meant we were headed up to the Golden Gardens dog park for one of our hours long walks – but not when the Old Man showed up that morning. Max was docile yet smiled all the way to the restaurant’s parking lot, and he walked between us through the restaurant and out to their patio.

And the Old Man had apparently called ahead as there was a plate of thinly sliced salmon ready and waiting on the table. An adorable young thing came by and kissed him on the cheek before she handed me a menu and, I wondered, what other surprises might be lying in wait this morning? He never ordered yet a plate of salmon sashimi appeared out of nowhere, along with a vanishingly small Caesar salad, and whenever Max asked the Old Man slipped him a thick slice of the fatty salmon. 

“So, you flew the EA-6B?” he said at one point, his eyes fixed on mine as he gauged my reaction. “Before you retired?”

“And you know this how?” I asked.

But he shrugged, and I’d like to say he did so playfully but you could never be sure with that guy. Nothing, I soon learned, was ever what it seemed where he was concerned. “Oh, I guess I heard someone talking on the dock,” he finally said.

Which was a meaningless diversion – as I’d never mentioned flying, and hadn’t since my retirement – and I told him exactly that.

And the old bastard had simply shrugged and smiled again, then turned and given Max another slice of salmon. “You were with VMAQ-4, weren’t you? In February of ’13?”

“And you’re beginning to piss me off,” I think I said.

“I was responsible for sending you to Kamchatka. I thought you should know.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I might have said, but by that point I think I actually wanted to kill the bastard.

But he shrugged one more time, then he looked away: “Everyone that moves into the marina, well, I’ve made my share of enemies over the years and you can never be too careful.”

“I see.”

“Do you? Splendid.” He reached out and rubbed Max’s chin, a move that was guaranteed to send him into barrel rolls of bliss, then he looked at me once again. “I was married to a Japanese girl, you see, yet I was British Intelligence. I lived a complicated life.”

“And now here you are, living on a boat in Seattle.”

“Some circumstances are beyond our control.”

“Circumstances? What the hell does that mean…?”

“How is your crab? I hear it’s good here?”

“You’ve never tried it?”

“No. I’m on a rather strict diet. Low carbohydrates, no sugars.”


He nodded. “Vicious stuff, but with effort you can stay one step ahead of the curve.”

“I see. So, Haiku. Are you going out, or just living aboard?”

“I’m not quite sure yet. Time will tell.”

“No dog of your own?” I asked.

And he shook his head. “Seems unfair to me. Some days I can barely walk up to the parking lot, and I think such a life would be cruel for a pup.”

“Go to a shelter. Find an older pup with arthritis.”

“Brilliant idea.”

“My mom volunteered at a shelter in Santa Barbara. Dad insisted, because she kept bringing strays home.”

“So you’ve always had dogs in your life?”

“Within the obvious limitations, yes.”

“Yes, always on the move. He seems a good friend.”

“Max? Oh, he’s the best.”

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“I think we’ll do the coconut run, but nothing’s set in stone.”


“My dad and I always dreamt of going to Polynesia, sailing the islands.”

“Just you and Max?”


He smiled. “Romantic, even though it’s illegal.”

“What do you mean, illegal?”

“Single-handing by definition means you can’t stand a proper watch, so you’ll not be able to secure insurance for the longer, offshore passages. No insurance means you can’t clear into France, which the islands belong to, of course.”

“I see.”

“Haven’t done your homework yet, I take it?”

“I guess not.”

“Bureaucrats rule the entire world these days, but I guess you know that. I hear there are a few companies that will underwrite single-handers, but their policies are quite expensive and very limited in scope. You’d do far better, I think, to run down to a shelter and pick up a wife. Perhaps one without arthritis?”

He was of course enjoying himself immensely; if eyes could laugh his were rolling on the floor. “Point taken,” I remember muttering – just under my breath.

“Ah, well, just one more thing to add to the list. Funny how our lists grow and grow.” He passed another slab of salmon to Max, then rubbed his chin again. Max was, of course, not taking his eyes off the Old Man now – not even for a second.

“How’s your salad,” I asked.

“Marie makes a special Caesar dressing for me. No sugar means no lemon, and of course I crave lemon now. I could bathe in the stuff and not be happier.”

“So, what’s stopping you?”

“Indeed. That is the question. Fear of death, I think, more than anything else. But that’s hardly original, I suppose.”

“Doesn’t have to be original to hurt…say, I hate to ask, but I don’t know your name.”

“No, you don’t. And technically, I suppose, I don’t know yours.”

I nodded. “And I reckon you want to keep it that way, don’t you?”

Oh, how those eyes laughed.


The next day, more out of curiosity than anything else, Max and I walked out the pier to the Old Man’s yacht. To look it over, you might say. To say the design was austere was an understatement, yet her lines were defiantly elegant. The antithesis of almost all modern sailboats – with their fat sterns and plumb bows, Haiku reminded me of an old J boat from the ‘20s – the 1920s. Low freeboard and gallant overhangs, her decks were teak and her coachroofs were varnished mahogany, and all the deck hardware, every bit of it, was bronze polished to a golden sheen. As Max and I walked along admiring her, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this beast had cost. 

But just then the Old Man appeared, walking out the pier from the parking lot, and he had a small package wrapped in white paper in his hand. Salmon, no doubt. And he didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see us, either.

“And how is Max today,” the Old Man said as he walked up.

And yes, Max stood and licked the Old man’s chin again.

“That’s such a good boy,” he cooed. “Such a good boy.”

“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “He’s usually not like this.”

“Of course he isn’t. But then again, if you walked up to him with two pounds of fresh salmon in hand you might be surprised what he might do.”

“I see your point.”

“So, what brings you out today?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, but I just had to take a look,” I said, my eyes lingering on Haiku’s bow.

“Bruce King drew her; she was built in Spain a few years ago.”

“What? She looks like something straight out of The Great Gatsby…”

“Thanks. I think that was his intent.”

“Again, I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For the intrusion.”

“The intrusion. Oh, my. Do I really seem so forbidding?”

I don’t know why, but in a way our being out there felt like an intrusion on his privacy – and this despite the fact that people were forever walking the docks looking at other sailor’s boats. At times it almost felt like an evening ritual, but there was something about the man and his yacht that seemed to scream out for privacy. Like it was a palpably physical need of his. So of course I apologized again and turned to leave.

But Max wasn’t buying it. He sat at the Old Man’s feet and wouldn’t budge.

And then the rascal just looked at me and smiled. “Is this what you call a Mexican standoff?” he said, his eyes smiling again. 

If it was, perhaps that explained what came next. The Old Man walked back down the pier to Tiki IV – with my sorry-ass turncoat hound at his heels – and then he pointed to Tiki’s cockpit and told Max to sit up there and wait for his treat.

God damn dog!

Because of course Max hopped right up into the cockpit – something he had resolutely refused to do for me – and then he just sat there, grinning while he waited for his next slice of nirvana. And the Old Man opened his carefully wrapped package and picked up a rather large slice of salmon and gently passed it over to Max.

Who looked at me as if asking for my permission.

But then Max took the slice so gently I could scarcely believe he was my dog.

And so the Old Man gave him another slice, and another.

“If you keep this up,” I sighed, “I’ll never be able to afford to feed this dog again.”

“If he keeps this up,” he replied, “I won’t be having my supper tonight.”

We laughed and Max smiled, and when the Old Man saw that smile his resolve seemed to melt away. And so, there went the rest of his supper.

“Let me take you down to the Boathouse,” I said. “I don’t want your death from starvation hanging over my head…”

But he shook his head at my suggestion. “I’m beyond tired. Perhaps another time.”

“Assuming you survive the night, you mean.”

“Yes. Quite so. Now Max, you stay there with – oh, that’s right – I forgot, we’re on a no-name basis, aren’t we?”

“Call me Spud,” I offered.

“Ah, that’s right. That was your handle, wasn’t it? In the squadron, I mean.”

“Yes,” I sighed, still aggravated by the depth of his knowledge.

“And I’m just Pat, to my friends, anyway,” he tossed-in, as a kind of consolation prize. “Now Max, I’ve got to go now, but I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And as I watched him walk off, obviously without a care in the world, it struck me that he looked rather sad, and I’d say almost even lonely – but that would have been just a guess on my part. He seemed indecipherable, not merely enigmatic – like an obsidian wall lost in shadow. There was no way to tell what was inside the Old Man, or where the shadows and the black-hearted wall met.

But as we, Max and I, watched him walk out to Haiku we saw the strangest thing.

A great white bird circled overhead and at first I thought it was just another gull, but then the raptor spread it’s wings and slowed before it settled on one of Haiku’s mast’s spreaders, and then I could see that the bird was a large white owl. Rather enigmatic looking, too.

And as the creature settled-in up there on his perch the creature seemed to watch the Old Man for a while, but then it’s amber eyes turned to me, and to Max, and it would be difficult for me even now to describe what I felt in that moment. Whatever it was I felt, I was aware of a deep shiver running up my spine and into that part of the brain that commands you to run.

(c)2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, plain and simple

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