Lots of cruising sailors wash over the collective bow of St. John. Many are capable and navigate the Sir Francis Drake Channel like it was a lake. Others fall into the category of quirky and fade quickly from memory. Others just stick because they are so real. John St. John is one cruiser that I will never forget.
A Disaster of a Disaster Film
In early May the St. John Film Society featured a documentary called Chasing Ice. The late season showing detailing the effects of global warming was largely a disaster.
When equipment failure stuck, Andrea Leland, the director of the Film Society managed to find Great Cruz Bay’s unofficial harbormaster (when Rusty is away) Captain Ken just before showtime. Over the past decade this local sailor has earned the reputation as the boat guy who can fix most anything. Alas the projector was flawed and even Ken’s heroic last minute efforts couldn’t save a big blotch from dominating the screen. Finally sound problems made the charade untenable.
Still the small crowd gathered at the St. John School of the Arts managed to enjoy themselves. Andrea once again made lemonade from the pickable fruit on the property and everyone left happy. It was almost as if she knew the local meaning of chasing ice.
Here Come The Experts
I learned the term, “chasing ice” from a guy who liked to call himself John St. John. He showed up in Cruz Bay in his beat up Pearson “SV Adhura” from around the Turn of the Century. John was tall and lanky and always went to great pains to cover up his balding head. He told everyone he was an attorney and he just decided to sail away from his practice in Pascagoula, Mississippi. He was a lawyer, I checked, because at first I didn’t believe him.
John was an extremely socially awkward, but likable, when he would stop telling you how things should be done. There are lots of experts in the sailing world. They will tell you themselves. But John had a friendly way of telling you the right way to do things.
Of course, sometimes his sermons were a little hard to take. We were at Independent Boatyard on St. Thomas reglassing the hull of Southern Breeze. We had a system – I stirred the epoxy, Han cut the strips and Steve layed up.
John showed up out of the blue one day and watched our act in the 90 degree heat. When we took a break he started telling me exactly how to stir the glue. I apparently wasn’t holding the cup at the correct angle and for some reason, which he detailed that day, you should always stir counter-clockwise.
We laughed about him at the bar for two hours that night, but deep down we knew he had our and our boats best interest in mind.
The Simple Life
John was on a mad quest for the simple life. He preferred to row his dinghy to shore instead of mount any of the perfectly maintained outboards he owned.
I still employ an ingenious technique for cleaning an outboard carburetor, which he painstakingly showed me one afternoon. It seems like yesterday.
Somebody gave John an umbrella from the old Wendy’s hamburger stand that was at Wharfside Village around the time of Hurricane Marylin. While most boaters favor a proper bimini for their cockpit, thrift and ease was the priority for John. I still remember sitting under that umbrella learning the proper way to maintain a two-cycle engine.
“I am just showing you this so I don’t have to fix your damn outboard every time it breaks,” John told me. “Now it is up to you.”
It was that day that I learned that John cut his rolls of paper towel in half and had a three step regime for each strip of paper before it could be thrown out. John could squeeze a lot of value out of a penny.
Not a Yachtie
John was a hard worker but he would go to great lengths not to toil for actual money. He put in long days at the Cafe Roma back when it was a real community hub. Josh owned the restaurant back then and Guido was often behind the bar and I remember Tori and host of other St. John celebrities making pizzas.
John was the maintenance man. And he was always fixing something. He had the plumbing gerry-rigged in some crazy way so the dishwasher could get extra hot water in the sprayer. He was always working on the electric system, especially the ovens.
He refused monetary compensation but he reserved the right to order a pizza whenever he wanted. He called in the “John Special” almost every other night. It was a mixture of cheeses, sauce and vegetables. A combination he believed did not need to be refrigerated.
If there was too much, part of the pizza would often show up on my deck. You see, there was no way John would ever consider having even a small fridge on his boat. Those were for yachties! John fancied himself a cruiser. He wasn’t going to waste electricity on something as frivolous as cold food. John had a code.
While a fridge was verboten, John allowed himself the luxury of a light to read by at night. Much of his decidedly old school code came from the pages of Farley Mowatt and Tristan Jones. He was also a devotee of sailing guidebooks by Don Street and Bruce Van Sant, but he wouldn’t buy them, instead he squirrled away copies someone Xeroxed for him.
When he wasn’t fixing things on the barter system, John played his guitar. He loved to play at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar. He would not get paid but he would eat and drink like a king. And he knew everybody on Jost. He took my friend Salida Steve over to watch Kenny Chesney making a video at Ivan’s Stress Free Bar one time. I still see his face when that “no shoes” video plays on the country music channel.
John wasn’t a big partier, but he would drink beer if you were buying. But he certainly would never keep anything as frivolous as beer on his boat. It was part of his code and it never really seemed odd, especially for him.
Sometimes I would see him get agitated with people who spent too much time and energy getting a buzz.
I favored having a few cold greenies at that time in my life and when he saw me taking my dinghy into Larry’s Pour Your Own bar at Wharfside Village, he would watch with a frown. When I came back with a $2 bag from the St. John Ice Company to chill my greenies, John couldn’t hold his tongue.
“Still chasing ice,” he would say to me, shaking his head.
What he didn’t tell us was that he was dying of cancer and he thought it would be more fun to sail the Caribbean than to toil in the halls of justice in the American South.
When John died we learned that he had plenty of money, even a big house in Mississippi. He knew he was on the way out, but he wouldn’t break his code. He enjoyed living well within his means. He wouldn’t have enjoyed it any other way. He wasn’t about to chase ice, even if the clock was ticking. Yachties chased ice. He was a cruising sailor and damn proud of it.
Are you a frugal sailor? Share your money saving tips in the comments below.
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About Bob Tis
A long time St. John resident and career journalist Bob currently writes for Relix Magazine, the St. Augustine Record and What To Do – VI. He is the author of the Hearts of Palm, Down Island and co-author of Code Word: Freedom. He lives in Cruz Bay.
*Special mention to Close Hauled, cruisingoutpost.com for the great sailing cartoons!Tags:Cruising, Sailing