Celebrated cruiser and author Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has sailed some 100,000 miles and visited about 100 countries, but he’s never been to the Pacific Northwest.
That will change in a couple of weeks, when Goodlander arrives in Port Townsend to speak at the second annual Spring Boating Symposium at the Northwest Maritime Center, to be held March 16 to 18.
“I’ve sailed in California a little bit but have not come up to the Northwest,” Goodlander said during a recent interview from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where his boat is currently moored.
“This is particularly sad, since all those early sailors on Puget Sound were my heroes when I was growing up. I’m really looking forward to my visit.”
After 52 years of living aboard his sailboat, Goodlander isn’t exactly your regular cruiser — not that he ever was. The seeds of Goodlander’s existence as a self-described “sea gypsy” were sewn early. His father was a beatnik and disillusioned World War II vet, his mother an adventurous free spirit who lived in the moment.
When Goodlander was an infant, his father worked as a graphic artist in Chicago and had the account for Bull Durham tobacco, whose corporate mascot was a bull. As Goodlander tells it, his father started drawing a particular part of the bull’s anatomy larger and larger, and in short order got himself fired.
Captain Fat is born
Goodlander’s father packed the family onto their 52-foot, Alden-designed schooner Elizabeth and set off for Tahiti in search of free love and liberation from the rat race. They sailed around the Gulf of Mexico and Florida, then Goodlander’s father became ill with Parkinson’s disease and the family returned to Chicago.
Goodlander was 12 by that time and unequipped to fit in with polite society. He arrived for the first day of school with a copy of Henry Miller’s infamous novel “Tropic of Cancer,” which had been banned by the U.S. government for obscenity, with the naughty parts underlined in crayon.
He was obsessed with cars but too young to get one, so at 15 he bought Corina, a 1932, 22-foot double-ender sailboat that he parked behind a factory in a tough section of Chicago’s South Side and lived on during the warmer months. It was there Goodlander got the nickname that would later become his nom de plume.
He’d been doing some acting work, and once the neighborhood kids found out about it they jokingly started calling him “Fat,” teasing that he’d soon be a rich actor who got all the girls. When they heard he had his own sailboat, it became “Captain Fat.” Later, in his 20s, Goodlander started using Cap’n Fatty Goodlander for the saltier pieces he wrote to avoid getting sacked by another marine publication he was writing for. Eventually, straight guy Gary Goodlander got pushed aside and Fatty the sea rover took over.
Goodlander was still in high school when he met his wife, Carolyn, a middle class girl who was valedictorian and thought graduating was important. So Goodlander sailed around Chicago for a few years until she finished high school, then they took off together.
They spent more than a decade cruising on Carlotta, the 36-foot boat they built together, until September of 1989, when a 70-foot schooner dragged down on them during Hurricane Hugo while they were anchored in the Caribbean with their 8-year-old daughter, Roma Orion.
Carlotta —the boat they had built 18 years earlier, their home, the manifestation of their hopes and dreams — was destroyed.
“It was not just losing our life savings and our home,” he said. “It was like losing a little bit of us.”
‘Not against money’
Losing Carlotta was an enormous blow, but before long the resourceful couple bought another Hurricane Hugo casualty, a 1978 Hughes 38 that had been holed and sank awash on a beach on St. John. They purchased the boat’s salvage rights for $3,000, restored her and have now sailed some 80,000 miles on her.
To eke out a living at sea, Goodlander set his sights on becoming a writer. He had no experience and thought a dangling participle was probably something dirty, but he was a voracious reader and compensated for his lack of knowledge with tenacity and unflagging optimism (read his story about becoming a writer here).
Goodlander began writing for boating magazines, became a radio correspondent for National Public Radio and published more than half a dozen books. He’s currently a regular contributor and editor for Cruising World magazine and has become known for his colorful, often hilarious storytelling.
Goodlander’s writing chops have allowed him and Carolyn to roam the watery world in search of new experiences. They’ve cruised to remote atolls, tripped through Southeast Asia, spent years in the tropics. To him, being at sea equals freedom, and having freedom is his foremost guiding principle. Living on land means rules and career-climbing and consumerism, all of which are anathema to him.
“I’m not against money, because I do earn money,” he said. “I’m just against thinking money is the only way to do things.”
Instead, Goodlander barters when he can and fixes up things other people would simply toss. When he needed a diesel engine, he went to the biggest distributor in the Caribbean and convinced him to sell him a new engine at less than half price; in exchange, Goodlander did some writing for the man’s business. When he needed a new roller furler, he put the word out and got a damaged one from a cruiser who didn’t want it, then rebuilt it.
Safety and self-reliance
But Goodlander is quick to emphasize that cruising cheaply doesn’t mean sacrificing safety, just as dropping thousands on safety equipment doesn’t guarantee anything. His boat is as safe as he can make it, he says, and that means avoiding areas he’s not sure it can handle.
“I believe that if you’re on a limited budget and you have a basic boat, as I do, you have to be very careful about where you are,” he said. “One of my basic rules is to be in the right ocean at the right time or have the right equipment to handle it.
“If I have a religion, it’s safety, self-reliance and self-discipline. That’s what keeps me alive.”
The cruising life isn’t always easy. There are boat repairs, money concerns and the occasional storm to deal with. Goodlander and his wife have had three brushes with pirates: off Borneo, in the Strait of Malacca and in the Gulf of Aden. In the first two instances, pirate boats approached but Goodlander was able to steer Wild Card away in time.
The trip through the Gulf of Aden was in 2010, when Goodlander and his wife were heading for the Netherlands for the birth of their daughter’s child. There wasn’t enough time to go the safer route around the Cape of Good Hope so they joined a flotilla of 27 vessels heading from Oman. Though none of the boats was attacked by pirates, Goodlander said there were reports of attacks every day over the radio.
“It is strange to be listening and know there’s a ship under attack by pirate vessels 20 miles away,” he said. “It is unnerving. You don’t know what to do.”
A year later, in February of 2011, Goodlander’s friends Scott and Jean Adam, and Seattle sailors Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, were killed by pirates aboard the Adams’ sailboat, Quest, off the coast of Somalia. After that, Goodlander says, he wouldn’t consider traveling through the area again.
“There was no reason for the people on Quest to die. There was no reason for most of those pirates to die,” he said. “But events conspire when you get teenagers with AK47s, high on drugs. People do the most unbelievably stupid things. And that’s what happened.”
Despite the risks, Goodlander sees the cruising life as safer than driving on a freeway to work every day, not to mention infinitely more interesting and fun. He has no plans to give it up anytime soon.
“The boat is a magic carpet that allows us to transport anywhere,” he said. “The boat allows me to be, or at least approach being, the freest man in the world. We’ve been to 100 different countries. We’re just having a ball.”
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander will be speaking during the Northwest Maritime Center’s second annual Spring Boating Symposium at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17 on “Ocean Cruising for Pennies Per Mile,” and at 7 p.m. on “Chasing the Horizon: The Life and Times of a Modern Day Sea Gypsy.” A full symposium schedule and registration is available on the center’s website.