The Kindness of Strangers

Several years ago, Eric and I went to a meet-your-congressman event at a coffeehouse in St. Augustine. He wasn’t someone we’d vote for, but in the interests of being informed citizens we wanted to hear his views. He opened with a strong statement in favor of supporting Israel, then moved on to pending legislation in Congress, including immigration. That got a big response from the packed and virtually all-white audience—no, no, no! When a young man working with  a nonprofit that assisted victims of sexual trafficking asked the audience to at least consider the plight of the people he served, they shouted him down. The kicker came when the event was over and Eric and I were walking back to our car. Just ahead of us were two women who had also been at the program.

“How can he possibly favor supporting Israel?” one of them huffed to the other. “Doesn’t he know that’s a country where people help each other?”

It’s a comment I’ll never forget, and it’s been in my mind again these two weeks here in Miami after our shakedown cruise from St. Augustine. A shakedown indeed. In the rougher-than-predicted weather the main reef, the port lazy jack, the boom keeper line and both flag halyards broke. A hole opened in the jib, the boom wore a hole in the bimini, the gooseneck fitting cracked in two places. Other equipment that had previously worked fine chose to act up, notably the sump pump and galley faucet. This is actually good—if any part of your boat or equipment is not up to snuff, you want to find out when you are in a place with supplies and expertise rather than far out at sea.

Nevertheless, it was demoralizing, and now we had a long, expensive to-do list on our hands. The first thing we did was call sailing friends and professional contacts from Eric’s career to get referrals and advice. They rushed in like the cavalry. Bob and Joan arrived from Palatka and spent two days helping with rigging repairs and driving us around Miami on errands. Jeff, the owner of a marine manufacturing company near Ft. Lauderdale, took us out to eat twice to cheer us up and made us promise that if we needed any marine part, anywhere in the world, to notify him and he would obtain or fabricate it and ship it to us on his company’s FedEx account. Moises, a nonsailing friend in St. Augustine, put us in touch with still more contacts on the Miami scene.

But on top of that came the kindness of strangers. Most are other boat owners we met for the first time here at Dinner Key Marina. Greg loaned us shackles for measurement purposes and drove an hour and a half round trip to get a powered hacksaw from his home so we could cut off a bent fitting. Gary offered the use of his bicycle and heroically winched Eric up the mast to attach our new rigging. Sailors in the marina lounge deluged us with advice on cruising guides, Bahamian ports and where to get our propane tanks refilled. Brooks, a marine supplier to whom we were introduced by Bob and Joan, referred us to a rigger, took us out to lunch at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and introduced us to Don, a sailing author, who invited us to call him if there were any gaps he could fill in. John, the rigger, loaned us his 4-to-1 block and tackle to make hoisting Eric up the mast easier. Many others passing on the dock stopped just to chat.

It was like this when we sailed Duprass in 1977-78, too. From England to the Caribbean to California, wherever boats congregated in anchorages or marinas, sailors pitched in to help one another. It’s an instant community and one of the aspects of cruising we cherish. It’s also, in our personal experience, an all-white/brown community. We’ve never met a black sailboat owner and hope that when we do the dynamics won’t change.

Meanwhile, we look for ways to pay the kindness forward to the strangers we meet along our way. Eric is more than happy to provide advice on naval architecture, we’ll take your lines when you dock, we might just carry that special tool you need. You don’t have to be a sailor either. As I write, Eric is in the cockpit talking with a Brazilian family on the seawall who were curious about our boat and its free-standing rig.

Unlike the woman at the political event, we can’t imagine living among people who don’t help each other. In the immortal words of Lennon-McCartney, the love you take is equal to the love you make. If we all did that, what a wonderful world it would be.