A captain called Fatty

Matt Vance reckons sailors have always been on the periphery of society. Periodically buggering off over the horizon puts them in league with bad debtors and jailbirds in the eyes of landlubber society.

In the sailing world, these people are revered rather than scorned. They allow us to live vicariously through their adventures and doff our caps to those who seemed to have mastered the elusive art of freedom in a world that wants you to be anything but.

It is rare to meet the perpetual cruiser these days, as affluence has made popular the opt-in-opt-out kind of cruising that goes with large property portfolios or successful business. But in the quiet reaches of the Whangarei River, waiting out the Pacific cyclone season, are two of the best perpetual cruisers you’re ever likely to meet.

Gary ‘Fatty’ Goodlander and his wife Carolyn are moored only metres from the hustling downtown of Whangarei, but about a million miles from the edge of western capitalist society.

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They have been around long enough to have seen it all, from the sextant to GPS, carvel planks to GRP, and from kerosene to solar panels. As sailors who write about it, they have inherited a salty lineage from Eric and Susan Hiscock and Lin and Larry Pardey and have made it their quirky own.

I once heard Fatty’s writing described as “like the Hiscocks without pants.” His style is as unique as it is honest, but comes from unlikely beginnings. Fatty’s father Jim was a WWII veteran who returned to a world gone mad.

He became a beatnik, a fine sailor and raised his family on a 52-foot, Alden-designed schooner, which they sailed around the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. This delightfully bohemian upbringing gave his family a unique grounding in the sea and the art of self-reliance in a post-war world hell-bent on commerce, convenience and stability.

Fatty accumulated only five years of schooling and at the age of 15 purchased Corina, a 22-foot double-ender yacht built in 1932 that he parked behind a factory in a rough section of Chicago’s South Side.

It was there that he got the nickname that would later become his nom de plume (only police officers call him Gary). He’d been doing some acting work, and once the neighbourhood 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.

They were close. Instead of getting all the girls he got the best girl: “I have had some luck in my time and marrying Carolyn was one of my best strokes of luck. We have been sailing together offshore for 50 years and I am still totally infatuated with her. Without her, I would not be me,” says Fatty.

Fatty likes to talk. Better than that he likes to yarn. The stories are engaging and full of the absurdity of life. Carolyn is more reclusive, yet you can tell she is the engine room of the operation; quietly achieving among all the confusion and laughter of Fatty’s cyclonic personality.

“I had always wanted to write, yet I was told that was something only people of vast education could do,” says Fatty. “Luckily, I rapidly learned that good writing has little to do with intelligence and almost nothing to do with modern education. It’s just transparency of personality on the printed page, that’s all. It just takes a little grit. And I’ve got plenty of that.”

If there is one thing that has got Fatty noticed in the world of marine writing it is his tenacity. Mix this with his honesty and some good humour and you have the first taste of the 11 herbs and spices that make their voyages and books so successful.

Fatty’s 13 books are a mix of bar yarn (Chasing the Horizon) and practical how-to (Buy, Outfit and Sail). He has a knack of making the potentially dry stuff entertaining. His book Creative Anchoring is among the best on the topic there is. His unique style makes it a great read – even for those who will never feel the need to let out any scope. My copy of it is lent out on occasions and returned mud-stained, which must be some measure of its value.

All this accumulated experience has come at a price. Fatty and Carolyn have had to swim away from two boats destroyed by the effects of hurricanes in the Caribbean. In a serendipitous twist of fate Hurricane Hugo took their 36ft ketch Carlotta but it also gifted them their next boat – Wild Card – a Hughes 38 as a $3000 salvage wreck.

It was one of many instances of turning a dream into reality through hard work and tenacity to create a strong, safe, magic carpet that had very little to do with money or buying stuff to junk up your boat.

While the modern trend is for cruising couples to become YouTubers or ‘digital beggars,’ as the cynical call them, Fatty and Carolyn still have the advantage of providing information from experience and not incompetence or titillation (despite what my friend said about no pants!). Fatty even has an imposter floating around out there pretending to be him, which surely is the greatest compliment to any writer.

Their latest boat, Ganesh, is a commodious 43-foot Doug Pye-designed ketch. On her backstay flies the Stars and Stripes. “During our second circumnavigation we didn’t fly our flag in the Red Sea as we were fearful of retribution. Now, in this Trumpian era, wherever we fly it people offer us condolences!” says Fatty.

In typical style they were using their time in Whangarei to do some maintenance and as I came aboard it was the galley sink and bench top that were receiving attention. Thanks to the nearby joinery factories there was no shortage of good quality offcuts to finish the job.

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You can tell a lot about cruising sailors by the knick-knacks they accumulate. The interior of Ganesh is adorned by a fantastic collection of curios from around the world. The Freaky Tiki is there among pipes, daggers and other objects of obscure function.

It is a collection that denotes a well-travelled couple with a wealth of good memories. They are true citizens of the world at a time when the world needs more citizens like Carolyn and Fatty Goodlander.

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