Dead Calm

I was thinking about TT this morning. He was aged about 77 or something, but very spry. He was great fun when he was smoking and drinking and in full flow with his numerous, mostly nautical stories. I didn’t know him very well, but I knew that he’d spent a lot of his life in small boats. I think he designed electronic navigation equipment or something. It set me remembering a few of my rather more modest boating experiences:

It must’ve been 1987 or something, and we were chugging slowly across the Aegean sea towards our destination holiday island in a small open boat, powered by what sounded like a lawnmower engine, when L turned to me and said:

“If the boat sinks, you will rescue me, won’t you?”

We still had maybe another couple of miles to get to Skopelos, and the sea was flat calm, and the boat wasn’t filling with water, and the lawnmower engine was still working, and the pilot hadn’t collapsed and died just yet, and anyway there were a couple of oars in the boat, so I said:


L looked at me very earnestly, and said:

Promise you will rescue me.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. “I promise.” And then spent the last two miles imagining what it would be like trying to keep myself afloat as she clung to me in the open sea after the wind had come up, and the lawnmower engine had died, and the pilot had fallen backwards into the water holding both the oars, and the boat had sunk after the big waves began breaking over it.

She works in smoking cessation these days. And in retrospect I can see why.

In fact the wind can come up very quickly, and transform a calm sea into a raging storm in just a few minutes. I’d experienced it several times.

My father used to keep a little boat at a yacht club in the Saco de Sao Francisco on the east side of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara bay. It was clinker-built, with one mast and a single sail and a small outboard motor. Him and me and my mother climbed into it one placid Sunday afternoon in 1960, just to potter about offshore, and maybe go swimming. When my father cut the motor in the middle of the Saco, we were about half a mile offshore.

We hadn’t been there long when the wind suddenly came up from the east, and the flat waters of the Saco started to first get choppy, and then mount into ever higher waves.

My mother started screeching at my father to restart the motor and go back to the yacht club on the north shore. But it wouldn’t start. At the best of times it would usually take about 10 pulls on its lanyard to get it going. But this time it flatly refused. Too windy or too rough.

The boat was beginning to take in a little bit of water by now, and my father decided that the only thing for it was to break out the sail. I helped him haul it slowly up as the boat pitched and rolled.

And then we were running before the wind, heading out of the Saco into Guanabara Bay, where the waves were even higher. My mother subsided into the bottom of the boat, saying she couldn’t stand it any more, and was just going to lie there until it was over. And my father laughed.

I loved it. And I sat right up on the bow of the boat, with my legs dangling into the water, clinging onto the mast’s forestay, as the boat plunged into the troughs and mounted the waves and the spray flew in my face over the boat. It was exhilerating.

Eventually we came to a headland with a tiny beach, and my father let the wind carry the boat up onto the sand. Half an hour later, the wind dropped, and the sun came out. And we climbed back into the boat, and the motor started with the first pull on the lanyard, and we went slowly back to the yacht club in the Saco, with my mother swearing she’d never go out in an open boat again.

My mother used to be a social smoker, but when she got older she became something of an antismoker. In retrospect maybe I can see why.

The last time I saw TT a couple of years back, I visited him in his little flat, and he offered me tea and cigarettes. Even whisky if I’d like some. And we sat talking, and he told me that he didn’t go out to pubs and cafes any more after smoking got banned. “I’m too old to stand outside.” He wasn’t very well. He had lots of pills. He’d had a colostomy bag ever since half his intestines had been removed when he’d been diagnosed with cancer. After they’d removed them, they found that there wasn’t any cancer after all. But they couldn’t put them back in, could they? Nevertheless the doctors said he should quit smoking. He said he’d stopped for a couple of weeks, but he’d got so depressed that he’d started again.

I used to wonder what life was like for him now that they’d taken away his pubs and his cafes and all his boating friends, and pretty much the only people who visited him now were the antismoking doctors and the antismoking nurses and his antismoking ex-wife and the antismoking home help who came in while we were talking and told us both we shouldn’t be smoking. It didn’t look like it was much fun.

His antismoking ex-wife phoned me a week or so ago to say that he’d died a few months earlier, and she’d just scattered his ashes out at sea. “He would’ve liked that,” I said. She went on to say that he’d stopped eating. They’d tried to make him eat, but he couldn’t keep anything down, and slowly wasted away. “Not a nice death,” she said. And of course she had to mention his “smoking and drinking”, as if somehow they’d been the cause of everything.

This morning it suddenly occurred to me that maybe he’d decided to stop eating, because he’d simply had enough of being bullied and badgered by all the ferocious killjoys that now surrounded him. It was perhaps his final act of self-determination. It was something that he could still do. Just him. He could just say No to them all, and spit out their food back into their faces. Because he wasn’t frightened of death like they were. For, unlike them, he’d faced that prospect many times before, out on the sea when the storm winds came, and the engine wouldn’t start, and the radio battery gave out.

And maybe when he died, in his own mind he wasn’t lying in a hospital bed with tubes in his arms, but was floating in a dead calm clinging to a broken mast beneath a burning sun, without food or water for two or maybe three weeks, he couldn’t really remember how long.

About Frank Davis

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13 Responses to Dead Calm

  1. Walt says:

    Wow. Another brilliant, moving, insightful piece of writing. Christ, you are good.

    • smokervoter says:

      I was about to say the same thing.

      There’s nothing quite like a true salty sea tale combined with a bit of philosophy to get you thinking about things.

      I’ve had a couple of very close calls in boats myself. They really bring home the reality that there’s no such thing as a risk-free day at sea. The ocean and the weather do what they do regardless of what plans you might have had in mind when you set out from the shore.

      Antismokers, killjoys and control freaks should best steer clear of the unpredictable wind and the waves.

  2. harleyrider1978 says:

    Damn Frank what a lucky Bloke! He lived her free to the end then!

    I havent much of a sea story to share except I spent 2 weeks on the USS FORRESTFIRE once!

    USS FORRESTAL for everyone else. Had to sleep below the launch rail for 3 days………..not much sleep but at least we could smoke!

    Then there was my buddy in SEA LEVEL N.C. at the electronic warfare range where I went to work.

    At work this one day he told me a guy gave him a a small wooden row boat for free and it was moored in the water in fron of his house. I went by on a saturday to visit unexpected and to check out his newly acquired wooden boat. Problem was it tied up alright,it was just a wee bit sunken under the water with just the bow point sticking up. It was a choppy sea but I could see why the guy gave my friend Dave the boat it was sunk! So I went into the cold water and drug the boat to shore after untying it.

    then I hooked my truck to it and got it on the beach water and all………I then started to bail the water out by hand when my Dave came home! He yelled what are you doing…….Well I said Im getting the water out of your boat and if we can find the hole maybe we can fix her up and she will float again!

    He just started LAUGHING……..And after he calmed down with me standing there soak and wet. He exclaims the boat was sunk ON PURPOSE…..So the wood would swell up and keep it from drawing water!

    Kinda like soaking wagone wheels in a creek so they dont dry out and fall off the steel rim!

  3. Wonderfully written tribute to a good man Frank! Hopefully he’s sitting up on cloud with a good smoke and a drink and looking down and smiling at ya!


  4. Walt says:

    O this T but, back on your discussion of Europe and democracy as it’s been hitherto known, this article sums it up:

  5. Gary K. says:

    He died because of lies!!!!!
    Smoking bans are for the health of the non-smokers; but here is a list of things for you to consider.
    (Note: I have always considered it very strange that SHS/ETS causes lung cancer;but.not nasal sinus cancer among nonsmokers or nasopharyngeal carcinoma among nonsmokers!!!!)

    The 2006 Surgeon General’s Report says that SHS/ETS exposure does NOT cause:

    1. breast cancer.
    2. a risk of nasal sinus cancer among nonsmokers.
    3. a risk of nasopharyngeal carcinoma among nonsmokers.
    4. the risk of cervical cancer among lifetime nonsmokers.
    5. persons with nasal allergies or a history of respiratory illnesses are more susceptible to developing nasal irritation from secondhand smoke exposure.
    6. acute respiratory symptoms including cough, wheeze, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing among persons with asthma.
    7. acute respiratory symptoms including cough, wheeze, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing among healthy persons.
    8. chronic respiratory symptoms.
    9. an acute decline in lung function in persons with asthma.
    10. an acute decline in lung function in healthy persons.
    11. a small decrement in lung function in the general population.
    12. an accelerated decline in lung function.
    13. adult-onset asthma.
    14. a worsening of asthma control.
    15. risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(emphysema and chronic bronchitus).
    16. morbidity in persons with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

    • Gary K. says:

      For most of those problems listed,The 2006 Surgeon General’s Report says that SHS/ETS exposure causal evidence is “suggestive; but, not sufficient” to infer causality.

      The antis claim that “suggestive” is good enough!!!!

      They claim that the lack of proof of the existence of causality is not proof the causality does not exist.

      The same could be said for all number of mythical things.

  6. harleyrider1978 says:

    Heres a heads up study and its good SHIT!

    Smoking bans backfiring at some hospitals: Study

    Policies banning smoking on hospital property are leading to unintended safety consequences for patients, new Canadian research shows.

    To wit: IV lines and electronic pumps malfunctioning in extreme cold; patients in wheelchairs accidentally being locked out of entrances during a winter night; immobilized patients smoking in their beds when they can’t get help leaving the ward; nurses not knowing where their patients are when they leave the unit for a smoke.

    “We report the lived experiences of the people directly affected by these policies,” researchers from the University of Manitoba, University of Alberta and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said in a study published in this week’s issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

    At the two hospitals studied — the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton and Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre — the team found “ample” evidence that patients as well as staff continue to smoke on hospital property despite polices banning smoking inside all buildings, entrances and on all hospital grounds.

    People were seen smoking directly under signs forbidding smoking. Smokers were usually spotted near entrances or in places allowing them to hide while they smoked, researchers wrote.

    “Staff who had reportedly been seen smoking on hospital property included security guards, ambulance drivers, nurses and doctors.”

    Enforcement efforts, they said, were reportedly minimal.

    Cleaners described picking up five to 10 pounds of discarded cigarette butts some days.

    The researchers stressed that hospital smoke-free policies make sense. Tobacco is the leading cause of disease and premature death. What’s more, patients who smoke have more post-operative complications and a worsening of their health conditions while in hospital than non-smokers, they say.

    But smoking needs to be framed as an addiction and not a habit, said lead author Annette Schultz, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of nursing.

    Smokers — already feeling vulnerable and stressed because of being in hospital — need to be offered help coping with withdrawal, such as nicotine patches and gum. However nicotine-replacement therapy wasn’t consistently offered, the researchers said, and even those smokers who requested it had difficulty obtaining it.

    “Although some patients abstained from smoking while in hospital, many received minimal or no support in doing so,” the team wrote in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

    And they faced “a variety of safety concerns as a result.”

    In interviews, patients said they felt unsafe going outside alone to smoke. A few worried “about getting suddenly sick while smoking outside.” Some risked frostbite. Security guards described patients “pushing this IV pole all the day down the sidewalk in the snow” after being told not to smoke on hospital grounds.

    Comments from health-care workers included, “I have zero understanding on the drive to make a person get out of there, have that cigarette when they’re obviously having pain.”

    Other expressed compassion for smokers. “We need to address these people, because it is a stressful time to give up your bad habit.”

    In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Sharon Lawn, of Flinders University, South Australia, said the study illustrates “how the notion of responsibility can become distorted when smoking is viewed as a morally interpreted behaviour — a lifestyle choice — rather than an addiction that requires clinical support.”

    She said it was “immediately striking” how little staff felt “that enforcing the smoke-free policy was their responsibility.”

    Read more:

  7. Gary K. says:

    “Cleaners described picking up five to 10 pounds of discarded cigarette butts some days.”

    At about 0.5 gram per butt, that is over 4,500 butts.

    Either there are a lot of smokers or they do not clean very often!!

  8. Ann W. says:

    I was very moved by your beautifully written tribute Frank. You have a very special gift in your writing and the people you spend time with.

  9. Of COURSE anti-smokers want smoking bans and favor taxes foisted on some another segment of the population! Of COURSE, they’re BULLIES!

  10. Pingback: Days of Panic & Hysteria | Frank Davis

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