the S.S. Redneck Candi

I never wanted a seagoing boat before — until I saw it at the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. This one showed up on the beach at Texas’ Padre Island National Seashore, where I was camped out in my tent. Actually, it showed up where I had originally planned to pitch my tent, up the beach a few dozen yards, before I got nervous about the forecast high tides and reconnoitered, relocating to a higher, more protected spot. So that when I unzipped my tent that next foggy morning, and looked out at my original campsite with what appeared to be a thirty-foot sailboat beached right in the middle of it, I was stunned…and thrilled. As if this boat had come back to me, like a dog gone astray, searching to be reunited with its master.

The day before, I’d avoided wading in the surf, having seen multiple jellyfish washed ashore. I didn’t want to get stung. But this morning, I splashed out into the waves without a moment’s hesitation to greet this beauty, my arms wide for balance but appearing to ask, along with my lovesick grin, Where have you been all my life?

Her name was the Fin of God, a terrible name for a boat, tempting fate by involving God directly in an enterprise where one might wish to remain anonymous, so you could just skate by that whole “wrath of” aspect. But no.

Fin had been boarded by the US Coast Guard on January 29, 2021, presumably checking for persons in distress…or survivors. Black spray paint on her cabin noted “USCG” and “OK” and the date, though I might question that definition of “OK.” Her hull had a scraped gash right at the waterline on the bow. Her mast listed terribly, the sail hanging in shredded tatters from the rigging. One window of the glassed-in pilothouse was propped open like an escape hatch.

I’ve had my share of fixer-uppers — an old house, an old jeep. Rescue animals for pets. Several relationships. My hands were itching to make repairs, see what could be salvaged. Not any kind of a sailor — ever — nonetheless, I could see this boat was just my speed — older style, with beautiful lines, good bones, sleek and lean and ready to break down and dash your hopes just when you needed her.

I wanted to climb on board like a pirate, claim the Fin right then and there, and find a way to set sail. Deep in my heart, I had fallen in love at first sight. Because she represented a freedom so huge, so truly vast, that my inner wayfarer got all sappy and dizzy just trying to imagine it. I laughed out loud as I circled her hull in the shallow water, which I now recognize as this part of myself that walks the nearest plank for the thrill of jumping into the deep end of life. But why not: captivity is the alternative.

I was delighted on my return trip to Padre Island two weeks later to find my beautiful Fin still hopelessly beached, her motor’s fan blades stuck in the sand like an anchor. During my time away, someone had brought more black spray paint, rechristening her first the S.S. Minnow, an obvious if unimaginative choice, followed by the far more accurate Redneck Candi. She could not have caused more unrealistic drooling for those of us of the rural, got-a-tow-strap, how-big’s-your-old-boat-trailer set if she had been Dr. Pavlov. Or a gourmet chef. So much unrequited love. Or hungry anticipation. Whatever.

I will admit that I was sad not to be able to take that beauty home, nor to find a way to join her on the beach, seemingly forever at the rate she was moving. I left Padre Island after the annual Billy Sandifer Clean Up Day, watching wistfully as she receded into the distance behind me, while I kept traveling on.

It was one of the Friends of Padre who helped organize the clean-up, Jeff Wolda, who asked me a few weeks after I left, “You ever find out what happened to that boat?” I reviewed the few facts I knew, including that she was originally from Delaware, of all places, then asked, “Why — do you know?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied, quite pleased with himself. I instantly felt a pang of longing for my beloved, broken Fin, a millisecond of jealousy that Jeff might have somehow taken her, all followed by eagerness to hear her story, at last.

“It was after the clean-up day, and I saw a bunch of people gathered around the boat, more people than usual,” he began. “Apparently, the guy who owned it had come back to claim it.

“The story goes,” Jeff continued, “that he was sailing back to the US from South America when the mast broke in a storm. He went over the side, and was picked up by a Russian trawler. After a month on the trawler, he was able to fly back home — to Austin. There, he got a call from the National Park Service, who had traced the boat back to him. So as soon as he could, he came down. He was busy draining the diesel out of it, when I drove past. Had a salvage crew coming to take it apart and get it off Padre. He was taking care of it, getting it all cleaned up.”

I thanked Jeff for the story. Goodbye to Fin, alias Redneck Candi, now finally boat salvage. Via con dios. Go with God, Fin. I’ll always remember you, my bold camp robber. Somewhere, there’s a boat out there with my name on it, waiting to sail off into just such a wild adventure.