It feels like another life time ago now, but being a hobo at the age of 18 was one of the most intense and motivating experiences of my life. Sleeping on beaches and under bushes in public parks doesnt sound like that much of a bad experience… and doing it for a night after a drunken party with some mates is not that bad at all. But after 3…4 days, it starts to get taxing already.
You miss the ability to just get up and go to a flushing toilet. Or flick a light switch and have your world light up with an instantaneous warm yellow glow. You miss being able to stumble through to the lounge and flop down onto a well worn sofa and vegetate in front of a mind numbing television set.
The worst part though is the absolute and total lack of privacy and security. Durbans beachfront is notorious for its crime, and even at 4am in what seems like the most remote spot, the creepie crawlies are out and about looking for easy targets to rob, and worse. One of my favourite places to sleep was in some bushes in the park i used to play in as a child. It was familiar to me because it was just across the road from my grans block of flats on the beachfront, just around the corner from the ice rink. Its weird how familiarity makes you feel a little bit safer, but i knew it was an illusion.
I always had some company though. My very good friend lived in the pocket of the massive, flowing black trenchcoat i always wore. It was a good, solid coat that went down to my army boots that i always wore. Army boots were more difficult for people to steal while you slept, and the trenchcoat served as my blanket, raincoat, and safety cocoon.
My friends name was Fishbone, and he was a giant brown and white rat that would scamper out of my inner breast pocket, climb up my lapel and sit on my shoulder, burying himself into my long, sunbleached hair. He had patches on him that made him look more like a cow than a rat, and his massive clangers that he dragged behind him added to the illusion cause they could easily be mistaken for a cows udders.
I loved that rat. He never complained about being on the skids with me and he was very fond of the beaches and parks where id let him run free, calling him back with a few clicks of my tongue. People think the worst of rats, but they are basically short dogs with longer, pointy tails.
After more than 6 weeks of sleeping on the beaches and parks, i was exhausted from a lack of sleep, tired of being harassed by police and having to fight my way out of a number of dodgy situations, so when i was taken in by a rock band that had a residency at a local, seedy beachfront hotel, that i used to go and watch every night to kill some time, which as a hobo, you have a hell of a lot of.
I was more than grateful for the respite and i will never forget my first night there, a warm bath and a comfortable and safe sleep felt like heaven to me. I have always been convinced that if that band hadnt taken me in at that time, that something really bad would have happened, and my life would be either over, or very different now.
Years later i would start my own tattoo business, and when the question of what it was going to be called came up, there was only ever going to be one option. I named it Skintrade, which is the name of the band that saved my life all those years back. I remain grateful and indebted to that band, even though i have paid that favour forward more than a dozen times. Its important to help when and where you can. The difference you make may seem slight to you, but can mean the world to somebody else.
It was a rock band though.. so it was just a matter of time before we all got kicked out of the hotel and i was back to sleeping in the open air, but i was refreshed and ready for it. But thats another story.
All of that seemed like almost a weird dream, and a lot of those memories flooded back as i stared from the gently bobbing deck of my race yacht, at the strip of beachfront and all the buildings on Durbans golden mile, which are so familiar to me.
I had just started my first ever yacht race, albeit half an hour late. One of the yachts we passed on the way out of our mooring had engine trouble and was not going to be able to race. So i offered to tow them out of the harbour. I knew it would shatter my chances of getting a good result on my first race, but in every other formula i have raced in, be it bikes or cars, i have always been helped out such a lot by fellow competitors, so i was grateful for the opportunity to help another racer.
Sailing is a metaphor for life. You can put up sails and sit and relax… watching the world roll by… or you can adjust your jib by a few centimetres… tighten the boom down a little more in an effort to eke out a tiny bit more performance. Some of your efforts will see you losing ground to your fellow competitors.. but some of your tweaks will gain you an extra few metres. Either way, you will have learned something that you can use and continue to improve on throughout the rest of your life. You learn just as much from failure as you do from success, so always try to improve your situation as opposed to just sitting and hoping it will get better for you, even if there is a risk of not succeeding.
I am the latter kind of person, and so there i was, bobbing around on the Indian ocean in about 3 knots of wind.. which is about as hard as your grandfather with emphysema is able to blow, which is why he ends up spitting all over his birthday cake when he cant blow the candles out.
Light wind sailing is really painful for a person who is used to racing machines which are capable of speeds over 300kph, but all of your competition are in the same proverbial boat. The guy we towed out had just taken most of the trophies that were available the night before at the end of season sailing awards, and his boat is notoriously good in the light breezes we were currently experiencing, so for me, the race was on!!
I was tweaking like a crack addict! Adjusting and tuning my sails every 30 seconds or so in an effort to pull a gap. Much to my surprise i was able to pull a few more metres ahead every 10 minutes… but we were so closely matched that after about 2 hours we werent even 50 metres ahead. I experimented with a few different sail trims as the wind picked up a bit and that allowed him to not only catch up, but also to sail onto our windward side, which blocks the wind from reaching our sails and stalls us out. As he overtook and his wind ‘shadow’ was off us the race resumed with renewed intensity, (At the speed of a slow walk. Lol).
We both turned around before completing the course as we had started so late and all the other racers were on the return leg.
On the way back from Umhlanga the wind picked up and my lil boat turned from an ungainly albatross into an eagle as it soared over the swells and skimmed over the dark seas. I took a totally different line back than all the other competitors and my lil boat matched them on pace beautifully. We were only edged out by the boat we had been racing all day by a minute or 2 leaving me feeling very chuffed with my sail craft. Was nice to put into practice what i thought i knew and match it against competent sailors, and come out looking pretty decent. Loads still to learn and a lot of small alterations i can still make to my boat to get more performance out of it. But that will be an interesting transformation in years to come.
They say that re-naming a boat is bad luck, but i like to tempt fate and have walked under many ladders in my time. Maybe thats one of the reasons that i live such an interesting life. Either way, my lil race boat is getting a new name. It is going to be named Fishbone as a tribute to my lil friend from all those years ago. The friend who saw me through some of the darkest times in my life. A friend who i know would be more than a little surprised, and proud of the fact that i have managed to move myself and my family a long way from the potential future we were facing. I know he would have loved to go sailing in my pocket, on the lil racing yacht named after him, and i know that every time i race off the Durban coast, i will look back at the beachfront and remember those dark days with fondness and respect.