At Home on the Water

March 1, 2013 | By More

The lapping waves of Lake Dardanelle are a far cry from those of the North Atlantic Ocean. Lake waves don’t carry a salty spray. They don’t hide schools of mackerel pursued by sinuous billfish. Their rhythm is different too. The lake waves move at a faster tempo. They know that the river is only a stopover on their trek to the Gulf of Mexico and seem anxious to hurry south. On the contrary, North Atlantic waves billow with the heavy cadence of confidence.

It’s an assurance that comes from knowing they are home.

Nevertheless, here, at the Dardanelle Marina, sits a boat built on the foundation of those used by Norwegian fishermen. A boat that features a hulldesignedforthenorthseas;roughseas.The boat is under restoration. She sits at the dock like a debutante being groomed for the ball.

Geisha was her name. It’s a nod to her Asian birthplace, which is nowhere near the North Atlantic. The Geisha was built in Formosa. Formosa is hard to find on a map these days. It’s a name that was given to Taiwan by Portuguese sailors and means “beautiful island.”

Geisha was a fitting name for a refined lady. The name also speaks of the contradiction, the dichotomy of the boat. Born in a tropical paradise yet built on a foundation forged in the icy north seas.

Her stern is the telltale clue to the Geisha’s lineage. It’s a canoe shaped stern, built to withstand pounding North Atlantic seas while crusty anglers net the ocean’s bounty. The boat was built to withstand heavy waves. Heavy waves aren’t the only thing that can sink a boat though.

The man grooming the Geisha is 72 year- old Darwin Morrison. With his silver hair and mustache, Darwin looks like a combination of that most famous river rat, Mark Twain, and the stereotypical sea captain. He also looks positively at home on the water.

Dichotomy is part of Darwin too; landlocked at birth yet born with a love for the water. Darwin was born in Nebraska, which is nowhere near the sea or the big rivers of North America. He is a sailor and former tugboat boat captain that now makes his home in the River Valley. Darwin speaks with a heavy cadence.

“I’m not a mystic,” said Darwin, “but there are traditions of the sea that can’t be broken.”

One of those traditions involves the christening of a boat. When dubbed with a name after its birth, that name should never be changed. “When a ship is built and named it should be given a pleasurable name,” said Darwin. “Not something to tempt the gods, like Storm Dancer, or Storm Chaser. Geisha was a pleasant name and it was the name given to this boat when it was dedicated to the gods of the sea; Neptune, the wind, the stars, and the moon.”

The previous owners of the Geisha were apparently unfamiliar with the traditions of the sea however and they changed her name. To make matters worse, they changed it to a name full of masculinity and rebellion.

“To change the name to Traveller — which was the name of Robert E. Lee’s warhorse — it could be seen as a challenge,” said Darwin. “All this was done and then it was taken off the sea and trailered 1000 miles from the ocean. From then on disaster struck this boat.”

There might be something to this thought about angering the gods. After her name was changed, the Geisha – now the Traveller — was pulled from the sea and trailered to Little Rock. There, she sat at a dock and in short order sank up to her keel. She squatted in the mud for months, her keel resting on the on the bottom of the shallow freshwater so far from her home.

“A friend of mine said he found a boat in Little Rock that was perfect for me, just had me all over it,” said Darwin. “So, we get there and I see this boat leaned over against the dock.”

Darwin said the boat was in rough shape, but that she wasn’t lost.

“We scraped the mud off, it was terrible,” said Darwin. “The original hatch cover was gone. Oily water had filled it up and the interior of the cabin was just a mess. And, everybody kept saying the boat had a leak.” Darwin did not agree.

There were in fact no leaks. Rainwater had filled the engine compartment and poured in through the temporary hatch. Oily watermarks, where the floodwater stood, are still visible in the cabin and are on the list of things Darwin wants to take care of as he restores the boat.

Maybe the gods had nothing to do with it, but Darwin isn’t taking any chances.

“I plan on changing the fortune of this boat in the traditional way. I’ll do a dedication and change the name back to Geisha,” said Darwin. Changing the boat’s name is complicated though. Like other rituals of the sea, there are rules that must be followed. The gods of the sea demand respect.

“When you change a boat’s name, you’ve got to remove anything on the boat that has the old name on it; any typing, pictures, documents, anything. It’s got to be stripped of that old name and then it’s a dry vessel. After a few days, you re-christen the boat and re-dedicate it to the gods. You take your best wine, stand on the bow, pour most of the wine into the water and drink a toast to the sun, the wind, the moon, the stars, and the god’s.

Darwin’s attraction to water is something take your best wine, stand on the bow, pour that has been a part of his life since…well, most of the wine into the water and drink as long as he can remember.

Darwin’s earliest memories are of the biggest waters around his Midwestern birthplace, the Platte River and its tributary the Loup.

“I don’t even remember when I started sailing,” said Darwin “Growing up I used to borrow Boy Scout canoes on the Loup River. I wasn’t a Boy Scout, but I always put them back when I was done and they just let me use them.”

As a young man, the Navy seemed like a natural career move for Darwin. For eight years he was a Seabee. Seabees are construction battalions –Seabee comes from the letters “C” and “B”. This means that the only time Darwin was on a boat, as a member of the armed forces that mostly serve from boats, was to get from one construction location to another.

When he left the Navy, various jobs eventually led him to the river town of Dardanelle. There, he heard about a job opening on riverboat. Twenty-five years on the water started here. Those years were split between moving oil tankers in the Gulf and moving barges up and down the Mississippi River system. The majority of this time was spent as captain and to get that position, Darwin relied on some unorthodox tactics.

“I was scared of the Coast Guard test,” said Darwin. “Oh man, there were guys with 10 or 12 years of experience that failed it. I had a good friend that told me I would be all right on the test though. He said it was because I liked to daydream,” Darwin said with a laugh.

“He said that when they give me that test to just close my eyes and dream about the river. I did pretty good on the test.”

The land and the water both pulled at Darwin upon his retirement. A farm in New Mexico was actually in the plans, but the water’s call was just too strong.

“I went and bought a sailboat,” said Darwin. That was the first one. Six months ago he bought the Traveller and that made boat number three. He lives on the Traveller today.

The Traveller will soon be re-christened with her original name. The native Nebraskan that was born with a love for the water now lives on the water. “I just wish I had a bought a boat a long time ago instead of working on someone else’s boat,” said Darwin.

Boats and sailing are the agenda now though. Darwin’s eyes sparkle and he talks of jibs and rigging and strong winds. He said he doesn’t understand why anyone can’t sail.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world.” Darwin speaks the words with a heavy confidence.

Captain Darwin Morrison

In the feature article, Darwin Morrison’s affinity for water and boats was the backbone for the story. And, as you can tell from his poetry, Darwin is a romantic. His knowledge of sea legends and the ways of seafaring people is astounding. It’s knowledge that grew from that affinity for water.

But, behind the romanticism lies untold hours on a boat. A rough timeline of Darwin’s aquatic adventures starts with raft building on the sandbars of the Loupe River near his Nebraska birthplace.

From that humble beginning, Darwin has seen a lot of boating. Combining naval ships, river and Gulf of Mexico tugboats, cruise ships, and probably any other type of floating vessel he could get on, Darwin has been on a multitude of waterways. The rivers he has floated include the Loupe, Platte, Niobrara and Woods in Nebraska along with the Mississippi, Arkansas, Ohio, Black Warrior, Mobile, Tom Bigbee, and the Ohio.

Darwin worked along the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) — a shipping channel that runs along the Atlantic and Gulf coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. He has crossed the Pacific Ocean three times and the Atlantic Ocean twice with numerous trips across by boat and return trips by plane.

The number of islands, countries, and continents he has visited by boat is truly astounding. They include: Hawaii – all the islands, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Puerto Rico, Ascension Island, Guam, the Philippines, the Azores, Spain, England — on the anniversary of the Titanic’s historic voyage, Portugal, Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and Africa.

And, there’s probably a few more that he forgot about. He took his sailboat to Dauphin Island off the coast of Alabama as well.

Apparently, Darwin has passed his love for the water on. His son, Charles, has been the captain of a riverboat for 13 years.

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