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Angus Phillips

Off Florida, Sailing Toward the Mañana of Life

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page E03


We were anchored off Cabbage Key, the Vicar and I, around dusk when we noted a curious coincidence. Only two other sailboats were in the anchorage and both had the same name -- "Mañana" -- which is Spanish for "tomorrow" but is humorously meant when applied to any unpleasant, unfinished task, as "never."

The Vicar, a Briton who got his nickname not from past duties but because he has the look of a village churchman, chuckled as he recalled a story from his youth.

Newspaper correspondent Stuart Alexander of Hamble, England, sails the Gulf of Mexico aboard a 34-foot Catalina sloop earlier this month on his 60th birthday. (Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)

"There was an Irish professor at college who was an expert in Gaelic languages. In class one day, a student asked him if there were any Gaelic words that correlated to the Spanish "mañana"?

"The professor thought for a moment," said the Vicar, "then replied, 'Why yes, in fact there are several. But none, I think, with the same sense of urgency.' "

Ah, the dry, British wit. For six days the Vicar amused me with his as we cruised the soft waters of Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida to celebrate another coincidence.

The Vicar is Stuart Alexander, yachting and rugby correspondent of the British newspaper the Independent. He and I met more than 20 years ago while covering the America's Cup, then renewed acquaintances over the years in far-flung ports around the world. Somewhere along the line we discovered we were born just five days apart, during the first week of March 1945.

From 1945 to 2005 is 60 years, a milestone worth celebrating, we reckoned. But where? Herb McCormick, editor of Cruising World, the sailing magazine, came up with the idea of a busman's holiday sailing in Southwest Florida, land of blue-haired ladies, warm breezes, shuffleboard tournaments and retired gents. Bill Richardson, a neighbor of mine whose mom lives on Captiva Island, confirmed that the average age there is up around 80. "You'll be like raw meat," he said.

We figured it might provide a glimpse of our futures so off we went, meeting at the airport in Miami (cheap fares, you know) and driving 150 miles across Alligator Alley in a big, beige Buick rented specially for the occasion to blend in with the retirees. We hired a 34-foot Catalina sloop from Southwest Florida Yacht Charters and set off into the sunset on March 1. Or was it the sunrise? West coasts always befuddle me. At this age, befuddlement lurks everywhere.

We sailed 10 miles across Charlotte Harbor that first day to Gasparilla, a sandy barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Vicar had his birthday dinner at the Pink Elephant in Boca Grande, choosing the surf and turf and a bottle of red wine, which he ordered after perusing the wine list for a good "plonk."

"Why do Brits call wine 'plonk,' anyway?" I asked.

"It's from the war," he said. "When the boys went over to France they tried to learn the language. They pointed to the wine and somebody said, 'vin blanc.' All they got was the 'blanc' part, which they mispronounced 'plonk.' "

One more mystery solved.

Charlotte Harbor and its protective barrier islands proved an ideal place for a couple of rising geezers to usher in their golden years. The sailing water is limited but well protected -- maybe 50 square miles of deep water behind the barrier islands with dredged channels leading off to the best ports. But the Gulf of Mexico is close at hand and on a breezy day you can slip out and enjoy the big picture, which we did.

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