Perhaps the finest seagoing storyteller of our time is Tristan Jones, a peg-legged, penniless Welshman who has sailed across the Atlantic 19 times, mostly in beat-up boats and mostly alone.
Jones, it says in "A Steady Trade," his delightful remembrance of a boyhood at sea, "was born in 1924 on a tramp steamer delivering sheep bones and a roller-skating rink from Australia to Nova Scotia."
Judging by the battered, contented mug that turned up 61 years later for an interview in Greenwich Village last week, it's been mostly upwind since, and a hell of a ride.
"Sorry I'm late, mate," said Jones, hobbling into the Riviera Cafe on the limb he acquired after an amputation three years ago, "but we were halfway here and my bloody leg fell off."
It was 3:30 p.m. when the drinks arrived. Almost reluctantly, knowing that a long night lay ahead and that he was the featured attraction, Jones lit a cigarette and launched into a yarn. It was a diatribe against Romania, down whose River Danube he lately has traveled in a trimaran, "blowing a hole in the Iron Curtain," as he put it, while battling bureaucratic port authorities.
Seven hours later, the light was long out of the winter sky, the trucks had quit rumbling down Seventh Avenue and Jones was still railing.
Listening to the passionate and funny yarns of this tough little seafaring man, you could appreciate how he'd managed to write 14 books in the last decade, including at least two of surpassing wit and excellence, "Saga of a Wayward Sailor" and "The Incredible Voyage."
Jones is a natural, a tale-teller whose yarns spring one into the next as if by divine guidance. At a table full of people, young to fully grown, all eyes and ears incline to Jones, all the time.
He said when he left Newport, R.I., 18 months ago for his first one-legged ocean crossing aboard the trimaran Outward Leg, he felt the need for a mate.
He invited a young male nurse from the Carolinas aboard, thinking the fellow might help in a medical emergency. Two days out, the nurse himself fell ill.
"He had a great boil on his belly and I wound up nursing the nurse," said Jones.
"He just lay there in his bunk. Every day I'd go below and check on the progress of the boil.
"He said, 'It's green, isn't it, Tristan?' and I said, 'That's 'cuz you're Irish, lad.'
"Ah, it was a flag of a boil, the finest boil that ever was on the North Atlantic. The fishes came up to see it.
"And you know something?" said Jones, addressing the assemblage, which included three moppets whose mouths hung open like caves, "That boil had more character than the man that carried it."
Wild flights like this, written down, give Jones' books a vitality that make them nearly impossible to put down.
"I had never heard of the guy," said Ray Kennedy, who wrote a long piece about Jones in Sports Illustrated two years ago. "I got the assignment and read the books out of a sense of duty. But what I found was wonderful."
Even though he has been writing books for only 10 years, the best of Jones' work is already out of print and available only to those who seek it out in a library or fall upon it on some remainders shelf.
"Saga of a Wayward Sailor" is his account of a decade of seafaring, a time during which Jones was forever broke, sailing other people's yachts on deliveries, set upon by bureaucrats demanding fees and visas, and squiring unwanted crewmen and women through hair-raising adventures.
The climax of "Saga" finds him finally alone, at peace in mid-Atlantic, when a whale surfaces in the dead of night and smashes his little sloop to tinder, leaving him adrift for a week in a rubber life raft without food or water.
In "The Incredible Voyage," Jones, amused by books glorifying round-the-world passages, goes the circumnavigators a step better. "I got sick of everyone going 'round and 'round," he said, "so I went for the vertical sailing record." He got it, spending two years sailing from the Dead Sea, at a quarter-mile below sea level the lowest navigable water in the world, to Lake Titicaca in the Andes, at 2 1/2 miles up the frigid highest.
There is also "Ice," the saga of his effort to sail the polar ice cap, during which he was trapped for 366 days with no companion but a one-eyed, three-legged dog.
Most of his fans expected Jones to quit adventuring after he lost his leg in the final round of a long battle with a World War II Navy wound. For a while he did quit, but then two fellows in San Diego offered him use of the trimaran to attempt his fourth circumnavigation, and now he's halfway through it.
Jones sailed from California to Newport via the Panama Canal, then over to Europe and up the Rhine River to Germany, where he trucked the boat over to the headwaters of the Danube.
Down the Danube he careened last spring, going where no Western yacht had been in generations, charging through the Iron Curtain on May Day at Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and shooting the gap to the Black Sea through Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria.
He flew back to New York and Houston this month at the behest of his book dealer, to autograph books at the big boat shows. Outward Leg is moored in Israel, where he will rejoin her next month to resume the voyage.
After sailing down the Red Sea and across the Arabian Sea to Sri Lanka, then around to China, Jones and his new mate, Thomas Ettenhuber of Munich, intend to sail up the Yangtze River 1,500 miles into Tibet.
"That one we're going to call 'The Impecunious Voyage,' " said Jones. "They say it's impossible, but we'll show them, Ettenhuber and I."