I first became familiar with the phrase circus act quite a few years ago. In the late 1980’s to early 1990’s we were in Texas and kept our boat Water-Melon at the Corpus Christi Municipal Marina. Our next door neighbor on the dock was Celica S. Celica S was a beautiful antique classic motor yacht. They yacht was about 110’ long and was built in the 1920’s for Mr. Olds (Oldsmobile Corporation). As the years passed, Celica S was used as a spy vessel in World War II and for a short time was even owned by the notorious gangster Al Capone. At the time we were neighbors, Celica S was owned by a local oilman, Jimmy Storm. Jimmy rarely used the boat but kept the boat in tip top condition. She became an iconic landmark at the downtown Corpus Christi city docks. This beautiful yacht had a full time crew whom we got to know quite well. I often shared a morning cup of coffee in the luxuriously furnished main salon with the skipper, Captain Ray. Captain Ray was a retired sea captain who spent years piloting oil tankers and worked for Jimmy Storm’s drilling company. When he retired, Jimmy asked him to stay on and captain his personal yacht. Captain Ray had a lot of stories to tell and he told them in such a captivating way. The morning hours passed quickly as I listened to his adventures and sea tales. Captain Ray introduced me to the phrase Circus Act.
In the slip opposite ours (also a neighbor of Celica S since Celica S had the entire end of the dock), was a Lord Nelson 35 foot Cutter sailboat. This was owned by a local anesthesiologist, Barry. Barry was not the greatest when it came to docking his boat. Lord Nelson boats are full keeled meaning it takes a little added seamanship skill to turn them in tight spaces. One morning, Captain Ray and I were enjoying a nice cup of coffee. The coffee aboard Celica S was delicious. When Captain Ray first offered me a cup he handed it to me black and no sugar. He said, “Try this before you add anything to it”. It didn’t need anything added. It was the best coffee I ever drank. I once asked what the secret was for the coffee. With his devilish smile he said they hadn’t washed the coffee pot since 1925. He thought since the coffee pot was so stained with “flavor” we could pour water into it with no coffee beans and still get coffee. I was never really sure if he was telling the truth about not washing the pot. That was the way it was with Captain Ray. His stories were wonderful but I think a little embellished over time. I will say, to this day I’ve never had better coffee. On this particular morning as we enjoyed our coffee and exchanged ideas to solve the world’s problems, we noticed through portholes Barry passing as he motored his boat toward his slip. Ray stood and muttered, “We need to go watch this circus act”. He rose slowly from his chair, lifted his cup of coffee from the antique brass top table and with his hunched way of walking made his way to the portside deck. From this upper vantage point he could watch as Barry turned his boat toward the slip. “Here comes Circus Act number one”, he mumbled softly so only I could hear. We watched as Barry approached the slip. His wife Susan was on the bow ready to loop a pylon with a dock line. Barry miscalculated the distance to the neighboring boat and decided to slam the boat into reverse at the last minute. However, he didn’t communicate this to Susan. She looped the line around the post and started to tie it off. When the slack of the line was taken up as Barry tried to back away, he realized he was tied to the dock. The boat started to turn out of control. This was when the yelling started. Barry yelled at Susan for tying off the line. Susan politely suggested he put the boat into forward gear but then untied it. We watched the bow sprint swing across the dock and it was on a collision course for the Celica S. I swear, if the Celica S had one more coat of paint, it would have hit. Somehow Barry and Susan managed to get their boat away from the dock without hitting another vessel. Amazing! Ray turned his back and went back inside declaring he could not stand to watch Circus Act number two when they tried again to dock the boat. We could still hear them screaming at one another as they approached the dock again.
Barry and Susan announced to the city of Corpus Christi via the evening news they were sailing from Texas to South Africa. They held a going away party on the dock with TV reporters and everything. We weren’t invited. The next day, I read about it in the paper: Local Anesthesiologist to Sail to South Africa. Holy smokes, I thought. That’s about 9,000 miles. Or, on a boat their size, 75 days of nonstop sailing. I asked Captain Ray what he thought. “They’ll never get there”, he said. He was right. A few days later Barry and Susan departed the dock and disappeared over the horizon. We thought that was the end. It wasn’t. A couple of months later, Cindy and I saw their boat in another marina where we happened to be visiting some friends. We asked our friends the story. It goes like this: Barry and Susan set sail from Texas to South Africa. They got about 100 miles off the Texas shore. Susan told Barry to turn around. She wanted a divorce. They turned around and made it back to our friend’s marina where they had some issues docking the boat. The boat never moved again. They never sailed back to Corpus Christi. But, they did stay married.
What made me think of this story? We went to a circus museum. As I toured the museum, it talked about the circus and the acts. I couldn’t help but think of Captain Ray, Barry and Susan. And, circus acts!
The museum we toured was the John Ringling house, one of the Ringling Brothers. He and his wife Mable built a house in Sarasota back when nobody else lived there. In his later years, he built an art museum on the grounds to house his collection. In later years buildings were added and house circus artifacts. If you are in the area, it is well worth the visit. Believe it or not, it will take most of the day to go through all the buildings.
After note: Captain Ray also taught me about compass jacks. One day when I was working hard to repair something on Water-Melon, he yelled down from his deck, “Do you need to borrow a compass jack?” I had no idea what a compass jack was. I often borrowed tools from the Celica S so I assumed he was talking about a special tool. “What is a compass jack”, I asked. He flashed me a big grin, “It is a special tool used to jack up the compass. When the compass is jacked up you can change the boat out underneath for a new one. Then you can lower the compass back down”. He laughed and shuffled back inside.