Wednesday, May 25, 2022
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Oh Captain, My Captain

“That’s the funny thing about bucket lists, mate,” Captain Nick once told me. “The less time you have, the longer your list becomes.”

By Mike Ragsdale

This article appears in 30A’s Beach Happy Magazine, available at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Publix, Kroger, and other major outlets nationwide, as well as in high-traffic locations along the Gulf Coast. Subscribe now to have print issues delivered to your home or enjoy the free digital edition.

Angela and I first met Nick and Melissa twenty years ago. We landed in the Caribbean amped up for seven full days of all-inclusive Mai Tais. Our honeymoon five years earlier only lasted two days and three nights, so a week seemed like such an incredible indulgence.

After dinner our first night, Angela and I wandered through the lush grounds of the self-contained resort looking for something to do. We strolled into the gaming pavilion, where a striking couple were cueing up billiards.

“You two fancy a game, mate?”

Nick’s shoulder-length hair was peppered with gray. He wore a white linen shirt, dark jeans and flip-flops; formal attire that I would eventually adopt as my own. In her late 20s, Mel carried an air of a supermodel, with an Australian accent only enhancing her seductive charm.

Captain Nicholas Brettingham-Moore

The very name drips of British naval admiralty. And perhaps at one time, in some romantic era long since gone, Captain Nick’s ancestors held such lofty regal status. But something somewhere happened along the way. When you’re from Tasmania – once an island prison colony some say is where Australia’s mainland prisoners banished the true troublemakers – something always happened somewhere along the way. Perhaps Nick’s ancestors were smugglers or pirates, or perhaps one of them did something inappropriate with a princess, landing their lineage in continental confinement. Knowing Nick as I do now, it was probably a combination of all three. For whatever reason, Captain Nick had grown up a “Tassie,” until as a young man, he escaped to the sea.

When we first met, Nick was Captain of a 140-foot luxury yacht. His wife Mel was the ship’s chef. With their crew of eight, they sailed the seas at the whim of some European multimillionaire who rarely stepped onboard. Their charter boat crew sailed all over the world, catering to Saudi sheikhs and Fortune 500 CEOs.

For the rest of the piña colada-drenched week, the four of us became inseparable. We spent every waking hour together.

I gobbled down their tales of nautical adventure and debauchery faster than the resort’s breakfast buffet bacon.

I became so visibly enamored with our new friends that at some point Angela said, “I think you have a crush on Mel.” I thought about it for a moment. “Actually, I think I have a crush on Nick!”

My first bromance.

When it was time for our flight back to the U.S., Angela and I wept like babies. It was like saying goodbye to your new friends from summer camp. I flew home, worried we might never see Nick and Mel again.

Back in Alabama, everything about my life just seemed completely wrong. I went back to my corporate job, but I couldn’t concentrate. What am I doing here? Why aren’t we living on a boat and exploring the world like Nick and Mel? I suddenly perceived the passage of time in a way that I had never experienced before. Something in me snapped. Two weeks later, I tendered my resignation. My co-workers were shocked. Angela was also surprised, but supportive. I didn’t have another job lined up. I had no clue what I was going to do. At this point, we were living off our savings. But I knew I needed a big change in my life. I suddenly perceived that time was ticking.

Carpe Diem

An obligatory two weeks later, I found myself blissfully unemployed; nervous but optimistic about my spontaneous anti-career decision. Angela and I were planting flowers in our yard when one of our kids shouted out from the front door: “Dad! There’s a phone call for you.”

“Who is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He sounds foreign.”

Foreign? I answered the landline phone, and through the Caribbean static, I heard Nick’s thick Tassie accent.

“G’day, mate! Mel and I just got a few more days of shore leave, and we thought we’d see if you and Ang wanted to come back down to the islands.”

A freshly unemployed man and his wife going on their second vacation in as many months? That seemed incredibly financially irresponsible. Let’s do it. “Well, as it turns out, Captain, I suddenly have a lot of free time on my hands.”

We spent another laugh-filled week with our friends. And then another. And another. From Union Island in the Grenadines to Puerto Vallarta to St. Martin to Jamaica to St. Barths, and countless tropical timeouts along the way, our friendship grew over the years. Nick became my idol – my example of how life should be lived.

A few years later, when Nick and Melissa decided to start a family, they invited us to join them on a charter boat, so they could test how full-time family life aboard a 48-foot catamaran might feel.

“Can’t you just see little ones running around here on deck,” beamed Melissa, as Captain Nick expertly piloted us out of the harbor in Marigot. Angela glanced down into the deep blue fathoms below. “No, I can’t,” I heard Angela think to herself, while simultaneously nodding to Melissa with full maternal support.

Nick and Mel retired from their yachty-for-hire lifestyle, and the owner sold his big multimillion-dollar ship. If Nick wasn’t going to be his Captain, he no longer wanted it.

Nick and Mel commissioned construction of their own catamaran, which they named Sonrisa; Spanish for “smile.” They designed her to live off the grid; powered by solar cells, wind turbines, water desalinators, Nick’s spearfishing skills and Melissa’s world-class culinary talents. They gave birth to Benjamin, and with their brand new baby on board, they sailed Sonrisa across the Atlantic from France to the Caribbean. We were among their first guests.

I have to confess, it made Angela and I a little nervous seeing baby Benjamin crawling around the boat without so much as a life jacket. I asked Nick, a lifelong waterman, about it.

“Aw, mate, this is where we live,” he said, very matter of factly. “Poor bastard better learn how to swim or he won’t make it very long out here, eh?”

It’s hard to argue with Tasmanian logic.

A few years later, Nick and Mel came to stay with us in Florida for five weeks. By this point, we had stayed with them so many times that such a long visit was the only possible way Angela and I could reciprocate their gracious hospitality. By now, Benjamin was four years old, and their second son had been born. “Hurricane Huon,” they dubbed him, after the whirlwind Tasmanian Devil-like carnage he left in his path. But when the Tassies went out to swim in our pool, I was surprised to see Nick and Mel strapping protective “floaties” on Huon’s chunky arms.

“Hey, you guys live on a boat,” I chuckled. “I thought you said you didn’t want your kids wearing life jackets?”

“Aw, naw mate,” said Nick shaking his head. “This one sinks like a rock. I got tired of having to dive down and get him every time he fell in.”

Over the years, I watched the stern, commanding Captain Nicholas Brettingham-Moore soften. He became a doting dad, as infatuated with his two boys as he was with his beautiful wife, right until the end.

Captain Nick died yesterday, hardly 100 days after learning he had cancer. Yeah. That kind of cancer. Benjamin is now 14. Huon is 11. They decided to sell Sonrisa, to help provide for Melissa and the boys in the days ahead. “She’s not our boat without our Captain,” said Mel.

Sonrisa was just a thing,” said Nick. “She brought us memories that we will always have. Sonrisa was just the vessel for making those memories.” But Melissa and the boys didn’t let her go before they kidnapped Captain Nick from the hospice for one last voyage together as a family.

“It’s incredibly euphoric when life is standing still right in front of you,” Mel told me a few days before Nick’s passing.

“All we can see now is the light at the end of the tunnel, and it becomes a beautiful thing,” she said. “It’s incredible how one can turn around the way you look at things and see the gifts you’ve been given. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful place, full of peace and hope and love. Nick is already focused on helping me find my next step in life. I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t been on Tinder to try to find me a boyfriend yet. He just wants the best for us.”

If you’re reading this now, it’s because twenty years ago, Captain Nicholas Brettingham-Moore changed the entire trajectory of my life. Whether he knew it or not, he inspired me to start a bold new chapter. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always been fun. But without Nick, I’d likely still be working a corporate desk job. Our family probably wouldn’t be living at the beach. Without Captain Nick, we probably wouldn’t have had the courage to travel around the globe to see everything this great big, wonderful world has to offer.

I’ve lost a friend I cannot replace. And I owe a debt I can never repay. All I can do is try to pass along Nick’s gift to me; to hopefully inspire others to live the life they’ve imagined. I hope you will help me honor his memory by doing something extraordinary this year. Quit your job. Strike out on an adventure. Start a charity. Move to the beach. Or just call up an old friend and tell them how much they mean to you, before their ship sails away without you.

Thank you for showing me the way, Captain. I couldn’t have gotten here without you. We’ll be along soon. Forever in your wake.