The Hour When the Ship Comes In

Me, the Boat, and a Guy Named Bob, by CE Bowman, ©2019, Tradewind Publishing,, nonfiction, 439 pages. ISBN 978-192-5 171-50-1

There are some books that you just don’t want to end. Despite its awkward title, Chris Bowman’s autobiography falls into that category, and not just because his story is well-written, featuring a California kid’s wanderings and most unusual life in the 1970s and ’80s. The ending packs a punch that I knew was coming because I was living in Bequia at the time, but when it came it felt worse than I expected.

The boat referred to in the title was the last schooner to be built on Bequia, a 67-foot beauty, Water Pearl, launched in 1980, and the guy named Bob was her half-owner, Nobel Prize winner/enigmatic rock star Bob Dylan. How the author hooked up with Dylan and then became his partner is a story of cosmic coincidence of mind-blowing proportions.

Although I was a friend of Chris’s in those early days, his childhood was not as I imagined. His eccentric, mercurial father was constantly moving his family to keep ahead of bill collectors. Ray Bowman was an inventor, and when times were good they lived lavishly, but it seems they were shunted from motel to motel more often than not. Chris and his younger brother, Rick, were unscarred by the experience, but his younger sister Jean’s rebellion led to a life of drugs and four kids by multiple men who were not part of their lives. It was not your average, middle-class upbringing, to say the least, but Chris surfed, played football and basketball, and was able to adapt to new schools far better than his sad sister.

The book’s first 80 pages were a revelation to me. They feature Chris’ Rabelaisian ramblings across Planet Earth, meeting all sorts of strange and wonderful people. He recounts his almost unbelievable sailing experiences across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea to Israel, throughout Greece, up the Med, and finally, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. The last leg was the riskiest by far. With the recklessness and arrogance of youth he crewed aboard a 24-foot sloop owned by a broke, Zen Mexican named Francisco who was trying to return to his homeland. ’Cisco refused to talk other than about the business of sailing, and their awkward silence was broken along with their rudder 900 miles from Barbados. Chris went over the side trying to jury rig a replacement, but eventually they used a very long oar that had been stowed on deck to make their landfall in Barbados after 36 days. After repairs were made ’Cisco unceremoniously dumped Chris off his boat in Kingstown, St. Vincent, but the author found the classic schooner Shearwater at Young Island Cut and got a temporary berth aboard, ending for me the only part of Chris’s story with which I was totally unfamiliar. 

Bowman’s story of how he ended up in Bequia is unique. He tried to fix a small wrecked sloop on the beach in Prickly Bay, Grenada, and prematurely sailed off with his buddy Nolen with an unrepaired garboard leak. Nolen ended up bailing with a bucket until his hands bled, but they pulled the boat up the beach in Port Elizabeth before she sank. One of the reasons for their risky early departure was Chris’ futile attempt to chase a woman he had no hope of catching.

The author became enchanted by boatbuilding in Bequia and borrowed money from his father to build Just Now, a 40-foot island sloop, there in 1975-6. In late 1977, through a friend’s employer, he and Bequian partner Nolly Simmons were commissioned to build a schooner, later named Water Pearl, for Dylan and an executive in Los Angeles who made the unreasonable demand, in contract, that she be finished in just 12 months. When time dragged on and this executive got testy and was considering legal action, Chris offered to swap his boat Just Now for a 50-percent partnership with Dylan in Water Pearl. This deal favored the author at the expense of his relationship with his other partner in Bequia, and the two never reconciled.

Nevertheless, Water Pearl was built on the beach where Dive Bequia now has its shack, and she was launched in December 1980. I was there and took the photo of Chris readying the champagne bottle, with his buddy Nolen’s mouth wide open in wonder.
After the launch, Water Pearl chartered for several years out of St. Martin with Bequian crew Kingsley “Prop” Quashie and Cyril “Bamu” Stowe. Dylan would visit when not on tour, and as his friendship with the author blossomed, he invited Chris to accompany him on tour. Bequian mariner Mackie Simmons filled in as Water Pearl’s captain and continued to work the boat.
The last third of the book chronicles Chris’ wanderings on tour with Dylan and Tom Petty, sometimes with his Australian-born wife, Vanessa, and their young daughter, Clara. It was a traveling circus with Machiavellian undertones, as those trying to get closer to the rock star would gladly trample others in their quest. Dylan himself remained an enigma throughout. I found the building of Water Pearl, described by Chris in loving detail at the heart of the book, far more interesting. He was aided by many “old heads” who have now passed away, including Lincoln “Bluesy” Simmons, Athneal Ollivierre, and Loren Dewar among others, and he makes these chapters sing.

The grounding and loss of Water Pearl in Panama, en route to the Pacific, is now part of Bequia lore, and the author takes full responsibility for not standing off until dawn and for using 23-year-old charts to navigate the Canal Zone at night. It has been oft-repeated on Bequia that had the author hired his local crew for that passage, Water Pearl would not have met her sad fate on a reef three miles from the Canal Zone’s entrance. The author states he could not afford it and chose crew willing to pay their own way. His new crew quickly deserted him in Panama and sealed Water Pearl’s fate.

Chris returned to Bequia for a visit after 20 years, having spent his life making wooden boats in Australia with Vanessa and their three children, but the sadness lingers over Bequia’s last schooner. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent read. The author’s life has been blessed (and cursed) by fate, and he weaves a fascinating tale of a life fully lived.
Available at and as an e-book at most online bookstores.

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