Carl Black’s sailboat is 9,948 miles as the crow flies from his home in Fairhope.
Make that an albatross. You’ll soon see why.
His yawl-rigged Hinckley Bermuda 40 is named CV for curriculum vitae, Latin for the course of one’s life, literally. “And the name makes for easy radio contact — Charlie Victor,” Carl says, translating his boat’s name into the international phonetic alphabet.
CV is “on the hard” in Malaysia. As soon as his visa paperwork is approved — COVID is slowing things down — Cap’n Carl will fly there to splash his boat and singlehandedly sail her across the northern Indian Ocean to Africa. He might hang out for a year, as he did in New Zealand and Australia. Setting sail from Africa, he’ll finish what he started. “I sailed CV out of Fly Creek in October of 2015 on a trip around the world.” Carl regrouped on arrival in Panama and spent four months there before crossing through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean.
What grew in a boy’s mind, dreaming of someday seeing firsthand the world he saw in “National Geographic” pictures, got real in 2014. He went up to the Chesapeake and bought his Hinckley. “She was scattered all over the boatyard. I put her back together in eight days and sailed her down the East Coast, through the Keys to Key West, and across the Gulf of Mexico in January to Fly Creek. “I had my ass handed to me on that leg,” he says, without elaborating. If you’ve ever sailed out of sight of land and had a run-in with weather, you might conjure images.
He totally refitted CV to assure her seaworthiness and departed Fairhope for the 2015 Madisonville Wooden Boat Show’s boatbuilding contest. “They give the contestants boards and plywood and glue and fasteners. Then you’ve got two days to build a boat to compete in the race.” His eyes light up as though this was an adventure as big as the voyage ahead of him.
“I want to be on the other side of the world when this article comes out,” he says, “so I won’t be around to face the ribbing I’ll get.” It’s hard to reconcile a man shrinking from a little media attention when he’s willing to risk storms screaming through his rigging and waves taller than a house.
We’re kicked back on his front porch. A gray fall day. Fine mist in the air.
“Don’t spend 500 words getting to the question, Sonny. You writers like to show off. Just ask do I get scared at sea.” I don’t even ask, only nod to him with my eyebrows raised. “The answer is yes,” he says.
I know another Fairhope sailor on midnight watch at the helm in the open Gulf of Mexico, bound for Cuba, who caught the moonlight’s gleam off his big heavy chrome starboard winch and realized that everything on his boat wanted to be at the bottom of the ocean. The insight suddenly terrified him. But Carl has nothing else to say about fear at sea.
“Scott Gutteriez tried to tell me that Hinckley was not the right sailboat for crossing oceans, mostly alone. She’s graceful and beautiful and sails fast. She’s got wide decks. But the mizzen mast gets in the way of a dinghy, of solar panels and my windvane.” Carl says he will sell CV as soon as he gets her home. Another sailor might have spun his helm hard alee and returned to home port soon as his boat proved not just right.
But Cap’n Carl lays his hand on the wheel and doesn’t look back. He’s in for the long haul whether he’s laying a course across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and numerous other smaller seas, or building an international maritime business from a one-man start-up called Shade Tree Marine.
Carl was not yet 20 when his skills around boats — their engines and hardware, their hulls and decks, their lines and sails — put him in demand on the Fly Creek waterfront. In fact, he came to my rescue and showed me line-by-line, board-by-board, screw-by-screw how to restore a 1942 36-foot Chris-Craft sedan cruiser.
We talk about that.
He says I was the one who tagged him Cap’n Carl. “You used it in the headline of some kind of get-to-know article. And the name stuck,” he says.
I found the newspaper piece in question. Throw-back-thirty, to 1991. Carl Black is 28-years old and already holds his U.S. Coast Guard 50-ton captain’s license, and throughout the profile I referred to him as Cap’n Carl.
From the article: The business card reads Shade Tree Marine, A Company That Knows A Bit About Many Things, and lists the proprietor as Captain Carl Black. Ten cards couldn’t list all the things Captain Carl will take on in his jack-of-all-trades working day along the Fly Creek waterfront.
“I made me a quick $10 bill this afternoon. I went down and checked the propeller of the D.L. Jean. They thought it was fouled with something, but it was clear.”
Carl is known these days to do that kind of work for free.
“Shadetree philosophy doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of my work, I’d just rather work in the shade than in the sun.” Carl spoke of the wooden boats still sailing and working and how nobody really wanted to work on them. “I love wooden boats going back to the time when I was fifteen… Joe Miller [who was an artist and craftsman in Fairhope] gets a lot of the credit for setting me on this road. He was teaching shop at Organic School [where Carl graduated] and liked the way I handled tools. He asked me to become his apprentice. Joe taught me a lot.”
Another Fairhoper, David Wetzel, taught Carl all about wooden boats, not only how they were built and of what kinds of wood and fasteners, and how they were rigged with lines and cleats and tackle, but also how to respond to the heart and soul of a wooden boat. So of course, it was to Carl Black that Charlie Ingersoll, himself a colorful chapter in the story of Fairhope, sold his beloved wooden sailboat he’d built by hand from the keel up.
“That boat, her name is now Spice, taught me that a wooden boat’s life begins when the tree is cut to lay her keel. Not just when she’s launched and christened.”
Back to the ’91 article: “There aren’t many people who have in more time on the creek than I do. There was a year when I did not miss one single day coming down to Fly Creek at least once. Even on those days when I had no work to do, I’d drive down just to check on things.”
Cap’n Carl’s curling longer hair and beard casts him as the seaman he is, with a dark-eyed gaze that confronts weathered horizons. His lanky stride has purpose, an ambling gait that conveys authority, the swing of his arms signaling willful intent. If we were choosing sides, you’d want to be on his. There is an impish sparkle in his eyes that gives away an inherently good nature. If this man likes you, he’ll hand you whatever piece of the world is at his disposal. But if he’s got an issue with you, it’s better to give him a wide berth.
If Carl Black calls starboard, you give way.
On Carl’s front lawn is a huge rusting and ancient anchor surrounded by flowers. The incongruity is appealing and artistic. And though it is massive, it’s not a match for the anchor that greeted me at the entrance to his place. I think of the time I asked Cecil Christenberry at Old Tyme Feed how much for a big rock like the ones outside his store.
“The boulders are free,” he said. “Delivery will cost you a fortune.”
I ask Carl about getting these big anchors dropped at his place. He unwinds a layered and colorful story about flatbed trucks, trailers and cranes, and big-armed men. About friendships written in the blood and bone of men lending a man a hand. Where the offer of money would be an affront to the code understood between friends.
I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine is some kind of profanity not fit for this company of men.
Carl’s friends at Hydraulic Crane Services hauled the big anchor from the Mobile waterfront and dropped it on his lawn. He’d decide later where to put it. But it weighs 20,000 pounds, and you can’t just hookup and drag it behind a Dodge pickup or a Kubota tractor. Besides, an anchor is not supposed to be easily dragged around. They are designed to hold a ship steady and in place and are a common metaphor for the steadying force people must sometimes call upon. And several anchors here and there convey that message around Carl’s place.
“You know Tony’s Towing? I got Tony to set that big anchor down the hill there. He called me on a Thanksgiving morning. Didn’t charge me a dime. Nor did Hydraulic Crane,” Carl says. By lunchtime, the giant piece of iron welcomed visitors into a boatman’s world of other maritime artifacts set here and there around Carl’s place. Some welded together into art and sculptures. “The one down there,” Carl points, “with the marine toilet mounted to leaf springs that look like wings — well, you can figure out what I call that piece.”
Pushing back in my rocker, I ask, “That big anchor out front, the shank must be 12 feet long and weigh more than a car — how in hell did it get bent?”
Carl cocks an eyebrow. “Do you remember when I helped you rebuild your old wooden boat and a can of glue turned over and you set to cussing?”
“We all remember things a little different, but where you going with this?” I ask.
“I told you I was disappointed you chose profanity to get your feelings out. I think I said something about a larger and better vocabulary,” Carl says.
He switches back to the question about the bent anchor. “All I can say is sparks were flying. The links in that anchor chain were 8 to 10 inches long, and heavy, and being ripped through that hawserhole. Crewmen hauling ass, getting the hell outta there. The band on the winch was probably screaming. I can only imagine the radio talk between the foredeck, the wheelhouse and a pissed-off captain with a hung anchor …” Cap’n Carl’s voice trails off, then he says, “When that thing got bent, people on deck hid behind whatever was handy. A lot of hollering and cussing, watching to see what happened.”
I say something about the force of the ocean when it gets stirred to mountain heights by the great force of winds. “And you’re out there on it,” I say, shaking my head.
“I was 15 when I got my first work on a boat. Sonny Nowell, the skipper of the Crimson Tide, a 50-foot wooden hull shrimp boat, hired me on as a deckhand one summer,” Carl says, and adds, “David Curtis on the Dismas took a chance on me when others wouldn’t. Mentored me when the other captains warned him he was taking on more than he was bargaining for. I was a kid, but mostly on my own. I worked summers and weekends in the winter.”
He talks about the people who taught him and believed in him. Carl grows serious, introspective, then turns his eyes on me. Like, listen up, dude. “I cried when Joe Miller died. I cried the way I did not cry when my own father died. He was that important to me. And I miss him still these years later.”
Yeah. Joe Miller, Carl’s mentor, and a dear friend of mine, would likely pipe right up and say, “Carl Black is one of Fairhope’s best. He’s a soaking wet, head-above-water, waterman.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Give me a man with his own strong flavor, like circus bears and fishcamp coffee.” Emerson wanted to steer clear of milktoast types who run only lukewarm. He’d not sidestep Cap’n Carl, who is known to run hot. “I don’t check the things I say,” Carl admits. “When I speak my mind, it sometimes gets me in hot water.”
And yet, here’s a man raised by Fly Creek watermen, taught the ways of boats and weather, and cool-headed enough to himself become a seaman and a captain.
And a business man. Separating the two words is intentional.
I ask him what’s special about the specific date he gave me for founding Albatross Marine — May 1, 1997. “I worked for another company on the waterfront, and a friend of mine, Rivers French, encouraged me to start my own business. After tax day, April 15 of that year, I cashed in my IRA. It landed on the 18th. I left my job on the 19th, and I sent out faxes and letters to the contacts I’d made in the maritime trades.”
And now Carl Black is CEO of a business that requires $7,000 a day to open its doors and handle expenses. “We move an unbelievable amount of money through our accounts on behalf of our clients. It’s not our money, but we get to keep some of it,” Carl says. It’s not unusual, he adds, for a tanker to bill $50,000 just coming into port — towage pilots, harbor fees, etc. “And we pay those bills.” He tells me they even make cash payroll deliveries to the ships whose crews are paid in U.S. dollars.
Cap’n Carl’s got a sense of humor. His global company is named after an albatross that appeared in Johnny Hart’s comic strip B.C. In a strip from 1999, the character Peter is — well — sailing around the world on a raft. He looks up at a big bird about to land and says, “Well, well, if it ain’t Albert Ross.”
“That’s Albatross!” says the bird.
“Whatever!” replies Peter.
In 2001, when all things touched turned to gold for Carl and he needed to separately incorporate the three different aspects of his maritime services, he named them Al’s Transportation, Bert’s Line Handling, and Ross Maritime Vessel Agency and Logistics.
“I grew 10 feet tall,” he says, when he got his first call from an international shipping company. “And they’re still my client after more than 20 years.”
I ask him how much money he makes. Just right out. And, Carl, being Carl, and also my friend, wants to give me an answer. “A lot more than that $10 bill you wrote about,” he says. Okay, but I don’t for a second doubt that he would still strip to his skivvies and dive under some boat to help a sailor in need. He’d give his best.
The way his employees give their best to him. “Trevor Walters, April Cordero, and Joe Watson make it possible for me to be aboard my sailboat and not in the office. I mean, look, I’m semiretired, usually on a boat somewhere far away from here, and yet the business doesn’t miss a beat, it’s growing.
“It was hard, though, starting my own business. I almost gave up. So many hoops to jump through. My businesses are all international in nature with a lot of forms and regulations and records keeping. Zero room for error or guesswork. But within four years of starting, by 2001, things had turned in my favor. A steady wind, one might say. And now we process eight figures annually.”
Carl Black’s word is his bond, and it’s served him well. “The ethics and work habits I learned from those shrimpers and boat captains on Fly Creek I’ve used to build my business dealing with companies around the world,” Carl says. “What worked on Fly Creek on the Dismas boat, the Crimson Tide and all the others 30 years ago works today with my international business clients.”
“I’ve been working on boats over half my life,” Carl said 30 years ago in my profile of him. “My retirement plan is my versatility. Someday I hope to stop patching on them and use them. I’d like to have a boat to live aboard and cruise.”
Cruise? I just looked at a map, and there’s a whole lot of blue between where the CV is moored at this moment and Fly Creek. On a 35-day run from the Galapagos in Ecuador, Cap’n Carl brought aboard 15 cases of beer, 2 bottles of rum and 3 bottles of wine. “A sailor must have his grog,” he says, “to watch the sunset and reflect upon what brought him to the middle of the ocean. I stared at that last beer until I knew I’d finally made the passage into the anchorage in French Polynesia.”
He’s covered 10,000 nautical miles, which is way short, because he’s not sailing in a straight line, leaving about 15,000 miles to go. “I expect I’ll be gone two or three more years,” Carl says. He likes to make landfall and get to know the locals. Most of the time, he befriends the people and likes their country and overstays his visa. “I’ll sail the north Indian Ocean and around the tip of Africa, then home to Mobile Bay and Fly Creek. The slip I used to have, though, the city cancelled because I was deemed not a suitable citizen.” But that’s another story.
After the horn of Africa, it’s water, water everywhere, until the Gulf of Mexico comes ashore down at Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island, where Carl will ease into the mouth of Mobile Bay finishing his voyage around the world.
Maybe drop anchor and stay awhile with us locals.