Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Charline Ratcliff is talking with Christopher Madsen, author of Rowdy
FQ: So, I’ve just finished reading your book Rowdy and let me first congratulate you on writing such an accurate, impressive and exceptionally inspiring accounting of the history associated with this 1916 sailing vessel. I know you originally purchased this derelict yacht in 1998 – could you ever have imagined the (obviously) profound impact it was going to have in your life? (Or the lives of others)?
MADSEN: Not in my wildest dreams. As indication of what I “imagined” I had planned on a 6 month renovation and then off to the high seas. What transpired was five years hard labor in a boatyard followed by another year fine tuning in the water. The thought of a history or of writing a book was the farthest thing from my mind. But once that first bit of historical information came in I was hooked, and it seemed not a day went by that I didn’t discover something new about Rowdy’s past. It felt as if I were reading a wonderful book in slow motion – it was abundantly enjoyable. Rowdy is the common thread that allowed me to meet dozens of people, all over the world, that I never would have met otherwise (including the mother of my twin daughters) - none of which was expected.
FQ: What was your most inspirational moment and/or happening during Rowdy’s renovation?
MADSEN: After 5 spending years in a boatyard it was such a rush to finally launch Rowdy and have her in the water that I couldn’t wait for her new sails to arrive. I gathered some tattered sails from a throw away pile and jury-rigged them in the crudest fashion imaginable. I actually turned a small main sail upside down and used it as a jib. That first sail was inspirational. Despite being powered by what looked to be torn bed sheets, Rowdy moved quickly and gracefully. In contrast to bouncy, modern fiberglass boats, her 22 ton, 59’ hull laid on its side, solid as a rock, and simply pushed the ocean out of the way. To say they don’t make them like that anymore is a vast understatement!!
FQ: On the flip side of my previous question – was there ever a time when you felt you had bitten off more than you could chew? If so, what motivated you to persevere through what was obviously (based on the photographic evidence) an extensive renovation?
MADSEN: I was challenged more times than imaginable. I commuted from Santa Barbara to Oxnard every day – about 45 minutes. I was always in a hurry to get to the boat in the mornings and, as a consequence, kept picking up speeding tickets. At the time I had fallen hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, had mortgaged my house to the hilt, and was worried about how I was going to raise enough money to finish the job. That’s when I got my fourth ticket – the cutoff point where they usually pull your license. The prospect of losing transportation would have been devastating. I actually sat in my car and wept when the officer drove away. That was the absolute low point of the project. By some divine fate, that fourth ticket never entered the system and I was able to keep my license – but I was thoroughly whipped into submission and have obeyed the speed limit ever since. Despite all, I never considered failure or walking away from the project. The importance and value was just too great.
FQ: At what point did working on Rowdy (the yacht) become a labor of love more than anything else?
MADSEN: From the beginning it was a love/hate relationship. From day one I was in love with the graceful lines of the boat and the old world atmosphere, and I wondered about her history. But the first phase in a renovation is to remove more and more and more rotten wood until finally there is a foundation of sound wood from which to begin the rebuilding process. The unpleasantness of seeing the scope of the project grow on a daily basis as dumpsters were filled with old wood, could only be surpassed by the physical pain of contorting my body to complete work in the most inaccessible musty, moldy confines of the boat. This went on for about a year, and then, with the corner turned, every day brought back to life a little bit more of the hull and a little more of the history.
FQ: What was it that prompted you to write Rowdy (the book)? Was it your various conversations with Hanny? Was it the fateful day she provided you with her father’s hand-written journal? Or was it something else entirely?
MADSEN: I sold Rowdy shortly after my twin daughters were born, and assumed the project was done. The next six years were fully devoted to fatherhood – yet somewhere, in the back of my mind, I think I knew that I still had more to do. When the girls entered 1st grade I had time to revisit the many historical leads that I had filed away. They, in turn, led to dozens more leads, and things just snowballed. I went so far as making an appeal to the Supreme Court to gain access to old court files from 1925, accessed innumerable vintage documents including a seemingly overlooked document from 1895 that finally answers the question of “Who fired the opening shot that started the American Revolution”, I placed ads requesting, from the public, any useful information, had many old files pulled from boxed collections in musty storage vaults at various facilities. The extent of my research was progressively inspired by the fabulous material that I was finding. The emerging story - an adventure of a world at war, power and politics at the highest levels, the birth of Hollywood, fortunes and mansions, love and romance, scandalous affairs and, of course, an adventure of the sea turned out to be so fabulous that I knew it had to be shared.
FQ: Christopher, you invested a lot of your time and life in the renovation of Rowdy (the yacht), followed up by even more in the writing of Rowdy (the book). If you could, is there anything you would go back and change – or simply not do at all?
MADSEN: "If I had known then what I know now" I probably would have run as fast as my legs could carry me. I AM SO GLAD I DIDN’T KNOW what I was getting into because, despite what has certainly turned out a monumental test of personal endurance, this has also turned out to be the most worthy event in my life – without which, my twin daughters would never have been so much as a twinkle in my eye.
FQ: What’s next for you in the nautical and/or the writing world?
MADSEN: Through researching the book, I stumbled across a cat burglar who, in the dead of night, entered the second story window of Ardenwold (the main character’s estate). I found his story so engrossing that, for several months, the sole focus of my research became his life story – WWI service, life of crime, arrest, prison escape and underlying love story. A remarkable life that would certainly make for an interesting story set in the 20’s.
As for my ocean adventures, I have a 27’ SeaRay power boat that I regularly take out to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, 21 miles offshore. When I need to sail, I can’t think of anything more fun than bareboat charters in the Caribbean.
FQ: And lastly, with the amount of time spent returning Rowdy to the state of its past glory days, I’m certain that there must be humorous stories about the experience. Would you care to share one of them with us in closing?
MADSEN: It goes without saying that the boatyard loved me. On top of five years of monthly storage fees that I paid to them, I also bought all of my brushes, buckets, paint, sandpaper, screws etc., etc. from their store. On the day that I launched the boat, I was pleasantly surprised to see the boatyard owners had gathered a group of people inclusive of a large table with drinks and a beautiful cake. When I thanked them for turning the event into a launching party, they corrected me and explained that it was a wake to mourn the loss of one of their best benefactors.