In October 1987, I had moved from Richmond, Virginia to the Caribbean to live out my life under the palm trees. I had been adrift since I graduated college two years earlier, without purpose or direction. I had figured, as long as I was adrift, why not drift on down to a sun-drenched island nearer to the Equator? In St. Thomas, I found work and fun, but still no direction. I needed some sort of – what? maybe divine guidance – in finding my life’s direction. Dave was the unlikely messenger who delivered it.
One fateful, balmy December night, I met Dave. Well, actually, at the actual moment in question, I was drifting off to sleep on a raft of many margaritas, nearly horizontal in a white wicker chair in the corner of an open-air beach-side bar on the north side of St. Thomas. But someone was trying to wake me up.
This guy had apparently surveyed the dancing, drinking, partying crowd in the bar, and for a reason I never learned, chose the person passed out in the corner to be his friend.
Now he was slapping my knee, insistent: "Hey! Hey! Wake up. I need a friend. Hey, I need a friend. I just delivered a yacht from New Jersey, and I’m new to the island. Wanna be my friend?"
"Sure," I said to shut him up, and closed my eyes again.
"Let's go to Morning Star Beach tomorrow," said the tenacious drunk. "Where do you live? I'll come get you."
I gave him the address of the mouse-infested, crime-ridden, lizard-lodging fleabag hotel that was my paradise retirement home, then drifted back out to sleep on my margarita raft, knowing I'd never see the guy again.
The next morning, after a long cab ride and a brief slumber, I heard a pounding at my fleabag front door. Opening the door slowly, I squinted into the morning Caribbean sun, and beheld Dave.
By the time we arrived at his new favorite beach – which was topless, of course – Dave had told me five stories about women he’d recently met, each story wilder than the last. As we sipped beers from the cooler we’d brought and surveyed the scene, Dave explained his methods and philosophies regarding the fairer sex. But it was clear that Dave’s way with women – and with everyone else in his life – was more akin to a tsunami than subtle technique. He simply swept them away.
Over the next seven months, Dave came to represent for me the personification of what living in the islands should be about. His most noticeable feature was his overwhelming personality. You didn’t hang out with Dave as hung on, getting dragged along in his draft like paper behind an eighteen-wheeler.
During my time hanging on Dave on St. Thomas, I got into and out of more chaotic parties, car crashes and bar fights than I had lived through in my previous 25 years. Dave didn’t just drive home the meaning of carpe diem, he wrapped it around a tree in the front yard.
Dave’s next most-noticeable feature was his ceaseless drive to seduce women. He was relentless – Pepe LePew with better stuff. Pursuing women was nearly an involuntary act for him, like blinking his eyes.
And Dave was successful. Women found him enticing. His blue eyes blazed with a lust for life. His mischievous, almost devious, smile gleamed with the promise of over-the-top fun. And while he wasn’t built like Adonis, Dave stood a little under six-feet tall and was in reasonably good shape, had a carefully cultivated nut-brown tan, and sported a casually tousled tangle of thick, dark hair. According to most women I met (and I met a lot through Dave), he was, all-in-all, a fairly attractive package.
The men on the island, however, weren’t quite so enamored with Dave. Well, some men. Through the primal prism that men often use to judge each other, Dave was the medium-sized gorilla at the top of the tree, beating his chest, proclaiming his preeminence, challenging all comers and, not insignificantly, attracting a good number of the females. A lot of the less secure other males just aren’t going to like that.
Personally, I didn’t give a crap. Dave’s absolute, two-handed throttle-hold on life made him an overwhelming wall of fun, moving 100 miles per hour around the clock, and I was about to surf the wave.
On any given night or early morning, we could be found in one of St. Thomas’ finer establishments, toasting life and convincing women to dance on the bar.
Dave was the guy who talked me into crewing on a sailboat in the Piña Colada Regatta, a local race with an optional dress code that focused on "optional." Afterwards, the seventy boats dropped anchors off a secluded beach for a party. Combine 700 men and women in equal parts, add light and dark rum and clear blue Caribbean water, and you end up with a wonderful, intoxicating mixture that I can still taste.
One early spring day, Dave decided that a group of us – three guys and two women – should take a ride on a party barge called the Kon Tiki. After an enjoyable, excessive morning on the boat, our group piled off the barge onto the pier, looking for entertainment. Conveniently, it was located just one pier over, at the top of a gangplank – that led onto a monstrous cruise ship.
Dave shepherded us (somehow) past the unsuspecting guard and (somehow) straight to an empty lounge, where he immediately began making drinks for, and on, the house. When the Love Boat horn sounded, we realized that the ship was getting ready to depart St. Thomas for its next port of call. It must have been a sight for the ticketed passengers to see five people running through the ship toward the gangplank, yelling that we needed to get off the damn boat.
Somehow we all made it off and back on to the pier, in search of our next stop.
We found it nearby, in the cool, white, shady confines of a pier-side bar called Bob's. Bob’s regulars washed up onto the bar stools like driftwood, and tourists perched around the perimeter, gawking at the palm trees through the open-air windows that framed the establishment.
We crashed through Bob's front door like a stumbling stampede of tipsy bulls into a china shop, and immediately gravitated to a giant world map covering one wall. But to reach the map, the five of us had to stand on a row of benches – Bob’s benches.
Bob protested that we were ruining his benches, staining his map and disrupting his bar. Dave called the play, and on the count of three, all five of us mooned Bob and his bar, giving the tourists something a little more interesting to gawk at.
To our genuine surprise, we were thrown out. I had been booted from bars at 2:30 in the morning before. But only with Dave have I ever been ejected from a bar by 2:30 in the afternoon. We called it a day.
During my time in the islands, I found that there were two basic types of people who followed the path south to the Caribbean: those who had the guts to walk away from modern life, and those who didn’t have the guts to face modern life. I had started out as the latter, but with Dave’s help, I was becoming the former.
Sometimes Dave’s interventions were subtle: a challenging look when I balked at talking to a woman or taking a shot. Sometimes his interventions were more direct.
I had often proclaimed that when I left St. Thomas, I was sailing off the rock, not taking a plane. Dave, for some reason, took these ridiculous declarations seriously.
As the tourist season ended and we drifted toward summer, Dave arranged a job interview for two positions crewing a 53-foot sailboat bound for the resort island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea. The millionaire Dutch owner of the yacht Jaska liked to keep it in the Caribbean during the winter (although he rarely visited it), and then he would have it moved across the ocean to the Med so he could not sail on it there during the summer.
We met with Jaska’s captain one night around the table in the yacht’s darkened, teak wood main cabin, as she rolled gently at anchor in the Red Hook Harbor of St. Thomas. Captain Dimitri was a lean, well-muscled guy in his late twenties.
Despite some queasiness from the boat’s motion (not a good omen, by the way), the interview went remarkably well – especially since my experience sailing boats matched, for example, my experience flying airliners.
“Sooo, Mr. Hansen, we need someone to help fly this Boeing 747. It will require around the clock piloting for two months, and you will have control of the airliner one-quarter of that time. Do you have any experience?”
“Uh, well, I know when to put my tray in its upright position, and I always watch the safety demonstration...”
“Terrific! You're hired! You can start by polishing that brass over there.”
So, somehow, Dave had put me on a relatively small boat on an objectively huge ocean. The crew was Dave and another excellent sailor (our first mate Ian), as well as an excellent sailor and questionable captain (Dimitri).
It was 28 years ago today that we set sail.
We crossed some 4,000 miles of open ocean, gliding across the surface with huge pods of dolphin, sliding down and crashing into walls of storm-driven gray waves, rolling over swells with giant whales, dodging huge tankers and freighters outside the Strait of Gibraltar, lifting beers in the Azores, Gibraltar and Ibiza with sailors from all over the world … having the time of my life.
Yet, even as Dave and I were living this adventure together, my days surfing the Dave tidal wave were nearing their end, at least for the time being. When we reached Ibiza I would be leaving Jaska to head back to the States. Dave would be remaining with Jaska indefinitely.
I knew that, after leaving Dave’s company, I would never live life so fully again. Dave is like any big wave that overtakes you: unless it tips the boat, it ultimately passes beneath and goes on without you. I knew that, even long after my compass had settled and my ocean was calm, somewhere in the world, Dave would still be raising ordinary lives to extraordinary extremes.
On separate courses now, we both grew up. I went to grad school, moved back east, met my wife Stacy, we had two kids, and they grew into strong, smart, wonderful adults. Dave stayed with Jaska, eventually becoming the captain, sailing around the world (several times), then becoming a yacht broker and eventually owning his own brokerage, based in Newport, Rhode Island and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
From time to time, Dave and I caught up. When Stacy and I went to St. Maartin for our honeymoon, we visited with Dave, who happened to be on the island. He took us out and spent a ridiculous amount of money on dinner and champagne, celebrating our marriage. Another time, my friend Darryl and I traveled to Newport for one of Dave’s epic parties. And here and there, we were able to grab a beer or a meal when we happened to be in the same town.
Except for these occasional reunions, however, Dave and I were on our separate paths.
Then, three years ago, fortunately and unexpectedly, that huge wave circled the globe and came back to lift me again.
One night after looking through some old pictures of the islands, I reached out to Dave (I still have the email): “Yo dude, thinking about you. When can we catch up in real life? When will you be back in the mid-Atlantic? Or maybe I can figure out a way to catch up with you in your travels. Let me know. – Chuck”
Dave wrote back almost immediately. He had an idea for a project, something that was very important to him, and he had been thinking about me as a writer who could help out. Was I interested?
Was I interested?? Absolutely.
Over these last three years, Dave and I and Sean (a friend of Dave’s and now a friend of mine) spent hundreds of hours and thousands of emails and conversations putting the project together.
Dave was doing it again, challenging me to seize the day. He was determined to see this project through, and attacked it with every bit of his typical energy and drove us to do the same.
Dave was still that tidal wave that accelerated the lives of everyone around him… until last week, when Dave died unexpectedly.
I could never imagine a life force like Dave not being alive. But I also could never imagine Dave ever being old. So I guess I was not shocked when I got the call.
Not shocked, but terribly sad. Apart from Stacy and our kids and members of my family, Dave probably had the greatest positive impact on my life, helping me permanently change my outlook. I had explored the tropics, drank rum and danced on the bar. I had awakened from my slumber, with the help of my buddy Dave. And I carried his philosophy of carpe diem with me, from that first day on Morningstar Beach through our work together on his project, 29 years later.
Now, with Dave’s death, the project has probably died with him. But it’s not a loss, at least not to me. All I wanted was to help my friend Dave get this thing launched. And although that probably won't happen now, it was a gift to get the chance reconnect so closely with Dave over the past few years.
Either way, whether during the years that we were mostly out of touch or when we were together again working on his project, Dave was always with me. As I navigated life, built a marriage with Stacy and we raised our family, grappled with work and the future, Dave always was my crew mate… goading me, encouraging me, challenging me, slapping my knee and waking me up to remind me to seize the day.
And he still is.
Thank you, Dave. I am going to miss you.