Passage: John Gilbert - O Captain, Our Captain

Once upon a time, there was an unusual-looking, waterborne craft called the Gus Arno. John Gilbert was "The Captain."

On any weekend or weekday (sick leave), The Captain would predictably call the crew and an assortment of passengers - new or old, shy or brazen - to show up on Madison Dock by 11 a.m. sharp. The crew consisted of the Ship's Admiral, Ship's Doctor, Ship's Princess, Ship's Mortician and the Ship's Minor. There were a few other colorful crewmembers whose titles reflected their positions as well.

As The Ship's Doctor, I was the medicinal mixologist who always had a Band-Aid in my wallet. One of my duties was to assist in making calls to friends to guarantee a solid crew of 15 or more. Everyone we called went forth and called more friends. We proudly had on hand three bright-orange life preservers still in plastic wrapping in case there was any question of safety.

The crew met promptly at 11 a.m., stood on the deck and cheered on The Captain as he rounded the corner where the Edgewater and the Lakeshore apartments met.

The Captain was a long-haul truck driver when not manning the Gus. He not only had a talent for steering large, bulky vehicles and/or vessels, he was gifted with highly contagious laughter. He was also the organizer of all things water-related.

Assuming the position

One hydroplane race day, we were anxious to assume party mode at the log boom but found out we would have to purchase a flag to reserve a spot there. Our beloved vessel was not normal marine architecture; it was like pushing a brick through molasses, so we had to start a wee bit earlier than most yachts to make it to our specified spot on the boom.

Passing under the I-90 Bridge, we exchanged greetings to all above us in our own special way: the Gus Arno way. Everyone cheered gleefully as the crew and all on board did the thing we were famous for: a full-brace moon.

As we reached our very own store-bought moorage spot, I yelled to The Captain while filling an Rx drink, "Hey, Captain, there's a bunch of boats in our spot!"

I then yelled to the boats parked illegally, "Hey, that's our spot!" to which they conceitedly answered, "Tough, we were here first. You're too late!"

The Captain replied to them in a loud voice, "That's OK. Just make room for 10,000 pounds of raft."

The little boats scattered so fast that they ran into one another. The boats on each side of our reserved area cheered and applauded. John not only maneuvered the Gus into the spot, he did it sideways. That was pure skill. To view the races we moved the couches and chairs onto one side, giving us front-row center.

The crew had adorned it with old furniture from St. Vincent de Paul, and a rather decorative outhouse was placed near The Captains' chair and wheel.

After a long winter, the Gus Arno weathered through the cold and rain.

When spring came around, The Captain called us for a work party. The steel drums that held the raft up out of the water had been filled with foam material, but apparently the ducks used it to make nests, so our craft looked a little bit like a submarine. We towed it to a boatyard, and for $100 or so had it lifted out and refilled it for another year's worth of use.

No matter where we were on the lake, someone would stop by, tie up and join us in the front lounge for cocktails. The Ship's Minor remembers The Captain saying to boats approaching the Gus Arno, "Don't worry about fenders. ... We have our iron corner guards on for protection."

We usually ended the day just hanging still by Laurelhurst, out of the way of boat traffic.

In the forward bar, we stored steak, chicken, mushrooms and salad fixings, and we always put forth a meal with three barbecues, which drew in all kinds of visitors offering goods in exchange for part of our repast.

Other boats motored by at such times asking why all the yachts were tied up to the Gus. The Captain answered, "Oh, those are our dinghies."

As the sun set, we usually had a little hot coffee and an adequate amount of cognac.

Emmett Watson used to write about us in his column, calling us the scourge of Lake Washington, but that he never knew of a happier crew. In fact, there was a very large picture of the Gus Arno and its crew hanging in the lobby of the Seattle Yacht Club.

Losing the Gus - and The Captain

We used to tie the Gus to the north side of the Madison Dock, and there was always beer and wine in the bar. Not a thing was ever stolen. People used to spend the night on it but always left it as they found it. People loved the Gus Arno.

Eventually, we lost places to hide the Gus as none of us could afford any moorage - even if anyone would accept the odd-looking, lumbering mass. The last place we found was in front of the power station on Lake Union.

There were occasional news stories about the raft, asking about the rightful ownership. Finally, a city official of some sort had it auctioned off. The last we heard, it was put to pasture as a swimming float in the San Juan Islands.

Today, when I stand at the end of the Madison Dock, I look north and reminisce how the Gus would round the corner. Everyone cheered and our Captain, John Gilbert, drew closer to start another fun-filled day on the open seas. 

We were sad to lose that raft and what it meant to our summer livelihoods, but we were all most saddened to lose our Captain, John Gilbert, recently.

He was an enigma. He was The Captain.

Long live the memories.

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