Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins:
A sailor on dry land

Beer and Other Sins by Royce Kurmelovs

In quarantine, Vernon Schulz drinks and dreams of the sea. As he cracks open an imported Italian beer in his city apartment, Vernon, now landlocked, says he designed his whole life around being able to drop everything.

Before the apartment, the 52-year-old had a house in the suburbs with a garden and three Siamese cats. Taking care of it all took too much time away from the water, so he rehomed the cats and bought an apartment above Cafe Nano in Adelaide’s East End.

“I wanted to be able to flick a switch and walk away without having to prepare,” he says.

Leaving the house has been harder of late, especially while running down the clock on a 14-day legally mandated quarantine period.

It started in March when he was asked to deliver a yacht to Melbourne in the opening days of the pandemic. The client had bought the boat right as COVID-19 escaped regulatory controls in Wuhan, China, spreading worldwide in a matter of days.

As national and state borders clamped shut, the buyer wanted someone to bring his yacht home. Vernon took the job the moment he received the call – if there was a meaningful difference between self-isolating in an apartment or spending a few days out on the water, he couldn’t see it.

A couple of days after departing, he docked in Melbourne free of hassle, where he tied up the boat, took a shower and immediately caught a flight back to Adelaide.

“That flight was eerie,” he says. “I’ve never seen a plane that empty. There were maybe 25 people. I was in row four and they had us all spaced out. We had to fill out these forms for SAPOL about where we were going to stay for the next 14 days.”

When he landed, officials took his temperature on the way out the door and then he was straight into quarantine.

The idea of two weeks alone didn’t faze Vernon. Most of his life is solitary. When he’s not sailing, he works from home, earning a living doing the books for local businesses. Still, he says, it’s different when it is no longer possible to leave.

“It’s really the last two days that get to you,” he says.

If time and distance mean nothing on the water, the same might be said for two weeks inside an apartment – though Vernon is quick to say he had it easy. Friends sent care packages. Local restaurants made food deliveries. About 10 days in he had a visit from two SAPOL officers to check he was actually where he said he would be.

It was nice to have visitors, Vernon says, because, if he’s being honest, the days and hours bled together as he found himself drinking more.

“I was drinking too much,” he reflects. “Normally you go out and have a pretty full day and do some stuff. When you’re stuck at home, you have a lot less to do and what you do have to do takes a lot less time.”

“So you think: I’ve got a bottle of wine. Why don’t I have that with dinner? And then you open a beer. And then you realise that’s more than what you normally drink.”

It helped that he had a well-stocked bar – the hallmark of an inner-city resident as much as a sailor.

“I live in the city, so sometimes I have friends back to the apartment,” he says. “It’s easier to ask me what I don’t have. I have whiskeys. I have vodkas. I have tequilas. I have liqueurs. I have a wine fridge. A beer fridge. And a small fridge for food. My food fridge is half the size of my wine and beer fridges.”

None of this would normally be out of the ordinary. Vernon says he has never met a sailor who doesn’t drink, and he’s now been on the water for 18 years. That experience has taught him no two days are alike. Each time out the crew changes with the conditions, and the conditions can change by the hour.

The worst he’s ever faced was as a member of crew trying to get a high-end racing yacht to Sydney in seven days for a team who needed it to compete.

Having sailed out to Kangaroo Island, bad turned worse as the waves grew to the size of two-storey buildings. Conditions were so bad that within 24 hours the skipper backed out and turned around.

Those moments teach you a powerful respect for nature, Vernon says, agreeing it is perhaps a metaphor for the present moment. It might be easy to forget on land, but on the water you cannot escape the interplay between sky and sea. It is a constant reminder that nothing is still.

“You look after the boat which looks after the crew, and you look after the crew by looking after the boat,” Vernon says. “It’s the water. The wind, the rain, the sunshine – even when it’s horrible, you know the sun comes out eventually.

“So you dry out and you go to the bar afterwards and you go, ‘Yeah, that was pretty good.’”

Now he’s out of quarantine, the only question is whether another few days at sea might be worth another round.

“I’m seriously thinking about it,” Vernon says.

Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

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