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Home at Sea: David Crosby aboard the Mayan, a 74-foot wood boat he bought in 1967. Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal
Singer-songwriter David Crosby, 71, is a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash; a solo artist, and author of three books. He is completing a new album of original material produced by another son, James Raymond, to be released early next year. He spoke with reporter Marc Myers.
When I was 11 years old, my parents wanted me to do something besides get in trouble. So they enrolled me in sailing classes at the Sea Shell Association in Santa Barbara, Calif. From the moment I climbed into that 8½-foot dinghy in 1952, I knew instinctively what to do and sensed I had done it before. I was a natural sailor, and it's one of the reasons I later wrote "Déjà Vu."
Sailing alone in that boat for the first time was a transforming experience. I came back the next day and every day after that. Sailing became one of the main streams of my life. I suppose my father was an influence. I remember seeing a photo of him at home sailing a big boat to Bermuda in his 20s. I still have it.
"High Noon" also left a mark. My father, Floyd Crosby, was the film's cinematographer. I didn't realize until later, but "High Noon" had blossomed in my head. The movie is technically a Western, but it's really about an honorable, stand-up guy who sticks to his principles—even when he has to go it alone.
Before long I sailed that dinghy around the harbor alone, getting as close as I could to the big sailboats anchored there—particularly a beautiful wooden schooner that I learned later was designed by John Alden, one of the great American yacht architects. I loved its design and wanted to see how the different lines and sails worked. As my confidence grew, I started sailing to the harbor's outer buoy. That scared everyone and they tossed me out of the club.
My next big sailing experience came in 1967, after I was thrown out of the Byrds. I borrowed $25,000 from my friend Peter Tork, who was in the Monkees, and went down to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., looking for a schooner. I found one identical to the John Alden-designed boat I had seen years earlier and bought it.
The 74-foot boat was named Mayan and was built in 1947 with Honduran mahogany. The cabins below can sleep eight, but six people is more ideal—four to keep watch and take turns manning the sails and two who can alternate cooking and cleaning.
After I took possession, I had to learn how to sail it. I had never sailed anything larger than 8½ feet, and you need a good wheel-hand—that's me—and two good deckhands to handle the sails. So I made friends with lots of experienced sailors who wanted to sail on the boat, and they taught me everything I needed to know.
Within a year, I decided to sail the boat to San Francisco and live on it full-time, until 1970. During that time I wrote many songs down below, including "Wooden Ships," "The Lee Shore," "Page 43" and "Carry Me." The Mayan has been a deep muse.
I've always been a very careful sailor. I know, me and being careful—doesn't really sound right, does it? But when I sail, I take it seriously and take along spares for everything. You have to be careful when you're 1,500 miles from land. There's no one you can call. You're on your own.
Virtually everyone in rock 'n' roll has been on the Mayan. But I didn't get my boat for partying. I got it to sail. Sure, after we'd dock, we'd go to someone's house and get completely inappropriately high on a variety of substances, many of which were dangerous and did me a great deal of harm.
But partying is not what the boat was about. The boat is higher than a party. Sailing sweeps you away, and a party seems pallid and shallow. The boat is a way deeper experience, especially on long trips. I love voyaging—the longest has been 3,000 miles to Hawaii. I've also spent weeks all over the Caribbean.
I still take the Mayan out sailing every chance I get with my wife, Jan, and Django, our son. But honestly, I haven't been able to afford the boat's upkeep for a while given my mortgage and other expenses. It's been on the market for a few years, but my wife would break my arms if I actually sold it.
Look, I have maybe 10 more years, if I'm lucky. I have hepatitis C, diabetes and heart disease. I'm managing them. I'm going to the gym three days a week, I'm feeling strong and I can still make audiences feel great.
My dream? One more tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash and my friend Neil [Young]. From there, I'd be fine. I'd be able to sail. I'd live. And I'd be happy.