Starboard Eight by Brian Casey

Starboard Eight by Brian Casey

Young Jesse O’Cathasaigh lives on a family farm in Arkansas. Here, beneath the sweltering sun and close to the surging Mississippi, he spends his free time exploring and adventuring with his beloved dogs. But these halcyon days cannot last forever. In 1968, the family faces a savage twister that wreaks havoc on the local area. Worse, his parents must continually endure the torment of having a son at war in Vietnam. 

As he moves into his teenage years, Jesse becomes an excellent football player but repeatedly clashes with teammate Rick Neal. The racist bully provokes Jesse at every turn. Jesse’s rage is eventually unleashed in a violent attack on Rick. At their wits’ end with their volatile son, his parents send the sixteen-year-old to join The Blue Water School. This unique institution is based on two sailing ships and offers troubled youngsters a chance to turn their lives around.
Arriving in Guadalupe, Jesse is assigned to Lacrosse, where he meets his fellow rookies in their ‘Starboard Eight’ berths. They are a disparate bunch, including anxious Gene, combative Bill and engaging Dan. For Jesse this a new world of relentless work, nautical lore and exotic locations. But before long, the competitive young man is drawn into another rivalry: this one with John Gold, a senior mate who enjoys tormenting the ‘rookies’. However, Jesse also meets Rachel, a confident girl with whom he conducts an on-off romance.

Though physically capable and bright, Jesse is not a strong academic. He is some way behind his compatriots and will need to catch up quickly. One of the Blue Water teachers suggests that he postpone graduation but Jesse is determined to make up ground. After only a few weeks, he begins to grasp the appeal of the sailing life and an additional goal is participation in the prestigious Tall Ships race, which will culminate in New York Harbor in this most significant of years: 1976, the bicentenary.

As the Lacrosse and the Southern Star journey though the Caribbean from island to island, Jesse learns about deck work, navigation, weather and numerous other aspects of sailing. One night, while on anchor watch, he alerts his superiors to an escapee that turns out to be Gene. Not long afterwards, the rookies face their greatest challenge yet when the ships are lashed by a hurricane.
For Jesse, the new experiences don’t end there as he encounters sharks, jellyfish and water-spouts. Along with the other Starboard Eight boys, he also explores a mysterious island where they recover some pirate booty. One of the valuable golden doubloons becomes the prize in a diving competition between Jesse and John Gold.
But after nine months at sea, time is running out for his academic goals as the ships reach Grenada. Inspired by a senior staff member who challenges him to do his best, Jesse redoubles his efforts. All the other Starboard Eight boys pitch in to help in the weeks before their finals. All he can do is wait for the results as the ships move on. While passing through the Bermuda Triangle, Jesse witnesses the unique St. Elmo’s Fire – an experience that provokes a profound epiphany from the young man.
As the end of the year approaches, Jesse discovers more about John Gold and the two eventually become friends. Jesse learns of Gold’s longing to be accepted by his parents. He has hardly seen his own mother and father during his time away and resolves to help Gold by writing to his parents and highlighting Gold’s many attributes and achievements. Jesse then learns that he has graduated and, better still, will be participating in the Tall Ships race in  the Southern Star! At the graduation ceremony, he sees Gold reunited with his parents. As for Jesse’s own parents, he is delighted to see them but a troubling distance remains between he and his father. 

As they set off for New York, Jesse and the Starboard Eight boys speak frankly about their time together and much more. In New York, the Southern Star joins the Parade of Sail, which is beamed around the world.  Jesse represents both his ship and his country in a rope-climbing competition against the Russians and wins a famous victory. Once ashore, he has a last moment with Rachel and bids a final farewell to his crewmates.

He is about to board his flight home when his father appears. His father tells Jesse that he saw him win the rope-climb and how proud he is. The pair fly home together; and among the many things they discuss is Jesse’s future…