It might be surprising for a John D MacDonald fan to learn that Travis McGee’s 52-foot houseboat, The Busted Flush -- which plays such a prominent role in so many of the 21 novels starring the author’s series character -- has only been depicted by cover artists a handful of times. It was certainly surprising for me as I was researching this piece: I could have sworn I’d seen it more often. By my count I can find only four illustrations of the Flush on any of the various editions published in the United States prior to 1988, and I don’t think there have been any after that. All of the illustrations were inked by the great Robert McGuinness.
The houseboat’s first appearance took place with the first paperback edition of The Turquoise Lament in July 1974. It showed a well-groomed Travis McGee standing on a dock with the Flush taking up nearly every inch of the background. Now I’m no boat person but even I, at the time, could tell that this depiction of a 52’ boat was way too small to be the Flush. A few years later MacDonald’s bibliographer Walter Shine voiced the same sentiment in his JDM Bibliophile column:
"We nominate as the worst artistic depiction of any story the monstrosity of a houseboat which decorated the paperback editions of Turquoise and the second edition of Scarlet. That spindly little 28' no 'count boat no more resembles the 52' custom-built ‘decadently luxurious’ Busted Flush than Walter Shine resembles Travis D. McGee.
"Insult to injury, the Grand Rapids Special-looking furniture shown on the sundeck in Turquoise is indoor furniture, no more suitable to the Flush than a quart of Plymouth gin is to a nursing mother's breakfast.
"Worst still, there appears no place where there could be ‘topside controls.’"
As Walter states, this same version of the Flush was reused for a revised paperback edition of The Scarlet Ruse, hitting the stands in May of 1975. Again, an overly short houseboat with no topside controls.
The first paperback edition of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, published in September 1975, features an image of the Flush seen from the front, and there does appear to be -- a place for at least -- topside controls and an upper deck canopy.
Finally, in June of 1976 Fawcett republished Bright Orange for the Shroud (its 19th printing) with what MIGHT be an image of the Flush, along with two other crafts alongside it. Being no expert on watercraft I can only say that none of them appear to be houseboats.
In 1975 an article appeared in the boating magazine Rudder written by esteemed journalist and editor of Sail Magazine, Martin A Luray, detailing John D MacDonald’s exacting expertise in all things boating, and including several passages from the McGee novels to prove it. MacDonald was interviewed for the piece and he revealed a few things I had not known about why he chose Bahia Mar as the port for the Busted Flush. Also included was an insert containing specifications for the houseboat (nowhere near as complete as Walter Shine’s multipage details in his 1987 monograph Special Confidential Report -- Subject: Travis McGee) along with an illustration of what the real Busted Flush probably looked like, “established through investigation to be the original design of the boat.” Given the author of the article and the magazine it appeared in, I’ll have to assume that this is the most accurate image of the Flush ever published -- or, at least, that I’ve ever seen.
Travis McGee, Boatman
By Martin Luray
Elsewhere in this issue is an article on liveaboards - a deeply researched intensive piece with extensive quotes from a number of boating folk who have given up life ashore for life afloat. Nowhere is mentioned, however, probably one of the most famous liveaboards of them all — a 6'4" ruggedly handsome private investigator cum "salvage expert" named Travis McGee whose home is The Busted Flush, a “barge-type houseboat' usually berthed in slip F-18 at Ft. Lauderdale's Bahia Mar.
McGee was hard to reach primarily because he doesn't exist and neither does The Busted Flush (or slip F-18 for that matter). He is the figment of author John D. MacDonald, who has written about McGee in 16 novels (the latest, The Dreadful Lemon Sky will be published in paperback by Fawcett next month) and has given his seagoing character an expertise about boats and boating that makes him totally appealing to marine buffs who also dig well-plotted detective stories that have some ring of truth. In the McGee books, all of the nomenclature is always correct. McGee describes himself as a “boat bum,” but he is [a] good seaman, expert boathandler, able at maintenance and repair of boats and engines. He has a fine eye for good lines - appreciative of beautiful vessels as well as the lovely soul-damaged women that recuperate from time to time aboard The Busted Flush as it voyages to the Keys or the Bahamas. What fantasy for you and I as we sail through the fog and murky depths of Long Island Sound.
The origins of The Busted Flush are not too obscure; it was won from a "Palm Beach sybarite" in a poker game, described briefly in the first Travis McGee epic, The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) and later enlarged upon in The Quick Red Fox:
"I had won the craft in a long poker siege in Palm Beach. The man wanted another advance to stay in the game, this last time putting up his Brazilian mistress as collateral, under the plausible assumption that she went with the boat, but his friends saved me the delicate problem of refusal by leading him gently away from the game”
McGee is not always at slip F-18. Sometimes he is away from boating altogether in places like Chicago and Hollywood and even Speculator, N.Y. (The Quick Red Fox). Sometimes he is close to the sea with adventures in Hawaii, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. But his knowledge of boating shows up when he is aboard The Busted Flush and has her moving somewhere as in Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), where much of the action takes place in Florida waters.
McGee on anchoring:
"In the night I was awakened by the creak of the lines as The Flush was trying to go around on the tide change, swinging further each time until pushed by the breeze. I always rig two bow hooks in such a way that she shifts her weight from hook to hook when she changes end for end."
McGee gets his lines checked and then reflects on the ways of the seagoing world. "There are a lot of dead sailors who took things for granted. On a boat things go bad in sets of threes. When you pull a hook and then go hustle to get the wheels turning something will short out on you so that you go drifting, dead in the water. And that is the time when, without lights you drift right out into the ship channel, see running lights a city block apart coming down at you, run to get your big flashlight, fumble it and drop it over the side. A boat is something that never had just one thing wrong with it?”
McGee, of course, often singlehands The Flush, but on this trip he has two others on board to help him put the boat to bed for the night - this after a long expository blast about the destruction of the Everglades by human folly.
"I studied the chart and picked a spot. I went beyond Marco Pass to a wide pass named Hurricane Pass. The channel was easy to read from the topside controls. The Flush draws four feet and is heavily skegged to protect the shafts and wheels. It was low tide... the pass is so wide Roy Cannon (Island) has a sand beach. I edged north a little to get the protection of the headland which forms the north edge of the pass. At dead slow I ran the bow into the beach sand... we put out all four anchors, the two bow ones well up on the beach, wedged into the skeletal whiteness of mangrove killed by the sand which had built up. I carried the stern hooks out into the water neckdeep, wedged them in, stomped them firm. She would rest well there, lifting free with the incoming tide, settling back at the low.”
One imagines even McGee, strong as he is, being totally bushed from carrying those two Danforths into water neck-deep. But never mind, McGee survives potential hernia and shows us later how good he is at docking The Flush:
"When I balanced forward motion and downstream current, Arthur jumped to the dock with a line and I waved him on to the piling I wanted. With it fast, I cut off the engines and the flow swung the stern in. I put on a stern line and spring line. Chook asked about fenders and I saw that the rub rail would rest well against the pilings and I told her not to bother.”
So much for Travis McGee the navigator and boathandler. There is also McGee the maintenance and repair expert who supervises the rebuilding of the upper deck of The Busted Flush when it is torn apart by a bomb in The Dreadful Lemon Sky. And he is a good hand at fixing an automatic bilge pump, as he does aboard his friend Meyer's "aging cruiser John Maynard Keynes.” (A Tan and Sandy Silence, 1971):
"I got it apart again. I spun the little impeller blade and suddenly realized that maybe it turned too freely. Found the set screw would take a full turn. Tightened it back down onto the shaft. Reassembled the crummy little monster, bolted it down underwater, heaved myself out (of the bilge), sat on the edge of the hatch and had Meyer flip the switch. It started to make a nice steady wheeeeeeng, gouting dirty bilge water into the Bahia Mar yacht basin.”
When the pump turns itself off, Meyer says "Thank you very much and hooray."
As it turns out, John D. MacDonald, who I visited in Florida last spring, is no landlubber as a major national magazine mistakenly noted recently. He is a bona fide boatman who has cruised much of Florida's inland and coastal waters, the Caribbean and the Pacific. True, he owns no boat at the present, but the speedy Muñequita which appears in one of his books is based on the T-Craft I/O that was his waterborne vehicle for a number of years.
MacDonald and his wife Dorothy live on an island near Sarasota. One imagines living on a key as the ideal life of solitude for a writer, the isolated house among the mangroves, a lonely beach on which to walk and ponder. It is not like that. The island on which the MacDonalds live has slowly been taken over by developers, which accounts for McGee's wrath against real estate types and MacDonald's involvement with the local Save Our Bays movement. If there is any peace on the island, it is in the quiet cul de sac off the main highway where the MacDonald home, a large contemporary structure stands on 12 foot pilings. Oriented toward the Gulf on the west and toward another string of keys to the north, it is a house to be envious of, a proper place for a writer concerned with seagoing matters, comfortable, substantial, open to its environment. Every part of the house, in fact, is open-living room, kitchen, bedrooms on a balcony, library with a collection of current eclectic titles. Everything, that is, except MacDonald's work room which is partitioned off at one end of the house and contains his work tables, files and a research library.
At 58, with some 66 titles behind him (50 besides the Travis McGee series), MacDonald seems a person with deep feelings about the way we live which, as he says, he finds difficult to relate verbally. Like all good writers, his communicativeness is expressed in his books. A tall man with a gentle, meandering way of talking, yet known to be very firm about his principles, he is not a tough guy, or out to prove some sort of machismo like certain other detective story writers. He impresses simply as a creator of fiction in which his beliefs and whatever fantasies he may have about how we can slow down our destruction are channeled through Travis McGee.
We did a lot of chatting and when the talk got around to McGee, he said that the character came out of the marine environment in which he had lived between 1949 and 1964 when the first McGee book, The Deep Blue Goodbye appeared. Over the years he has done so much cruising to the Bahamas and Key West and Florida and Biscayne Bays that McGee's travels aboard The Busted Flush were reconstructed from memory with occasional help from charts. Instead of buying them, he'd leaf through them at one of the local chandleries.
About the choice of Bahia Mar as McGee's home port, MacDonald said, "We knew Bahia Mar from having stayed at Pier 66. We used to stay there when the weather was too bad to go across to the Bahamas. But Pier 66 was too glossy for McGee, he was better suited to be across the way among the liveaboards at Bahia Mar. His boat was based on one of those seagoing barges I used to see along the East Coast. I was trying to think in terms of having a place he could live on and move at the same time. Nothing static like Nero Wolfe and his orchids”
MacDonald is not a peevish man, but he has his not-too-carefully-hidden angers. The filling-in of Florida's natural estuaries. Poorly-built plastic boats. Lowering the state's water table through excessive building. Stripping the soil for potash which uses up enormous amounts of water (86 million gallons a day by one firm) not all of which is returned to the earth. REIT's -- Real Estate Investment Trusts, a condominium development system peculiar to Florida. A large national company's plant in Bradenton which puts "untold quantities of virulent, poisonous crud into the atmosphere.” Instinctively, one has to be on his side.
As I was about to leave, MacDonald pointed out a family of porpoises playing in the pass between his island and the next key. They tumbled over and over and suddenly a small one, a baby shot straight up, at least six feet above the surface. It was a rare moment. I reflected that if I waited long enough I would see them again-probably off the starboard bow of The Busted Flush as, with Trav at the helm, she heads for another rendezvous with the corrupt world of the non-boatman.