My love of the ocean began when I was five years old. We were living on Long Beach Island in southern New Jersey. I was diagnosed with Perthes disease which affects the hip joint. In those days the only treatment was immobility so for the next two years I alternated between six months in bed, six months in a wheelchair, and then months on crutches. Out the window next to my bed I could see the ocean and hear the waves. I whiled the time away with reading and writing little stories.
Then we moved to the pine barrens region of southern New Jersey which are characterized by cranberry bogs, cedar swamps, and many lakes. We lived on one of the lakes and that’s where I taught myself to sail on a small Sailfish sailing board. From the Sailfish I graduated to an 11-foot sailing dingy, bought with money I made mowing the lawns of the other houses on the lake. I transported myself and the lawn mower in a canoe.
At 15 I bought a wooden sailboat – a 17-foot long Comet with a mainsail and a jib. One of my friends was a boy whose father was a captain in the U.S. Navy. The captain was also a woodworker and helped me fix the leaks in my old wooden Comet. He let me and his son come along on a tugboat that was bringing an aircraft carrier to a dock in the Philadelphia Navy yard. In my teenage years I worked summers in construction on Long Beach Island where I continued to perfect my sailing and raced the Comet.
I was always interested in boats and the Navy. As a kid I read all the Horatio Hornblower books by the British maritime writer C. S. Forester. The books cover Hornblower’s career in the British Navy as he advanced from midshipman to an admiral serving in the West Indies during the era of the Napoleonic wars.
Along with sailing and reading, my interest in writing continued. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and won a statewide contest that sent me to the Blair Academy School of Journalism for 6 weeks. We were invited to the Nixon White House to participate in a press conference with the President’s press secretary Ron Ziegler. I didn't have a suit with me so I went to a Good Will store and bought an old zoot suit. It looked great with my long hair! This was right after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. I asked about that and wrote a story on the press conference headlined “Behind the White Wall” for the South Jersey Courier-Post, a Gannett newspaper.
During my freshman year at American University in Washington, D.C., I helped start a sailing team. We borrowed boats from Georgetown University and once raced at the Naval Academy. One of my proudest moments was coming in second against midshipmen in the Chesapeake Bay. Just placing in the top three against those experts was a feat.
After that I became a double major in history and economics and didn’t have much time for sailing. Sailing wasn’t far from my heart and mind though. I used to take big bed sheets from the college dorm and draw pictures of sailing ships with pen and ink.
After graduate work at the London School of Economics, I took a holiday to the British Virgin Islands in 1979. I didn’t return to the Virgin Islands again until I had a family. After several years of vacationing there we moved permanently to St. John in January, 2010.
That’s when I rekindled my passion for sailing and began looking for the perfect family sailboat. A year later I found the Sonseeahray (Cherokee for “morning star), a Downeast 32 with a cutter rig. Built like a 19th century New England coastal sailing ship, she was constructed in 1977. It’s a 19th century design with 1970’s technology. She has a bowsprit, some wooden blocks, lots of teak and mahogany woodwork and a full keel. Like many boats built in those years during the transition from wooden hulls to fiberglass, she has a very thick fiberglass hull - a good feature if one accidentally sails onto a coral reef or rocks. Fortunately, we haven't done that and plan to avoid it.
In Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea I modeled Dr. Thayer’s boat, the Perseverance, after my family’s Sonseeahray.