November 15, 2006
A Friend Unlocks Key West
By Bernadette Bernon
For reasons I can no longer summon, Key West was going to be just a quick drop-by. Douglas and I had been there before, and enjoyed it. But this time, we were in “heading north” mode, and the town didn’t compel me to linger as it had on other visits. I felt eager to move on. But out of the blue, a serendipitous meeting changed all that. Now, when we think of Key West, Douglas and I think about how nice it might be to actually live there.
Ithaka glided into the anchorage area, and to our shock it was almost empty. Other times when we’d visited Key West on our travels north and south to the Caribbean, the anchorage was chockablock with boats hooked so close to one another that we could hear conversations from neighboring cockpits – not an entirely pleasant experience. This time, however, we anchored in an open area of great holding, with plenty of scope and plenty of privacy.
Douglas and I took showers, called the immigration authorities on our cell phone, and headed into town to officially check back into the United States. As we strolled down the street, I caught sight of myself a few times in window reflections, and wasn’t thrilled with what I saw.
First of all, I looked like I had a straw hay bale knotted atop my head; I needed a haircut. Worse, it became apparent as I looked at myself through the eyes of my fellow Key West strollers, that I needed some new clothes and a decent pair of sandals. Even my best sundress had become faded by the sun and aggressive hand washing in bleachy water. My flip-flops were fine for the beach, but left something to be desired in any other setting. It was amusing, and a tad distressing, to think how quickly I judged myself by the standards of land versus the standards of cruising. That being said, a new dress wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Douglas and I wandered around, gaping into shop windows, people watching, stopping for coffees and cake at a beautiful French bakery, checking emails at an internet café, and stopping by West Marine – the sanctuary for wayward cruisers -- until we were stopped by an arresting vision. In the window of The Gallery On Greene was a large modern painting of a jester-like figure that captivated us with its play of colors, its dramatic composition, and its intriguing energy. We entered the gallery, a soaring room bathed in light, with a grand staircase to an upper gallery that overlooked the paintings below. Everywhere were images that pulled our attention toward them. We moved from painting to painting, delighted, until a woman approached and complimented me on my purse, which was made of Kuna molas from Panama – a birthday gift from Douglas.
“They’re molas from the San Blas islands, right?” she asked. “I was there myself a few years back, on a small sailboat.”
“Really?” I said. “We just arrived today on our boat from the southwest Caribbean today.”
“Well, welcome home,” she smiled. “I was on a cruising boat too. Those molas bring back a lot of wonderful memories.”
She’d been single-handing down there many years ago, she told us. Now, she owned this gallery, and cruising was a distant recollection. As she talked, something about the soft melodiousness of her voice seemed so familiar to me. It was as though I knew that voice from somewhere, yet I was sure I’d never been in this gallery before. Just then…
“Do we know each other?” she said. “You seem so familiar.”
“Funny you say that,” I said. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
“What did you do before you went cruising?” she asked.
“I was the editor of a magazine called Cruising World,” I said.
“BERNADETTE?” she cried. “It’s me, Nance Frank!”
“Oh! My! God!” Stunned, we hugged each other. That voice. I had remembered it. We both looked different enough after all that time that it was our voices that had rung the bells. It had been 13 years since Nance had come into my office to talk about her upcoming adventure. She was about to become the first American woman to skipper of an all-female crew in the prestigious Whitbread Around The World Race. Thirteen years ago, this made her a groundbreaker in the world of sailing. Beautiful, fit, and confident, she was a sailing champion with all the makings of a star.
But Nance was not your average racing sailor. She’d followed her own drummer, and had single-handed her own boat throughout the Mediterranean. She’d cruised throughout Central and South America. She’d crewed and raced on all manner of big and small boats all over the world, including sailing around Cape Horn on a wood 27-footer. She’d organized the Caribbean Women’s Championships in 1986. A master navigator and tactician, she’d also skippered the first women’s team in the Newport-Bermuda Race, in the Annapolis-Newport Race, and in the Gold Cup Transatlantic Race. Well educated in art history, she’s also fluent in six languages.
At then end of her Whitbread experience, Nance returned to Key West, Florida, where she’d grown up. She became a charter boat skipper for a time, then a captain on private yachts. Eventually, she turned her back on the world of professional sailing altogether, and returned to the world of fine art. A third generation collector, her professional background before sailing was as a curator in museums in Switzerland and Chile. She spent three and a half years as director for the Kennedy Fine Arts Gallery, and then as the director of The Gallery On Green; in 1998 she acquired it – fulfilling another dream -- and has made it into one of the most beautiful and successful galleries in Key West.
In 1997, she authored and published a book with the renowned Cuban-American artist Mario Sanchez entitled Before and After, and she’s recognized as the foremost expert on Mr. Sanchez’s work; the artist chose Nance to organize major retrospectives of his works for display in museums around the world. She represents the work of artist, cartoonist, and triple Pulitzer Prize winner Jeff MacNelly, as well as two dozen other artists. Nance founded the Monroe Council of the Arts, and is chairman of the Art in Public Places Committee for Monroe County. This is not a woman who sits still very long.
For many years, Nance traveled to Cuba – by small plane, by small speedboat, and by traditional means. “Cuban art is a tapestry of beauty and danger,” she said, describing how the theatricality, mysticism, and sensuality of the contemporary Cuban artists drew her back, again and again, to learn, and to collect art for her gallery. It was the work of the Cuban artist Luis Abreaux, in the window of The Gallery On Greene, that had drawn our attention, as Douglas and I strolled Greene Street on our first day back in the United States. The day we wandered in, and I had my reunion with Nance, she and Luis were setting up for a cocktail reception to be held later that evening heralding the opening of his show. She invited us to attend. This reception, and Nance’s hospitality, marked the beginning of our developing a brand-new perspective on Key West.
That evening, we donned our best clothes — such as they were — and with the excitement that comes from seeing a young and gifted artist present his new works to the public, we joined the party. Nance looked beautiful. She glowed as she moved from patron to patron, discussing her devotion for Cuban art, and shifting from English to fluent Spanish as she translated for Luis. The champagne flowed, as he described what the images represented – mostly they were allegorical depictions of the repressed life in Cuba, and the passion of the people. Two large paintings were sold – a very exciting triumph for Luis and Nance -- and by the end of the evening, several smaller ones were also sold. The opening was a huge success.
Over the next few days, we got together with Nance at her house for brunch, a home filled with art and plants and a wonderful energy. We went with her in her runabout to explore the sand spits and reefs around Key West. Joining us were a few of her friends – including Barbara Span, Nance’s communications officer from her Whitbread campaign, and Barbara’s husband and two children -- and Nance’s German Shepard, named appropriately Seaborn, to whom she communicates in German.
Through Nance, we saw the side of Key West we hadn’t been privy to before, the side of the real community of people who live there. We could see that there is a vibrant cultural life in Key West, and that residents there support the arts – the theaters, concerts, galleries, and symphony seem to be thriving. Coming from Newport, Rhode Island, where arts organizations struggle desperately to make ends meet, it was refreshing to see a community treasuring and supporting their cultural institutions.
Mostly, though, we basked in the joy of these new friendships. Nance was so encouraging about what was ahead for us. Because we were newly arrived in the United States, and were struggling with feelings of chaos and confusion, especially coming as we did from a quieter and more private world, she became our sounding board. Although her sailing experiences were light years different than ours, we shared similar feelings of what it’s like to come home from an intense sailing voyage. After such an experience, you need to begin the process of reinventing yourself and figuring out what in the world you will do next.
Nance had done that, and done it well. She brainstormed with me about my writing, about new ideas for stories, and about clever ideas for projects. She brainstormed with Douglas about working outside the box of his old psychoanalytic profession, and doing more writing. She made us feel more excitement than trepidation over our re-entry.
When Douglas and I finally bade Nance and Key West goodbye for now, scratched Seaborn behind the ears, and headed Ithaka’s bow toward Fort Lauderdale, it was with sadness. We both felt that we’d made a friend who we wanted to see again. We both felt that we’d gotten to know an impressive woman of substance.