Blue Politics, Blues Songs, And Sailing The Ocean Blue

Edited By Ann Dermody

The Boater's Politician: John Breaux

There are boaters — and then there are boaters. The latter is the sort who know every inch of their craft to an almost obsessive degree, have their boats — rather than family and pets — as smart phone and iPad screen savers, do their own engine repair, carry well-thumbed old maintenance manuals (that they've studied incessantly and marked with highlighter pen throughout), and though they might not readily admit it, spend large chunks of their time daydreaming about that certain multi-ton lady in their lives.

Photo of Former Senator John Breaux and his wife aboard their 47-foot Sea RayFormer Senator John Breaux and his wife, Lois, relax aboard their 47-foot Sea Ray. (Photo: John Breaux)

It is very obvious, very quickly, that former Senator John Breaux is one of those boaters. Born and raised in Louisiana, he authored a landmark law that returned boaters' gas tax money to boating programs (it even became known as the Wallop-Breaux Act), while he was in the House of Representatives, where he'd been elected at 28, in 1972. Apart from helping to positively influence laws to enhance the quality of recreational boating, Breaux took advantage of his new home on the Chesapeake Bay to do some serious boating. In 1987 he was elected to the Senate and served as a U.S. Senator until 2005.

"I used to spend a lot of time repairing my first boat," he recalls. "It was a 23-footer with twin engines. I was in the House in those days, and I did all the repairs myself. I remember my wife Lois and I changed the headers, and she smashed her wedding ring holding something for me."

Boating has always been a family affair for the Breauxes. He says some of his very first memories are of fishing with his grandfather on the lakes, rivers, and bayous of Louisiana. "I remember as a little kid looking out the window watching him, and then later getting to go with him, when I was about 5. He'd have everything ready the afternoon before, so the next morning he could just step into his truck, pull his boat, and go fishing before daylight. It was just a wooden boat with an old motor that you had to tie a rope around to crank up. It used to backfire on him and bust his knuckles, and the rope would break, but it was a great sort of bonding experience that was very special." Breaux says he's trying to imprint the same memories on his own five grandchildren who range in age from 6 months to 13. "I'm taking them skiing and showing them how to run the boat. They love it. I had that when I was growing up and I'm trying to get them to continue doing it. It's always been a big part of our lives."

As with most boaters, his boats have grown with him. "You have your first boat, and then your second boat, and your second boat's a little bigger than the first boat, and the third boat's bigger than the second boat. There's always a bigger boat to get," he muses. Since that first 23-footer, Breaux has owned a 28-foot Rinker, with a single Mercruiser engine he kept at his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore for 10 years, before donating it to The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's, Maryland, to auction last year. He also has a 36-foot Chris-Craft Corsair (which he still owns).

"We have a condo in Florida, so every winter we'd truck the Corsair down to Florida, and then bring it back up to the Chesapeake in the summertime." Last fall the boat was already on the truck on its way to Florida when Breaux and his wife stopped by the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and came away with a 47-foot Sea Ray Sundancer. "So I ended up with two boats in Florida for the winter," he says. By late March, the Chris-Craft was on its way back north where it'll live out its days. He also keeps a 21-foot ski boat and a jet ski in Maryland. Some of his greatest pleasures, he says, come from tinkering with his boats himself. Later this year he'll take a trip to Bimini with his wife and a group of Sea Ray enthusiasts. In the meantime he'll keep updating himself on the latest boating gadgets and apps coming on the market. His iPad is loaded with multiple weather and navigation apps and he's downloaded the new BoatUS app ( to his phone. He's also got Zeus pod drives on his Sea Ray. "You can make a dumb mariner look really good with those," he laughs. "I love all aspects of the boat. Just getting out in the open and being on the water. It separates you from the day-to-day stresses that everyone has in their lives. I'd much rather worry about my boat than worry about everything else I have to do."

Dawn Riley: Big Dreams Lead To Big Achievements

Now wannabe sailing rock stars, as well as those who want to improve their sailing game, can head down to Oakcliff Sailing Center in Oyster Bay, New York, and find out what it's like to train for the America's Cup. Dawn Riley, the executive director, means the school's pedigree is as good as it gets. As CEO and captain of America True, Riley was the first woman to manage an America's Cup sailing team, raced on four America's Cup and two Whitbread (now Volvo Ocean Race) teams, is the former president of the Woman's Sports Foundation, and serves on the board of US SAILING.

Riley's sailing experience started as a one-month-old. She might have started sooner except her mother wouldn't allow her father to take her out before she was baptized. When she was 12, her parents took their three kids on a yearlong cruise from Michigan to the Caribbean and back. The day after she returned, Dawn started racing and has barely stopped since. "From the time I was 13, I did everything from crew, to cook, to clean boats. I've never had any other job."

Thirteen seems to have been a significant age. It was also when she saw the America's Cup for the first time in Newport, Rhode Island, and announced to her family that she'd be racing in that one day, too.

A Northern Call To Arms: Myron Arms

The town of Nain is about 1,000 miles from Boston, as the crow flies, going north. Daytona Beach, Florida, is roughly the same distance in the opposite direction. Nain, which is in northeastern Canada's Labrador province, is the administrative capital for the Inuit territory Nunatsiavut, which boasts a population of 5,000, or about 1/100th the number of people who visit Daytona Beach's Bike Week every year. All of which is to say, if you are the sort of person who likes a crowd, Nain may not be for you.

"These are places that are staggeringly beautiful, and no one else goes there," says author Myron Arms, whose latest book, True North: Journeys into the Great Northern Ocean, chronicles his trips to Coastal Labrador, Greenland, and Northern Europe. "When you arrive, you're not a tourist, you're a traveler, in the old sense of the term."

Arms has been a full-time traveler since 1977, when he left behind a job as a high school English teacher to teach teenagers aboard the 60-foot schooner Dawn Treader, one of the Appledore schooners built by Bud McIntosh. For six years, he ran a program of "sea learning" in the Chesapeake Bay, with longer trips to New England in the summer.

In the 1980s, when his attention turned to the north, Arms put together an older crew ("There was a fair amount of risk," he says. "I didn't want to be taking someone's children.") and outfitted a new boat, Brendan's Isle, a 50-foot cutter named in honor of St. Brendan the Navigator. "She was a very strong boat," he says, "just the kind of boat you want to go north." Brendan's Isle was sold last year, but not before Arms put about 100,000 miles on her over 28 years, most of it heading north.

Arms wanted to go to Northern Europe, he says, but he wasn't sure what lay along the way. With a crew of mostly college-age students, Brendan's Isle explored the North Atlantic and its coast. "The top 400 miles of Labrador has no permanent human settlement," he says. "That's a real wilderness experience, and that's what the appeal is. North of Nain, it's only accessible by boat or float plane."

True North chronicles the travels of Brendan's Isle, but also the people, land, and climate of areas that few take the time to see. Arms's other books have dealt with people (Servants of the Fish collects the stories of Newfoundlanders, drawn from Arms's interviews there) and the environment (Riddle of the Ice is about the fate and science of polar sea ice).

"I grew up sailing Maine in the summers," he says, "and the proper way to sail was with a pair of rubber boots on, and a watch cap and maybe mittens in the morning, so that just seemed to me the proper costume for sailing. This whole business of bare feet and bathing suits is for somebody else."

Not Singing The Boating Blues: Marcia Ball

"I married into boating," says acclaimed blues singer Marcia Ball. Although the Texas-based crooner grew up in Louisiana and fished out of bass boats as a child, her relationship with husband Gordon Fowler meant sails would become a big part of her future. "He'd grown up on Lake Austin in Texas and his dad had built 24 boats in his lifetime," she says of her husband. "The first thing Gordon did after we married was to buy a 24-foot J-boat that we took to Lake Travis in Texas. I'd been sailing before, but it had never been a particularly pleasant experience," she laughs.

Fowler went on to start a trailerable boat dealership called Little Boats of Texas, while his wife continued with her vibrant musical career. "The biggest boat we had was a 23-footer," Ball recalls. "We had Sea Pearls and Mud Hens, Alden, and Montgomery boats. Unfortunately our timing was off because it was one of the drought years in Austin and the lake pretty much shriveled up, so it wasn't a great time to be in the sailboat business!"

Ball and her husband, and their blended family of four children — Marcia's son and Gordon's three children – also had a summer place at Port Arkansas on the Gulf of Mexico when their kids were young. "We always had a trailerable boat you could bring down and take out into Laguna Madre behind Padre Island. It's mostly three feet deep and it's great for fishing. It's where everyone learned to windsurf, too, because if you fell off, you could just stand up!"

The couple eventually sold off the inventory from their dealership, keeping only a Montgomery 17 at Lake Travis where they live. "We're down to the skiff in the garage and the sailboat on the lake now," says the busy musician. But the family's boating tradition continues with gusto. "Just before Gordon's son was about to finish high school in the early 1990s, we took a great trip up along the Maine coast, looking at all the pretty harbors. We crewed and went fishing in the first wooden boat regatta they had up there." That was a great experience, she says, but for the thoroughly Southern singer, a little "climate-challenging." "It was the coldest I'd ever been," she laughs. "And it was August! I'd never actually sailed with clothes other than a bathing suit on before, and certainly not everything I owned!"

Gordon's son Jeb has since completed a spell at The Landing School in Kennebunkport. And as for her own boating career? "I hope to sail more when I get a chance, but right now I'm working my behind off! But I'm happy to know it's there. It's my getaway." (Marcia Ball's 15th solo recording, "Roadside Attractions," was released in March of this year.) 

— Published: August/September 2011

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