Steve Thomas: Handyman To Waterman

This Old House Host; A Circumnavigating Family; Shark Man's Daughter

"This Old Boater" Shows The Pros A Thing Or Two

Steve Thomas has always had a knack for fixing things. When he was 10, his family moved to Southern California and he bought a defunct surfboard. "It was 10 bucks and needed a new fin, so I fixed it up and went surfing," he recalls. When he was 14, he decided he wanted to go sailing, so he bought a small sailboat for $42, fixed that up, and off he went. After studying philosophy in college, he headed out in the Victoria to Maui race in a Valiant 40, and then sailed the boat back to Seattle. That was followed by a stint in the Mediterranean as first mate on a 103-foot schooner, followed by another on an 89-foot Italian motoryacht, and a third on a 75-foot ketch.

Photo of Steve Thomas on his boatThomas and his family live on an island in Maine where they commute on one of their three boats.

The DIY skills came from his father who used to buy and rehab old houses to accommodate his growing family. As the oldest of six kids, Thomas soon got into the business, too. After coming back from Europe, he bought his first house for $14,000, fixed it up, and sold it to a college buddy, and so began a career of buying and renovating houses, between sailing gigs. Various carpentry and skippering jobs followed, until a fascination with ancient Micronesian navigation began. That resulted in his book and PBS documentary, "The Last Navigator." While he was editing the documentary, he got a call from a publicist who happened to ask him what he was doing next. Thomas told him he was in the middle of renovating his attic. "He said, 'I didn't know you knew about that sort of thing. Did you know they're looking for someone at "This Old House"?'"

Beating out 412 other candidates, he landed the presenter's job in 1989 and stayed until 2003, based mostly in Boston. His boating career continued apace. By the early 1990s, he was competitively racing Shields sloops, both nationally and locally. From there it was on to center-console sportfishers, because his son wanted to fish more than he wanted to sail.

"If your kid has a passion for being on the water, you feed that passion," says Thomas. Around the same time, he and his wife Evy bought an old camp on an island in Maine, where they still live. Not surprisingly it was a fixer-upper, which he renovated (of course), then built a barn and filmed his latest show, "Renovation Nation."

"There was no dock or anything in the beginning. You had to land on the beach and schlep all your stuff up the hill," he says. "It's about a quarter-of-a-mile across the harbor to get to the mainland, so if you want to go anywhere, you've got to get in a boat." To that end, Thomas keeps several boats, including a 23-foot center-console sportfisher he calls the cocktail cruise boat; his wife Evy's 18-foot lobster skiff; and a 16-foot Novi flat-bottomed workboat. "I put Honda four-strokes on everything. They have to be in perfect condition because we rely on them like cars."

The Cage Family

"The trip was brilliant, and I was literally in tears when it ended," says Jeremy Cage of the 16 months he spent sailing around the world on a 43-foot catamaran with his wife Pat and two young children. It's not necessarily the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a senior executive at PepsiCo in Purchase, New York, but then Cage isn't your average senior vice president. In June 2007, he and Pat cast off lines from the south of France with their son and daughter (ages 12 and 10 at the time) as crew. They spent four months in the Mediterranean sharpening their seamanship skills before a series of long, open-water passages. Then they traveled to Gibraltar, Tenerife, Antigua, Panama, the Galapagos, the Marquesas, and Tahiti, among other ports, and ended up in Cairns, Australia.

Cage had long dreamed of cruising the world, but to make it happen, there were obstacles to hurdle, both personally and professionally. "Before we left, I was at the height of my career, but I knew the time was right to go," he says. "So I requested a leave of absence and prepared myself for the possibility that I could lose my job. It took courage, but courage is necessary to get the things you really want."

Photo of the Cage Family in 2007"Every new generation refreshes the world."

Cage's request was approved and he was able to leave at a time when he felt his children — Bradley and Elena — were ripe for the adventure. "They were old enough to help out onboard and enjoy the experience, but not so old that they didn't want to spend time with their parents."

More recent photo of the Cage familyThe Cage family, then and now.

Since he and the family returned home in the fall of 2008, he relishes the opportunity to share his blue-water experiences with others. He speaks at yacht clubs up and down the East Coast, at Mystic Seaport, and other venues that attract those who dream of spending more time at sea. A natural motivator, Cage knows how to get an audience's adrenaline flowing. "If you can fire people up, there's no limit to their personal growth. That's always been my MO. Sailing is a metaphor for so many things," says Cage, now 47, "but from my perspective, the cruise emphasized my belief that many people never achieve the things they want to because they dream vaguely, and dread specifically. Some want to retire early or have a happy marriage or travel the globe, but they're vague about how to get there, and they allow dread to distract them from doing the work and the planning required. I've learned you need to be highly intentional about your dreams."

Now back at his job and with a world cruise under his belt, what's next for Cage? "We felt like we rushed through the South Pacific, so we'd like to go back. Next time, it will be just Pat and me. That's the plan."

Pat Mundus & Earl Voorhees

Pat Mundus is used to questions about her father. His exploits are said to have inspired the character of Quint, the shark hunter in "Jaws," although they were not quite as portrayed in the book and movie. Fishing for giant sharks with barrels and a harpoon gun? Absurd. Frank Mundus fished for giant sharks with barrels and a hand-thrown harpoon.

"I've been the daughter of the monsterman pretty much my whole adult life," she laughs. In the fishing community of Montauk, New York, it was a sort of rebellion when her own boating interests led her to sailboats. "I thought my father was going to run me out of the house. He said that sailing was for seagoing tourists," she says. "So I went to the Caribbean. I pretty much ran away to sea."

Photo of Pat Mundus and Earl Voorhees

And she pretty much stayed there. After a stint delivering yachts, Mundus enrolled in the State University of New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler, where she earned her captain's license. She became an officer on tankers, and later captained the big ships, a woman in a predominantly male field. "It was hard," she says. "There were no sexual harassment laws in those days."

One of the perks of her job was earning a day of paid vacation for every day worked. She spent those vacation days sailing with her husband, Earl Voorhees, aboard their (engineless) 28-foot wooden Rozinante, designed by L. Francis Herreshoff. The pair built a house made from antique barns that they dismantled in upstate New York, then moved to East Hampton, near her childhood home of Montauk. Voorhees handled the carpentry; she did the rigging to assemble the large mortise- and-tenon structure with come-alongs, tackles, and a good deal of brute force. "I'm not the first wooden-boat person to also be a barn person. It's about classic architecture and hand-craftsmanship," she says.

After she retired, the pair devoted their time to rebuilding and then sailing Surprise, a 52-foot wooden yacht designed by F. Spaulding Dunbar.

Mundus balks, though, at the notion that there is anything romantic about her love for wooden boats. Her interests run more toward the historical value. "People always say it's about romance. It's not. It's about history. Where did the materials come from? What happened to the environment that we don't have those materials anymore — they just don't exist? When you understand the history of a wooden boat and what went into building it, you understand the environment, the local economy. I think it's a lot more cerebral than just romance."

It was her interest in history that led her to the Shelter Island Historical Society, where she became the society's executive director in January 2010. Last year's exhibits at the historical society, designed and curated by Mundus, focused on the maritime past of the island, coinciding with the 125th anniversary of the Shelter Island Yacht Club, which is home to a huge fleet of 12 1/2-foot sailboats (built both in wood and fiberglass) designed by Nathaniel Herreshoff (father to L. Francis). "Shelter Island has a lot of important maritime history, so we're trying to focus on that this year," she says. "Next year, we have to give equal time to the farmers." 

— Published: February/March 2012

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