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Full Circle

Somewhere in the Carolinas I decided I wasn’t going to write anymore. I don’t know why. You make a life of letters. You love words. You’ve been writing for more than 60 years, and you get to a point where you don’t need words to tell a story. Like you don’t need a camera when you have the images in your head and realize that’s the only really important place they need to be.

I’d written hundreds of pieces, mostly about boats – features, books, profiles, reviews, you name it. But recently all I’ve been wanting is to age gracefully, to be good to my family and friends. If I haven’t said it by now, if they haven’t figured me out by now, well there’s nothing I can do about it. All I wanted was to anchor in a quiet cove with a good glass of wine and think of nothing but the salt marsh, the Spanish moss draped from a live oak, the summer sound of cicadas, the stars out there in the darkness visible to me because I’m beyond the loom of city lights.

Then on the Chesapeake Bay the thought arose to again compose some words. It was early, before sunrise. I was still in my bunk aboard First Light, the trawler I’d been powering up the ICW from our dock on Longboat Key, Florida, to my old home of Newport, Rhode Island. The time was between the wolf and the dog, that magical time when some of the old and ailing choose to check out. You can slip out at this time without anyone noticing. Your night nurse may be nodding off. For sailors at sea it’s also a significant time: You notice a lightening of the sky above the graybeards, yearn for the sun but feel the arms of night pulling you back.

Middle-aged Caucasian male, teenage blonde female and young male aboard a white sailboat.

Dan; daughter, Adria; and son Peter lived aboard during summers in Newport, back in the day. Photo: Susan Waterman

I was flat on my bunk, eyes closed. Water slapped at the hull next to my head. Then a voice said … what about Peter, my young son with cerebral palsy whose knees knocked and legs never straightened? Despite his infirmity, he had a huge smile and a happy disposition. I said to myself, you haven’t spent much time with your first son lately. Second son, Steve, is meeting you in Annapolis for the final leg of this waterway journey to Newport. The two never met, but you gotta bring these two boys together, even if it’s only in your mind and all you’ve got to work with are your own thoughts and words.

I thought back to 1987, when my second wife, Andra, and I departed Newport for a cruise of indefinite term, heading first north to the Canadian border before planning to head south for the winter. We’d quit our jobs at Cruising World magazine and set out with our small savings. This had been my dream for years, so long postponed, and Andra was going along with it. As it happened, she conceived on the 45th parallel.

Back in Newport to reprovision before continuing the cruise south, at 10 at night our good friend Herb McCormick hijacked a boat to come out to our boat on a harbor mooring.

“Something has happened to Pete,” he said.

We rushed ashore to the Cruising World office on lower Thames Street. It seemed all our colleagues were sitting at desks and on the stairs. None made eye contact. I sat down at my old desk and dialed the number of my ex-wife in Michigan. An old friend answered.

“Pete’s dead,” she said.

Young Caucasian teenage male wearing a navy hoodie on a sailboat

Dan’s first son, Peter, always had a happy smile for everyone, despite his physical challenges.­ ­Opposite: First Light overnights on the hook during its voyage north from North Carolina to Maryland. Photo: Susan Waterman

Struck by a train while playing with friends on a railroad trestle. There were two tracks, and the trestle was after a curve. The boys couldn’t figure out which track the train was on. When it rounded and became clear, the others jumped. Pete tripped. He was 12 years old.

Back on the boat that night I said to Andra, “We’re going to have this child.” We made love. She said, “It’s a boy.” I said, “You can’t know that.” She looked at me as if to say, “You really don’t understand women, do you?”

Eventually, we motored our 33-foot Pearson Vanguard down the coast, and every inch of the Intracoastal Waterway to Key West. By then it was fall, the weather was turning cold, and it was grim. We wore socks on our hands for gloves. Too poor for marinas, we anchored every night. My daughter, Pete’s sister, 16-year-old Adria, joined us for a time.

After crossing Florida Bay and up the west coast of Florida as far as Longboat Key, we turned back south to Fort Myers and east, navigating the five locks of the Okeechobee Waterway, and tied to a friend’s dock in Boca Raton. Son Steve was born in May 1988. The cruise was over. We sold the boat and returned to Newport, and back to work, but I vowed that one day we’d do the ICW again in finer weather, with more than milk money in our pockets. Hell, even shower in marinas and eat seafood in dockside restaurants once in a while.

One thing I’ve had difficulty learning over the years is that my dreams aren’t necessarily anyone else’s

Fast forward more than 30 years. We’d moved out to Montana, always Andra’s dream, worked in publishing, and enjoyed the mountain life. When we stopped skiing, I bought a Pearson 365 sailboat as a winter getaway and coincidently parked it at a small condo/marina complex on Longboat Key. Steve moved to Florida and bought the boat from us as a liveaboard. Eventually, Andra and I bought a Grand Banks 42 Classic and moved to Florida, too. I figured now was the right time, and First Light the right boat, to make that East Coast cruise one more time – and get it right this time.

One thing I’ve had difficulty learning over the years is that my dreams aren’t necessarily anyone else’s. Including my wife’s. In ’87 she’d spent eight months of her pregnancy poor and cold on a boat, her only company a mourning husband. She said I didn’t talk much.

“What do you mean you don’t want to do the whole dang ICW again?” So I’d do it myself, with some good friends as alternating crew, and finish with Steve, who managed to take 10 days off work for the home run from Annapolis to Newport. Andra joined me in Newport, as did Adria and her children, my grandchildren, for a week’s cruise to Block Island. Then they left.

What did it all amount to? I got the weight off, but I missed my wife. I spent ridiculous money on fuel. I didn’t mourn Peter – it’s too painful to let him back in every day, picturing him sprawled on the tracks like Tiny Tim, trying to wave down the massive locomotive, the cattle guard – but I thought about him a lot.

Large white boat on the waters at sunrise.

Photo: Herb McCormick

I treasured the week with Steve. We walked around Newport, past Cardine’s Field, the oldest ballpark in America. As a kid, Steve sold concessions there at the Gulls games. “That was my first job,” he said. He’d come home, too. Friends invited us to dinner at our old yacht club. We watched the sun go down from its deck and stood when the cannon was fired. I could see our old mooring by the pile of rocks known as the Spindle where the cormorants dry their wings. That’s where we were 35 years ago, when Herb came out to tell me about Pete.

I spent the summer in Newport. Sitting alone on the flybridge of the Grand Banks with a nice glass of wine, remembering that all I’d wanted was to sit on my boat in a pretty anchorage with a nice glass of wine. On the Fourth of July the lights on the Newport Bridge lit red, white, and blue. Live music from One Pelham East came to me over the glistening water. I remembered back to those years, four decades before, living on my small sailboat in the harbor. I was taken back to before Andra, before Steve, to 1980 when I’d first moved to Newport to start a new job at Cruising World, and knew no one. I had $3 to spend on Saturday nights, and that would buy me two beers. If I went to a club before they started charging cover, I could have a nice evening and meet some people.

And when school was out back in Michigan, I’d drive to the Boston airport to pick up Adria and Pete, and we’d spend the whole summer moored in the harbor, having cruising adventures on the weekends. We’d watch the lobstermen, the America’s Cup boats, and dinghy over to Fort Adams to listen to the Newport Folk Festival.


Read Herb McCormick’s account of the North Carolina-to-Maryland leg of the trip with the author.
This summer at the folk festival I heard Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, and it all came back to me. I rolled back the years. The magic of Newport. The beaches and mansions. Ocean Drive. The fabulous yachts like Ticonderoga and Nirvana. The jazz. The friends. The night sounds of rigging. The cool, moist night air on my skin. The foghorn on the bridge penetrating the thick mist like some banshee. The markers turned back time, unlocking the memories, the pictures, the words of Peter … and I let him in.

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Dan Spurr

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Dan Spurr is the author of seven books including “Steered By The Falling Stars” about his personal journey through the death of his son, and “River of Forgotten Days,” about an adventure on the Mississippi River with Adria and Steve. He was senior editor of Cruising World, editor of Practical Sailor, and an editor and writer for Professional BoatBuilder magazine.