The Wimp Unmasked


This story is apropos of not much at all, except that I think it’s amusing and I tell it at dinner parties where the audience seems to enjoy it. And, since I think of you, our readers, as friends and part of my community, I thought I would tell it here.

Also, writing it makes a nice break from the in-progress Adventure 40 systems specification post and our taxes, both of which I’m struggling with.

Shortly after we we got back from the Arctic in 2011 I received an e-mail from The Reverend Bob Shepton saying that he was planning to transit the Northwest Passage over the 2012 season and could I advise him on the best way to receive ice reports by satellite phone, which I duly did.

Bob was, at the time of this story, 76 years old. For those of you who don’t know of Bob, he is a retired Anglican (Episcopalian to you Americans) priest who has made a series of incredible voyages, many of them in the high latitudes, in his 34-foot fiberglass Westerly Discus, Dodo’s Delight. You can learn more at his web site.

Anyway, back to my story. At the end of our e-mail exchange I received a very nice thank you from Bob, which ended with him writing that he assumed he would see us in Greenland the following summer—we had briefly seen him there in 2011.

I wrote back and said that no, we would not be going that far north in 2012, mainly because I simply don’t have a high latitude cruise in me every year, and, in fact, as I get older (I was 60 at the time) I find that it takes me longer and longer to get over the “I’m never doing that again phase”.

Bob wrote back a one line email:

How sad, and in one so young.


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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

14 comments… add one
  • Marc Dacey Mar 9, 2013, 1:30 pm

    Reminds me of a moment at my YC a few years back when I saw four old fellas laughing their heads off in the tight cockpit of an Alberg 30 whiletied up to the wall.

    They seemed, uh, quite relaxed after their sail, to say the least. I asked them if they would share the joke and one said “well, Sailor X is 91 today, so we decided to go for a birthday sail. We did the math and figured that among the four of us, the average age is 90!” Another gust of laughter and tapping of beer cans ensued. I’m pretty sure the skipper was the original owner of the Alberg…

    I have no evidence other than that that sailing can extend one’s life, but it’s pretty suggestive that it can extend one’s vitality.

    • Scott Kuhner Mar 10, 2013, 11:27 am

      We have a friend, Hank Strauss, who is now 97. When he was three months shy of his 93rd birthday, we were having a CCA rendezvous about 15 miles from where he kept his boat. He was going to come and have his best friend from grammar school sail with him; however, at the last minute, Sid couldn’t male it. So, he decided to come anyway and single-handed his boat over to the rendezvous sight , picked up the mooring by himself and rowed in to join the rest of us. When he was 95 & 1/2 I went for a sail with he and Sid, and they wouldn’t let me do a thing. I had to beg them to let me steer for a while.
      Moral of the story is that I guess, John, you and I really are wimps.

  • Horatio Marteleira Mar 10, 2013, 8:54 am

    This post just begs for a barrage of similar anecdotal comments. Here’s mine: last year a very dignified 71-year-old solo French sailor arrived in Peniche in the middle of winter during near-gale conditions in a Halberg Rassy 31. He had sailed from Northern France and I assumed he was on his way south to the Med. “No,” he said, “I’m going to visit Lisbon for two weeks and then I’m sailing back to France.” What!!!
    He sailed off a couple of days later under horrible conditions. Yeah, he made me feel like a wimp alright!!

  • Scott Flanders Mar 10, 2013, 10:48 am

    I have been reading your stuff for a while and all along thought from your whining about age that you were somewhere north of your middle 60’s – sorta like me. And now we find out you are just a puppy. Your tears are rotting my wellies. S.

    • John Mar 10, 2013, 10:55 am

      Hi Scott,

      I wasn’t aware that I was whining! Thanks for the reminder not to.

      • Scott Flanders Mar 10, 2013, 11:10 am

        Ok, so you rose to the bait. We were just kidding of course.
        I write like I was 50 again and suffer the aches and pains and doubts and the rest quietly. However we refuse to give up because after spending so many years with cruisers, particularly with high latitude types, shore life is boring. Who do you talk to? Most folk’s interest aren’t ours. TV and Facebook don’t have a place in our lives so we keep chugging along and sharing. Just like you.

        • John Mar 10, 2013, 11:22 am

          Hi Scott,

          That’s very true. On the other hand, one thing we have always tried to do on this site is be realistic and honest about our frailties and fears. Frankly some of the high-latitude types that try to come across as fearless hard men (is’s usually men) give me gas.

          In fact my first ever published article (Cruising world) was about what a wimp I am.

          • Marc Dacey Mar 10, 2013, 3:55 pm

            I dunno, John. I read that and what you’re calling “wimpiness”, I call “seamanlike prudence” and regard it as a virtue. The more guys who think like us, the more company we have at the bar telling amusing lies about the sea.

            The sea seems alive to some, and it certainly appears to be capable of bad moods. But I find it helpful and even weirdly comforting to think of it as utterly indifferent to the well-being of myself, my crew, and the continued existence of our boat.

            That means we alone are responsible for the outcomes, and while running into a whale or getting plates stove in by an awash container at 3 AM could be considered “unavoidable bad luck”, it’s largely true. Our preparation and experience is the biggest factor in the outcome. I know very few successful skippers who aren’t a touch paranoid or have a near-ADD-afflicted habit of checklists, spares organization or label-making. Sound familiar?

  • Scott Flanders Mar 10, 2013, 11:42 am

    We call ourselves Chicken of the Sea and constantly preach safety. Anyone who has traveled like Morgan’s Cloud and the others long term are all on the same page. Tough Guy Hero’s are for the newbies. The cautious and knowledgable are never whimps in real life, just smart understated survivors.

  • Bob Morris Mar 10, 2013, 11:50 am

    A few years ago we had a rendezvous in Boston. Stan Livingston sailed his ketch up from Rhode Island and the crew was his wife Martie, Russ Field and Doug MacLeod. The average age was about 88. I asked Doug how the trip up was and he said great except that Stan was a d..n fool insisting to go aloft (on the mizzen mast) to retrieve a lost halyard. Knowing Stan couldn’t do this alone I asked Doug who were the d..n fools that hauled him up. With a great big grin he replied ‘me and Russ’.
    Stan and Russ are still at it at 95 as is Martie. We lost Doug a few years back.

  • Conrad Mar 10, 2013, 2:04 pm

    I keep asking myself….How old would I be if I did not know how old I was?
    BTW….I’m only 42 (with a 19 in front of it) :>)

  • Vince Bossley Mar 10, 2013, 11:39 pm

    If you want to keep your saltwater juices flowing in your golden years, watch Spencer Tracy in ‘the Old Man and the Sea’ again – very accurate and realistic for its time – talk about persistence, with the ending particularly poignant.

    If you saw it in your younger years, review the difference in your emotions when viewing it now.

  • Dan Mar 11, 2013, 12:14 pm

    Nice one Conrad. As I head off to my workout this morning, I’ll certainly be asking my body how old I am. I’m living this aging topic lately. I’m turning 50 next month and re-adjusting my radar, physically and the sailing bucket list. It’s partly from meeting Stanley Paris.

    Not only an older sailor with a big goal but he’s swam the English channel twice and did the Hawaiian Ironman. His boat Kiwi spirit, Farr designed and built by Lyman Morse hit 27 knots on a test sail to Bermuda. GO old guys. I’m heading to the gym so I can be one.

  • Dennis Fechner Mar 13, 2013, 3:40 pm

    I turned 70 in November of last year. I suddenly felt like a wimp and that I should be extra cautious. I cannot tell you how heartening it is to read many of your comments on people being in their 90’s and still physically capable of sailing their boats.

    But being older does mean one thing….I don’t want any fire drills in the middle of the night so my thought is when crossing an ocean to tow a drogue of some kind any time the wind is 20 knots or higher…so what if I only go 5 knots?

    On my trip down the Washington/Oregon coast in 40 knots of wind I towed a 17 ft lenght of 3/8 chain with 5 knots in it on 200 feet of 5/8 braid and sailed along in total control and safety averaging 5.5 knots with two finger on the tiller. I had 60 sq feet of sail up as well believing that you must have sail up with a drogue out. You have no idea how something as simple as what I did can make all the difference in the world in steadying a boat in 24 ft combined seas. Never once did the boat go off course and quite frankly, the boat loved the conditions. So why not do this most of the time? That’s my wimps way of dealing with being older.

    I have all sorts of drogues, lengths of chain and rode on my boat and use them in stages to remain in total control of my boat all the time. Yup, I am a certified wimp according to most racers.

    But I am alive and happy to be me.

    If your beating to weather and the boat is going too fast…tow a drogue or some chain and line. That is what a top sailor at North Sails mentioned me….drogues are not only for going down wind.

    You, John are not a wimp but a professional who knows how to be safe at sea so keep sailing.


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