Crossing Tacks with the Iron Man of the Bermuda Race

Oh, to be young and green and have the great good luck to sail with the man who did more Newport-Bermuda races than anyone else

Jim Mertz, who died in January at the age of 94, was my first interview, my first story, and my first ride offshore. It was late winter in 2000. Months before, I'd been hired as an associate editor at Cruising World. People were making a big deal about the number of Newport-Bermuda races Jim had done (27; no one else was even close). And would you believe he's going for number 28 this year? The man is 88! Do you want to interview him?

Of course I did. It seemed like a soft interview to me, a way to get my feet wet without having to nod and pretend while some overcaffeinated boatbuilder demystified for me the nuances of hull design.

On the way down to Rye, New York, where Jim lived, I was seized with a sudden panic: The man is as salty as they come. What if he's one of these freakishly young- and buff-looking older gentlemen, full of machismo and intolerant of anyone who hasn't yet had the common sense to conform to that world view? He was, after all, known as the Iron Man of the Bermuda Race. Was I a little hypersensitive at the time? Absolutely.

But I needn't have worried.

Jim's modest gray home was a pleasing mix of bachelor pad (TV table in front of the Barcalounger; old newspapers piled everywhere; spaghetti-stained dishes) and dusty sailing museum. Tarnished trophies and boats--that's what I remember most. Boat models, boat pictures, boat paintings. And amid the clutter, with hand extended and a twinkle in his eye, a full head of silver hair and looking every inch the former U.S. Navy officer he was in World War II, stood Jim Mertz.

I say twinkle because there was a twinkle, but he was by no means overly charming or effusively charismatic. He was, quite simply, the manner of man that my dad admires most: straightforward, kind, generous, honorable, and, most of all, humble. Almost too humble, really.

By all accounts, he'd led a remarkable life. He'd grown up sailing on Long Island Sound, of course, gone to Yale, and commanded the U.S. Navy destroyer escort USS Sturtevant in history's deadliest war. He married a remarkable gal, Allegra (everyone called her Leggie; the sister of Arthur Knapp Jr., she was a four-time Adams Cup winner and a Yachtswoman of the Year); founded a successful slate-roof business (the hurricane of 1954 put him on the map, he said); joined the American Yacht Club; and raced, raced, raced right into the Newport-Bermuda history books.

Prying the nuggets of his life out of him was brutal. He pulled dates and names from his memory with ease, but he hesitated whenever the line of questioning moved from a routine account of his life to any area that required a little introspection or self-glorification. "What drives you, Jim? Do you feel like you have the sea in your blood? Who are your heroes? You do realize that you're a hero, right? What kinds of boats are best for ocean racing? Why do you keep doing this?"

To these questions and others, he responded with a blank stare; not a look into the void, but the reply of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. You just knew there was a lot going on there, but he wasn't going to venture a colorful response. While I struggled to get him to talk, the photographer snapped pictures of Jim, and one of Jim and me.

I returned to Newport flushed with the thrill of a first river crossing. The article, "An Iron Man Heads for the Onion Patch" (Shoreline, June 2000) was fun because it was my first CW story, but it was by no means easy.

About a year later, I got a call at the office. It was Jim. He'd appreciated the article (this was the first I'd talked to him since its publication), and wouldn't you know it, he remembered that I'd said I'd always wanted to do a Bermuda race, and one of his crew had just dropped out. Was I game? It was the Marion-Bermuda race, not the Newport, but heck, it was basically the same darn thing. So how about it?

I nervously said yes.

In June, I took the train to Rye and caught a cab to the American Yacht Club. Jim needed help delivering Allegra, his Beneteau First 42, to Marion. At the dock were Jim and David Schwartz-Leeper, co-owner of the boat, and David's two teen-age sons. We shoved off at 1700 with the best wishes of everyone who'd come within earshot of Jim. They yelled from the launch, passing boats, adjacent docks, the club itself--clearly the man was loved.

That night, my first night passage, Long Island Sound was as flat as a landing strip and foggy. I couldn't see Allegra's bow. David had this ridiculous valveless trumpet, like you'd see medieval heralds blow, and in the middle of one of his wounded-elephant squawks, something very large--we think it was a ferry--shook our rigging with a blast of its own. It was maybe 50 yards off the stern. After the initial horror we began to laugh, and we laughed for about half an hour. The whole time, Jim was as cool as the underside of the pillow.

I'd thought it would be tough living in the confined space of a sailboat for four or five days, but I was wrong; Jim's sailors were laid back and affable, like him. On this first extended sail with Jim, I saw how hard it was for someone his age to stay upright on the tossing deck of a small boat. At times, especially crossing the Gulf Stream, he'd lash himself into the nav station, coming up only to take sextant sights, two or three of us hanging on to an arm or leg. Above all else, it didn't seem fun. Why, I wondered, is he doing this? I still hadn't found the answer to that question.

If the young guys were Allegra's limbs, Jim was her heart and soul. When it was time for big decisions, he popped up to the top of the companionway, let everyone say his piece, then expressed his opinion. We respected him tremendously and did whatever Jim said, even if it meant sailing undercanvased for three hours after a squall.

Yes, he sailed conservatively, but then out of nowhere another squall would hit, and we'd say, "How'd he know?" You can never underrate experience.

When we sailed into the Bermuda High and parked for a day, Jim told us to fire up the Iron Jenny. There was no hand-wringing or regret. A simple shrug. "This happens," he said. "There's always next year."

He invited me back the next year to do the Newport-Bermuda Race, his 29th. It was 2002. That year the Gulf Stream was wild: Thirty-knot blasts blew from the north; there were huge, breaking seas the size and shape of gravel trucks; professional sailors on the maxis ahead of us lay prostrate over the rails. On Jim's deep-keeled and stout Allegra, a sturdy pickup of a boat, we had a ball. The worst stuff happened during the day, so we could see the waves and steer around them. I had an hour and a half behind the wheel. Ninety minutes I'll never, ever forget.

Jim's granddaughter, Diana Mertz Hsieh, has met some of the men who served under Jim on the Sturtevant. "They credit him with keeping them safe through the war," she wrote, "and with returning them to their lives and loved ones." Having sailed with Jim over 1,200 miles now, I know what they meant. With Jim on board, you always felt as though things would turn out right.

Jim had planned to sail in this year's Newport-Bermuda Race. He wasn't much of a drinker, but one of his traditions was to pop the top of a Ballantine Ale while crossing the finish line in Bermuda. How fitting would it be if everyone in the race did the same thing? At least once? Pop the top off a bad beer and toast Jim and the destination he visited, the hard way, so many times.

I still have the picture of Jim and me from that interview. It sits on my desk here in Connecticut. As for that question--why did Jim do so many Newport-Bermuda races, 30 in all, and seven Marion-Bermuda races?--I still don't know the answer, and I don't think I ever will.

Bob and Vicki Muggleston live in East Hampton, Connecticut, where they're raising their infant son, Noah.