They were a pair of American sailors, Navy veterans of World War II, pioneers in voyaging the Caribbean, sons of New Orleans. Their rich, complete lives were so layered and eventful-so full of adventure and joy, challenges and accomplishments-that they almost read like fiction, straining the bounds of plausibility. They loved their wives and the sea, in that order. And when all was said and done, their Earthly days concluded within a month of one another, and their passing signaled the true end of a singular era in cruising under sail.
Charlie Cary, the founder of The Moorings who basically invented the rewarding pastime of bareboat chartering, passed away in Florida on June 14, 2007 at 89. Carleton Mitchell, the three-time winner of the Newport-Bermuda Race and one of the most prolific and talented marine photojournalists of all time, followed Cary to Fiddler’s Green on July 16; he was 96. To say that Mitchell and Cary-the former an artist, the latter an entrepreneur-enjoyed stupendous runs would be a more than a minor slip, it would be an understatement of criminal proportion. Each, in their own way, was a giant, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the likes of either of them again in our lifetimes, if ever.
Mitchell grew up sailing in the waters of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, and at the ripe old age of 12 reportedly uttered these prophetic words: “I want to sail and write about it.”
As it turned out, the lad was clairvoyant. As a sailing photographer and journalist, Mitchell had nor has a single peer. Sure, one can make the argument that there have been better pure writers, and you could certainly mount a case that there were cameramen who were at least as talented as he was, but there was no one, and I mean no one, who combined both crafts with such skill and dexterity.
Then, throw in the fact that he was one of the best offshore racing sailors and most intrepid cruisers of his time, and you begin to see what I’m getting at. Carleton Mitchell was an original, the best of the best, a nautical icon for the ages.
I won’t completely rehash the excellent tribute John Rousmaniere-a friend of “Mitch’s” and a damn fine sailing journalist and historian in his own right-has penned about Mitchell on the website for the Newport-Bermuda Race, but here are some highlights: His first cruise to the West Indies in the late 1940s was the subject of a terrific book (Islands to Windward) and inspired countless cruisers to emulate his wanderings. He competed for the America’s Cup and won the prestigious biennial jaunt to the Onion Patch a record setting, mind-boggling three times (1956, ’58 and ’60). And his famous 38-foot centerboard yawl, Finisterre-wide of beam (11’3″), short of waterline (27’6″)-proved to be the template for all sorts of voyaging boats that followed, including the Bermuda 40 and the Bristol 40.
The New York Times loved Mitchell. Of the photographs in his 1953 book, Passage East, reviewer C.B. Palmer said, “(they’re) among the most moving ever made of that beautiful object, a vessel under sail.” And in a 1958 story about his victory in the Miami-Nassau Race, a young journalist named Gay Talese (!) quoted Mitchell thusly: “No 20th-century man can really escape, but a boat gives a man the opportunity to get away from the turmoil and into direct contact with nature. Somehow the detached life on the sea gives me the ability to think. It’s a life of action, yet contemplation.”
That was certainly a sentiment to which Charlie Cary could relate. Cary grew up on the East Coast but adopted New Orleans as his hometown during a long career there in the mining business. At 50, spurning a promotion (and move to New York City) he had no use for or interest in, Cary flew to the British Virgin Islands, and with wife Ginny and six Pearson 35s, founded The Moorings.
Today, of course, one can charter a boat and take a sailing trip in literally every corner of the world. That wasn’t the case in 1969, when Cary hung out his shingle. He struck a chord for a lot of reasons, but the simplest one proved to be the most effective. For Cary was a racing and cruising sailor himself, and he shared two things with Mitchell: an innate understanding of what made sailing, and cruising, such a singular and rewarding pursuit, and a deep passion for the islands of the Caribbean. It was a thread that bound each of their beings and souls.
In his own, parallel universe, Cary also had as profound an effect on boat design as Mitchell with his Finisterre. And we won’t be so silly as to compare the two vessels on any real subjective terms. But Cary was the impetus behind the Morgan Out Island 41, a tubby cruiser that certainly never won a Bermuda Race, but which became a well-loved vehicle to many cruising sailors, and which has taken many would-be voyagers-old salts and neophytes alike-to all corners of the watery world.
I never knew Mitchell, unfortunately, though in some small way I’ve tried to follow in his footsteps. However, I spent a week canoodling around the BVIs with Charlie Cary a few years ago, and was left in awe of his zest for living and his kind, gentlemanly ways. On the last day we were together, he told me one of the main reasons he’d first come to the islands. It was a photograph in Yachting magazine, which in the 1960s was a true bible for sailors of all stripes. The image was of a trim cruising boat in a still anchorage, with palm fronds waving in the breeze.
The picture, of course, was by Carleton Mitchell, of Finisterre. It linked them then and it links them now, two sailors who left unwavering wakes, two great guys who won’t, and can’t, be forgotten.