The Passing of the Torch

Yesterday, he was "permanent grandson crew." Today, he's a professional skipper. "Underway" from our August 2010 issue

torch passing 368

The grandson crew-turned-captain of a Beneteau 57 proudly took the helm while his family learned how to be guests.Robin Plumer

I still remember running down the companionway ladder wearing my Garfield life jacket and ripping open a locker to turn on the speed and depth instruments on Charisma, my grandparents' 36-foot Islander. After all, that was my job, and they were counting on me. I was only 8 years old, but I was crew, fully aware of what needed to happen. Nobody knew it at the time, but this was the beginning of a career spent on sailboats.

Ever since I was large enough to fit into the smallest possible life jacket, every summer weekend was devoted to going sailing with my grandparents, Carol and Arthur Plumer. I never asked if we were going. The only question was "What time are we leaving?" Every Friday afternoon, we'd pile into the car and make the two-hour drive from New Jersey to Maryland and our marina on Chesapeake Bay.

We'd almost always sail to the same few local harbors, but it didn't matter where we went because we always had a great time. I have many fond memories of jumping into the water off the bow pulpit, playing kazoos in the cockpit, and savoring cocktail time every evening complete with bug-repelling candles, popcorn, and fruit punch. We never had alarm clocks on board, so I'd always wake up in the morning to my grandfather doing a horrendous dance around the cabin to Hawai'ian hula music. I don't know if it was the diesel fumes or cabin fever, but for some reason, it was funny every time.

As I grew older, my grandparents gradually introduced new jobs for me to complete on board. The first was turning on the instruments. Next was lowering the transom ladder into the water. One of the most significant was driving the black-and-orange inflatable Zodiac by myself, which I was only allowed to do once I was able to start the ancient two-horsepower Evinrude and fill it with fuel from the jerrican without spilling-not an easy feat for a little kid!

After a few years and to everyone's surprise, I still had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the boat and was constantly eager to learn more. I knew basically all I could about operating the vessel and had become "permanent grandson crew" on board. My grandparents would give me grief over the phone whenever they were on the boat without me, complaining that they had to actually turn on the instruments themselves.

Time passed, and as I became a teenager, Fun Time, a 42-foot Pearson, replaced Charisma. At first, the boat was overwhelming to all of us, and there were far more systems than we'd ever needed to control before. However, we quickly figured everything out, and my list of onboard tasks continued to expand. If I wasn't hooked before, I certainly was now. There was no turning back. I no longer even viewed sailing as a skill; it had become a reflex.

As the consequences of Murphy's Law were ever present, I became very familiar with the toolbox and developed a knack for fixing and jury-rigging various systems all over the boat. As my grandfather has always been a chronic do-it-yourselfer, this was a huge part of our life on Fun Time. When something would fail and there was no obvious solution, we'd brainstorm and always eventually came up with an answer. I was taught that a remedy always existed as long as you thought creatively and, of course, used enough duct tape. More important, "Never Give Up" became our motto.

It may have taken all day to construct, wasn't always pretty, and usually didn't work perfectly, but these jury rigs always eventually got the job done. I learned things during those times that classes never teach and tests never ask. I didn't know it at the time, but these lessons in mechanical aptitude and creativity were far more important than any other education I received during my childhood.

After graduating from college in 2006, I knew I wanted to continue my life around the water, but I wasn't sure what to do. I quickly realized that the answer was staring me in the face, and I had no choice but to go work on a sailboat. So I jumped into the industry and began working as a crewmember on a few private sailboats.

Several years later, I found myself working as the captain of Splendido, a 57-foot Beneteau in charter. She's much larger and far more complex than Charisma or Fun Time, but all the lessons my grandparents taught me over the years still apply more than ever. In fact, there's very little that I've had to do as a captain that I hadn't learned previously with them. Whether I'm hoisting the sails, rebuilding a pump, or contorting myself into a seemingly impossible space, I remember all those times doing the same back home on Chesapeake Bay. Occasionally, when I'm really stumped, I call my grandfather, and he usually has an answer. If not, he reminds me of his constant advice: "Never Give Up."

Last spring, an interesting situation occurred when my grandparents, along with my mother and her partner, had the opportunity to come and visit me on Splendido at St. Martin, in the Caribbean. Every time over the last 20 years when I'd sailed with my family, my grandfather had always been the captain. Now, suddenly, the roles had reversed, and I was the one responsible for the boat. And so the torch was passed.

It was now my responsibility to navigate to the next harbor, decide when to drop the sails, and worry if the anchor was dragging at night. My grandfather wasn't happy about giving up the power, but he couldn't have been happier to see me continue my life based on his lessons. So he graciously stood by and followed my directions, after so many years of our doing the opposite.

But nothing had changed, really, and we still had all the same fun as before. Splendido happened to be 15 feet longer, and we sailed to harbors we'd never before seen; we visited four different Caribbean island countries during that week. Otherwise, we may as well have been sailing on Fun Time, and her spirit was certainly still there-at least in all the jury rigging, which again was omnipresent. We fortunately didn't have any hula-dancing music on board, but of course my family brought the kazoos along, and we had cocktail hour every night. We even jumped off the bow, although this time into crystal-clear Caribbean water.

I'd certainly never have become a captain without the coaching, teaching, and encouragement that I received from my grandparents throughout the last 20 years. All right, I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer as they may have hoped, but I did the next best thing. That 8-year-old grandson they mentored for so long grew up but "Never Gave Up," and he became a professional sailor. I owe it all to them. Thanks for everything, Grandma and Grandpa. You're the best!

Jeremy P. Smith is still sailing and working on yachts around the world. Learn more about him at his website (www.jeremypsmith.com).