Patrick Childress and Brion Toss had a lot in common. Both were highly accomplished offshore sailors and master mariners. Both were talented educators who enjoyed sharing their deep knowledge of boats and the sea. Both were blessed by the love of a good woman. Both were just about the same age, in their late 60s.
And earlier this week, in opposite hemispheres but within a few short hours of each other, both drew their final breath.
The coronavirus got Patrick, in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was in the midst of a long, rambling circumnavigation with his wife, Rebecca, on their well-traveled Valiant 40, Brick House. Bile-duct cancer took Brion down; he’d been diagnosed with the disease early in 2019 and given a few months to live, but he had a few things to accomplish first, and held on for over a year. He was always persistent.
I knew both men, but Patrick much better. He was a seriously good dude. For several years back in the 1980s, he was married to the managing editor of Cruising World, Lynda, who he met here in Newport, Rhode Island, after beefing up a stock Catalina 27 and sailing it alone around the world. (A Catalina 27!) During this time, while working locally as a contractor, he knocked off several projects on my old house; to say he was a tad handier than me would be a major understatement. (To get a brief understanding of Patrick’s vast skills, check out his two-part YouTube video on repairing the blisters on a Valiant 40, which is nothing less than a master class on the subject. You’ll find it here.
Patrick’s first marriage didn’t work out, but it set the stage for his second, with Rebecca, which turned into a true, lasting love story. It started, appropriately enough, at sea, when Patrick was skippering a big Swan on a delivery from Newport to St. Maarten, and Rebecca, thirsty for offshore miles, signed on as crew. In the midst of a 60-knot tempest, something between them clicked. And there were many, many more miles to come.
Lucky Patrick: Rebecca came with a boat, a 40-footer called Yellow Rose, her consolation prize at the conclusion of her own first marriage (“My ex-husband got the appreciating asset, the house, and I got the depreciating one”). A year after they got together, Patrick bought in to the vessel, and Rose became Brick House.
Soon after, around 2008, they set off to sail around the world: the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean. I actually crossed paths with them early in the trip, in Belize. If ever I saw a happier, more compatible people, I can’t recall.
They were in South Africa, with big plans to cross the South Atlantic and spend a long while exploring Patagonia, when both Patrick and Rebecca came down with COVID-19. Rebecca recovered fairly quickly. Patrick did not, and was soon in the hospital on a ventilator. Over the course of several weeks, things went from bad to worse. A friend set up a GoFundMe page for the couple, which Rebecca updated regularly.
Last week, she was called to the hospital in the early hours and allowed to see Patrick for the first time since he’d been hospitalized. He was in grave condition, very much out of it. Later, Rebecca wrote what is easily the singular saddest thing I’ve ever read:
“In his good ear (I said) I was here and that everything was OK now, he could go and I will catch up with him, and that we would have fun together again someday. He flicked his eyes and looked right into mine, I swear, and a tear came into his left eye, the same eye a tear came into as we were marrying 13 years ago… I will never forget that either.” Twenty minutes later, he was gone.
I’d only met Brion a couple times, long ago, but his reputation as a master rigger, accomplished writer, and dedicated instructor was well-established. To get a better sense of the man from a close friend, I called sailmaker Carol Hasse, the owner and proprietor of Hasse & Company Port Townsend Sails, in Port Townsend, Washington, where Brion’s rigging business was also based. You could easily say Brion and Hasse were among the top members of the influential (if unofficial) Port Townsend Waterfront Mafia. A formidable Navy indeed.
“We had many, many deep and long conversations about rigging,” Hasse said. “Sails and rigging go hand in hand.”
And if you wanted to know more about rigging, well, Brion Toss was your man.
He approached the subject not only as a craftsman, but as a deeply accomplished sailor who racked up miles on anything and everything, from grand Tall Ships to flashy ocean racers. He was a traditionalist who also appreciated and was an expert in the latest fiber materials: what’s not to like about lightening up a rig?
What Hasse really wanted to underscore was Brion’s passion about passing the intricacies of his craft to all interested parties. The author of several books, including The Rigger’s Apprentice, the definitive work on the topic, he also gave hundreds of seminars and produced countless videos. “Whatever the subject, how to tie a knot, how to rig a boat, he brought great clarity,” said Hasse. “And always done with such humor. He was so funny. A brilliant speaker.”
When Brion received his cancer diagnosis, which was terminal, his Port Townsend friends scrambled to present him in private with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, which he was already scheduled to receive. Ultimately, he held on long enough to accept it at the show as well, and gave a memorable, gracious speech, as if he had all the time in the world.
“He’s going to leave a big hole,” said Hasse. “He was not only appreciated and respected in our community, he brought us all a lot of exposure and even fame. Brion’s accomplishments brought greater respect for what everyone in the marine-trades community is all about. He put us on the map. He was a gift to all of us in the marine trades in Port Townsend.”
So, what we can conclude at the end of this sad week? Two things are pretty clear:
- Cancer sucks.
- And that whole COVID-19 business becomes a lot more real when it takes out one of your mates.