Travels with Charlie

Thirty-five years ago, Charlie and Ginny Cary dropped out of corporate America to launch a fresh life in the Caribbean and help lead the vanguard of a brand-new way of vacation sailing called bareboat chartering. Earlier this year, Charlie and friends returned to the islands to ripple the waters of memory

Charlie Cary manning winch

Billy Black

It was a Saturday night in January at The Moorings' lavish base in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and the place was hopping. The open-air, poolside bar was crammed with visiting sailors eager to put the winter behind them and set sail for a week of charter cruising. A steel band had just started playing. And in the adjacent pavilion, the dining room had been transformed into a giant dance floor. A meeting of the B.V.I. Investment Club was about to commence.

Dressed to the nines, the Tortolans had been arriving for the better part of an hour, and a handsome assemblage they made. One got the impression that the club and its members--the lawyers, bankers, politicians, and businessmen who ranked among the island's most influential citizens--were prospering.

In a distant corner, lost in the hubbub but watching with great interest, sat a distinguished-looking gentleman who appeared to be some two decades shy of his actual 85 years. After an opening prayer and a pair of brief speeches, the evening's business was soon concluded. Very quickly, the dance floor was full.

The gray-haired man took much joy from all of this. Laughing, he rose from his chair and began to sway with the music. As the moon draws the tides, the beat tugged at him, drew him closer. He couldn't resist, and he began moving toward the throng.

He danced by himself, slow and steady, until the song finished. That's when he was recognized. First one fellow came up, all handshakes and smiles, then another, and another still. They were moths to a flame. Now the word was out: Mr. Charlie was back in town, and it was time to pay respects, perhaps have a photo taken with the great, good man himself.

For the islanders understood better than anyone. Yes, they knew that if it hadn't been for Charlie Cary and his wife, Ginny, this beautiful building, and the dozens of boats lining the gleaming docks, and the gaggle of well-heeled tourists, and the many jobs and opportunities that all this enterprise created, simply wouldn't be here.

So it was all very fitting that the quiet bystander--the founder of The Moorings, a pioneer of the giant bareboat-chartering industry--had returned to his beloved B.V.I. on a night of celebration, and without even trying turned out to be the guest of honor.

We set sail the next morning aboard a spanking new Moorings 4200 catamaran--one of the 288 boats that constitute the company's vast Tortola armada--a vessel very unlike the six Pearson 35s that made up Charlie's entire fleet when he hung out The Moorings' shingle back in 1969. There were five of us aboard: current Moorings president Lex Raas and his wife, Carol, photographer Billy Black, me, and, of course, Charlie. Our itinerary was open-ended. The purpose of the trip was simple: We all wanted to spend some time cruising and reminiscing with Charlie.

Along with our fondness for sailing, it soon became apparent that Charlie and I shared an interest in football. That afternoon, my suddenly respectable New England Patriots were facing the Indianapolis Colts in a playoff game. Before striking out for the islands, Charlie had spent 25 years working in the mining and mineral industry based in New Orleans, and he was still aglow from the triumphant national collegiate championship season just wrapped up by the pride of Louisiana, the L.S.U. Tigers.

As snow fell in Massachusetts, the site of the contest, Charlie and I nestled up to a tiki bar at the Leverick Bay Resort on Virgin Gorda to catch the game on TV. Charlie favored the Colts and I the Pats, and a wager was struck--loser picks up the tab. As it turned out, I was the guy who drank for free, no small matter to Charlie, who for days thereafter vowed his revenge.

As we chatted about the past during breaks in the action, it became clear that Charlie's life journey had been about a lot of things: recognizing and seizing opportunity, cultivating a strong entrepreneurial spirit, heeding the call of adventure. But mostly, it was a love story. Charlie's partner in life and business, his wife of 59 years, Ginny, passed away some four years ago. Several times over the course of the afternoon I remarked about what an incredible thing he'd created from scratch. Each time, Charlie was quick to correct me: "It wouldn't have happened without Ginny," he said.

His dad was a chemist, a winner of the Booker Prize for his role in discovering vitamin B12. Hers was a steelworker who'd left Pennsylvania for a job at the U.S. Navy Yard outside Washington, D.C. They met in junior high, and they soon realized they were meant to be together.

By the mid-1940s, Charlie had earned a degree from the University of Maryland in industrial engineering and successfully completed his graduate work at the Harvard Business School. From Cambridge, he'd taken a job with a company called Freeport Sulphur and soon found himself heading up operations at a nickel plant in Cuba. No less ambitious, Ginny had become an agent for the FBI. They'd already been married several years. In 1943, Charlie enlisted in the U.S. Navy and soon after was ordered to Bermuda. "At the time, I didn't even know where Bermuda was," he said.

Charlie became the base's cargo officer, while Ginny--who'd deftly secured her release from the bureau--took a job assisting the officer in charge of welfare and recreation. In arranging the many parties and U.S.O. shows for which she was responsible, Ginny displayed a gift for organization that would come in very handy down the line.

In the meantime, during his off hours Charlie was acquiring a new skill that would prove to have life-altering consequences: He started sailing. In fact, he said, after his discharge from the Navy in 1946 and his subsequent return to the States, "We got a boat--a Lightning--before we bought a house."

Charlie returned to his job at Freeport (which later became Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold Inc.) and began what would be a steady, 22-year climb up the corporate ladder. And Ginny continued to work for the Navy, landing a civilian position in New Orleans. As a sideline--after all, the Carys needed a place to live--Charlie headed up a group of investors who together purchased a thousand acres alongside Louisiana's Tchefuncte River and developed the tony Tchefuncte Estates, complete with golf course and marina, which became home to 250 of New Orleans' more prominent families (as well as to Charlie's boats).

Clearly, Charlie had a knack for business. But he was also becoming an accomplished sailor. From the Lightning, he graduated to a 28-foot Gulf one-design, then to a Knarr, then to a 40-foot, German-built wooden yawl called Gung Ho, so named by the young Marine who'd seized it as a war prize.

Charlie, by then a member of New Orleans' active Southern Yacht Club, bought the boat in Florida and entered her in the prestigious Southern Ocean Racing Conference. Later, having grown tired of maintaining a wooden boat, he embraced the simplicity of fiberglass in his next yacht, an Alberg 35 called Flying Ginny, which he campaigned not only in the SORC but in local regattas and regular races to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. And when not racing, Charlie and Ginny enjoyed many a cruise all along the Gulf Coast and to Florida. During one voyage to Miami in the late 1950s, on a lark they booked a cabin on a crewed charter to the Bahamas and had a fabulous time. They finished the trip envious of the skipper and his wife, whose lives appeared to be a perfect balance of business and pleasure. It would be a portent of things to come.

Still, by the late 1960s, professionally and personally life couldn't have been much better. Then, upon the eve of his 50th birthday, Charlie came to a fork in the road.
In the dead of winter, he was summoned to company headquarters in Manhattan and offered a promotion to vice president, which would require relocating to the Northeast. From their hotel window, the Carys of Louisiana watched in frigid horror as a blizzard blanketed the city's streets. An ongoing commuter strike at the time did nothing to allay their sense of isolation. The decision about whether to take the job wasn't a tough one: No way.

"When I turned it down," said Charlie, "I knew it was the end of the line. That's when we decided to look into making our hobby our vocation."

Having made a good living, they had the financial wherewithal to do so, and now they had some free time.

First, they met some friends on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal and spent the following six months aboard their 44-foot yawl wandering up the coastline of Central America and Mexico. Soon after, Charlie came across a photograph in a yachting magazine of sailing writer Carleton Mitchell's celebrated yawl Finisterre--the only boat ever to win the Bermuda Race three consecutive times--anchored in the British Virgin Islands. He couldn't shake the image. "It left quite an impression," said Charlie. "So we decided to come down here to charter, which is exactly what we did."

Once in the Caribbean, the Carys almost immediately began searching for opportunities. Being American citizens, they started in St. Thomas--where Jack Van Ost was just getting his own chartering concern, CSY Charters, off the ground--but found they preferred the British Virgin Islands over its U.S. counterpart. They eventually leased some dock space on Tortola at Fort Burt, which conveniently came with a small hotel and restaurant. Charlie and Ginny were taking the plunge into the world of bareboat chartering. All they needed was a name for their company.

"The one that kept coming up was Virgin Anchorages," Charlie said. "But that name seemed too limiting. I said to Ginny, 'But what if some day we want to go someplace else, too?'"

To which Ginny replied, "Oh-oh."
His sailing sabbatical over, Charlie Cary was back in business. And that business was The Moorings.

It was on a boisterous day at the famous Baths, the granite grottos on the southwest tip of Virgin Gorda, that we pretty much flattened Charlie.

Until then, it had been, as Jimmy Buffett has crooned, a lovely cruise, and we'd settled into a daily routine. Billy would be up and off at the crack of dawn, the inflatable loaded with camera gear, in search of the perfect sunrise. The rest of us would enjoy a lazy breakfast and then I'd corner Charlie for a while with my tape recorder, eager to learn as much as I could about his early experiences in the Caribbean. Then we'd do precisely that which, over the years, has lured so many adventurous souls to these marvelous islands: hoist sail.

We'd had a terrific run out to Anegada under a colorful cruising kite, and Charlie treated us to lobsters at the Anegada Reef Hotel. The evening's special moment was a table-side visit by the hotel's youthful proprietor; like many young islanders, he'd once worked in Tortola for The Moorings, and Charlie was clearly pleased with his subsequent success. "He's really done a wonderful job catering to people here," said Charlie, echoing the mantra so central to his own business philosophy. "It's so good to see."

From there we'd made for Jost Van Dyke, with short swim stops at Green Cay and Sandy Cay, before motoring to a slightly exposed but pleasant anchorage at White Bay. The following night, after the requisite snorkeling expedition at The Indians, we stopped at The Bight on Norman Island. Throughout our travels, we'd seen plenty of charter boats, and it was tempting to ask Charlie if things were better when there was a little less traffic, back in the "good old days."

"Well, the hills over Tortola were all black at night," he said. "No lights. No houses. There weren't even many cars there. My license plate was number 8. It certainly has developed a lot since we started here. But I have to say, it's still as pretty as ever." By the tone of his voice, it was clear he'd meant it.

From there, next morning, it was on to The Baths, and we hadn't really noticed how bouncy it was until Billy, Charlie, and I took the tender into shore and picked up a dinghy mooring right off the main beach. Still, Charlie was first over the side, and Billy and I watched as he confidently swam to within feet of the shoreline. At that point, we each rolled into the water with snorkel gear and headed in the opposite direction.

Only later did we hear about the ensuing drama.

As Charlie emerged from the surf, he was rolled by one breaking wave, then another. Luckily, Lex was close by, having already paddled to shore on a kayak, and he soon had Charlie safely on his feet and up the beach. Recalling the story over drinks later that day, Charlie said he'd learned a lesson. "It's a pretty good reminder that I have to remember my limitations," he said.

Actually, we all took away something from the incident. First, of course, we understood that we needed to keep a closer eye on our senior crewmember. But more important, though midway through his ninth decade, we all realized Charlie had lulled us into complacency with his zest and vigor. And if that's not something to shoot for--denying the years and fooling the young 'uns by your sheer love of life--then what on earth is?

Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life. But Fitzgerald never met Charlie Cary. With a pair of silent partners backing the enterprise, Charlie, as the sole active partner, had almost instantly become the real-life embodiment of Norman Paperman, the fictional protagonist of Herman Wouk's comic send-up of island escapism, Don't Stop the Carnival. The novel was published just four years earlier, in 1965, and the parallels weren't lost on Charlie. "Every single thing that happened in that book happened to us," he said.

"And then some."

The very first client was an expatriate Brit named Roger Downing, a local architect who booked a boat to celebrate Commonwealth Day, the second Monday in March. But it would take a good two years for the business to turn a profit. Ironically, during that stretch Charlie found support from an unlikely ally in CSY Charters. On several occasions, CSY overbooked a vacation week and didn't have an available boat, whereupon they'd charter one from The Moorings. "When it got to the point where we didn't have an extra one either," said Charlie, "they'd call and say, 'You know, Charlie, you're getting very undependable.'"

Unwittingly, CSY also played a major role in one of Charlie's most important early moves. CSY had been in negotiations with Canada's Grampian Yachts about building a new line of boats for their St. Thomas-based operation. But the Grampian deal fell through, so CSY approached Pearson Yachts in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Charlie was also talking to Pearson about commissioning a new boat for The Moorings. He didn't learn about CSY's involvement until after CSY had taken orders for 21 new, Pearson-built charter boats.

Charlie was livid with Pearson over this perceived end run, and he said as much to yet another erstwhile player in the burgeoning industry, Bill Stevens, who was establishing his own charter business in the lower Caribbean. Remarkably, Stevens had had the same experience with Pearson. "We were both so put out that we decided to get together and try and develop a good cruising boat," said Charlie.

After interviewing several potential builders, the pair eventually got around to Florida's Charlie Morgan: "Up to that point, he'd been building mostly racing boats, but he was convinced that in order to get some volume off a mold, he'd have to go to cruising boats. So we hit him at the right time."

In 1972, the inspired product of this unusual collaboration--the shoal-draft, center-cockpit Morgan Out Island 41--was launched. Some 1,500 would be built over the next two decades. When Pearson was late in delivering their boats for CSY, it was a double victory for Charlie and The Moorings.

And thus began the start of an incredible roll. The year 1974 found the U.S. economy mired in a recession, but it didn't hurt The Moorings. "Sailors put first things first," said Charlie. "It was one of our best years."

In 1976, the firm acquired a prime parcel of waterfront property at the northern end of Tortola's Road Harbour, which to this day serves as its base in the B.V.I. Three years later, as the company celebrated its 10th anniversary in business, the government of Tortola conferred upon the Carys the status of "Honorary Belongers," a rare entitlement indeed. "From that point on, we didn't have to worry about work permits, which we appreciated very much," said Charlie.

As the years rolled on, the fleet evolved, too. There were Gulfstars from another Florida builder, Vince Lazarra, whom Charlie affectionately called "The Godfather." And more Morgans, of course. In the early 1980s, in yet another watershed moment, The Moorings teamed up with Beneteau to produce a sleek 39-footer, followed shortly thereafter by a Bruce Farr-designed 44-footer. "That started us out as a performance-yacht charter outfit," said Charlie.

Around the same period, true to his word when the company was first launched, Charlie and his growing management team began seeking "offshore" opportunities, and it wasn't long before The Moorings had bases in St. Lucia, Grenada, Mexico, and the South Pacific. From a backwater outfit with a handful of boats, it had become the General Motors of the sailing-holiday sector.

As the years advanced, Charlie and Ginny slowly stepped down from the all-day, every-day workaday world. There were new owners, new bases, new trends. Even Charlie was intrigued by how well catamarans worked in the charter trade.

Ginny's death left a huge void in Charlie's life. But he's never been the sort to go backwards. His new companion, Helen Craycraft, is actually an old family friend. He's helping a foreign exchange student--one of two he and Ginny sponsored over the years, both of whom became like family--gain admittance to a Florida university. And boats, of course, are still a part of Charlie's life. He's wrapping up a project in New Zealand developing a fast, luxury power cat. On the dock adjoining his coastal Florida home is a McKinna 57 powerboat called Sea Quest, which suits his style just fine. "I hate airports and traffic, and this way, I just get aboard my boat right in my back yard and I'm off on my cruise," he said.

Yes, you could say Charlie Cary has come full circle. "It's funny, but now I'm trying to get back to where my boating's my hobby," he said. "Not my vocation."

On our last night together we rolled into the lavish resort on Peter Island for supper; it was where Charlie used to bring Ginny for a night out, and it was a pleasure to be in his company in a setting that brought back such fond memories. Our travels with Charlie were coming to a close.

Before breakfast the next morning, we motored off the dock and around the corner and dropped the hook in Deadman's Bay, Peter Island's easternmost anchorage. There'd been no advance plan to do so. It was quite simply the nearest quiet spot. But it turned out we'd come to a very special place.

Ashore, at one end of the beach, a big spa was under construction. Embedded in the cliff flanking the other end, a gigantic house was being erected. And in countless anchorages all around us, dozens and dozens of happy charterers were sipping coffee, setting sail, and getting down to the serious business of relaxing. This island, and all the others, had certainly evolved since 1969.

The one constant had been the palm trees, still rustling in the breeze. And it was upon those trees that Charlie leveled his gaze as he told our trip's last tale. Remarkably, and coincidentally, he'd mentioned this place in passing earlier on our cruise.

"Remember that picture of Carleton Mitchell's Finisterre I told you about?" Charlie asked. "It was anchored right here in Deadman's Bay. You could see those palm trees on the beach and the sun coming down and the shadow of the boat on the sand. It was quite an impressive photograph. It had a lot to do with our wanting to come here."

Imagine that, I thought, taking in the scene. Cutting short a lofty career, looking at life afresh at 50, leaving his home and hearth astern, he'd chanced it all on this very portrait of paradise. And, man, had it worked out in his favor.

It occurred to me that not only was the story inspirational, it was almost unbelievable, and I nearly said as much to Charlie. But I'm not sure he would've heard me. He seemed pretty intent on the sway of the fronds.

Herb McCormick is CW's editor.