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Return of the Gibson Island Yachtsman

One long-ago summer in the early 1990s, two single, laid-back friends in their early 30s would occasionally match-race in their respective Catalina sailboats. These were very minor events on the Annapolis yachting scene, to be sure, and I was the only boating writer in town who gave them a little ink in a local, now-defunct sailing rag I edited.

J.P. Watson then had a C27 named Jocasta — after the mother of Oedipus — and Steve Goertemiller had a C30 named Windsor Castle. They would hurl good-natured insults at one another and rag on about their macho yachting prowess to anyone who would listen, especially impressionable young females who knew naught about sailing and were easily enticed.

As his yachting career progressed and then came to a surprising halt, I portrayed J.P. as a kind of Reggie Van Watson playboy (after Jackie Gleason’s boozy, debonair character Reggie Van Gleason), dubbing him “J’hab” in print and “The Gibson Island Yachtsman.” As the boys matured, they became boatless and a little more serious. Watson’s vessel went to a nautical charity in the Baltimore Harbor. “Goerty” became a part-time gentleman farmer, got married, had a child, and at one point stabled a different sailboat in a barn at the family farm in western Maryland.

J.P., meanwhile, now in his mid-40s and still single, harbored a yearning over those misbegotten years to return to the water and recapture his younger glory days on Jocasta, when he was trim, slim and sought-after by young women.

Carefree summers had found him sharing a beach house with buddies next to a cemetery. He hit the surf in the daytime and worked at night in joints like The Frog Pond as a doorman and bouncer. In real life, he was a hectic stockbroker and mortgage banker — legendary for his mixed metaphors, malapropisms and an amusing and somewhat disorganized way of living.

For example, with no one to pick up after him, his rumpled clothing still piles up. At one point, he patronized a Chinese hand laundry and got into the habit of changing into clean office duds behind a curtain there, much to the amusement of his launderers and friends. His socially demanding university days in College Park, Md., revolved around the activities of a collegiate group known as “J.P.’s Goon Squad.”

And so the wayward Watsonian legend grew, as favorite J.P. stories were savored and traded. “Strangers who read that stuff about me in Rags magazine asked if I was really the noted Gibson Island Yachtsman,” he says, laughing. Early this summer, J.P. notified me of his serious intention to return to the elite world of yachting after a decade-long hiatus. He would go to sea to be born again as an ocean racer in the Annapolis-to-Bermuda Race in June.

He started a full, salty sea-dog beard at sea; learned to talk the talk again; and bonded with six males en route to the fabled Onion Patch. His comeback vessel would be Steve Schuh’s Jubilee, a Beneteau 411 moored in Gibson Island Harbor in front of the owner’s home. (Watson’s parents, Barbara Ann and Deering Watson, also live on the gated island, where Jocasta once resided at the local boatyard.)

A gifted cook, music CD collector, raconteur and all-around colorful character with a knowledge of fine wine, food and cigars, J.P. was recruited by his good friend Schuh because he can sail, cook and provide comic relief in tense situations. But as sometimes is the case when J.P. takes on too many assignments, plans can go awry, overwhelm him, and leave him sputtering on deadline.

With less than eight hours notice, he pleaded for help from his well-organized mom to feed seven men for six days on a sailboat racing to Bermuda — the very next day. A creative chef and party hostess accustomed to feeding large family gatherings, Barbara Ann dispatched her husband to stores with a list, and she (and he) went into high gear in her large, modern kitchen. Mom came through, as always, and delivered her still-warm provisions just before Jubilee left the dock.

J.P. contributed one dish — lasagna. “I made it all from scratch — noodles and everything — and it was the most popular dish, I must say,” he notes proudly. Tim Whisted, a co-owner with his brother, Chris (a Bay racer also along as crew), of Little Havana Restaurant in Baltimore Harbor, also contributed food for what would be his first sail.

Schuh, a venture capital investor and Maryland state delegate, focused on boat preparation. Before the race, the group got together and conducted man-overboard drills and other safety maneuvers. He went to Neil Pryde Sails for a custom roller-furling, in-mast mainsail with vertical battens and a multicolored spinnaker patterned after the Maryland state flag.

He was out to do well in a fleet of 28 boats and engaged Capt. Tom Gore of Oxford, Md., as skipper. Others in the crew included Thomas Gerber — J.P.’s good friend and a former Beneteau 37 owner — and John Zseleczky, engineer, navigator and all-around Mr. Fix-it.

“We all got along amazingly well,” says J.P., who boasted of himself as the “glue that held the group together.” (Incidentally, he is also known as a destroyer of older automobiles through neglect and indifference.) And sometimes he seems to be trailed by a black cloud, which once arrived and dismasted Jocasta — with me on board as witness to a dislodged spar that seemed to march toward J.P. at the helm before it went over the side. Amazing.

Ironically, the Bermuda race began on Friday the 13th. And the Gibson Island Yachtsman’s birthday is Dec. 7, a rather infamous date in world history. Whenever they encountered torrential rainstorms during the race, J.P. happened to be at the helm, drenched under leaky, borrowed foulies that, at the last minute, replaced his Wal-Mart slicker.

The beat down the Bay against a foul tide in rough seas and gusty headwinds was, in fact, the most trying part of the race. As they blasted out of the Chesapeake and into the Atlantic off Norfolk, Va., during a blinding midnight thunderstorm, an appropriate J.P. musical selection arrived over the loudspeaker: “Riders on the Storm,” by The Doors.

A moment of stress came when they had to ration water near Bermuda and Gerber, already dehydrated, became a meltdown victim of too much time in the sun and began hallucinating. “He recovered in time to party and received the George Hamilton Memorial Award for overtanning and combat fatigue,” says Schuh.

Jubilee placed 15th overall, “not a bad performance for a shoal-draft cruising boat’s first time in an ocean race and a first time for most of the crew,” Schuh says. What J.P. missed most was cold beer and the close companionship of his cell phone, without which his social life would be totally incomplete.

With most of the crew homeward bound after the race — the hired gun and some friends took Jubilee back to Maryland — J.P. and Gerber had a Sunday to kill before their Monday flight home. However, their hotel room was paid by Schuh only through Saturday night, so they planned to sleep Sunday night on the hotel’s lounge chairs on the beach.

Their last day, in Hamilton, was brightened by a streak of Watson luck that can often follow the black clouds and included an impromptu free ride on the bus into town. (Gerber had a bruising mishap earlier with a moped.) Since their tale of 24 hours of partying all day Sunday and into early Monday has nothing to do with boating, it will be left to the readers’ imagination.

They eventually ran into a wealthy Bermuda resident, Brian Gulbransen, formerly of the Bronx and now senior vice president at Ariel Reinsurance for marine, aviation and energy underwriting. He began buying rounds for the bar and took pity on these stranded middle-aged sailors and would-be beach bums. When he left, he instructed the bartender at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess to give the pair anything they wanted and then turned over the key to a hotel suite he booked for them and disappeared into the late night.

Now that he’s returned from sea, an enthusiastic J.P. has talked with Gerber about buying a used J/40 as partners and probably keeping it at Gibson Island. “I might also be taking command of Steve’s Jubilee to enter some Bay races with the old gang,” says the Gibson Island Yachtsman. “I find I really miss those days at sea and bonding together.”

Asked about turning over Jubilee, Schuh replied, “I would trust J.P. with my life, but I am not sure I would trust him with my boat.”


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