Boats, motorcycles and Evel Knievel? That's right, and he's the larger-than-life sailor behind Latitudes & Attitudes magazine
It's not hard to pick out Bob Bitchin from a crowd. At 6-foot-4 and dressed in a loud Hawaiian shirt, with sunburned skin and a gold earring in the shape of a cutlass, he is the life of the party and the center of attention.
Creator of the colorful nautical magazine Latitudes & Attitudes - or as his business card says, "The Person to Blame for all This" - Bitchin believes in a larger-than-life style when it comes to boating.
"We like to show people they can take off and live their dream," says Bitchin, who is 65. "Even if they never do it, we like to show them how."
Last year, Soundings caught up with Bitchin when he flew east from his Redondo Beach, Calif., office to hold a two-day cruising seminar in Mystic, Conn., one of several events he held around the country in 2009 to encourage people to get out on the water. At the cruiser's party, there was plenty of food, beer and music.
"There are people who envision sailing as something only rich people can do - the guy with the blue blazer standing on the deck of his megayacht with his trophy wife," says Bitchin. "We try to show that regular guys can enjoy cruising just as much."
Bitchin, whose birth name is Robert Lipkin, was born and raised in Los Angeles. His mother was a teacher in the Los Angeles school district, and his father was in the carpet business. The name "Bob Bitchin" was given to him in the 1960s by Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame. The two used to work out together. The character Bob Bitchin appears on the pair's second comedy album, "Big Bambu."
Long before boats, Bitchin's passion was motorcycles and tattoos. The tattoos started when he was 15 - "self inflicted," he confesses - and his interest in bikes started when he rode to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1964. Bitchin was the editor of Choppers and Big Bike magazines in the 1970s after working as a bodyguard and traveling companion with motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel. He started Biker magazine in 1974 and Tattoo magazine in 1982. In the midst of getting inked - he insists he has only one tattoo that keeps expanding - and cruising the highways, he caught the sailing bug.
He got his first taste of the sea 30 years ago in California aboard the 74-foot square-rigged topsail schooner Stone Witch, best known as the flagship of Green Peace during that era. Bitchin says he was heavily into drugs at that point, and sailing helped him kick the addiction.
"It changed my life. You can't be high and sail," says Bitchin. "[Stone Witch] had no engine, kerosene running lights, and I crewed her to Guatemala. After that I lived on a Cal 28, then a Newport 30, then a Formosa 51, on to a new Catalina 42, then on to the Lost Soul, [the 68-foot Formosa] that I sailed for 15 years and 75,000 miles."
Bitchin has authored several books, and "Letters from the Lost Soul" discusses his adventures on Lost Soul, the boat he "retired" on in 1986 after selling his publications to Easyriders magazine. About the same time, he also sold his 13 motorcycles, most of which were Harleys. He has also written "Brotherhood of Outlaws," "Biker," "The Sailing Life," "Emerald Bay" and "King Harbor."
Bitchin doesn't have a boat now, but he is having a Shannon 52 Global built in Bristol, R.I., by Shannon Yachts (www.shannonyachts.com). The 52 Global is a bluewater cruising sailboat that has a range of more than 1,000 miles under power. "It can cross the Atlantic on just 400 gallons of fuel if we had to motor the whole way," says Bitchin.
The aft-cockpit cruiser features interior and exterior steering stations and a 64-foot mast for clearing bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway. Bitchin says she is about 80 percent completed, with the hull, rigging and masts (unstepped) finished. He hopes to splash her the last week of August (see accompanying story).
Bitchin launched Latitudes & Attitudes (www.seafaring.com) in 1996 after a decade of world cruising. "I was running out of money," he says with a laugh. "My wife, Jody, whom I married along the way, thought up the name."
Bitchin borrowed money from two friends to get the first three issues out, each for a cover price of $4.99. Bitchin says he did pretty much everything himself in that first year - writing, editing, laying out pages, the works. These days, he has the help of staff members who are just as passionate about sailing as he is. His editor, Sue Morgan, whom he has known for 27 years, lives on a 35-foot Cheoy Lee yawl with her husband, Mike. His production manager, Robin Stout, has also lived aboard and cruised for years.
"I still do all the covers, as well as my editorials, and the Underway [photo] section and Boat People [profiles] and some of the other fun stuff," says Bitchin. That "fun stuff" includes Atty "The Dude" Tude, the tattoo-esque sea serpent that is always on the cover and sprinkled throughout the pages of the magazine, occasionally sporting a pirate hat. "Atty has literally been in the picture from the start," says Bitchin. "He followed us home from a particularly raucous party New Year's Eve 1995-96, which was held in English Harbor, Antigua. He's been with us ever since."
In 2003, Bitchin started "Latitudes & Attitudes TV" on the now-defunct Men's Channel. It moved to the Water Channel in 2004 and then to Untamed Sports in 2008. Bitchin says they are now in negotiations over airing the fifth season on Versus in high definition. He says it is the only nationally televised sailing show, and it has been on the air for four seasons.
If that wasn't enough to keep him busy, in December 2009 he was elected to the board of directors of Sail America, a national organization that markets sailing to the general public, as well as organizing boat shows for the sailing industry.
The magazine's mission is to show how cruising can be accessible to the average Joe or Jane. "What we preach more than anything is attitude and adventure," says Bitchin. "It's not about the boats - it's about the lifestyle."
He says the magazine's sense of humor, with its smattering of seafaring cartoons, doesn't take away from the true cruising stories people submit every month, offering practical tips on how to make cruising dreams a reality. "It's by our readers, for our readers," says Bitchin. "I could sit down and write every article, but it's the personal experiences that people have that our audience wants to hear about."
And who is the magazine's audience? Just about anyone, apparently. "Our readership is pretty much like family," says Bitchin. "That is the feeling when we do any of the events or [when we're] at the boat shows."
At the party in Mystic, there were young and old from around the country and with varying degrees of experience to get cruising advice.
"This is a gathering of independent, strong-willed and self-sufficient people," says John Aydelotte, a longtime Latitudes & Attitudes subscriber from Cornet Bay, Wash., who owns a 42-foot Grand Banks Classic. "This is a celebration of ourselves."
Aydelotte says he likes the fact that Bitchin invites people to submit stories about their experiences. "He addresses a lifestyle that is not so much yachting but cruising," says Aydelotte. "He's not pretentious, and when I read his editorials they are down to earth."
Bitchin told readers in an article last year that mistakes happen while you're cruising, but that shouldn't keep folks from setting off. "I think the biggest mistake you can make is to be continually fearful you will make one," Bitchin advised his audience. "Just acknowledge that you failed, learn your lessons from it and then you can use it to your advantage and hopefully make sure it will never happen again."
Julianne Frank of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says Bitchin's personality and the tone of his magazine drew her to the publication. She met Bitchin and discovered Latitudes & Attitudes at the Miami International Boat Show some 10 years ago. "I just fell in love with the man and the lifestyle," says Frank. "I like the fact the magazine is about fun and freedom, as opposed to the more technical publications out there. Plus, Bob is just a great, great guy."
Though Latitudes & Attitudes takes up much of his time, he remains an active cruiser. "I spend about half my time somewhere promoting the lifestyle - in other words, living it," he says. Between the boat shows (eight a year), cruisers weekends (three a year), Share the Sail events (two a year), and filming for the television show, he spends plenty of time on the water.
"I get to sail a lot," says Bitchin.
Bitchin also is a family man. He has two daughters - Sabra, 45, and Katie, 19 - and a son, Bobby, 42. His oldest granddaughter, 19-year-old Tabitha, was featured on the November cover of Latitudes & Attitudes.
Bitchin says his wife, who was recovering from chemotherapy treatments for hepatitis C last year, is his rock when it comes to pulling the magazine together. "Jody's official title is special projects director," he says. "Before her hepatitis C, she handled all of the boat shows and helped create our clothing and logo-wear area of the ship's store [on the Web site]."
Bitchin says Jody contracted Hepatitis C when they were cruising Venezuela 10 years ago, but it had been dormant. With her treatment completed, she started back at work in mid-January with the Chicago Boat, RV & Outdoors Show.
Bitchin says his all-time favorite cruising grounds are the Northern Cook Islands in the South Pacific and Greece's Cyclades island group.
"The South Pacific for its remoteness and Greece for its history," he says.
When he's not cruising, he still rides motorcycles with his buddies and continues to add to his "one" tattoo. "My latest ... is a native tattoo on my ankle," he says. "It was done the old-fashioned way, with bamboo, on Pago Pago, Samoa, by the local artist. Actually, it is Jody's tattoo. She really liked the native style, where everything on it means something, but she doesn't have any tattoos, so we put it on me. If we ever get divorced, she gets the leg."
Parting his loud, orange shirt as the party in Mystic ramps up, he displays a tattoo of a shark fighting Poseidon on his chest - his favorite. That's Bitchin - shameless, fun, a fighter.
"He's just the best boss ever," says Stout, the production manager. "I mean, really - who wouldn't want to work for a guy who calls himself Bob Bitchin?"
See related article:
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.