Despite the fact that it happened 27 years ago I vividly remember the day I unknowingly launched my career in marine journalism. I was walking past my college adviser Linda Snodgrass’s office at the University of Rhode Island and noticed a sign featuring a crudely drawn picture of a sailboat on the door. It read: “Do you like boats? Are you a good writer? Inquire inside.”
I knocked on the door and was summoned in. “I like boats,” I said. “As far as the other question, you tell me.”
She told me about a summer internship at a publication called Soundings, The Nation’s Boating Newspaper, in Essex, Conn. My parents lived about 10 minutes south of Essex in Westbrook. Much to my embarrassment, I had never heard of Soundings, and even though I had grown up boating and fishing on Long Island Sound I had never thought of writing about boats. I was the sports editor at the URI student newspaper, The Good 5 Cent Cigar, and hadn’t thought about what I was going to do after graduating.
I made an appointment with Soundings’ editor, Art Henick, for an interview. I amassed some article clippings, took 10 attempts to knot a tie and headed to the old Soundings offices on the Connecticut River in downtown Essex. The meeting went well, and I went back to school knowing what I was going to do after I graduated — or at least for the summer. One interview, and I got the job. Not bad at all.
After drinking my way through the second semester of my senior year, I packed up my 1970 AMC Javelin and headed back to Mom and Dad’s for the summer. My internship paid $5 an hour, and I was psyched. I was going to get to work every day with people who, like me, loved boats … kind of.
It only took a couple of days to realize I was working with a bunch of sailors. Paul Ginsberg, Jane Eagleson and Donna Caruso were the staff writers, and they were all rag baggers. I, on the other hand, had grown up fishing and water skiing my summers away. I only knew one throttle setting: wide open.
I did find one ally, a mentor to whom I will always be indebted. Bill Sisson, the current editor-in-chief of Soundings, took me under his wing. I spent the summer working on pretty mundane stuff, such as news briefs and occasionally a longer story, and learning how to shoot black-and-white photos with a Pentax K1000 camera. I still remember Bill chuckling at my photo of a seagull on a piling. I guess he’d seen a few of those.
When the summer ended, so did my internship, but my career in journalism began for real. I was hired as a staff writer for $14,000 a year, enough to move out of Mom and Dad’s house. I started taking on more assignments and was covering the Great Lakes region for Soundings.
Bill covered the American Power Boat Association’s offshore racing circuit, and one day he came to me and asked if I had ever heard of Unlimited Hydroplanes. I had seen the APBA Gold Cup races on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and loved watching the Atlas Van Lines and Miss Budweiser run deck to deck. The idea of being able to write about and photograph these boats and getting to know the drivers seemed like a dream.
My four years covering the Unlimiteds for Soundings gave me some incredible memories. I met some of the great names in the sport, including Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little and drivers Jim Kropfeld, Chip Hanauer, Steve Reynolds, Steve David, George Woods and many more. I watched the development of the enclosed cockpit, which allowed drivers to walk away after flipping boats at speeds of more than 200 mph.
But my greatest memory was having my father, Stu, in attendance when the Unlimited Racing Commission awarded me the Magazine Writer of the Year award at its annual banquet. He had always picked on me for choosing journalism as a major. When I found a way to combine the lessons he taught me on the water — about driving boats and about life — with that major to start what has turned out to be a 27-year ride in marine journalism, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
For that, I’ll always be grateful to Soundings and to Bill Sisson.
Eric Colby was a staff writer for Soundings from 1986 to 1990. He was senior technical editor at Boating magazine and is a former editor-in-chief of Powerboat magazine. He now is a contributing editor for Power & Motoryacht and Boating magazines.
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May 2013 issue