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Hunting, fishing and Soundings

I spent five of the greatest years of my life in Marblehead, Mass., in the mid-1980s. During my stay there I finished my journalism degree, got married, worked in a boatyard, sailed, ate lobsters, tended bar and nailed down my first job at a newspaper.

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But I was restless. Sailing had been my primary passion through my 20s, and I was burning to work for a boating magazine.

Strolling down Front Street one day with a friend, I noticed a woman standing in a vacant lot overlooking the harbor where a house had burned down that winter. She was staring pensively over the harbor, which in a few months would be packed with more than 2,500 boats. We approached her and started a conversation. She was a staff writer for Soundings. As it turned out, she was ready to do something else with her career and was planning to resign. I expressed perfunctory sympathies and told her Soundings had been at the top of my list to pitch for a job. She gave me the name of an editor there, and I quickly reached out to him.

Six months and a few freelance pieces later, Soundings offered me a job. My wife and I packed up and moved to Lyme, Conn., just across the Connecticut River from Essex, Soundings’ home base. We found a rental cottage on a 30-acre estate with a pond and a pool, next to a dairy farm. I knew I’d miss Marblehead, but I’m not sure I could have stepped in it deeper or better. I worked with the landlord to stock the pond with bass, I was five minutes from great bird shooting and my commute to Soundings was 12 minutes.

During the three memorable years I spent there (1987-1990) we had pool parties, skating parties on the pond and impromptu gatherings at the Griswold Inn and Tumbledown’s (The Black Seal) in town. As time went by, Bill Sisson — now editor-in-chief — and I became close, and I experienced my first surf-casting adventures on the beaches he grew up on in Watch Hill, R.I. And then there was the work, which in that place at that time with those people also was about as good as it gets for a guy with a passion for words and boats.

In those days, Soundings was populated mainly with ex-newspaper types who were used to working to exacting standards on tight deadlines. We published five regional editions, each loaded into a national-news “wrapper.” I covered New England and contributed regularly to the national edition. It’s hard to imagine producing the volume of stories we each wrote, but I always seemed to arrive about 9 a.m. and leave about 5 or 6 p.m. every day, which left plenty of time to fish, hunt and otherwise enjoy the pleasures of southeastern Connecticut. Those days were busy, but they never really seemed like work.

Soundings founder and publisher Jack Turner was in the office most days and was a force of nature. He was a supremely smart, charismatic guy who seemed to never slow down. You could tell it was winter when Jack started wearing socks with his ever-present Top-Siders.

When I started, longtime editor Christine Born was preparing to head off cruising. When she left, Art Henick, who had worked at the Hartford Courant, took over. He and I found common ground, not in boats but in horse racing. We managed to carve out a day here and there to visit Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. Five years ago, I had the pleasure of hosting him at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, where I grew up and live now.

The Soundings offices then were in a marina in Essex. The views out the big windows were of boats and the river, which in addition to being a constant, pleasant distraction provided a reminder of what we were doing there. Sisson was ensconced in a corner cubicle stacked nearly to the ceiling with files and papers. As with many of the people from those days, he and I have remained friends.

I’ve always viewed those Soundings years as a bit of an apprenticeship — a place where I earned my chops as reporter, writer and editor. I left reluctantly when my wife started law school. I went to work for Boating magazine in New York, then Yachting and a succession of other marine publications. But nothing will ever match the magic of those years in Essex.

Last spring, Soundings owner Active Interest Media hired me as editor of its Yachts International title. AIM’s Marine Group is based in the current Soundings offices in Essex. On my first visit there, I was shocked to find many familiar faces still holding the fort — grayer, more crinkled but still cranking out great marine journalism.

Sisson was there, of course, and even though the office moved from the waterfront years ago, he managed to find another corner cubicle and load it to the ceiling with files and papers. And in coming full circle, he’s married to Patty Koller, the woman I met those many years ago in the vacant lot in Marblehead.

Kenny Wooton is editor-in-chief of Yachts International magazine.

December 2013 issue