Walking the Plank: Steve White

Author:
Publish date:

A native of Camden, Maine, Steve White enjoyed a connection to the sea long before his tenure as president of Mystic Seaport. He grew up sailing with his grandfather and made two trans-Atlantic crossings on a sloop before launching a career as an educator.

Photo by Colleen Mason.

The former headmaster of Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, White instituted an ambitious strategic plan and grew the 151-year old junior boarding school’s endowments. In January 2009 White came to Mystic, Connecticut, and tackled his leadership role at the seaport with vigor, focusing on a new strategic plan, fundraising and the development of the museum’s educational programs.

The restoration of the Charles W. Morgan had already begun, but it was White who convinced the board of trustees that America’s last wooden whaleship should go back to sea and sail once more. The ensuing excitement from the public and the enthusiastic support of partners from the business sector were instrumental in raising the $8 million the extensive restoration required. At the end of the 5-year refit, the Morgan made her triumphant 38th voyage, bringing a new level of attention to Mystic Seaport and its outstanding maritime offerings.

First memory of being on a boat: Sailing with my grandfather on his 1911 Charles Crosby catboat, Hull Down (aka Sea Hound), out of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. As strong as that memory is, so are the ones of rowing out to the catboat in his little dinghy from the shore. The ship’s clock from Hull Down is in my office.

First boat you owned: It was a Turnabout in Camden, Maine, and it was called Spray. I was 9 years old, and I named it after Slocum’s boat, as my grandmother would often read to us from Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. I painted it light green and while sailing in the harbor I imagined myself sailing around the world!

Last or current boat (owned or skippered): I haven’t owned a boat for a long time, nor have I skippered one in quite some time, as I am more likely to be a member of the crew. I like to say that I am owner of and responsible for the well-being of 524 of the finest traditional boats in America, all of which are part of the collection at Mystic Seaport.

Favorite boat you’ve owned (or skippered): I’d have to answer this question in much the same way. The favorite “boat” I’ve been a part of in recent years is the whaleship Charles W. Morgan. It was a privilege to be part of the restoration effort that ultimately enabled her to return to sea.

Your dream boat: My dream boat would have to be Brilliant. How can it get any better than the form and function of one of Olin Stephens’ finest designs! Sailing on her in Maine a couple summers ago and reaching across Penobscot Bay solidified that opinion.

Most rewarding sailing experience: It’s interesting that the first thought that comes to mind is navigating in the dense fog in Penobscot Bay in my late teens for a friend who needed someone to help her deliver her boat to Vinalhaven. This was in 1970 or so in the pre-electronics age. It was just the two of us relying on local knowledge and dead reckoning, and without seeing a damn thing for several hours we arrived safely at Long Cove.

Scariest adventure aboard: No doubt about it, it was during my first trans-Atlantic crossing, when a member of the crew went overboard in a storm. Long story short, due to a savvy captain and outstanding seamanship, he was retrieved some 30 minutes later alive and well. I will never forget it.

Most memorable experience aboard: Well, how can anything compare to sailing the Charles W. Morgan again for the first time in over 90 years. Whether it was sailing her across Buzzards Bay for her homecoming in New Bedford, Massachusetts, or among whales again on Stellwagen Bank, nothing will ever compare.

Longest time you’ve spent at sea without setting foot on land: Twenty-one days and 21 hours on the trans-Atlantic race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro in 1976. It was a slow, hot race for us, and fortunately mostly uneventful! Have to say that Rio and Brazil was a nice place to end a race.

Favorite destination so far: That’s a tough one. As a child, it was Down East to Roque Island. Later, raising St. Helena Island in the south Atlantic, right where the navigator — relying only on the stars — said it would be, not to mention the unique opportunity to visit Napoleon’s home of exile there.

Favorite nautical book: That’s impossible to answer! For imagery and metaphor I’d have to say The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel T. Coleridge; for personal reflections it would be Joseph Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea; for fiction, it has to be Moby-Dick. By the way, have you ever attended the Moby-Dick marathon aboard the Morgan on Melville’s birthday?

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: There is only one possible answer to this question, and that is Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea. Could there be a better nautical cause with a stronger mission of inspiring an enduring connection to the American maritime experience? It is a national treasure because of its collection, including the vessels, its interpretation staff and its location.

Favorite quote about the sea: While Conrad gives us many incredible quotes in The Mirror of the Sea, I think what works best for me is what Gaddis Smith at Yale said so simply, yet profoundly: “The sea connects all things.” It links us in a common experience, it provides a universal language and understanding, and it unites the peoples of the world through commerce, exploration and pleasure.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.