A meticulous man to the last detail

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Winner ofthree Bermuda Races, Carleton Mitchell planned his own memorial, right down to the 1910 brandy

Winner ofthree Bermuda Races, Carleton Mitchell planned his own memorial, right down to the 1910 brandy

Carleton Mitchell, who won a record three consecutive Bermuda Races aboard his 38-foot yawl Finisterre and who died at age 96 in Florida in July, paid attention to details in both life and death.

Preparing for a trans-Atlantic race early in his sailing career, Mitchell — who also excelled as a writer and photographer — told his secretary about one detail that amazed her. Without medical necessity, Mitchell was going to have his appendix removed “to be sure that it didn’t happen crossing the Atlantic,” recalls Margaret M. Nayden.

On a beautiful Saturday in late July, Nayden; Mitchell’s wife, Ruth; and 18 others scattered Mitchell’s remains just as he had dictated in a precisely worded, written directive. They boarded his 76-foot houseboat at Mitchell’s home and motored an hour and a half onto Florida’s Biscayne Bay, anchoring near Stiltsville. There, they carried out these instructions:

“I request my ashes be strewn to leeward, and mind the backdraft, on Biscayne Bay during the early stages of ebb tide … in the unobstructed area behind Stiltsville so part of me will flow out into the Gulf Stream to merge into the vanished wakes of beloved little ships during past races to Nassau and Bermuda or cruises to nowhere.”

Following the ceremony, Mitchell’s friends and his widow mingled on the houseboat and obeyed his final order: to share a bottle of 1910 Armagnac brandy — the same vintage as Mitchell, a wine connoisseur — that he had bought for the purpose 16 years earlier.

“If you were to add up the 10 most important people in [sailing] over the last 100 years, he’d be in it,” says Mitchell’s friend, yachting historian John Rousmaniere. “And not just because he won three Bermuda races. He was really a three-sport star: All-star sailor, writer and photographer. He was the great yachting writer of his time.”

Through both his writing — for National Geographic and other magazines and in seven books — and his racing success, Mitchell led a wave of average 20th-century Americans into the sport of sailing and, particularly, cruising. His success rested on his ability to focus on the task at hand, a quality he demonstrated before the age of 10.

Born in New Orleans, the son of a physician who had little interest in boats, Mitchell began sailing as a crewmember on the boat of an uncle, whose boating magazines he pillaged for photos that he saved in scrapbooks. He declared to his parents: “I want to sail and I want to write about it,” Rousmaniere says.

Mitchell fulfilled his ambition without following a traditional academic course. He dropped out of college in Ohio in the late 1920s, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Rousmaniere says. There followed a series of jobs, including work in a Minnesota lumber camp. He traveled from job to job by motorcycle and eventually found himself in Manhattan, selling women’s underwear at Macy’s. This drifting ended when Mitchell joined a friend on a voyage from Norfolk, Va., to the Bahamas.

“The boat almost sank on the way,” says Rousmaniere. “It was a dreadful trip. He had the wits scared out of him, but he loved it.”

Mitchell then spent time in Nassau. When he returned to Manhattan he wrote several travel stories based on his experiences, but he couldn’t sell them. “Someone said send photos with them,” Rousmaniere says. “He went to a photo shop and bought a camera and dark room equipment and set it up in his tiny apartment.” (Today, Mystic Seaport in Mystic Conn., houses 20,250 of his images in the Carleton Mitchell Collection.)

For a while, he wrote and photographed for a Bahamian newspaper. During World War II, he taught photography for the Department of the Navy in Washington. Following the war, Mitchell and his first wife, Elizabeth, moved to Annapolis, Md., and bought one of John Alden’s old Malabars, which he renamed Carib. The couple began cruising to the islands, and his magazine stories about those adventures, along with his book “Islands to Windward,” are credited with helping foster the Caribbean charter business.

In the next six years Mitchell wrote four books, the best of which, according to Rousmaniere, is “Passage East,” the story of a trans-Atlantic race. “It’s a wonderful book about what it’s like to be at sea,” Rousmaniere says.

Margaret Nayden, whom Mitchell hired through an employment agency while living in Annapolis, remembers how he wrote on yellow legal pads in longhand. As to his style, she says, “He was very meticulous and followed details. He didn’t embroider things at all. He had a brilliant way of describing a scene or an action,” says Nayden, who is not a sailor. “He had anecdotes about various crewmembers. He described their personalities and the way they did their jobs. He valued his way of being able to describe to an armchair traveler how it felt to be at sea.”

“His prose is really unpretentious,” says Nick Nicholson, editor-at-large of Practical Sailor, who at age 10 discovered Mitchell’s writing in National Geographic and considers him a personal hero. “It’s not plain and simple like Hemmingway. Sometimes he gets a little flowery and philosophical. His writing is always good. You can read it aloud, and it absolutely rolls off your tongue. The concepts are often timeless, those insightful things that you might think of when it’s happening but you never write it down. He took all that stuff and put it on the page and managed to distill what sailing offshore is all about.”

Nicholson says writing and photography were Mitchell’s way to keep sailing. “To pay for what he really loved to do, which was to sail,” he says. “He loved to cruise. He said the greatest thing was when you got to the finish line [of a race] and the ocean extended beyond the finish line.”

While Mitchell was sailing on Carib and then on Caribee, a Philip Rhodes design, and writing, he was “scheming about his ideal boat and thinking about what he wanted,” Rousmaniere says. “He wanted a boat small enough for a couple to handle easily, beamy enough to be comfortable, shallow enough to cruise in the Bahamas, strong enough to cross an ocean, and fast enough to have a chance at winning a race or two,” Rousmaniere writes in his book, “A Berth to Bermuda.”

The result was Finisterre, a 38-foot wooden yawl with an 11-foot beam and a centerboard that provided shallow draft. In addition to such structural features as bronze floorboards and a bronze centerboard trunk, the boat “had a record player and refrigerator and a shower,” not standard racing equipment, Rousmaniere says.

Built at a small yard on the Connecticut River, Finisterre began winning races immediately and in 1956 won the Bermuda Race on corrected time, a feat he would repeat in the next two races in 1958 and 1960. Her success spawned a new breed of small yachts, making offshore sailing, once the sport of tycoons, accessible to boaters of more modest means.

“She was especially good when it blew hard,” Rousmaniere says. “He pushed hard. He pushed people hard and himself hard and his boat hard.” And Mitchell was a “demon on preparation.”

Yachting historian Llewellyn Howland III relates a story told by his uncle, Waldo Howland, creator of the Concordia yawl. Walking down a Newport, R.I., dock before the start of one Bermuda Race, Howland found crews swarming over the various yachts and making last-minute adjustments. In all the bustle, there was Finisterre, sails neatly flaked, total calm the order of the day because Mitchell already had taken care of all the details.

Nayden, Mitchell’s secretary for most of his life, recalls him as “very forthright.”

“He didn’t suffer fools very lightly,” she says. “However, he was very courteous. He had command of a situation.” And he was “very good company.”

In his final years, Mitchell was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and was confined to a wheelchair. (He had ended his major racing career after the 1960 Bermuda win and had turned to powerboats, helping introduce the public to trawlers, Rousmaniere says.) He bought the houseboat — named Yasas, a Greek word meaning a long and happy life — to accommodate his wheelchair and kept it docked at the home where he and second wife Ruth lived on an inlet off Biscayne Bay.

Despite his disabilities, Nicholson says, Mitchell’s presence was overwhelming. “He was always one of those people who, when he was there, you knew he was in charge.”

And yet Mitchell did not seek the limelight. “I asked him once to come up to Mystic Seaport and participate in a yachting symposium,” Rousmaniere recalls. “He said just the thought of standing up in front of an audience struck terror in his heart.” Rousmaniere discovered his friend was “deadly shy.” While he thrived on competition with others, he dreaded where it led. “He said trophy presentations were misery for him,” Rousmaniere says. “He felt he had lost control.”

About the Carleton Mitchell Collection:

Several years ago Mystic Seaport was the recipient of Mitchell's photograph and manuscript collections, the preservation and cataloging of which he also supported. For infpormation about the collections or to order note cards or prints, contact the Seaport in Mystic, Conn., at (860) 572-0711, ext. 5367, or email collecitons@mysticseaport.org. www.mysticseaport.org