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A towering figure of wit and wisdom

Sailing companions fondly recall their voyages with William F. Buckley Jr., who died at age 82

Sailing companions fondly recall their voyages with William F. Buckley Jr., who died at age 82

It was night, and just after dinner William F. Buckley Jr. was at the helm of his sailboat, cruising up the Nova Scotia coast with a crew of two, approaching a point of land that had to be rounded to reach Halifax.

“There was a tremendous current,” recalls Phil Hutchinson, 70, a longtime sailing companion of Buckley’s. “I could see that we were getting swept the wrong way. We weren’t going to make the point.”

Hutchinson knew Buckley to be an excellent navigator with great confidence in himself. He also knew him to be a captain who listened to his crew. Hutchinson says he was “nervous as a cat” about what he saw unfolding, so he mentioned his concerns to the skipper.

“He said, ‘Well, let me take a look,’ ” Hutchinson says. All three men were seated in the cockpit, where conversations could be managed in subdued tones. “All of a sudden, he [bellowed] ‘jibe ho!’ ” Hutchinson says. It was unnecessary in the circumstances to yell, he says, but ever the master and commander, Buckley “issued his commands.”

Buckley, universally remembered by his sailing friends as not only an extraordinarily competent offshore sailor but as a wonderful shipmate, died in late February at home at his desk in Stamford, Conn. He was 82. A sailor since childhood who enjoyed long bluewater passages, Buckley’s last major cruise was in 2006.

In addition to his sailing credentials, Buckley was considered the progenitor of the modern conservative political movement in the United States. He was founder of the conservative magazine National Review and host of the television program “Firing Line.” Through both of these vehicles, he demonstrated not only a keen — at times scathing — wit but an engaging yet civilized ability to present the conservative point of view. Where some who proselytize on the right and left use a bludgeon, Buckley’s approach was closer to acupuncture — polite, if a bit stinging.

His sailing companions describe the rest — a man with a lively sense of humor and a generous spirit, an intellectual who was interested not only in the thoughts of the stellar cast of characters whom he invited aboard his various yachts but who genuinely enjoyed hearing the concerns and opinions of the young.

“He came across in the press as rather aloof and condescending, and in person he was anything but that,” says Charles Barthold, a former editor of Yachting magazine who worked on several feature pieces written by Buckley. “He was very interested in what I had to say,” Barthold says, noting that “my political views were about as different as you can get” from Buckley’s.

Buckley wrote often about sailing, and excerpts from his book “Miles Gone By” follow. Barthold notes that Buckley’s writing was “full of very long and hard to understand words. But he had a way of writing that I thought captured the beauty of a trip and what was good about it.” Although his writing often wandered to unexpected places, the editor says, “in the end, you felt you had been on the trip and heard all the stories he told while he was sailing.”

We were tacking into St. George’s [Bermuda]. It was after midnight, and the moon was nearly full. We could make out only two navigation lights, St. David’s and Kitchen Shoals … on the left of the cockpit, my radar, giving out bold, resolute signals.

Presently a mountain range formed, stretching on our starboard from 12 o’clock diagonally to 4 o’clock. Phil [Hutchinson] was a little distressed because the GPS showed us a comfortable nine miles from Bermuda. But here was the radar, suggesting we were heading into the northern bight of land a mere 2.5 miles away.

What could be wrong?

I stayed at the wheel while [the crew] conferred, with furrowed brows, checking and rechecking the GPS, which adamantly insisted that we were nine miles away from hitting land and rocks, while the radar showed us getting closer and closer. … Finally I thought to turn the radar to a 24-mile range. The mountains shrank to mincing little flattened pearls, and beyond them we outlined the shore. Nine miles off. The mountain range, we could now see, was simply a tight, muscular cloud formation, not easily visible to the human eye under the camouflage of moonlight, and indistinguishable, in the eyes of the radar, from land itself.

Hutchinson remembers that night well. Buckley, although in writing about the event shows no inclination to shift the blame, would never let Hutchinson forget it. “He poked fun at me in person,” Hutchinson says. “We all had little foibles, and I was the guy who spotted the mountains in Bermuda.”

But the ribbing wasn’t mean, Hutchinson suggests. “He was a charming guy to sail with. He had particular habits that were sort of inviolate. He had a wonderful cook named Julian,” who prepared meals ashore but never made a voyage. “There was always a tremendous gourmet meal, always wine and always a cigar.”

Aboard Patito, the 36-foot sloop that was Buckley’s final yacht, there was an electronic keyboard forward in the cabin. Buckley was an accomplished harpsichord player. “After dinner, he would go up forward, and he would regale us with his proficiency on the harpsichord,” Hutchinson says.

“Always peanut butter for breakfast. He liked to play a word game called Ghost. You sit around in the cockpit,” Hutchinson explains. “You can imagine playing a word game with a guy like Buckley. We never won. He always won.”

Hutchinson, who sailed with Buckley for 15 years, first met him aboard one of his yachts in Nantucket, Mass. When Buckley boarded, he immediately handed Hutchinson a piece of winch hardware and asked him to mount it. Dutifully, Hutchinson went to the marina shop and gathered the required saw and drills. Buckley, when he saw the finished project, declared: “My God, we have a metallurgist on board.”

“I can barely fix anything,” says Hutchinson. “But I could always fix things better than he could. He wasn’t the handiest man in the world.” In the view of his sailing companions, that may have been Buckley’s only deficiency.

Henry H. Anderson, Jr., a past commodore of the New York Yacht Club, knew Buckley’s family and remembers helping him buy his first yacht. (Buckley, raised in wealth, joined the club in 1958.) Although he never sailed with Buckley, Anderson once was asked by The New Yorker magazine to fact-check a piece written by Buckley. He says he told the magazine editors, “That’s one of the best descriptions of heaving-to I’ve ever read.” The description was based on experience:

I put on foul-weather gear, relieved Mary-Jo at the wheel, felt the boat surging at hull speed with only the No. 3 jib and reefed main, and wondered (this happens at sea as often as people who write about the sea tell you it does) — facing four hours alone, already soaked, beginning to feel the cold, the boat’s erratic needs exacting every nerve of concentration, arm and back muscles taxed like a galley slave’s, facing God knows what ahead, the human reserves aboard comprising one seasick poet, his incapacitated wife, and an exhausted 16-year-old — what madness finds me here, in these conditions, at this time?

“I would guess that our sailing began, generally speaking, the very first week of April, and we never put the boat away until after Thanksgiving,” says Danny Merritt, a friend of Buckley’s son, Christopher. Merritt says he began working on Buckley’s boats at age 13 and spent the next three decades and more on the family’s yachts and in their homes. “We’d go out in weather that we’d be the only boat out in Long Island Sound. We sailed [home] in snowstorms. … I think we’ve sailed everything short of a hurricane.”

Merritt says his most unusual experience on a Buckley yacht came one night when all the guests had left the schooner Cyrano, and it was his job to move the boat back to its dock. Mistakenly taking the wrong side of an island, Merritt ran the boat under a bridge, bringing down both masts.

“I called him 1 o’clock in the morning,” Merritt recalls. “He said, ‘Are you OK?’ Yes. ‘Is everyone OK?’ Yes. ‘I’ll see you I the morning.’ This was the way he was. He always cared for people. He always protected his friends.”

Aboard his yachts, Buckley had rules, Merritt says. “You don’t snap at people when you’re on the boat. If you happen to be going down below to get yourself a Coke or beer, you were obligated to turn around and ask would anybody like anything.”

Hutchinson remembers Buckley as a “meticulous” captain who planned in advance. “When we would go, for example, to the St. John River [in New Brunswick] he would start months ahead of time,” he says. “He always knew when the tides were going to turn going over the falls. He knew weeks and months before the trip.”

That didn’t prevent some unplanned incidents, according to Hutchinson, who was aboard on at least one occasion when Buckley ran aground. “He was daring, much more so than I was,” Hutchinson says. “He was always quite willing to explore places that my normal inclination would be not to explore. It was always fun to be with him, because he was game for going to out-of-the-way places and sailing in harm’s way.”

When the weather was foul, however, Buckley was wet. “He always had the worst possible foul weather gear. It was junk,” Hutchinson says. “He didn’t have the latest and greatest stuff. It was always ragtag. He would be wetter than a hen after being out on the wheel for a while. He never complained.”

One quality Hutchinson found striking in Buckley was his work ethic. “This guy, every single day we were sailing — I don’t care what the weather was — he always took time off to work. Had manuscripts with him,” Hutchinson says. “He was always writing something. He would bounce things off of his crew. When I first started [sailing] with him, it was mainly marking up a manuscript. In the middle of our sailing career, we would go to boatyards and we would be faxing things. Toward the end, he had a laptop that he would use.”

“He was almost the world’s most curious person,” says Merritt, who considered Buckley “almost a father figure.” “[He] wanted to know why people thought the way they thought. Most of the time that Bill and I got together, it was more personal stuff. We talked about everything from his wife [Patricia, whom he called Ducky] dying to what’s going to happen after he dies. He really enjoyed, more so than anyone I know … young people — what they thought about what was happening politically, what they were annoyed about, who they liked and who they didn’t like. He’d play around with all those points and kind of go forward.”

My life, on the whole, has been joyful, and my passages at sea have been pleasures.

On the last sailing trip — a cruise up the Maine coast to the St. John River in 2006 — Buckley chartered a 51-foot Hinckley. “Wherever you went, he always footed the bill for everything,” Hutchinson says. Patito —Spanish for “little duck,” in honor of Buckley’s wife — was gone, and the stalwart skipper was fading, Hutchinson says.

“He was getting feeble. He was disappointed because his heath was failing,” Hutchinson says. He was sad to be losing his life offshore.

“After that trip … he agreed at my urging to be an honorary board member, he and [Walter] Cronkite, at the Sailing Hall of Fame,” just organized in Annapolis. “Right up to the end, he was very interested in sailing. He was thrilled” to be asked to serve, Hutchinson says.