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Bay Tripper

An old salt settles on the hard

An old salt settles on the hard

In lives devoted to sailing, full-time sailors come and go in and out of our landlocked lives, following the wanderlust wake of professional boatmen. We dirt dwellers run into these old boating buddies at boat shows and regattas, during Caribbean, Florida or California winters, and New England and Chesapeake Bay summers. Turn around and there they are, back in home waters again for a spell, only to be gone soon to another job in another boat, off to another faraway place.

My good friend Capt. John Barry, now a 59-year-old homeowner in Oak Island, N.C., was one of those here-today-gone-tomorrow nautical nomads before finally settling down and getting a “real” life. I first got to know him in 1979, when he was a broker at Bay Yacht Agency in Annapolis, where my late wife, Betty, was a receptionist.

He always traveled light and roomed around from house to house (or cabin to cabin) — even bunked for a time at our home at no charge. He was, and is, thrifty, entertaining, a great sailor and cook, and shares my strange sense of humor and penchant for kidding people.

I got to renew that old friendship again in June when I visited him at his new “permanent” home in Oak Island. It suits his needs and personality perfectly.

Betty and I had come to understand his ways when cruising with him in New England, the Caribbean and elsewhere when he was a captain on large private sailboats and motoryachts. He would invite us to keep him company and fill an otherwise empty week with no owners around.

Betty and her close friend Judy Gray nurtured schoolgirl crushes on this then-blonde, handsome, tanned, bachelor sea captain and dueled for his attention. I termed them “The Barryettes,” and when he was between boat jobs, they would visit him and his mother, Olive, at the homestead “Dogwood Cottage” in Pinehurst, N.C. (Barry never knew his father, a Navy fighter pilot who was killed in action in the South Pacific during World War II.)

Barry grew up in Pinehurst but never took to golfing like his champion golfer and tennis-playing mother. He was into old, exotic foreign cars and worked nights as a busboy and dishwasher at the Pinecrest Inn across the street to keep them out of a state of disrepair, which taught him how to fix things.

During his North Carolina years after graduating from St. Andrews College, he discovered lake sailing and raced Lasers and Windmills. He worked for Carolina Power & Light from 1969 to 1973, found it boring, and dreamed about getting a sailing job in Annapolis.

“I went to one of the first Annapolis sailboat shows, in 1973, and circulated my resume,” he says. “I landed a job as a yard worker at Whitehall Yacht Yard, blocking boats and running the Travelift. Not too glamorous, but I got paid, found a nice room to rent, and made important connections.”

He met Rose Smith, who became a lasting friend. She and her then-husband had started Bay Yacht Agency and took him on as a part-time broker.

In the spring of ’73, Barry met boating entrepreneur Eben Whitcomb (now 77 years old and retired in Clinton, Conn.), who then owned the 131-foot (sparred length) passenger schooner Harvey Gamage. The schooner was heading north for the America’s Cup in Newport, R.I., after an Annapolis stopover. Barry was delivering a Cal 27 to Newport, and the two met again.

“Eben offered me a winter job as a deck ape aboard the Gamage, sailing out of Grenada and St. Lucia that first year,” says Barry. “Well, who could turn that down? The Grenadines were paradise. That chance meeting with Eben changed my life.”

He got his 100-ton captain’s license in 1975 and in time became captain of the Gamage. He spent summers in Maine where he day-chartered the Friendship sloop Lady, which was actually built for and by the real Harvey Gamage. Then it was off to the Caribbean for the winter sailing season.

By 1979 Barry was back at his old haunts in Annapolis and working part-time at Bay Yacht Agency, where he bought an Ericson 35 as a liveaboard and named her Lady. That fall he sailed Lady to St. Thomas and put her into bareboat chartering. But he was back in Annapolis the next year and taking out passengers for hire on three-hour daysails three times a day.

I wrote about his new operation in the early summer of 1980 for the Washington Post. “That story made my season,” he reminds me. “I had to turn away people and hire someone on land to answer the phone and book the reservations.”

In the early summer of ’84 he turned Lady over to me for safekeeping after he accepted a captain’s job aboard a luxury yacht based in St. Thomas. I paid the monthly slip fee, maintained the boat, and sailed her that entire summer before it was my turn to leave town to work at the Miami Herald, where we would meet up again.

In between, he skippered many yachts, from a 74-foot ketch (Four Pence) to a Hatteras 58 motoryacht (Correander), which I helped take south down the Intracoastal Waterway from Annapolis. My two personal favorites were the Newport-based Ovation, a Gulfstar 60 in which Betty and I cruised to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and Bluejacket, an Alden 54 we sailed in the Grenadines out of Bequia.

By the late 1990s, Barry decided it was time for a “real” job on land because his mother was aging, and he wanted to be around if needed. He went with a position at a West Marine branch near Annapolis and bought a one-bedroom house in Severna Park, a half-mile from my home.

He knew the Barryettes, as his Severna Park neighbors, would be standing by to treat him to lunch and invite him for dinner at their respective homes. It was amusing watching these older women doing their best to please the object of their undivided attention. (When he got a black Labrador retriever puppy, Lucy, it diverted his attention from the Barryettes.)

But residency in Severna Park didn’t last long. Soon he was off to manage a West Marine store in North Carolina. The Barryettes didn’t endure much longer either; Judy died in late 1999, and Betty followed a few months later.

Early in June, I drove south with Rose Smith and Harry Bradsher of Annapolis to visit Barry at his charming new cottage in Oak Island. Why Oak Island, a beach community with the Atlantic on one side and the ICW on the other? He heard the call of Mother Ocean — and “feeeshing.”

For a time in early 2000, he rented an apartment in Lake Norman, N.C., and managed a West Marine in Cornelius. He wanted to be fairly near his ailing mother in Pinehurst. As an only child, he felt a responsibility after all those years away from home at sea.

It was here that he got away from sailing and began lake fishing in earnest, after buying a used 20-foot Grady-White Overnighter. That led to fishing trips to Southport on the Cape Fear River, where he made friends with other ocean anglers. When his mother died last year, he sold the old homestead and transferred to a West Marine across the border in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

During my visit we went fishing for Spanish mackerel off Bald Head Island with his new fishing buddy, Capt. Dennis Hedrick, an authentic good ol’ Carolina boy. Lucy barked and waited for fish to come on, which they never did.

So that’s where John Barry’s sea saga has come to rest. Lucy, 14, is still his constant companion on and off the boat, and they both have white hair. Brown-Eyed Girl, the Grady-White, rests on a trailer in front of his house, an SUV for towing the rig is in the driveway, and he uses his mother’s 1986 Chevy (only 16,000 miles on the odometer) to commute to work.

I told him, “John-boy, you finally got a life, and it’s a good one.”

“I know it,” was his reply.

Jack Sherwood is a senior writer for Soundings and is based in Annapolis, Md.