The many hats of Capt. Carl Patty
Most afternoons around the happy hour of 5 p.m., Capt. Carl Patty can be found perched at the end of Harry Browne’s Upstairs Oyster Bar on historic State House Circle in downtown Annapolis, Md. That is, when he isn’t a paid hand crewing in offshore races; delivering boats here, there and everywhere; or sailing his own traditional vessel on Chesapeake Bay.
Also a talented maritime artist, Patty, 63, is the resident nautical character and salty dude at Harry’s, a small frog pond frequented by other regulars, most of whom are clear-eyed, clean-barbered, white-collared, middle-age males. But Patty stands out, with long, unkempt, white-capped hair framing a narrow, weather-beaten rancher’s face etched deeply by furrows and ridges and set off by a full, white moustache. Clearly, he has been around and has tales to tell.
He rarely detours from a seagoing rig except during the holidays, when he replaces his black Greek fisherman’s cap with a blinking red Santa Claus hat. Drinking Captain Morgan rum neat from a martini glass, he is difficult to miss, even when enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke. His wife, Sandi, is usually by his side.
I first met Patty a few years ago, when he had a small art gallery and workshop just around the corner from Harry’s. (He rejected my offer to buy an old wooden dinghy used as a display counter.) He had the look and smell of the ocean about him, even when pretending to be a Maryland Avenue shopkeeper. I always pictured him with a beat-up, prepacked sea bag ready to toss aboard a boat on a moment’s notice for a delivery assignment wherever, whenever — either solo or with an owner or helpmate.
His last offshore assignment in late 2006 was the annual Caribbean 1500 Cruising Rally from Hampton, Va., to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It was yet another passage for Patty in another of Ray Dionne’s sailboats — this time aboard Hi Yo Silver, a Pacific Seacraft 40 he bought new in 2003 from Crusader Yachts of Annapolis. The boat was the overall handicap winner in a fleet of 75 yachts and took top honors in Class 5.
“Carl is better than an autopilot,” says Dionne, of Baltimore. “He has tremendous vision and an eye for and an awareness of details. He is even-keeled, never gets seasick, has a sense of humor, and spins entertaining yarns.” He may look like an 18th century pirate, but he is a soft-spoken gentleman, a trained geologist, and a former cowboy, rancher and gas station owner.
How he got to Annapolis is a long, rambling, convoluted story with many course changes. But this town attracts and accepts roving rascals like Patty, and many tend to find homes here and stay — at least for a while. Patty grew up in western Oklahoma, where his mother was a superintendent of nurses at a tuberculosis sanatorium. His father was a carpenter and maintenance man there, and also operated a gas station.
Patty enlisted in the Marines in 1961 and served in Vietnam as a “forward observer.” After his four-year tour, he studied geology and art education at SouthwesternOklahomaUniversity. He went on to work as a seismologist in Alaska’s North Slope and, after that job was over, opened a restaurant in Hobart, Okla., and ran that for two years.
After his parents died, a friend asked him to help out at his service station in Arizona. “I discovered I liked the business and eventually opened my own station in Flagstaff,” he says. “Then I joined the carpenters union and bent nails for a while at dams and power plants in Arizona. That led to buying a used truck and hauling garbage until I was bought out. My wife and I split, and I returned to Oklahoma and began farming 3,000 acres of wheat and tending to 1,500 head of cattle. That lasted for about nine years or so.”
In early 1991 his sister asked him to visit her family in Tilghman Island, Md., where they had a summer cottage. “I was wearing cowboy boots, riding a bicycle and sketching dogs, boats and old houses, and getting paid for my work,” he says. “I’m a friendly sort and got to know a lot of people, including working skipjack captains. A local newspaper did a story on me headlined ‘Cowboy Artist on the Chesapeake.’ ”
His sister moved back to her permanent house outside of Washington when the cottage was being remodeled. Patty decided to hang on in Tilghman but had to find a place to sleep. He had come to know Wadey Murphy, captain of the working 1886 dredgeboat Rebecca Ruark. Patty asked him if he could suggest anything. “Sleep aboard the Rebecca,” said Murphy. “If you’re still there by October I’ll assume you’ll want to go oystering with us.” He slept under a mosquito net on deck and continued sketching and painting.
Soon he came across a larger, more modern vessel in Tilghman. The Philadelphia owner paid him $100 a week to boat-sit and have it ready to go on weekends, stocked with iced beer and vodka. Then came his first offshore experience, helping the owner of a 44-foot Murray Peterson schooner sail from Tilghman to New York. “That’s when I really became interested in sailing, although I had sailed small boats since I was 12 and even built a plywood pram,” he says.
By spring 1992 Patty got a house-sitting job in Annapolis and took a liking to the place. “Looking for a floating home, I found a 31-foot Trojan cabin cruiser in nearby Easton, Md., with two seized engines,” he says. “I bought it for $1, and Bobby Marshall, a Tilghman waterman, towed me to Annapolis.”
He lived aboard for a while at a marina on Spa Creek and sold the old $1 boat for $10. Next came his first delivery trip, down the Intracoastal Waterway and on to the Bahamas with Annapolis saloonkeeper Lee Troutner on his Chris-Craft motoryacht. Patty soon found himself being a paid hand in the boat delivery business and, after returning to Annapolis, he was hired by famed news broadcaster Walter Cronkite to help deliver his 44-foot ketch to New York. Since then, he’s done Chesapeake Bay from one end to the other, and counts about 30 trips up and down the ICW.
Patty gets out on the Bay in his own boat whenever he can, which isn’t that often because of his delivery work. He is a picaresque complement to his picturesque vessel, an open skipjack built as a pleasure boat in 1996 by John Belvin of Newport News, Va. “I saw her three years ago in Savannah, Ga., and just had to have her,” he says.
Cedar-planked over oak frames, A Tiller Hun resides happily at a marina on Back Creek. She’s a miniature skipjack with a large centerboard, traditional long bowsprit, barn-door rudder, and a “leg of mutton” mainsail with a very long boom. She measures 32 feet overall and about 24 feet on deck.
“She’s very tender, completely open and, often as not, we just chug around under her 14-hp Yanmar diesel,” he says. “If we got caught in a squall under sail we could easily get swamped, and we’d go right to the bottom.
“For a while last year I was thinking of selling her, but then I came to my senses,” he says. “I have replaced the deck and the centerboard trunk, so she’s sound and a delight to look at and fool around in. She also draws a lot of attention, especially when Sandi and I bring along Roxie, our English bulldog, and I’m wearing my kilt.”
Patty is ready and waiting for his next delivery job, which could be later this spring when he flies to Trinidad and picks up his next vessel. (He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.