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Chronicling the joy of boating

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday on the Chesapeake, a clear westerly blowing on the heels of a cold front and riffling the river so that it shines and flickers like mica. If I were being true to the Soundings ethic — the ethic that existed when I joined up there in 1989 — I would not be writing this essay sitting down below in my boat, Osprey, on such a day.I would be out sailing on this fine breeze, not worrying too much about when I will finish the piece and hand it in but rather what I will write and how I must write it — factual, yes, informative, of course, but most important of all infused with the joy of living a water rat’s life.

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“If you’re not having fun, chances are your readers aren’t, either,” Soundings founding publisher Jack Turner said to me shortly after then-editor Marleah Ross hired me. I was in my late 20s, fresh off 3-1/2 years of the boot camp that is working in a regional bureau of The Associated Press, not six years out of college.

“Where do you want to be in five years?” my AP bureau chief had asked me, and I answered him honestly: “I want to be making a career in writing and living in a place where every single day I can come home and go sailing, preferably until the sun sets.” He looked askance; this was not the ambition of a young professional woman who had a good shot at rising and shining through the AP ranks.

No, it was the ambition of a young professional woman who loved two things above most others: writing and sailing. And from the moment Soundings hired me to run the Mid-Atlantic bureau in Annapolis, Md. — on my own home waters of Chesapeake Bay — I knew I’d landed my dream job. Eventually that job would lead me to my husband, my kids and a career as a boating writer and columnist, which ultimately helped allow me and my family to cast off the lines for four years and live that dream we all talk about: sailing and traveling full time.

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It had seemed an unlikely fit at first, though. When I saw the ad in Editor & Publisher — this was the Paleolithic Age, before the Internet and job-search engines such as — I recognized immediately the source. I’d grown up on the water in a variety of boats, and Soundings was always in our house, its unbound, broadsheet pages of newsprint unlike anything else that came in the mail. My dad and older brothers read it religiously, so I knew it had to be good. But now, 15 years later, I wondered why would Soundings — a boating newspaper in a monthly format — want to hire a wire service reporter?

The answer is because at its very core Soundings was and is about journalism as much as it is about the boating life. In this dichotomy, it was unique. Jack may have hulked around the office all winter without wearing socks, and in spring his spindly white pins would blind us all because he was always the first one to pull on shorts, and he may have walked in every day with that grin and the mischievous eyes of a rapscallion uncle, but he understood and respected the value of accurate reporting and appreciated the grace of elegant writing.

He was old-fashioned that way, and thank God for it. Where other magazines would sell their editorial souls to the highest advertising bidder, Jack always made clear the line between editorial church and advertising state; if the story was accurate and newsworthy, I could write it, and he would publish it, no matter how much an advertiser may have threatened dire consequences for such impertinence. Because of this integrity, Soundings stood apart; it was, and I believe largely still is, the news source of record for the boating community and marine industry.

That said, Jack Turner’s unique periodical was equally bound to the understanding that what we were writing about — boats and being on the water — was inherently a joyful enterprise, as essential as breathing to those of us who lived it. When I experimented one day with a column about how a dear landlubber friend who’d come to visit simply couldn’t get past the boom without cracking his head, Marleah and Jack said, “Sure! Run it! And why don’t you write some more?” So began what would become my favorite and most enduring writing in the marine industry, and I have them and Soundings to thank.

Actually, I have Soundings to thank for a great deal: for believing in journalistic integrity, for giving me the freedom to grow, for bringing me back to the Chesapeake and for reminding me that all of this writing is well and necessary — but enough, already. It’s a beautiful day, and there’s a boat waiting. We’re burning daylight.

Wendy Mitman Clarke was a staff writer for Soundings from 1989 to 1998 whose “Hiking Out” column appeared monthly in the magazine.

July 2013 issue