Cronkite: a sailor in a news anchor’s chair

Author:
Publish date:

America’s anchorman is remembered for his love of the sea and his mastery of sailing

Sailing lost one of its own in retired CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America.” Cronkite, who succumbed to cerebrovascular disease July 17 at his home in New York City, will be remembered as the steady hand at the helm of the CBS Evening News during stormy times, but also as the fun-loving, adventurous sailor who helmed a succession of sailboats named Wyntje (pronounced WIN-tee). He was 92.

The world knew Walter Cronkite as a TV anchorman, but around the docks he was known as a fine sailor.

In the newsroom or in the cockpit, Cronkite clearly enjoyed taking the helm. Gary Jobson, a longtime friend, remembers the newsman coming aboard Ted Turner’s Courageous to report on the 1977 America’s Cup. “He did a report on the America’s Cup that summer for 60 Minutes,” which was unusual, Jobson recalls. Sailing off Newport, R.I., Cronkite asked skipper Turner, “Ted, how about letting me steer?” To which Turner answered, “Sure Walter, if you let me do the evening news.” Cronkite never did yield his anchor chair to Turner, but he did finagle a few minutes at the wheel of Courageous.

It was the beginning of a long friendship between Cronkite and Jobson, Courageous’ 27-year-old tactician. Jobson crewed for Cronkite on his William Crealock-designed Westsail 42, Wyntje, in the 1981 Marion to Bermuda Race just weeks after the newsman retired from the CBS Evening News. Cronkite, favorite Rolling Rock beer in hand, regaled his crew with anecdotes of stories he had covered: John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, the lunar landing. Going to sea with Cronkite was “wonderful,” Jobson says. He got an insider’s view of history.

Cronkite was born Nov. 4, 1916, in St. Joseph, Mo., a son of Walter Leland, a dentist, and the former Helen Lena Fritsche. He began writing news for his high school paper, did a turn as a summer intern at the Houston Post, and attended journalism school at the University of Texas while working as state capitol reporter for the Houston Press and Scripps-Howard. He dropped out of journalism school to report full time, joining United Press in 1937 and becoming a war correspondent for the agency a few years later.

Cronkite cultivated a taste for adventure. In the late 1950s, he competed as an amateur race car driver with the Lotus team at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn., and for the Lancia team at Sebring, Fla. Once he became an anchorman, CBS persuaded him to give up car racing — it was too dangerous — so he took up a new sport, sailing, that he could enjoy with his wife Betsy (she died in 2005) and children Nancy, Kathy and Walter. Cronkite, in his self-deprecating way, would point out that he learned to sail the old-fashioned way — by trial-and-error and spending nights in Power Squadrons classes learning how to navigate.

In his book “A Reporter’s Life,” he told of his first sail on a Sunfish at a club in Carmel, N.Y. Club members gave him rudimentary instructions on the use of the tiller and mainsheet, then helped him into the boat to participate in a race. “For the first time and almost the last time, I was across the starting line first and was headed for the first mark,” he wrote. “And I was pulling away from the rest of the fleet. Now what might have been a moderate problem became a first-class crisis. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make that 90-degree turn around the mark. I did what came naturally. I capsized. … I was too dumb to know I was going too fast, right at the point of losing control. But I was hooked.”

Cronkite, at the helm off Martha's Vineyard in August 2006, was an honorary member of the International SeaKeepers Society.

Cronkite enjoyed day-sailing from the dock of his second home, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard; cruised offshore all along the East Coast; sailed winters in the Caribbean; and visited some exotic sailing locales, including Scandinavia, Australia and Alaska. By all accounts, Cronkite learned well. He wrote several books with artist Ray Ellis: “South by Southeast,” a record of his impressions while sailing the coast from Baltimore to the Florida Keys; “North by Northeast,” covering Cape May, N.J., to Canada; and “Westwind,” about the West Coast.

“He is a fantastic sailor,” said Maria Mann, Cronkite’s captain in the 1970s, in an interview for a December 2007 Soundings story about him. “I mean he’s really, really good, and he’s an excellent navigator, very precise. I was fortunate to sail with him in Florida and in the Bahamas, up the East Coast, the Delaware [Bay], Long Island Sound. All those waters are very different. You have to pay attention to your currents. The strength of the currents off the New Jersey coast, just amazing. He was an excellent navigator and very good at figuring out currents and tides. A very good night sailor. He would do his homework.”

He sailed hard, Mann says. “He loves to sail the boat. He’s not one of these wimpy, putter-along, put-up-only-the-minimum-sail [sailors]. … If the weather deteriorated, if it got bad, it seemed to please him. He was happy.”

The first Wyntje — named for the first woman to marry a Cronkite in the New Amsterdam colony in 1642, according to Cronkite lore — was a wooden boat that appeared in a scene in “Jaws,” the film based on the novel by Cronkite’s friend Peter Benchley. Then came a 1976 Westsail 42, a Wyn-tje originally designed as a cutter but customized as a split-rig yawl with a little spanker on the stern. His third Wyntje was a 1986 Sunward 48 cruising ketch designed by Sparkman & Stephens’ Al Mason and built by Sunward Yachts, of Wilmington, N.C. His last yacht of that name was a comfortable Hinckley 64 built in 1979.

Jobson says some of his lasting impressions of his friend were his thoughtfulness — Cronkite came to visit him while he was in treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a condition he has since recovered from; the disarmingly low-key, self-deprecating, humorous way “America’s most-trusted man” came across in his dealings with others and the way he had mastered the use of his voice. Jobson says the great television newsman gave him tips on how to improve his own on-air performance: Make the narrative your own, make every word count, pretend you’re just talking to somebody, practice your words, and use your own words.

Jobson’s last encounter with Cronkite was in 2007 in a collaboration on a “History of the America’s Cup” for ESPN. Cronkite graciously agreed to do the narration. The program started with Cronkite intoning in that deep, authoritative yet comforting voice: “The America’s Cup.” The 1-1/2-hour documentary ended with this: “People who love the America’s Cup — and I’m one of them — speak of its magnetism and its mystique. Someone once wrote, ‘The America’s Cup is a synonym of things brave and big and famous.’ To those words I would add one more: spectacular. No inanimate object is more beautiful than an America’s Cup yacht in full flight, in a strong breeze, racing for glory and sailing into our affections. And that’s the way it is. And that’s the way it was.”

That’s how many will remember Walter Cronkite: celebrating sailing.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.