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Essex, via Illinois and Mississippi

Soundings at 50 Celebrating a half-century of boating

I didn’t know diddly-squat about boats, but I was a reporter, and I loved to fish. I had spent many an idyllic summer vacation and November blue blitz on the Outer Banks of North Carolina fishing with my dad. What better way to indulge two loves — fishing and writing — than coming to work for Soundings in the quintessential New England town of Essex, Conn.

Veteran journalist Jim Flannery (right) has been an important part of the Soundings team since 1981.

That was 1981, if my memory serves correctly, and it sometimes doesn’t these days. Yet one thing I clearly remember is the hokey cover letter I sent with my application, something about throwing a lure to the reader, hooking him and reeling him in to the beach. I’m surprised that my editor, Christine Born, didn’t chuck it and move on to the next applicant in her file. But as I was told when I interviewed, Soundings needed a reporter, and they liked my credentials. I could learn about boats. Back then Soundings was a proving ground for promising rookies, and over the years it has given many the chance to hone their craft and move on in the boating world and beyond.

I can’t leave this seminal year in my life and the life of my wife, Sandy, without noting the allure that New England had for us. Sandy and I came to Soundings from newspaper jobs in the black, loamy flatlands of central Illinois and a year’s hiatus in Jackson, Miss., where Sandy had landed an editing job. Leaving Jackson, we loaded up a U-Haul and drove to Connecticut, I in the truck and Sandy following with our 2-year-old daughter in an old Volvo station wagon, which we soon found fit right in with the overpopulation of Volvos in and around Essex.

I found us a cheap fall-winter rental in Old Lyme, a beach town where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound. We lived for five months just a few blocks from the river — literally by ourselves, with the summer residents gone — in the deep of a cold, snowy winter. I loved it, but I don’t think Sandy would have lasted another season in isolation with our 3-year-old. We ended up dropping roots in Old Saybrook, on the other side of the river, just down the road from Oyster Creek and near a peaceful expanse of marshland. Those five years that we lived in Old Saybrook were wonderful, as we explored the towns and villages along the Connecticut River — East Haddam, Deep River, Chester, Hadlyme — and the Connecticut shore — Stonington, Mystic, Branford, Niantic.

On the job, Soundings was busily expanding its coverage. I was writing for seven regional sections (two that were just debuting on the West Coast), the national section and the marine industry publication Soundings Trade Only. As we expanded, Sandy came aboard for a time — between the births of the first and second of our three children — as a part-time copy editor.

Every month, we plowed like maniacs through a blizzard of deadlines. My news editor, Bill Tuttle, was my teacher and mentor. He took Sandy and me sailing on the Thames River and introduced us to the mysteries of buoys and boats and barnacles, and navigational rules and boating parlance. At work, he pointed me in the right direction to report stories and kept me out of trouble with readers, who could sniff out every stupid mistake I made, be it the size of a gnat or an elephant.

My first major news story was the August 1981 collision between the 36-foot cabin boat Karen E and a tug-and-barge on a dark, cloudy, hazy night on Long Island Sound, with the loss of two lives. It was my first inkling that this wasn’t a fluff job but one that required hard reporting and command of a flood of facts and technical detail.

Because of the workload, we spent a lot of time chained to our desks, the telephone the umbilical cord that fed us news from around the country and around the world. We usually had one week during the deadline cycle to get out of the office, and I learned to cherish that week. It gave me the chance to sail on the Coast Guard’s tall ship, Eagle; drive to Long Island, N.Y., to interview the survivor of a brutal Atlantic storm; fly to Grenada to report on new cruising opportunities; drive to a nearby town to talk to boaters about the drawbridge there jamming up boat traffic. What I loved about Soundings then — and still love — is the encyclopedic range of stories I might write over just one three-month period. It never, ever has been dull.

It also has been fun, thanks to a healthy camaraderie among the staff. Most Soundings staffers have fond memories of trickling two by two into to the historic Griswold Inn in Essex for a drink — or two or three — after surviving the last deadline of the month. My earliest memory of “The Griz” includes Soundings’ founding publisher Jack Turner playing the bass fiddle with a jazz ensemble in the bar. Jack was a one-of-a-kind boss. His Christmas parties at his home in Old Lyme were legendary. And I enjoyed many a peaceful spring evening paddling with old friend Bill Sisson (now editor-in-chief) down the Lieutenant River to fish for “schoolie” stripers hanging out at the mouth of this tidal creek to devour baitfish swimming out with the tide. Good friends are a huge part of enjoying any work you do.

The last 32 years at Soundings have not been all smooth sailing. In fact, they’ve been a roller-coaster ride. We, the “old-timers,” have hung on tight while Soundings has charged headlong into the digital era. The publication has evolved from a down-and-dirty black-and-white tabloid to a slick color magazine with email, online and social media iterations. We are very different today than when I first came aboard.

We also are very fortunate. Soundings has weathered four recessions in my time here. During my first month in Essex, Jack announced that we would have to work a week without pay because of cash-flow problems, though he generously exempted me because I was a newbie with moving expenses. I later learned that Jack, his partners and some longtime staff kicked in a considerable sum of money to get us over this financial hurdle. Sandy, who was still in Mississippi, tells me I never told her about this, and perhaps I didn’t. Had she known, she says, she might have thought better of making the move.

Soundings has had several owners, including Jack, since 1981. It seems that each came at a critical juncture for us. Some shored us up and trimmed fat in tough times. Others provided financing and managerial expertise to change us and move us forward. In any case, Soundings came out of each round of new ownership a stronger, more compelling product, better prepared for the future. And so Soundings goes on.

I write from South Florida now, and have for years after spending a year away from the magazine working for a company that publishes security forecasts. From time to time, Bill and I ask each other how it is that we old-timers can still be on Soundings deadline? Soundings has been good to us. I’ve enjoyed the ride. Roller coasters are fun.

Senior writer Jim Flannery writes about safety and survival, legal and government matters, and adventure racing, as well as the America’s Cup and breaking news.

November 2013 issue