Son of Soundings: in memory of a founding father

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Editor’s note: Scott Hyfield was the last surviving Soundings founder when he died earlier this year. His son wrote this remembrance.

When a parent passes away, the memories come back like a flood tide. My dad, Scott Hyfield, passed away this past May at the age of 82.

It got me thinking about what it was like to be raised in a boating family, and the group of friends who 51 years ago launched a new boating publication: Soundings.

Dad met Jack Turner — the founding publisher of Soundings — on a Memorial Day trip to the beach in 1956 with Jack’s Hartford News co-worker and cub reporter Judy Traver, along with a carload of their friends. Judy and Dad married in 1960, and Jack was their best man. “Scott and Jack hit it off on that trip to the beach. We laughed all the way to the shore,” says my mom.

They tried their hand at starting a company building small fiberglass skiffs. That project failed, but their friendship flourished. Three guys, a bottle of gin and an idea for a boating newspaper led to the creation of Soundings. My dad and Jack, along with co-founder Bill Morgan, were the heart of the publication, but many other fine people joined them along the way. As the newspaper chugged, then sped along, then roared like a boat coming up on plane, the families of Soundings were forever caught in its wake. I am proud to be part of that legacy.

I was launched in the spring of 1965. My birth announcement read like the commissioning of a ship:

Hull Type: boy

LOA: 22 inches

Weight (net gross): 8 pounds, 2 ounces

Proud Owners: Scott & Judy Hyfield

Home Port: South Glastonbury, Connecticut

Just 10 weeks later I was spitting up all over my mother as we hammered up and down the Connecticut River in one of boat dealer Zeke Westerson’s Bertrams. My dad, charismatic and ever the hustler, sold advertising for Soundings. He was the road warrior. In the early years, he was the only full-time employee. It was his job to expose the fledgling newspaper to boatyards, dealers and any marine-related business he could find, often spending the night in his Ford Country Squire station wagon after holding court with a marina owner at the local watering hole.

Jack once said that less than two weeks after hatching the idea for Soundings, Dad had rounded up about 150 classified ads and talked about 70 businesses into distributing the paper. He also sold enough advertising (about $300 worth) to pay the printing bill for issue No. 1.

Readers paid 25 cents for a copy, dropping their change in an old paint can with a slit cut in the top. “Hyfield was supposed to empty the cans whenever he visited on his sales rounds, but sometimes checking the cans was just an excuse to get out on the water,” recalled Peter Barlow, Soundings’ first pro photographer, in an article Jack wrote to commemorate the 300th issue. “Scott and I would get in a Donzi borrowed from Zeke Westerson — a boat dealer in Old Saybrook, Connecticut — and zip across Long Island Sound to empty a canister half full of quarters and come back with it. It wasn’t any way to make money, but it was fun.”

Some of my earliest Soundings recollections center on traveling from boatyard to boatyard as Dad sold advertising. At this point, ad revenue and subscriptions were rolling in. Mom and Dad used a map spread out on the living room floor to determine where they needed to concentrate selling subscriptions and ad space. The other founders used their dining room tables and other parts of their homes for production of the paper.

In the boatyards, the sound of sanders and grinders mixed with the songs of birds, and the smell of fiberglass, resin and varnish are forever imprinted in my consciousness. I was often left to my own devices on those sales calls, which meant wandering around and looking at everything. More often than not, the yard owner or manager wasn’t in the office but out in the shed, at the Travelift or at the far reaches of the marina. In searching for the owner, we often walked into the cool shadows of boat sheds.

Walking through the tightly packed boats was like being on the floor of a canyon of fiberglass and wood. We’d often get sidetracked as Dad stopped to admire a classic and teach me about the aesthetics of good, solid boats. Dad had a keen eye for quality boats, though our only boat during his Soundings years was an old Cape Cod Dory in which he rowed me around the lower Connecticut River, starting my love of small, sea-kindly boats. I also remember making runs to the printing plant in Brattleboro, Vermont, to pick up a load of papers, the smell of the ink swirling around the back of the car.

The offices

Soundings eventually moved into an office, which looked like an old cow barn with a gambrel roof, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. Inside, everything was foreign to me: the big type cases, the paste-up tables, the smells, the “decorations” that adorned the men’s room walls. But my fondest memories are of the office in the Dauntless Shipyard in Essex, Connecticut — Soundings’ home until 2003. In some respects it was my second home.

One year Dad arranged for us to have Thanksgiving dinner there. I don’t remember what precipitated that decision, but it was enjoyable. With my two sisters helping, we brought in the groceries, and the preparation began in the office’s small galley. I passed the time by sitting at everyone’s desk — Jack’s, Bill Morgan’s, Sue Mars’ and the rest — playing around the monstrous stat camera, looking at photos and work-ups of the pages, creeping into the darkroom. I used to visit the Dauntless office from time to time; it was like seeing an old relative.

Dad helped out when Soundings expanded to include Chesapeake and Great Lakes editions, and he also set up the Fort Lauderdale office in the mid-1970s. I’ll never forget the office there — it looked like an air traffic control tower, with a 360-degree view of the marina.

The parties

Back then, our family lived in Middle Haddam, not far up the Connecticut River from Essex. We held an annual Soundings ritual involving the launch of a Christmas tree down the river, ice or no ice. My dad and another person would row out and set the tree adrift while Fred Davis played O Tannenbaum on the trumpet. The tree would have a huge metal star at the top so it could be picked up by radar. A group of partiers told me that they once found one of their Christmas trees on the beach at Block Island, Rhode Island.

I also remember raucous parties on Ram Island in Long Island Sound. It was great fun for a kid. I recall bouncing around the back of an old Army Jeep as someone (who perhaps should not have been driving) took it around the island. Then there was Block Island Race Week. (Soundings used to publish a daily paper with results of the previous day’s racing.) One year we went over in a 23-foot SeaCraft center console. Dad had arranged for us to sleep on one of the raceboats. As the night ground on, we were ready to hit the rack, and I remember we sat on one of the benches on the dock at Block Island Boat Basin, near The Oar, one of the favored bars on the island.

Staggering down the dock came the gentleman who was letting us aboard his boat for the night — and he had a girl on each arm. My dad said nothing as they passed, then turned to me and said: “We are not sleeping on that boat tonight.” And we weren’t going to sleep in the SeaCraft. We walked up to the boatyard with our sleeping bags in hand. Dad found a ladder, and we climbed aboard a sailboat that was being worked on. Unfortunately, the marina had been sanding inside the boat, and our sleeping bags wound up looking like giant powdered doughnuts.

Send-off

A few weeks before he died, Dad’s wife, Eugenia, asked him about his final wishes. “Just put me out with Tuesday’s trash” was the answer. Suffering from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, he never lost his sense of humor. His actual wish was to be cremated and his ashes portioned out to his children and wife. However, I devised a more fitting memorial — a final voyage.

I sealed Dad’s ashes in a thick green bottle, along with his scrimshaw tie tack, a clear glass bead that my son chose to add and a few pictures. I live in South Portland, Maine, and my wife, Marie, and I took the ferry to Peaks Island shortly after Labor Day. After finding an appropriate spot on the Atlantic side of the island, I said a few parting words and sent Dad off, bobbing on the waves. And I included a visible note that says if anyone finds Dad, toss him back on the outgoing tide; his journey is not yet complete.

I am proud of what Dad and Jack and the rest of the early staff accomplished — a feat that would be near impossible today. The crew worked hard, lived hard, had a lot of fun and produced a good publication. I’ll miss my dad, the stories he used to tell and all of the characters who have crossed the bar. All of the founders are gone now, but their mantle is being carried brilliantly by the current crew of Soundings — which to me will always be “The Nation’s Boating Newspaper.”