Skip to main content

To him, sailing was ‘playing with God’

Investigators rule that publisher and yachtsman Philip Merrill took his life aboard his sailboat

Investigators rule that publisher and yachtsman Philip Merrill took his life aboard his sailboat

On days when no one was available to sail but there was wind on the Chesapeake, Philip Merrill would descend the bluff from his home on the Severn River in Arnold, Md., board his 41-foot Bristol, Merrilly, and single-hand her out to the Bay, about five miles downstream. He called it “playing with God.”

On June 10, a Saturday, there was wind out there, and at 2:20 p.m. Merrill, the wealthy owner of magazines and newspapers, cast off. Five hours later a young man on a personal watercraft found Merrilly about 25 miles to the south. The sails were up and there was blood on the stern, but no one was on board. Alone, except for his maker, Merrill had taken his own life.

Close boating friends speculated after his disappearance that Merrill had left the safety of his yacht’s big center cockpit in winds of 20 to 25 knots and fallen overboard. Veteran sailor Gary Jobson, whose newspaper column was for Merrill’s Annapolis Capital, reflected: “It’s shocking ... the way it happened: A 72-year-old guy who’s passionate about sailing. He probably had some trouble, probably trying to get the sails down.”

Only Merrill’s family was aware of a recent loss of spirit that had come over the normally hard-charging man. His body was found June 19 floating about 15 miles from Annapolis, a shotgun wound to the head, according to an early report in the Washington Post following an autopsy.

Four days later, the Maryland Natural Resources Police released a statement confirming the suicide. Merrill’s cell phone and wallet “containing a significant amount of currency” were found aboard the boat, according to police. Within a week before his disappearance, Merrill had purchased a Mossberg 12 gauge pump-action shotgun and ammunition, according to NRP. Investigators could not locate the weapon. Investigators say an eight-pound mushroom anchor was found tied to Merrill’s lower leg.

“We feel his last actions must be understood for what they were,” his family said in a statement. “Phil underwent significant heart surgery over a year ago and was on several medications as a result of it. Over the past four weeks, we observed that his spirit had dimmed. We spoke to him and consulted his physician about it. He was fatigued and unmotivated, a clear departure from his lifelong optimistic outlook and irrepressible spirit. We were concerned for his welfare but never imagined that he would consider taking his own life.”

The belief among family and friends that the June solo sail was normal is understandable, given Merrill’s life aboard sailboats. He began sailing at age 7, according to Tom Marquardt, executive editor of Capital Gazette Newspapers. “He sailed extensively around the country” and had experience in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. “He’s been sailing the Chesapeake Bay [for years]. The route that he took the last day was the route he had taken since 1987.” Marquardt says that route was a “ritual in the sense that on occasions when nobody wanted to go out, Phil would go out and take a couple of reaches and tacks. You just cross the Bay a few times and go back home.”

Merrill had bought Merrilly new in 1988. Jobson says Merrill chose the yacht’s distinctive blue-green color during the 1987 America’s Cup regatta in Australia, where Jobson was working as a television analyst. Merrill called Jobson there, got details on the color of Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes, then painted Merrilly the same hue.

“What Phil liked to do was get with interesting people and go cruising several days at a time,” says Jobson. “He was big on discussion: world, local, regional. I think the boats provided a vehicle for good camaraderie and discussion. We were over [at] his house a week ago Sunday,” Jobson had said in the week following Merrill’s disappearance. “I’m looking around. There’s Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, heavyweight stuff.”

Merrill’s resume matches those of his friends. He had served as an “assistant secretary-general of NATO in Brussels, as special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State, and as a member of the Department of Defense Policy Board,” according to the University of Maryland, which in 2001 named its journalism college after Merrill following his $10 million donation to the school. “He has represented the U.S. in negotiations on the Law of the Sea Conference, the International Telecommunications Union, and various disarmament and exchange agreements with the Soviet Union.”

Merrill had lived near Annapolis since 1968 with his wife, Eleanor, according to Marquardt. They moved into their big house that dominates a bluff over Rugby Cove near Aisquith Creek in 1973. They frequently sailed Merrilly from their dock to explore the nearby creeks, Marquardt says. Their favorites were the Wye River on the Eastern Shore and Whitehall Creek, just north of the Severn.

“Since 1996, Phil and friends and my wife and I have rafted after a day of puttering about every Memorial Day and Labor Day for 10 years,” says James G. Roche, former secretary of the Air Force, who knew Merrill more than 25 years.

“Phil has a love of boating, especially sailing, because it was a combination of God, water and him,” says Roche. “Phil had [a] sense of being able to deal with the elements of water and air and move a large object, and in some respects work with it and have it be a part of you. He also had a powerboat. His view is [that with] a powerboat, you go some place. A sailboat, you go out and play with God.”