Tribute to late wife is worth the wait

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Husband raises money for cancer program by solo sailing from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda and back

Rhode Island sailor Arthur Smith wanted to honor his late wife in a personal way that benefited others by sailing solo to Bermuda and raising money for a local charity. That dream was derailed for a few years by offshore weather and the trials of life, but it was finally fulfilled last summer.

Rhode Islander Arthur Smith sailed his 1970-era J/30 to Bermuda and back to follow through on a promise he made to honor his late wife.

Smith grew up working with commercial fishermen in Rehoboth, Mass., after school and in the summers, and his sailing experience was largely self-taught. Smith decided after losing his wife, Sheila, to cancer in 2004 that he wanted to sail his 1979 J/30 to Bermuda and back while raising money for A Wish Come True, a program in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island that helps grant wishes for children suffering with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. He named the boat “Sheila C” in honor of her, the “C” representing her middle name, Catherine. (His plans for the trip were covered in the August 2006 issue of Soundings.)

“I had the opposite extreme, a Dory 28 [before the J/30] that was what I call a ‘small big boat,’ ” says Smith, 65. “It’s got a heavy displacement and is built like a tank. I know it would get me there safely, but I wanted something more exciting and that would be more marketable to attract sponsors.”

Smith knew he could afford a J/30, and thought it would get him there faster, as well as keep him safe. He acquired the vessel in August 2005 and replaced the original 1979 two-cylinder 15-hp Yanmar gas engine with a 2006 edition of the same make and model in late June 2006. He gave her a new coat of paint, swathing her white hull with varying shades of blue to make her stand out.

“Blue is very pleasing to the eye,” says Smith. “I originally wanted to paint her bright orange, red and yellow to get attention, but I thought my neighbors wouldn’t care for that too much.”

Smith thought using blue would make the vessel easier to sell after the trip, but now he admits he and Sheila C are inseparable. Names of the sponsors were stenciled along the sides of the boat — except for a white space about eight feet long and a foot-and-a-half tall on the stern where the name of the boat is stenciled.

“That’s her space,” says Smith, referencing his late wife. “The rest of the blue sweeps down underneath the stern, but I wanted her to have her own place.”

Smith says Dave Wilson, owner of Sign Guild in Wakefield, R.I., stenciled the sponsor names on for free. The paint job was also volunteered, done by Ross Forbes of R.J. Forbes Industrial Painting in Attleboro, Mass., in late May 2006. Meanwhile, Smith prepared to make a solo journey, rerigging all the lines aft so he could control her from the cockpit.

As Smith worked on his project of love, he discovered he was finding a love of his own in a dear friend, Jeanine Deveau.

“I met her at a grief support group in February 2005. Her husband had died of cancer two years before I lost my wife,” says Smith. “She would get my mind off of my loss for a couple of hours.”

They quickly became friends and Smith decided to take her sailing one day since she had told him she had no prior sailing experience.

“She was a natural,” says Smith. “For the first three months I knew her, we just talked about our spouses. It was soothing to get it out; you can’t keep it all in.”

On the morning of July 24, 2006, Sheila C took off from Newport, R.I., rigged with an EPIRB and satellite phone, along with the essential safety gear. Deveau would serve as Smith’s link to the mainland, giving him up-to-date weather and sea conditions.

After all the passionate planning, the trip was doomed to fail after only 150 nautical miles out. The weather proved too dangerous to make it out there alone, and Smith admits he left too late, putting him at the mercy of the hurricane season.

“I was supposed to leave on July 9 and we couldn’t due to weather problems, and now I realize leaving on July 24 was way too late,” says Smith. “The weather kept changing rapidly ahead of me. It wasn’t so much making it down there; the big concern was how I would get back.”

Smith says it was a big blow to him when he was not able to succeed in his first attempt, and that he didn’t feel he was in the mental state to attempt the journey again in 2007,

“I knew there was a chance I may never do it, but I didn’t want to rule it out,” says Smith.

Smith says Deveau was extremely supportive of him attempting his trip once again earlier this year and in helping him chart his course and providing navigational assistance. After the installation of a new ACR 406 MHz EPIRB with GPS, VHF radio, a rented Iridium satellite phone, a backup ACR 406 MHz PLB with GPS, and a Revere offshore life raft, he departed June 22. Smith was aware that as of February 2009 all emergency frequencies would switch to 406 MHz, so he wanted the latest technology for his future boating activities. Smith says, while the weather was marginally better than the last attempt, the 65-year-old’s major challenge was still fatigue.

“[Deveau] was a real vital link to land and after the first gale I hit, we would talk via satellite phone every couple of hours,” says Smith.

Despite two gales going down, one going back, and “only a few good days out there,” Smith was determined to finish the job and honor his late wife. He would check the weather reports 24 to 36 hours in advance. When Smith reached Bermuda, he allowed himself two days and three nights to rest up before heading back. It was in the last 50 miles of his trip when his autopilot failed just as a third gale kicked up 25-knot winds and 15-foot seas.

“I took the beating of a lifetime,” says Smith. “But the sustained winds sure got me home quick.”

Smith was forced to double-reef

his main and jib as he sped into Portsmouth, R.I. on the evening of July 9, having completed a promise and raised $18,000 for the local charity. Despite the discovery of a cracked bulkhead, Smith decided he and Sheila C had been through too much together to part ways.

“It was a wonderful experience I will never repeat,” says Smith of his labor of love. “It was tiring, but worth it.”

He brought back a pendant of a Bermuda Longtail sea bird for Deveau.

“These birds mate for life and when they lose a mate, they try to move on,” says Smith. “I lost my mate and she lost her mate, and then we found each other, so this holds a lot of significance for us.”  

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.