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Farewell to a ‘sextant man’

Farewell to a ‘sextant man’

hen the fleet of Bermuda-bound sailboats leaves Rhode Island waters this June for the 100th anniversary of the Newport Bermuda Race, one sailor who has been a fixture in this event for seven decades will be absent.

Jim Mertz — the calm, capable, soft-spoken skipper and celestial navigator who sailed in a record 30 Bermuda Races — died in January. He was 94 and fully expecting to be on the starting line for the centennial celebration of this important biennial ocean race.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he lived for this race,” says Michael Shea, 45, of Wakefield, R.I., who admired Mertz and sailed with him often, including one Bermuda Race. “He was really an amazing guy. I’ve heard him referred to as the Iron Man of the Bermuda Race, and it’s certainly a fitting title. No matter how old he was, he kept defying death to the end.”

“He didn’t age,” says marine author John Rousmaniere, who recently published a history of the Bermuda Race, “A Berth to Bermuda” (Mystic Seaport Publications). “It was extraordinary. He wanted to go out with his sea boots on.”

Mertz, who was from Rye, N.Y., sailed in his first Bermuda Race in 1936, after which he missed only two: in 1948, when he was starting his slate quarry in Vermont, and again in 1986, when the boat he was on had to withdraw at the last moment. And he usually sailed back, too.

Along with the 30 Newport Bermudas, Mertz also sailed in seven Marion to Bermuda races, including last year’s, when he finished third in class aboard his Beneteau First 42,

Allegra, named after his late wife.

“And he was very indignant that Allegra [his daughter] and I wouldn’t let him sail back,” says stepson Jamie Brickell Jr. of Sykesville, Md., who estimates that he sailed to Bermuda with his father about a dozen times. “We made him fly back.”

Those who knew Mertz well describe him as a humble, unassuming, quiet man, a “sailor’s sailor,” safe, strong, unflappable and at home on the sea. “If he was on the water, life was good,” says Brickell.

Jim Mertz was a down-to-earth man, says his son. Meals on board usually came out of a can. Peaches were his favorite. And when Mertz was younger he enjoyed a Ballantine ale, and took the distinctive three-ring logo for his personal burgee.

A 1933 Yale graduate, Mertz commanded a destroyer escort during World War II, making about a dozen trans-Atlantic crossings. “He was the typical ‘greatest generation’ guy,” Brickell says.

Mertz was navigator on 17 Bermuda races and remained until the end a “sextant man,” in Rousmaniere’s words. “He was an excellent navigator,” says Nick Everett, 55, of Rye, who has known the Mertz family all his life. “He still took his sextant, and he still took his sights.”

And while Mertz would be the first to say that winning wasn’t what drove him, he looked back fondly on the 1950 Bermuda Race, when he sailed aboard the winning 50-foot Sparkman & Stephens yawl Argyle. Brickell says his father was on the wheel for the last 10 hours of the light-air race; the owner wouldn’t let anyone else take the helm, he notes.

“He knew more about making a boat go fast, safely, than most people,” says Shea, who considered Mertz something of a surrogate grandfather. “He was a gentleman skipper. I never heard him raise his voice. I never heard him speak badly of anyone.”

Mertz married Allegra Knapp Brickell, the sister of famed racer Arthur Knapp and an excellent sailor in her own right. Allegra, whose nickname was “Leggie,” was a four-time winner of the Adams Cup, the first woman to win the Herreshoff Trophy, and Yachtswoman of the Year. As president of the Blue Jay Class Association, she was a driving force behind youth sailing.

She and her husband actively raced 210s, and later Etchells, with Jim sailing the upwind legs and Leggie the downwind ones. In terms of personality, they were opposites.

“She was a total extrovert,” says daughter Allegra Mertz Torrey of Norwalk, Conn. “But they were a fit. And they were devoted to the sport and believed in giving back.”

And give back they did. Mertz was a past commodore of the American Yacht Club, where he was very active. He also was first commodore of the Junior American Yacht Club and a member of the New York Yacht Club, the Cruising Club of America, Storm Trysail Club and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. He was a past chairman of the NYYC’s race committee.

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Why? For starters, Soundings has clearly evolved into a publication that more closely resembles a magazine than a newspaper. Don’t worry. I promise that we will never lose our ability to gather and present information accurately and objectively. That’s just part of our DNA.

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