When company time became sailing time

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At this unrestricted stage of my extended life, I can cruise when and where I choose and stay as long or as short a time as I wish. But as a newspaperman in the early 1970s who was smitten with sailing, my proposal for a cruising story on company time required approval from an editor.

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My final cruise last year, to the Sassafras River in the upper Chesapeake Bay in late September, was free of any such encumbrances. But my vessel of 40 years ago, an engineless 32-foot Norwegian sloop, posed some problems. This is an account of the somewhat convoluted demands my sanctioning editor imposed on me. (Next month I’ll follow with an account of last year’s unencumbered cruise.)

As a young, ink-stained wretch of a reporter at the now-defunct Washington Star in the late 1960s, my newspaper story-telling pursuits took a detour when a colleague got me hooked on sailing. Consequently, to sail more often I would make elaborate plans so I could pursue my new passion by connecting a cruise with a “getaway” story destination that would take up considerable company time.

At first I had to sell such proposals to a tough, intimidating city editor named Sid Epstein, who knew nothing of sailing but had a deep appreciation for women. He immediately saw my sailboat as a platform for a color photo layout of a pretty young thing lounging on deck in a bikini while sipping a cocktail at sunset. “So how much time will it take to pull this off?” Sid demanded to know, suspiciously examining my humble request for a small cash advance.

“Well, I’m not sure, several days maybe,” I began, lifting my sweating hand from his desk and leaving behind an embarrassing imprint.

A young Bay Tripper on assignment for the Washington Post with Duncan Spencer and a model to be shot for a photo layout.

Sid wiped the spot away with tissue and studied my proposal. A Marine Corps veteran of the Iwo Jima landing in the Pacific during World War II, he knew that every young staff reporter was terrified of him, and he played this to the hilt. “Exactly how long for this boondoggle?” he asked in a surly, untrusting manner, as if I were trying to put something over on him to go sailing. His left knee began bouncing up and down — a bad sign — as he considered the matter.

“Well,” I said, “I can’t answer that because my boat doesn’t have an engine and this is August, which means light air for sailing and, and …”

“Give it to me straight, will ya?” Sid interrupted, his blue eyes flashing as he lit a chain cigarette. By this time other editors at the city desk began to listen, enjoying the confrontation as I dissolved in a pool of perspiration. “How many days?” he asked, clearly irritated. “C’mon! Nail it down!”

Three, four days? How could I tell him it would take two days just to complete the one-way, 42-mile voyage to Georgetown on the Sassafras, and then only if I was lucky and had a good breeze in a favorable direction?

I looked across the city desk at Duncan Spencer, a young editor and my sailing mentor, who planned to meet me at a Sassafras marina. He was smiling, heartily amused. “First we need a model,” Sid said, softening and maybe relenting.

“A model?” I asked. “A model of what? We don’t need a boat model. I am supplying the boat.”

Sid looked at me incredulously. “I mean a model model — a model in a bikini, sipping a cocktail at sunset. Get John Bowden to hire a model and shoot this,” he shouted to a nearby photo editor, who innocently asked how many days his prized fashion photographer would be gone. “Two days at the most,” Sid answered.

“But … it’s going to take me more than two days to do this,” I said, “especially since my boat doesn’t have an engine and it’s August with light air and … look, I’ll do part of this on my weekend off and, and …”

Sid ended the conversation by initializing “SE” on the voucher and saying, “Take this to Joe Broderick (the bean counter) and get your cash and go.”

The next week, I sailed for Georgetown, where I met up with Spencer, Bowden and the hired model. It took me two days to get there. I had to anchor one evening when the wind died. I picked up this merry party at a marina late on the second day, and we sailed to an anchorage for the required sunset shot.

Spencer lowered the anchor, and I went below to change from a dirty, sweat-stained shirt I had been wearing for three days. “Forget that,” Bowden snapped. “I’m using Spencer in the shot. He looks saltier than you, anyway.”

OK then, use Spencer, I huffed. I had originally thought I was writing about a voyage in my sailboat to the Sassafras, but I realized that Bowden was a fashion photographer with a different view. Spencer, however, was indeed more qualified. He had recently sailed a Cal-20 to Ireland from Newport, R.I., with one crewmember.

And so Bowden shot the pair from my dinghy. I insisted that his image show more of my boat than of them because, well, I was writing about my cruise in my sailboat, but how would I explain that model to my wife? Perhaps Bowden was being circumspect about that, which may be another reason he chose Spencer as the male model.

So to make Sid happy, Spencer and the model clinked glasses in my cockpit as the sun set in a glorious swirl of orange and red while I remained hidden below, smoking a cigar and sipping black rum. After this staged event, we returned to the marina, where I dropped off the threesome for their return trip to Washington.

I sailed around the river the next day while waiting for two old friends, Ed Gray and Fredric Hansen, to join me for a glorious, casual cruise back to Annapolis, intending to stop here and there along the way. I had asked Fred, a veteran sailor, to pack his 3-hp dinghy outboard just in case we ran out of wind.

They were so looking forward to this grand sail down the Bay, but wouldn’t you know, there wasn’t a breath of wind the day we left. I rigged a temporary outboard mount from the stern, and motoring along at 3 mph we headed directly to Annapolis and never bothered to raise the mainsail.

As a postscript to this uneventful mini-adventure, I used just three days of company time and my own personal weekend to complete this assignment. Later, a photo spread showed Spencer and the model in the cockpit, but it also showed much more of my boat than of them. Sid was content, but I doubt that he ever read the piece. (The couple, incidentally, was not identified in the caption.)

There is a sad ending to this story. Epstein, Hansen and Bowden have passed. Gray is ill at home, and I have lost touch with Spencer, who is still alive. As for the model, I can’t even recall her first name.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

May 2013 issue