The first sailboat I owned was one I built from scratch in Norfolk, Virginia. As a Lieutenant (jg) I had just received my Navy pilot’s wings and had orders to a new squadron in Brunswick, Maine. But first I was to spend six months of additional training, six weeks of which would be in Nuclear Weapons School in Norfolk.
The school involved top Secret info, so no materials were allowed to leave the classroom. Most of my classmates spent their free evenings at the Officers Club. However Naval Air Station Norfolk had a woodworking hobby shop to die for and I decided to build a sailboat. The boat would be a simple Sunfish design that was not much more than a fifteen-foot surfboard with a sail. The hull had a shallow cockpit that I calculated would support two people—wife and myself—with a single, Lateen Sail.
The sail was ordered from a sailmaker, but I worked every evening constructing the boat. My bride—married less than a year—patiently spent those evenings perched on a sawhorse watching me work. What a good sport she was.
It took me exactly six weeks to complete the boat. With no time to take it out for a maiden voyage, we loaded the Sunfish on top of my ’57 Volkswagen and sped off to our next assignment, two months in navigation school in Jacksonville, Florida.
After renting a house in Jacksonville, at last, we transported our vessel to the shores of the St John’s River for its sea trails. The St John’s River is huge, 320 miles in length from central Florida to the Atlantic coast at Jacksonville, three miles wide in numerous stretches, and it was busy with ocean going freighters and tankers.
Both wearing swimsuits for the surfboard sail, from the shore it must have looked like two people floating across the surface propelled by a sail. And we were swiftly skimming across the water. What a fine little boat I had built.
Within 30 minutes we were more than a mile offshore. When I looked back to where we had launched, to my shock I saw the shoreline obscured in dark clouds and sheets of rain. There would be no returning in that direction. Looking down river where it was still clear I could see several large homes along the shore. Then the wind hit us. My bride was lying flat on the deck with her arms wrapped around the mast. I slipped over the side to act as a sea anchor keeping us upright. With one hand clutching the deck’s handrail and the other holding the tiller and the mainsheet, I held on for dear life. My biggest challenge was keeping my bathing suit on. The swift water wanted to pull it down around my knees. Fortunately, my drawn-up knees kept me modestly covered.
Heading toward shore, we saw two people on a pier watching our struggle. They were a middle-aged woman and a young man about my age. I discovered she was an Admiral’s wife, and he was the Admiral’s aide. Congratulations Lieutenant Stark, you just beached your vessel on its’ maiden voyage in the middle of Admiral’s Row.
The Admiral wasn’t home, but Mrs. Admiral was most gracious. After pulling the sunfish onto the shore, she took us inside, wrapped a large beach towel around my shivering wife and gave each of us a hot cup of tea.
My bride is a good talker. “Oh, you are so wonderful. My husband is a navy Pilot and we’re new to Jacksonville. We just love it here and we’re so sorry to intrude. You are so kind.”
The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived. I figured my bride could hold her own with Mrs. Admiral, and since it was only a short sail back to our car, after reaching the car and loading the Sunfish, I would return for my shipwreck survivor,
The Sunfish’s one sail was not good at sailing into the wind and the short sail back took two hours. I said my wife was a good talker, but this really put her to the test. The experience apparently exhausted her repartee, because there was nothing but silence in our house for days afterward.
After navigation school and while still in Jacksonville I started three months of flight training in the P2V Neptune, the aircraft I would be flying in my squadron in Maine.
Finally, we left Jacksonville, with the Sunfish strapped to the roof of my VW and my bride in her Corvair convertible along with her new puppy, “Happy”. We dropped the house keys into the mail slot of the locked front door and headed out of town. There were two routes to the highway. One was shorter, therefore the obvious way to go. My bride left first while I took a few more minutes to check the tiedowns on the Sunfish. I then hurried to catch up. But I couldn’t find her. Would she have taken the longer route to the highway? I pulled over to wait on the side of the road. And waited and waited. Did she have a car problem? Did the dog have an issue? I went back to the house but saw no sign of my spouse. Going back to the highway, I stewed over the dilemma. She wouldn’t have continued north on the highway without me, would she?
What to do? Thirty years before ubiquitous cell phones, I tried to think who I might call. Her father lived in Lafayette, Indiana, I’d call him.
“Sir, this is Jim. I’m in Jacksonville and I lost your daughter.”
A brief explanation of the situation followed. We decided that I would drive three hours to Savanah, Georgia. There, I would find a Howard Johnson’s restaurant—every town of any size has a Ho Jo’s—and call him to see if he had heard anything.
Driving out of Jacksonville, I passed an Esso gas station. Sitting between the pumps watching the passing cars was my bride and Happy. Seeing them I swerved into the station and observers would have thought we hadn’t seen each other since World War II.
She had indeed gone the long way out of habit and then as I did went back and forth searching for me. Finally, she pulled into this gas station and tearfully approached the attendant: “I’ve lost my husband. He’s a Navy pilot and he’s gone.”
“When did he die?” he asked.
“No, not dead. Lost. An hour ago. Driving a Volkswagen with a sailboat on top.”
“Err, …. sailboat on top, huh? Well little lady, why don’t you wait right here. I’ll call the state police. Shouldn’t be hard to spot a car with a sailboat on top.”
The rest of the trip was routine. … Oh, except for throwing a rod in the VW in Virginia. That delay added another three days to our trip. And the check I had in my pocket for $1200 for six months of per diem was exactly enough to pay for the VW’s repairs.
Ho hum. Ain’t life interesting!
Oh, as a postscript; I ended up giving that Sunfish to the Governor of Maine whom I worked for following the Navy. But that’s a story for another time.