Cronkite Loved To Go Down To The Sea In Boats

BACK STORY

July 26, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

After having spent many years racing Austin-Healeys, Volvos and Lotus Elevens, Walter Cronkite finally gave up the rough-and-tumble sport of competitive driving, to his family's great relief, and turned to the sea for relaxation.

He wrote in his 1996 autobiography, A Reporter's Life, that sailing was a more "family-oriented sport that I should substitute for racing," but "there has never been anything as exhilarating as driving at speed in competition."

Cronkite, who acknowledged that he had read plenty of books about the sea, didn't know the first thing about sailing when he began on a Sunfish in the late 1940s. But he was hooked.

"Sailing for me, though, has satisfied many urges. For one thing, it feeds the Walter Mitty in me, the inner heroism with which James Thurber endowed his unforgettable character," he wrote.

"I never sail from harbor without either a load of tea for Southampton or orders from the admiral to pursue that villain Long John Silver and his rapacious crew," he wrote. "I love the challenge of the open sea, the business of confronting Mother Nature and learning to live compatibly with her, avoiding if possible her excesses but always being prepared to weather them."

Cronkite, who became an accomplished ocean sailor, told a B altimore Sun reporter in a 2006 interview that he didn't consider any boat that he owned christened "until it fully toured up and down the Chesapeake Bay."

His last boat, the two-masted 64-foot Hinckley sailing yacht Wyntje (pronounced win-tee) was named for the first woman to marry a Cronkite in 1642 in the New Amsterdam colony. It had a full-time crew of two.

During summers, the Wyntje was docked off Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, where the broadcaster had a summer home for more than 30 years.

Summer sailing day trips, with Cronkite at the helm, were to Nantucket or Newport, R.I., while longer voyages explored the rocky coast of Maine, with Camden Harbor a favorite destination.

In the fall and spring, he enjoyed sailing between New York City and Annapolis. Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, was the vessel's winter home, before returning in the spring to northern waters.

Locally, one of Cronkite's favorite ports was Annapolis, where he became friends with Mike Ashford, a former Eastern Airlines pilot and sailor who opened McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar in 1975.

In an interview some years ago, Cronkite told a reporter that McGarvey's was the "best sailors' watering hole on the East Coast."

"We met at a fundraiser years ago. Walter and Betsy were the celebrity couple, and we just hit it off. We discovered we had a lot of the same interests in boats, books and drinks," Ashford said in an interview the other day.

"And we've sailed together for more than 35 years, and it's been lots of fun. When he signed the contract for his last boat, he did it on my dining room table," said Ashford, who traveled to New York City on Thursday to attend Cronkite's funeral and say a few words at the invitation of his family.

"Walter loved sharing the experience of sailing. He loved getting cold and wet and knocked about at times. He could never understand why people didn't see the fun in that," Ashford said, laughing.

"I remember one time in an Annapolis-Bermuda race, we went through one of the biggest storms I had ever been in. One of the boats went down, but we made it through," he said.

Ashford said his friend loved autumn sailing on the Chesapeake, when the Eastern Shore was dressed in fall colors and flocks of geese and ducks wheeled overhead on their southern migrations.

"Walter loved being at the helm or below navigating, calling out headings or listening to bells," Ashford said.

Once back on land, Cronkite set sail for his friend's saloon, where he sat on his favorite corner stool sipping a Scotch and water or a frosty glass of beer while eating a burger and talking sailing.

"He liked the crowd at McGarvey's and talking about sailing. People treated him just as another sailor, and I was proud of that," Ashford said. "He really was hard to get to sit still for very long. He had lots of energy and wanted to either be sailing or out in boatyards looking at boats."

He recounts the often-told tale about the broadcaster's menu dilemma, when he wasn't sure whether he wanted a steak or a bowl of chili, so he ordered both.

"He dumped the chili on the steak, and for a while we had the Cronkite chili steak on the menu. Only one person ever ordered it, so we quietly dropped it," he said, laughing.

Cronkite often stayed with Ashford. The two friends would swap sea tales while enjoying bourbon and puffing on cigars.

"He always loved sharing good fellowship," Ashford said.

"There is nothing more satisfying than dropping anchor in an otherwise deserted cove just before sunset, of pouring that evening libation and, with a freshly roasted bowl of popcorn, lying back as the geese and ducks and loons make your acquaintance and the darkness slowly descends to complement the silence," Cronkite wrote.

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