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A yacht and a sea shell link sailing friends together

2009 July 1
This is a sailing story of friendship spanning two decades, and it makes you realize that, like so many things in life, paths cross and re-cross in the most unexpected ways. It's about three couples linked by a beautiful shell and an even more beautiful sailing yacht. The settings are diverse: the sun-drenched Sea of Cortez, tropical islands in the South Pacific and a bookshelf in Florida, all seasoned with a touch of New Zealand and Utah. Let me tell the tale.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I had chartered a Moorings powerboat in the Sea of Cortez for a magazine story. At that time, the company's charter base was up the peninsula near Loreto, so we were exploring several large islands and savoring a host of harbors on the remote coast of Baja California.

One day, we were anchored in a quiet cove on barren Isla Carmen, along with several sailboats that included a very pretty ketch named Southern Cross. In the morning, the owners of the ketch rowed past and, as cruisers do, we invited them aboard for coffee. It was our first encounter with Lew and Jeanne Corwin.

The yacht
Southern Cross is a 36-foot Sea Witch ketch that had been used to film "Overboard," the depressing Cliff Robertson TV-movie that probably did more to discourage offshore sailing than any single film. Designed by Hugh Angleman and Charlie Davies in the 1930s, she is long on the waterline, wide on the beam, and a fine sea boat. Though she looks like a cruising yacht with a gaff mainsail and Marconi mizzen, she sets a cloud of sail on a reach, and the original Sea Witch won the 1951 TransPac race while Southern Cross took first overall in the 1961 Ensenada Race.

Southern Cross is one of a dozen Sea Witch ketches built by a small Hong Kong boatyard named American Marine, which would later be better known as the birthplace of the Grand Banks trawlers. With thick teak planking and bronze hardware, she was built to last forever.

The original owners kept her in Bristol shape, but she fell onto bad times in the mid-1960s when a second owner turned her into a gaudy "pirate ship" with black decks and an orange cabin. The gorgeous teak interior was slathered with green and gold paint, and she rarely left her slip.

In 1971, the Corwins bought Southern Cross, and after months of scraping and sanding, her teak once again glowed and gold leaf accented her transom. Several years later, Lew Corwin retired and Southern Cross began cruising, making long and leisurely trips into the Sea of Cortez.

The shell
A few days after we first met the Corwins, we once again found ourselves sharing a cove. We invited them aboard for dinner and learned more about them. He was a young Marine who had returned from fighting in the South Pacific to marry the tiny Jeanne, and during their cruising years, she had become a dedicated and knowledgeable shell collector who donated regularly to museums such as the Smithsonian.

We asked about the extensive awnings on Southern Cross and found that Jeanne had become very sensitive to the sun, which was limiting her beachcombing. Because we were returning our charter boat the next morning, we sent them back to Southern Cross with a tender full of food.

The next morning, Lew rowed over and asked us to stop by before departing. When we did, Jeanne presented Rhea with a perfect tent olive shell that was an unexpected delight.

Since that day, we've often wondered what became of the Corwins, but because they were cruising, we had no way to reach them. We thought their cruising days were drawing to an end, but it was an unfinished story.

The shell, part II
While looking for a book recently, the olive shell on the shelf caught my attention and I wondered once again what had become of the Corwins. Drawing on the magic of Google, I discovered Robby and Lorraine Coleman, who are the current owners of Southern Cross.

Coincidence No. 1: Robby is a writer I had met many years before.

Coincidence No. 2: Robby had written a feature about Southern Cross in 1994 for … wait for it … SAILING Magazine!

I learned that Lew and Jeanne had sold Southern Cross to them a year after our encounter in the Sea of Cortez, and sadly, Jeanne had passed away shortly afterward. Lew had done what sailors are advised to do when they give up the sea: walk inland with an oar on the shoulder until someone asks, "Hey, mister, what's that plank you're carrying?" Now far from the sea, he lives in Utah.

With Jeanne gone, Lew donated their entire shell collection to Brigham Young University, in the process astounding the specialist who came to inventory it with shells he had never seen. In the end, the university chairman wrote a receipt for "A Twenty Year Collection of Sea Treasures." Among those that Lew kept were six perfect tent olives.

Southern Cross, part II
Hugh Angleman would have been proud to see the miles that the Colemans have put on Southern Cross since 1990. Years of cruising Mexico were followed by a South Pacific voyage that included 13 months at Fanning Island (900 miles from Hawaii) followed by island-hopping to New Zealand. Southern Cross is about to open another chapter with new owners, and who knows the places to be entered in her log.

You see, yachts don't have nationalities or passports. A fine sailing yacht like Southern Cross is a child of the seven seas, meant to roam far and wide without boundaries. Today she's in New Zealand, in the future she may find her way back to her California birthplace or venture into new waters.

Lew Corwin is settled in Utah with his memories of the ragged mountains and raw beauty of cruising the Sea of Cortez. The Colemans and Southern Cross are moving toward new adventures.

Me? I've got a beautiful shell on my bookshelf.