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Epitaph for a productive life: He always found time for sailing

2008 June 17
I was raised by my father on the doctrine that, for busy people, there is "no such thing as a convenient time for a vacation." That being so-my father deduced-take a vacation exactly when you want to; and let the chips fall where they will, since chips are going to fall in any case.

Those are the wise words of William F. Buckley Jr., a few among many wise and wonderful words in the book Airborne.

They were written 32 years ago, but they are more relevant today than they were then, for this is the Age of Busyness. We are so busy that we have no time for doing anything except being busy. If we admit to having time for something else-say, sailing-we may be suspected of being slackers failing to pull our weight in the Age of Busyness. Sailing, more than most recreational pursuits, requires time, so the Age of Busyness is not to be confused with the Age of Sail. Regattas have had to be compressed because competitors are too busy to sail both days of a weekend. Family cruising is said to be on the decline because it cuts into the time that must be devoted to busyness. The purpose of this busyness supposedly is to make us more productive than the busyness-deprived folks who preceded us. Judging from the life of Bill Buckley, that hasn't happened.

Buckley was surely one of the most productive human beings ever to grace this mortal coil. He wrote 50 books; founded the biweekly magazine National Review and worked as its editor for decades; hosted 1,504 "Firing Line" television programs over 33 years; wrote reams of syndicated newspaper columns; gave untold numbers of speeches; served on corporate boards; played the harpsichord so well that he performed concertos with renowned orchestras; and ran for public office.

Regarding the last, and revealing the well-ordered priorities of his productive life, he wrote, "I disappeared surreptitiously from the race for mayor of New York in order to participate in the race from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which I had roughly the same chance of winning."

He always found time for sailing.

He sailed across the Atlantic three times and once across the Pacific, and sailed in many Bermuda Races and long-distance Atlantic coastal races. He cruised to Bermuda, sailed to the Caribbean and cruised there. He sailed when the spirit moved him, even in the middle of the night, when he would sometimes call an understanding friend and say, "Let's sail."

Understand this about Buckley-he was not like the rest of us sailors, even though, like many of us, he learned to sail as a child. Here's how he learned: His father bought him a sailboat and a sailing instructor for the summer. The privileged son of an oil baron, he usually sailed, whether racing or cruising, with a paid boat captain and cook and an unlimited budget. None of this made his writing about sailing in four delightful books on the subject any less accessible or engaging. In fact, I don't think it is possible for a sailor to read his accounts of his sailing adventures without wishing you had been there with him.

Buckley's friends averred he was a skilled sailor, and I believe them. I will say, though, based only on what I have read in his own words, that he was an uncommonly unlucky sailor, having encountered in his career at sea a sinking (though he was not on the boat at the time), a dismasting, groundings, more storms than any reasonable quota for an offshore sailor, a plague of equipment failures, the near holing by his bowsprit of the Australian America's Cup yacht Dame Pattie, uniformly awful race results and a bizarre incident in which he was elated to have won a protest in the Bermuda Race, against famed yacht designer and racer Charley Morgan, no less (who Buckley described as "a man of extravagant amiability and calm"), only to have to withdraw from the race later when it was revealed one of his crew made an illegal radiotelephone call claiming it originated from Morgan's boat.

Buckley wrote about these setbacks with the same cheerful, elegant language he used to describe more glorious moments under sail, leaving the reader with the certain knowledge that this was a man who loved sailing, warts and all.

Airborne is about a transatlantic voyage from Miami to Marbella, Spain, more or less. I say more or less because, like all Buckley sailing books, this one is replete with digressions. These wanderings off the subject are the best parts of Airborne, some recounting the above mentioned misadventures, others adding detail to a picture of a sailing life.

Following his father's doctrine, Buckley declared that 30 days would be devoted to the voyage, starting precisely on a certain day that could conceivably be adjusted for a "burst appendix on the night before setting sail" but definitely not for business related problems, or as he put it, "chickenshit emergencies."

The crossing was made in Buckley's 60-foot schooner Cyrano. It happens that I knew the boat before she was Buckley's when she was in the Bahamas, where she had been built of wood and was considered a bit of an oddity, owing to her astonishing 18-foot bowsprit. There she was named Pinocchio, a reference, as was Cyrano, to that prodigious proboscis.

Odd or not, she was loved by Buckley, who called her "my beautiful Cyrano." At one point in the book, in stormy weather, he exclaimed, "My God, what a lovely sailing boat she is!" He wrote that "if I had all the money in the world and could build a boat exactly suited to me" (hardly a hypothetical proposition for Buckley), it would be exactly like Cyrano.

The boat performed admirably on the mostly uneventful crossing, as did the crew, even though, aside from Buckley and the professionals on board, there was not much sailing experience among them. An eclectic group that included Buckley's sister-in-law, a formidable woman whose first name was-really-Bill, they endured sailing's usual affronts to comfort, including plenty of seasickness, with admirable cheer, but you can sense they were drawn to the adventure not by the sailing, but by the chance to be near the irresistible Buckley.

At the end of the voyage, one of the crew, his son Christopher, wrote a journal entry addressed to Buckley, professing that "even though I'm restless for the touch of land, if you were to set sail tomorrow to cross another ocean, I'd sell my soul to ship out with you."

William Buckley died in February at the age of 82. I hope someone speaking at the service in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York found room in the crowded eulogies to add this laurel: He always found time for sailing.