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The sailing writer who never forgot he was a reporter

2008 October 30

Red Marston couldn't sail for diddly squat, but that didn't stop him from becoming one of America's best sailing writers.

"Diddly squat" was Red's term. He used it in one of the stories he told me about his eventful career as a boating journalist. He wangled an invitation to serve as cook on a boat in the St. Petersburg, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, race in 1959 (in the quaint era when boats in long-distance races actually had designated cooks). "I couldn't cook for diddly squat," he said, "but I figured it would be a hell of a story."
He was more than right about that. His appointment as ship's cook yielded two stories, neither of which had anything to do with cooking. One recounted the near sinking of the old wood boat on which he was sailing when it sprung a plank in the boisterous Gulf Stream and Red was assigned to man the pump. The other, headlined "A Cook's Tour of Havana," was a sanitized but still titillating account of the crew's rollicking adventures in a town then famous for its flesh pots.

Red was no sailor, but when he wrote about sailing he always got it right. That was because, above all, he was a reporter, an old-school newspaperman who knew how to dig out the facts. It didn't hurt that he had the gift of gab and the gift of making his interview subjects gab. That combination made him a columnist who enlightened and entertained, a service he rendered for the readers of this magazine for 26 years on a page named "Reaching with Red."

Red didn't set out to be a boating writer. He wanted to write about baseball, but he learned to be a reporter covering everything from fender-benders to football as his journalism education progressed in the dingy newsrooms of Boston area weeklies and dailies. His introduction to writing about boats came courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps after he enlisted at the ripe age of 30.

The Marines put him to work as a reporter for military newspapers covering the last two years of World War II in the South Pacific. While hitching a ride between islands on a Navy vessel, he was introduced to the skipper, a fellow Red described as "a skinny guy who wanted to talk as soon as he found out I was a war correspondent for the Marines." It was Lt. John F. Kennedy and the boat, the subject of Red's first boating story, was PT109.

There's a story about that story. As Red told it, Kennedy invited him to join his crew for a night patrol searching for Japanese ships. But when he showed up at Kennedy's base on August 1, 1943, he was told PT109 had already left the dock. He missed the fateful mission that made the future president a war hero after the PT boat was run down and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Red still got the story, of course-later in the hospital where Kennedy was being treated.

"A lot of people thought getting run over by a destroyer was inexcusable seamanship, but the crewmembers I talked to verified the stories of Kennedy's heroic rescue of a drowning sailor," Red remembered.

After the war, Red went back to the Boston newspaper grind, but not for long. Frustrated in his dream of being a baseball writer, he decided to try his luck elsewhere. Fittingly, he made his trip to elsewhere on a boat.

He worked out a deal to have a boatwright in Ipswich, Massachusetts, build him a working lobster boat and add a cabin. "He didn't want to do it," Red recalled, "said the cabin would probably leak.

But he did it and, sure enough, it leaked."

Red and his new wife Peggy paid their bills and set off down the Intracoastal Waterway. Red had no cruising experience. He said he asked Peggy, whom he called his navigator in life ("She tells me where to go"), to "read up on the navigational stuff."

They made it to Anna Maria island near Bradenton, Florida, where they tied up and declared the voyage ended. Red claimed he was down to his last 35 cents.

Red made a living covering spring baseball training for the Bradenton newspaper and as a stringer for the The Sporting News before he got a long deserved break-a job as outdoor editor of the St. Petersburg Times. As his award-winning work in that position developed, he became one of the few journalists in the country who treated sailing as a sport that deserved serious coverage in a daily newspaper and in the process gained a national reputation that led to his work being published regularly in six different American boating magazines.

Red got his page in SAILING in 1968 after a chance meeting with the then-publisher on a Florida dock. He went on to fill it with some 315 "Reaching with Red" columns.

He wrote about all kinds of sailing, but if Red had a niche it was the America's Cup. The old sports writer wrote about it like the game it was.

He got hooked on America's Cup reporting when a St. Petersburg boatbuilder and designer, Charley Morgan, made a run for the Cup in 1970 with a 12-Meter named Heritage. Red bunked with the Heritage crew in quarters rented from a Catholic school in Newport, and chronicled the adventures and misadventures of the upstart, slightly zany campaign from Florida.

In a day when many sailing writers were yachtsmen first and journalists second, Red, the newsman, approached America's Cup reporting like, well, a baseball writer, ferreting out the facts, gathering quotes and telling the story.

As a columnist for SAILING, he had license to weigh in with opinions, but he usually let the facts make his point with help of a few wry or ironic asides, though, as the Cup spending wars escalated, he couldn't resist referring to the Deed of Gift as the Deed of Greed.

Red's reliable reporting earned the respect of the big-time America's Cup players. I recall breakfasting with Red and Bill Koch, the money bags behind the America3 campaign, at Koch's lavish San Diego digs. We ate scrambled eggs surrounded by giants-Koch's collection of massive Francisco Botero sculptures. It was nice of Koch to invite the publisher, but I think what he really wanted was a face-to-face meeting with the reporter who would be telling much of the sailing world about Koch's effort to win the Cup.

Gordon "Red" Marston died in August at the age of 96.

In a profile of Red in SAILING's 30th anniversary issue in 1996, I wrote: "A rare breed in a field where almost everyone writing about sailing fancies himself or herself an expert, Red claims to be neither a sailor nor a sailing authority. He's proud to be a reporter."

Change that last sentence to past tense and it would be a fitting epitaph.