Sailing through boot camp

The author, 48 years older, with the burgee of the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May, N.J. Photo courtesy Capt. Michael L. Martel

August 2022

By Capt. Michael L. Martel

Sometimes, in the life of a naïve teenager, what seems to be the worst kind of nightmare turns out to be one of the more delicious lessons in the new and unfathomable world he is entering.

A stranger in a strange land will always seek out things that are familiar in some way. Sometimes it’s a place, a loosely-definable querencia, a little spot of turf where one feels safe or comfortable perhaps. And so it was that the first thing I saw when I stepped outside the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May gate, on my first boot-camp, off-base liberty, was the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May, N.J.

I was a homesick, 18-year-old recruit, young for my age, lost, and somewhat bewildered. After weeks of difficult training, I now had a precious weekend of freedom all to myself, but I had no transportation, no plans, no place to go, and no friends to share it with. What good is freedom all by itself, I wondered?

Some of my fellow recruits from my squad had rented a hotel room in town, bought some booze, and were going to look for female company. Sensing I was not up to their standards of street toughness, maturity, or worldliness, I was not invited to join them. So I decided to explore this new world on my own.

The center of town was a good mile away – a long walk in the hot, late-summer sun – so I wandered the short distance over to the Corinthian. I was, after all, a junior member of the Bristol Yacht Club in my own hometown of Bristol, R.I., having joined under the auspices of my grandfather, a longtime senior member. And I grew up sailing on the Bristol waterfront.

I suppose it was only natural, then, that my compass would point me toward the white-painted clubhouse complex when I walked out the training-center gate. Many such clubs have a policy of reciprocal privileges. Perhaps, I thought, inside, there would be shade, convivial company, and a cold drink.

The Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May, N.J., sat right outside the main gate of the Coast Guard base and training center, so there was little possibility of missing it. Today, the club is much larger than when I first saw it on that late-summer day in 1974. The original building is still there, though now nestled amid additions and expansions, docks, and bulwarks, all of which seem to have doubled, even tripled, in size.

My member club, the Bristol Y.C., was old, dating from the 1870s, the same decade the Corinthian came to be, so it seemed to this raw teenager that this could be a hook for a welcoming visit. I was dressed in my summer-weight dress blues, suitable attire for the enjoyment of reciprocal privileges. We had been told to behave, meaning that we must not drink in bars or cause any sort of mischief, and, if we were spotted getting into trouble by any official from the base we would be as good as toast. I was a Seaman Recruit, soon to be a Seaman Apprentice, with no more authority than that of a raindrop.

Weeks earlier, my father had driven me to the recruiting station in nearby New Bedford to “sign the articles” and see me off. Tensions at home had resulted in my having to stay with my grandparents for a few weeks just before high school graduation. Dad understood me and the complicated relationship at home: I was the oldest boy living in a very small house with three younger brothers. He felt that my choice to join the Coast Guard would be a good move that would allow the dust to settle.

Many months later, when I’d graduated from boot camp, my parents and my brothers made the long trip from Rhode Island to Cape May, in Pa’s old Ford station wagon, for my ceremony. It was a happy reunion, with all wounds seemingly healed. But, in the beginning, I had boarded a bus in New Bedford and embarked upon a nearly interminable trip to Cape May, nearly 400 miles. After riding on a local bus that stopped at every city-block intersection in southern New Jersey, I finally arrived at last at the base sometime during the middle of the night.

The Corinthians had welcomed me with open arms. They nudged me up to the bar and treated me to a few drinks. Many members were retired Coast Guardsmen, and they respected my Bristol Y.C. ties, treating me like one of the family. Two elderly ladies decided to take “this little Coast Guard man,” who looked a bit scrawny, out for a nice lunch at a seafood restaurant, where I could not have afforded to treat myself. We enjoyed a lively conversation, and I ate my first soft-shell crab. It was a treat.

I ended up being stationed for many months at the base, serving in the news office, and renting a room in town. I became friends with Benny Koons, a Corinthian past commodore and a man of Philadelphia-gentry roots. Ben was a stocky, jolly, energetic, unpretentious man who tended the small, dimly lit bar at the club many evenings that fall. In the evenings, there would normally be few people, if anyone, in there. But it was Ben’s place, his hangout of choice, and it soon became mine as well.

I was invited to crew on a big sailboat one weekend for the club’s race to Brandywine Shoal. . . an all-day adventure out in Delaware Bay. I recall that Ben owned a big, two-masted wooden schooner, painted light blue, and as we returned to the club after the race, in the rough waters of the afternoon, I remember seeing him standing, barrel-chested, at the wheel of his schooner, which forged along behind us. Ben nearly caught us in our more-modern vessel, literally riding his schooner to port like one would a bronco.

Boot camp, while it lasted, was about eight weeks long (though it seemed, at times, to have been a year), and, toward the end of training, we were scheduled for an off-base liberty for the weekend. Of course, I made a beeline for the Corinthian, and it was a race day.

The club would be racing its fleet of a dozen or more Thistle-class sailboats in the harbor. These boats were best sailed by two people, a skipper to steer and direct the effort and a crewman to adjust the sails, in this case a main and a small jib. One of the members approached me an hour before the race and asked if I would like to serve as crew for one of the senior members. I jumped at the opportunity. “Sure!” I responded enthusiastically.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the tall gentleman in civilian clothes was the base commander, Captain How. At the time, I was still in boot camp, where it was mandatory for a recruit to salute “even a rabbit,” as we were told. I froze; this man was God to us lowly recruits. Sensing my nervousness, Captain How grinned and dismissed any illusions of protocol with a wave of his hand. “Never mind all that today,” he said. “Why don’t you run back to your barracks and change into your casual work clothes?”

Hurrying at quite nearly a run and pausing at the gate, I told the sentries, “I’m going racing with Captain How!” They laughed at me, completely unbelieving. But the captain and I had a great time, finishing somewhere in the middle of the fleet.

The next time I returned to Rhode Island, I brought along a Corinthian Yacht Club burgee. It is customary at the Bristol Yacht Club for members to bring back a burgee from clubs in faraway places they have visited. Those burgees are mounted high on the walls in the club’s Chart Room (bar), and, for many years, the Corinthian burgee hung there proudly with a host of others until a fire at our club partially burned it.

Our club survived and was rebuilt better than before, but, alas, a new Corinthian burgee was needed. My brother-in-law, Joe Crilly, himself hailing from Cape May, and also a Corinthian member, sent me a replacement burgee in the mail, quite by surprise. And I was delighted to once again, some 48 years later, present the burgee of one of my favorite yacht clubs to my home club. It now hangs in its old spot, evoking a flood of special memories whenever I see it.

Capt. Mike Martel, who sails out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.