My longtime friend Phyllis Detwiler is a Training Captain with In-Command Seamanship Training, a US Sailing certified Safe Powerboat Handling Instructor, and an instructor at Sail Newport who relishes teaching Pell Program 4th graders about maritime life and Newport, Rhode Island history. Part 1 of our conversation can be found at https://www.windcheckmagazine.com/article/phyllis-detwiler/.
Coop: Phyllis, we left you with the seagoing SUV at Hyannis YC, doing race committee and helping with the Optis. In previous chats with you, there was reference to going to Alaska…
PD: Ah, yes. I had just graduated college and wanted to “see the world.” My friends were getting married, going off to Wall Street and well that was a bit terrifying. I wanted to see the country, so worked three jobs, put a down payment on a Toyota truck, put all my worldly goods, which did fit into the back, into the truck including a futon and my dog, left West Yarmouth and drove to Alaska. I had a CB radio and a cassette deck. That was it, and it was quite an adventure. For a 24-year-old girl, well ignorance was then bliss. My gawd, I look back at that now and wonder, “What the heck was I thinking?” No way I’d let my daughter do that today.
Coop: I’d chain her to the dock before I’d let that happen, though I did a similar thing…Where did you come ashore in Alaska?
PD: I dropped anchor in Anchorage for the winter and met a lot of really interesting people. No sailors up there, but I used to go off on weekend excursions, down to Homer and Seward Peninsula. Just a lovely, natural place. Now, looking in Google Earth, it’s completely covered in marinas.
Coop: Were you just goofing around?
PD: Well, yeah. Looking around, working, waitress stuff, checking things out. You know, the stuff you do as a young’un, having an adventure and making it work. But I had to return to the East Coast that June, family emergency. I was able to get the truck on the Alaska Marine Highway and came down the inside passage. That was a fun trip, and you could get a cheaper ticket and unroll your sleeping bag on the top deck.
Coop: Way to go, 24-year-old woman…
PD: Ah, you better believe it. It was actually OK. The top deck had honeymooning couples, like minded travelers, and I struck up a friendship, discussions, with an ambassador from somewhere in South America. And there is a part of the passage where you are exposed to the North Pacific. So there I was, curled up in my sleeping bag, on the top deck of this ship, gazing out at the Pacific Ocean and the Northern Lights doing their thing and having great conversations with this person I would’ve never in a million years met.
Coop: When you arrived back on the East Coast, did you head for the Cape?
PD: I went to the Cape for one winter, then Boston. That’s when I started working at Fidelity. I worked for them for four years, then went to New Hampshire, so that kind completes that circle.
Coop: And sailing and water-wise?
PD: Son has Laser. I was sailing director at Great Island for a number of years. It was a more of a day camp program, but on the water…a pretty common situation for sailing programs in the Northeast: souped up day care. So, I moved my sailing energies to the Hyannis Yacht Club sailing program. There was a lot more going on, and I had a blast working with Hyannis YC for years. They were the organizing authority for The Hyannis Regatta, which hosted everything from Optis to handicap keelboats. Sometimes upwards of 600 boats, lots of circles on Lewis Bay.
Coop: You cross tacks with the Kennedys?
PD: Yes. A lot of sailing history there of course, and lots of tales. Before my time of course, but they’re basically nice folks and of course they are just very competitive, like most racing sailors.
Coop: One of our recent conversations revolved around your role in Red Cross emergency management…
PD: I volunteered with the Red Cross in early 2016. I was deployed to disaster areas to map where the damage was. I am a geographer by training, so I got to stay in a situation room. There are a lot of very helpful, useful apps available now that we would use, and I would dispatch crews to different areas to document and record the damage. The field folks would then upload their findings to the situation room and we would review that data and make decisions on where and how to allocate resources. It’s intense and draining work. I retired from that after three years. It was pretty hard duty seeing the terrific damage caused to the lives of the folks hit by whatever the event was. I flew into a huge flood event site in Nebraska, and it was mind numbing – just water everywhere. Anyway, we got that straightened out and I came home and retired.
Coop: When did you come to Newport?
PD: Moving to Newport was an accident. It was time for me to leave the Cape, for a lot of reasons. I was kind of heading to maybe New York or Connecticut; there was a potential relationship there. I landed in Kay Street, in a lovely house with a lovely family and if you’re in Newport and you say you know XYZ about boats, all of a sudden you have lots of new friends.
Coop: (Chuckles) So, you got here the same way half of Newport’s waterfront community did…
PD: Yes, and it was refreshing to be not considered an unusual woman because I liked being in, on and around boats. I found myself in the middle of a wonderful peer group.
Coop: So, like all the other women in Newport’s boat game, you’re just one of the guys?
PD: Yeah, exactly. Then at a party I met the (sadly) late Dr. Robin Wallace.
Coop: Fantastic fella. Dear old Robin…
PD: Yup, dear old Robin. He said, “Oh, you like doing race committee then, do you? Why don’t you come down to Ida Lewis Yacht Club at such and such a time and see what you think?” I did and I was agog. Robin ran race committees so carefully.
Coop: Yes, he ran a tight ship in the most pleasant, kind, courteous and polite way. No matter what was going on, Robin’s BBC announcer voice wafting over the VHF made it all better. Did you go to the memorial for him at St. Georges?
PD: Oh, yes.
Coop: Then you heard Brad Read play the tape of Robin announcing the RC on station for the Shields Wednesday racing…
PD: Yes, I was speechless. That was part of the wonderful tribute video, too. I worked with the Ida RC crew for seven years. The experience I got, the training, the mentorship and the friendship was beyond fantastic.
Coop: A Padawan at the feet of Yoda…
PD: Yup, and that wonderful picture of Robin with the red Shields emblem on a blue fleece is such a great image of him. I was with him on the last day he did RC, not that we knew on the day, and I was taking pictures of the races and the people. I set up to take a picture of Robin and he waved me off with, “Oh, no, no!” and a smile and so of course I kept on and he just smiled that great light that was his smile. He enjoyed it, I think. He subscribed to the line from Rumpole (of the Old Bailey): “She who must be obeyed.” He and I shared a love of Rumpole.
Coop: Phyllis, time’s up. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed hearing of your adventures.
PD: My great pleasure, Coop. It was fun. Let’s do it again. ■