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.
Coop: Phyllis, Hi and thanks for coming out.
PD: Well Coop, thanks for having me.
Coop: So, name rank and serial number: Who are you, where do you come from, and what’s yer story, girl?
PD: Oh dear, it’s a long one. Well, you know my name so you got that right. I grew up as a kid sailing on Nantucket Sound.
Coop: So, you’re seriously salty…?
PD: (Chuckles) Yup. My first boat was a Sunfish at age 10. I would strap one of those “under the seats on the ferry” kapok life vests to the mast (I mean, who really wore them?) and sail around Lewis Bay and Nantucket Sound.
Coop: Who was steering?
PD: Oh, I was on my own.
Coop: Oh. I had visions of you being strapped to the mast in the life vest…
PD: Oh no, the life vest was tied to the mast. You could not wear those things and sail a Sunfish.
Coop: I get it. Put it on, sail around the corner, take it off and tie it to the mast.
PD: Exactly so. And in those days Lewis Bay and Nantucket Sound were much quieter than today. It was pretty safe for a young girl to be sailing around on her own, though I am pretty sure most of the houses on the shorefront had aunts with binoculars trained on any stray Sunfish, so I was probably in good hands that way. I was probably not as independent as I thought I was.
Coop: Of course, that is sailors; looking after each other.
PD: Right, and reporting into my grandmother who was the matriarch of our family.
Coop: Did someone teach you to sail, or did you one day say, “Screw it, the boys are doing this. I’m gonna do it”?
PD: No, all the families in the area, Point Gammon, off Great Island, and on Cape Cod, had their kids take sailing lessons. The parents would throw the kids in a dinghy and row them over to Great Island and hand them over to a sailing instructor for the day, and that is how I learned to sail. I had a very fun childhood learning to sail, and then sailing, all over. We had Sailfish, Sunfish, and early Turnabouts when Turnabouts were still wood.
I then graduated to an O’Day Day Sailer. We all did some racing, well racing as well as you could get in something like these boats. And then we got 420s. Our 420 fleet was made in Israel, and it was one of the first 420 fleets in the country, but right about this time my teenage cohort had dissipated into tennis and golf, so there wasn’t much I could do except go on picnic by myself, and sail fast.
Coop: Didn’t the boats at that time have two positions for the mast step so you could move it forward and sail without the jib?
PD: Yes, but it was a pain fiddling with moving the mast so I just sailed with the jib too – the standard set up. And then I spent a few summers doing stuff with the Department of Natural Resources. Oh, let me back up a minute.
There was an original Polynesian War Canoe on Great Island that was brought there, in the 1930s I believe, by a man named Douglas Burden. Remember, in the 1930s, almost a hundred years ago, Polynesia was still largely “undiscovered,” remote and exotic. He was a famous explorer, married to one of the women from the family that owned Great Island, and he imported this canoe back there. My bother figured out how to assemble it, and we all sailed it as kids.
Coop: How big was this thing?
PD: Oh, probably 20 to 30 feet.
Coop: Oh, a commando boat, not a 90-foot ship of the line for the Polynesian Navy…
PD: Not that big, but it was very narrow. I could not sit in the center of it. It had bamboo pontoons, so it was really a trimaran and faster than stink. It could go 20 knots under sail. And we sailed this thing with no PFDs and in our bathing suits. You had to back the mainsail to tack it. The mainsail was a curious gaff-style arrangement, and we had to run across from pontoon to pontoon to our appointed places through the tack. It was a blast.
Coop: Sounds a bit like the French Ultimes, also called 30 x 30s…30 meters wide and 30 meters long.
PD: Yeah, and now there is a replica of it out there now.
Coop: Oh, I gotta see this!
PD: (Chuckles.) That was one of the more fun experiences growing up, flying around the Sound on this thing.
Coop: Yikes, I bet. Makes the 420 look a bit ordinary.
PD: Well you know, sail what you got. What else do you want to know?
Coop: So, that was your misspent youth. Was there sailing in your high school and or college life?
PD: I went to high school, my first three years, in south Florida. We had moved down there in 1971 and I was not sailing too much, but I did have jobs in boatyards learning how to varnish. I was a teenager and cheap labor. I was hanging around places like Derecktor Shipyard in Fort Lauderdale, and of course it was a totally different time. I’d go out on sea trials and short deliveries so that was all the sailing I did then. I then transferred to boarding school outside of Boston, but there was no sailing there. My sailing was still summer only. I had learned a lot of varnishing, had gotten really good at it frankly, in Florida and so I was working at varnishing boats, old catboats and the like.
I went to BU, but I did not sail. I was too busy doing other things, so the summer was my sailing time. I was more of a “go for a sail” cruising sailor, I suppose you could call it. Racing was just anxious-making, intense. It was fun for a while in the 420, and then it wasn’t fun so I kind of faded out of it.
Coop: All good. We find you cruising a 420, becoming a wood-head and a senior ranking member of the Great Island Varnish Mafia. Then after college…
PD: After college I went into finance, to Wall Street.
Coop: Woah, hang on. You must have been in the vanguard of women on Wall Street at that time?
PD: (A long silence) We were inexpensive labor in those days. Yes, but there was a lot of upside opportunity. But I did not stay in it long. It was just not my milieu. My sailing at this point was cruising with friends on various boats. I then gravitated to powerboats when my son was born, but still very Cape Cod-centric.
Coop: The Cape is, has always been, your home base as it were.
PD: Yes, although now that I am in Newport I love it here. ■
Look for Part 2 of Coop’s conversation with Phyllis in our August edition.