I have not told anyone about the theme of this month’s essay, nor have I asked if it’s OK to write on the subject. I have thought about one or the other or both for about a week. All the while, each afternoon we gather to sail, watching, mostly, the smiles and good cheer returning. For most, not all, for some still show the pain they carry. I’m fortunate in that I have a lifetime of hiding pain pretty well. But hiding it, even well, does not mean it’s not there.

We are four high schools sailing at Sail Newport. Our Master of Ceremonies is Regatta Manager Nick Ewenson. It is with Nick that most administration of the high school sailing season at Sail Newport is conducted. Sometimes by email, less so text, but mainly comms twixt Nick and the coaches are conducted through a What’s App group. Phone calls are not unusual as circumstances dictate, but a call at 0815 Friday is kinda unusual, though since we host our weekly regattas on Fridays, not unheard of.

Between sips of coffee, I answered, “Nick, g’day mate. What’s up?” There was a blank space where the usual pre-topic pleasantries generally go. My mental recording picked up the action at “…died last night.” “What?” I replied. “What happened?” Nick had no real actionable information on this very sad news.

Nick was on an email distribution to area high school ADs saying that this young fella, well known to all the sailors generally and the squads at Sail Newport in particular, was “no longer with us.”

There were bits about, “Do the other kids know?” (not yet). “What about Friday Night Lights (the aforementioned regatta)?” To be determined…There was already a plan to have grief counselors from the school available at Sail Newport that afternoon. I remember thinking it sounded odd to be hosting a regatta with grief counselors on site, but that is I guess one of the many odd things that pass through our brains under such circumstances.

Perhaps like many of us, when you’re a certain age, the circle of people you know who are dying, or have crossed the bar, increases. Most recently my brother died, but he was 84 and the parts were worn out. I remember two guys I knew who were lost at sea. One of whom, a Frenchman and a prominent solo racing guy, I had interviewed for Sailing World years ago, for the now recently late Dan Dickerson. My parents, my aunt, older friends; these final castings off all seem “normal” in the big scheme. But a high school senior? That’s way out of the order of things.

I have been alternatively, or sometimes all at once, sad, angry, stunned, crushed, sad for his contemporaries, his school mates, his sailing and social mates. I’ve felt helpless, confused, and frankly worried. I rang off with Nick and sat like the proverbial stunned mullet for the rest of the coffee.

Memories wash by, as they do. I’d seen him on Wednesday, perhaps Tuesday afternoon. He was a big guy, almost my size though not so heavy, full of confidence and beans. Always ready to spend a minute chatting.

The collective kids organized a vigil at Fort Adams that evening. Many of them were holding small candles. The crowd was out on the point near the inner basin. Peering back to the south, it looked as packed as a music festival. His classmates honored him with short commentaries about how he’d helped them with their homework and was always there with a smile. He was a leader in the Junior ROTC, and a number of students were in uniform.

Disbelief is in the mix too. How can this be? What’s going on in this world? And so it goes, while a second coffee was Keurig’ing. The other part of my brain was tackling topics that needed immediate addressing: That afternoon’s regatta. Driving to Maine after sailing that day to compete in a qualifier to advance to the Herreshoff Finals in a couple weeks. This is an all-girls New England regional event, and we were driving up to get the jump on the 0930-report time in Portland. There are parents to tell of this death, with the admonition to stand by on travel arrangements. I have not got to this afternoon’s regatta, let alone tomorrow…

All this during the Keurig’s 90 seconds. Back down to my office. Humm, OK, jungle drums are already beating, better get the school into the loop. I called and briefed the Head of School with what I knew. He advised he’d brief their counselors and we’d stay in touch.

Not long after, he called back and asked if I could come over to the school. Of course. We agreed I would arrive at 1300. “The word is spreading,” he said. Oh man, one word at a time, prime ground for rumor building. I arrived at the school and was directed to the chapel. I knocked gently and entered. Due to the way the door is hinged I first saw, on the left, the school’s priest, the counselor, and the dean. As I widened the door, I saw the sailing team on the right side. I peered around the door and saw the bulk of the team, mainly girls, sitting, all stunned. Many, if not actively in tears, had just stopped crying. I was not far behind, for the young man, his family and friends, but for my kids too. I offered a muted, “Hi, gang, I am so sorry.” This feels like such a hollow, vacuous phrase. “Sorry” is for when you let the door go as someone’s walking in behind you and they spill their coffee, not a comment marking the snipping off of a flowering young human. It feels so empty, almost embarrassingly so. Likewise, the next comment, “How you doing?” “Oh, we’re just dandy, coach,” but they’re too polite to take their grief out on me. I just wanted to give them all a big hug and tell them, “It’ll be OK.” Another societal fallacy. How on Earth can this EVER be OK?

One of the school staff asked if I wanted a few minutes with them, without the staff in the chapel. I carefully defaulted to my auto-wired response to pain: humor. “Geeze father, I dunno if they want me in here alone. They get enough of me at sailing.” There were a couple halfhearted chuckles. He smiled kindly and the three departed. I pulled up a chair and sat facing them, thinking, “What on Earth can one say?”

Unusually for me, I simply sat and said nothing for what felt like a couple minutes. Probably a few seconds. I asked if anyone knew him outside of sailing. Turns out one of the girls does. She is contemporary with his younger brother and their mother was her math teacher in middle school. They live in the same ‘hood and the families see each other in church. One asked if I had a picture of him. A few minutes of thumbing through my phone seemed impertinent. I suppose I’m wired to keep the conversation going, even when shutting up would be the better move. I nattered along on the following lines (not verbatim):

You have heard me call everyone “Mate.” Mate is a term of endearment in Aussie. But a mate is also someone who will answer your call at 0300, bring bail money and beer to the police station, and give you an earful on being a dope all the way home (Some chuckles – the point). In short, mates look after each other. Just like sailors. You know the first rule of the sea is you must render aid to a mariner in distress. This means literally, “Look after yer mates,” even if you don’t know them. I ask – implore – you to look after each other now.

I don’t know how it’s viewed in the population as a whole, but it seems to me that trying to make people feel better in times of grief is a hard duty. I’m not convinced we can. After that visit to the chapel, I am not certain we should. Thinking about my own stress, my venting is writing about it. Perhaps writing about it in a magazine may not be the best decision, but I want to recognize the pain my sailors are going through, and the young fellow’s family his mates, and the wider circle who are stunned by his passing.

Not sure it makes them feel any less crappy, but selfishly it does something for me. But I still felt crappy, even that Sunday night.

A few days later I attended the service for him. Big Catholic church do. I was late, and when I entered the foyer it was obvious, if the cars out front did not tell you, it was a fully subscribed ceremony. An usher motioned me downstairs, noting in a hushed voice it was Standing Room Only. Too bloody right.

Bon Courage, young fella. ■