The Block Island Times

Sailing Daytona Beach — on a bike

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Apr 13, 2013

To say I’ve met some characters at the Point Judith ferry docks over the past few decades is an understatement. So, given that, you need to work with me and visualize what you’re about to read. More than a month ago, a 73-year old guy named Jerry checked his car in to board the ferry, then came over to tell me that he’s not been to Block Island in a long time. He suddenly launched into a monologue about how he sailed almost the entire length of Daytona Beach ― on his bicycle. (I started taking notes immediately.)

Last winter, Jerry rigged up a bolt of cloth by stapling it to a pole. He secured the mast to his bike with duct tape, and then using his arm as a boom, took off on a broad reach along the hard packed sand of Daytona Beach. He sailed from the Port Orange Pavilion, a little south of Daytona and headed along the beach almost to the Ponce Deleon Inlet ― about twenty miles ― then sailed back to town.

“It was blowing onshore about 20 knots and I was going about 30 knots. A seagull was flying right along with me almost touching my arm.” (I didn’t doubt Jerry’s veracity because I lived in Daytona and his landmarks were spot on.) “One night I was sailing and fell, my front wheel turned abruptly. I broke two ribs but it wasn’t that bad. I had an LED head lamp on my head, and a red light rigged to my back. I was flying along and went flying right over the handlebars. Wow, that scared me!”

Jerry was a mechanical engineer who studied at Tufts, in Boston. He learned to sail on a little boat called a Weenip 14. They were used on the Charles River by students from the university. Jerry bought one and sailed it out of Nahant, north of Boston. “One night I sailed out into the ocean after work, and I was sailing back when the wind died. I fell asleep. Then I heard some people screaming some curses at me above my head. I woke up and I was lying next to a freighter coming into Boston Harbor. The men had accents but I sure understood the curses. So I paddled my boat away from the ship using my hands so they could get to where they were going; they were pretty upset, I’ll tell ya.”

In 1962, Jerry bought a Lawley 30 for $100, which was located four feet below the surface of the water off Nahant. The Lawley was a classic design built of mahogany in 1940. After buying the boat, the Harbormaster told him he had to move it or it would be detonated; it was a navigational hazard. Jerry had divers rig airbags inside her and floated her to the surface. There was nothing wrong with the hull; she just was neglected and sank. He later lost the Lawley to a storm. Sadly, she broke up on a sandbar.

Jerry had a professor at Tufts that he liked who designed the heat shield for NASA’s Mercury and Apollo missions. “After I worked for General Electric, in Revere (he sailed his bike to work there, also), I ended up working in Binghamton, New York. I oversaw the construction of the simulators for the Apollo 13 missions, the LEM (Lunar Excursion Modules), too. We made two sets of simulators for NASA; one for Cape Kennedy and one for Houston.” Of course if you’re a baby-boomer, you remember that memorable phrase embedded in our vernacular, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The mate called to load the ferry, and Jerry’s wife was trying to corral her husband so they wouldn’t miss the boat — she looked very concerned as she talked to Jerry. I assured her that they would make it to Block Island, and she could relax aboard the ferry; we’d be loading soon. Finally, I’d scribbled all I could, but knew I’d just skimmed the surface of this guy’s mind. As Jerry left for Block Island, he told me he had trouble reading as a young guy, but that he kind of knew mathematically how things worked. I’ll go out on a limb here and bet that he did, and still does.

We agreed that when things went bad on the Apollo 13 mission, a “can do” mindset prevailed at Houston and Cape Kennedy; those men were coming back. The redundancy built into the Apollo mission that Jerry oversaw served the astronauts and got them safely back to earth. We talked about our leaders during that time, and agreed that President John Kennedy had the sand to say that we would put a man on the moon within 10 years. I always felt that Kennedy was really out on a limb politically with that statement, but I loved his audacity, and that NASA and other companies working together pulled it off. The Daytona Beach sailor that I met at the ferry dock came of age in America as a “can do” guy, and I hope that we will remain a “can do” nation.

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