The American TV anchorman in full interview

The late, great American TV anchorman, Walter Cronkite, was a lifelong sailor who preferred the deck of a yacht to the glare of the TV studio. Author and journalist Pearl Duncan made a lenghty interview with the man which she sent to YM.

We have reproduced it in full here:

Twelve years ago, I had a 43 foot Wassail 42. It was a unique design, in that it was a yawl. It was built as a cutter, not a ketch, and my wife and I liked the cutter’s performance much better than the ketch’s, but I still wanted a split rig, so I worked with the designer, William Crealock, and we worked out the means whereby we could leave the cutter rig intact. And put a little spanker on the stern, which gave me the split rig and balanced the boat absolutely perfectly. It turned out to be a marvelous design for cruising.

The split rig, cutter rig, did very well under test. Like the cutter, the split rig of the cutter-yawl had greater facility to change sails, to adjust the amount of canvass we were going to carry to meet the conditions of the moment. It was built in 1976 and it was a delight. And it was very easy to handle. I replaced it three years ago. And now I sail a boat that is highly customized, a Sunward 48, built by Sunward Yachts of Wilmington, North Carolina. It is a 48-foot cruising ketch, designed by Al Mason, when he was at Sparkman & Stephens. It was built in 1986, and the performance is great.

It’s a heavy boat, 48,000 pounds. It lays nicely to a rough sea and yet makes good way in a light breeze. The interior, as with all Mason designs, makes maximum use of the space. We have four separate cabins: V-berths, forward, over-and-under bunks immediately aft, a single bunkroom for the crew, and the owner’s stateroom, aft. The saloon is still immense, with a table seating seven. It has all the goodies – air conditioning, microwave, plenty of cold storage space. And a near walk-in engine room.

I sail always with one other person. The boat can’t be handled alone and I hesitate to handle it alone. I’ve got a little bit of back problem and I worry about having to put too much strain on it. It doesn’t bother me so much that I don’t play a lot of singles tennis, but I am afraid of being out at sea by myself and having my back go out. So I have a full-time person aboard the boat. I call him my port captain.

When I’m at sea, I’m the captain. He’s the captain when we’re at the dock; but he takes care of the boat, handles maintenance, and delivers it. I have gotten to the point where I rather eschew the hard work, the foredeck work. I like navigation very much even on a day trip. I like to play with the loran, sepner, and the radar, and plot courses. This is what makes cruising so interesting to me. I like going to places, strange places, places where there are some navigational problems involved.

It’s too bad that everybody can’t experience sailing. I think it is interesting seeing countries and getting down to the waterways of nations – the bays, inlets, rivers are a remarkable way to see countries. It gives a perspective you can’t get any other way. All countries come alive from the shore. I think you get a new feeling for people by being on a boat.

Every place has its own value, its own attraction as a cruising ground. I like almost anything — Long Island North, in the Northeast, on the Eastern Seaboard, has beautiful sailing. Of course we all know that lower Long Island has become less interesting in recent years because of the wind variance created by the heavy population on Long Island; winds from the east gets diverted by the heat of Long Island Sound.

From Stratford Shole on the northeast to the east, the winds are good, and sailing is marvelous and there are numerous places to go. I think it’s one of the great sailing grounds of all times. Maine of course is superb. Thousands and thousands of miles of sea islands and sea coast, marvelous bays, rivers and all the islands, just ideal, except for the fog and of course the season is short. It gets pretty cold in the winter, but otherwise, it’s good. Maybe fog is helpful in keeping down the total boating population and making it a little more comfortable for those of us who do use it.

Also of course the Caribbean; the Windward Islands have great sailing, primarily because of the prevailing winds, always out of the eastern quadrant. And since the islands are basically north and south, you can sail year-round on a beam reach. And it’s lovely getting there. It has also gotten crowded, but the world has gotten crowded.

Going down the East Coast’s Intercoastal Waterway is a beautiful experience. I did the book, South by Southeast, with 100 paintings by Ray Ellis and I described the many scenes of American life. This, my first art/coffee table book, covered the area from Baltimore to the Keys, particularly the marshlands, Georgia and South Carolina. These marshes are just gorgeous with wildlife.

The way the marshes awaken, when you are down there, you start a little before dawn. The first light. I like to do that anyway. The sawgrass rises to meet the day, standing straight up, the blades of sawgrass with dew on them sparkle. All through the marsh grass, the birds are rising, the cormorants, the seagulls, the pelicans and other marshland birds, and the egrets, stepping their way gently along the shore. As the day goes on, the marsh grass wilts a little under the evening sun. The sparkling dew forms. And a little fog rises, the morning fog, the haze, as the dew boils away. And through all of that the fishing boats: the superstructures, fishing boats, meandering through the marsh grass, captain of the sea.

It’s a scene you can’t duplicate in life. People inland enjoy the wildlife too. But the teaming wildlife along the seashore is available only to those who get out either on the seashore itself, or a boat. And this marsh area is one that is particularly interesting. You can only get there by boat. This is a land gap, an added attraction for cruising the coast.

It was preserved rather late; a lot of it has been destroyed. But we’re now preserving it fairly well. My book with Ray Ellis, North by Northeast, covered the area from Cape May to the Canadian border. Ray Ellis and I are now working on a book on the West Coast to be called, Westwind. It will be published in time for Christmas, 1990. My other book, Remembering the Moon are excerpts from my coverage of the first moon landing on the moon on July 20th, 1969.

Incidentally, the titles of the first two books, South by Southeast, and North by Northeast, are NOT compass points, as any sailor knows. I have had a lot of comment on this from my friends, but I tell them, the publisher just happens to like the ring of the names.

I haven’t sailed the North Coast of South America, though that’s my next major project, and I haven’t sailed Central America. I gather that’s quite fascinating. I have sailed the Swedish Archipelago and Norway, and that’s great sailing. I haven’t sailed it as much as I’d like. I have sailed the West Coast of Norway on an Iceland charter boat, a 12-meter boat, built in 1920. In the last three years we have sailed Wyntje from the Canadian border to Grenada. The summers primarily are spent in Martha’s Vineyard and the winters in the Caribbean.

All countries come alive from the shore. I think you get a new feeling for people by being on a boat. I distinguish boaters from other tourists. They recognize problems of tides and currents and winds, as they go from one shore to another, sharing a life that a lot of fishermen share. I think also, living aboard a boat, you’re resupplying, and sharing a life with the people. Clearing customs, doing things the average tourist doesn’t do. And, tourists don’t get into small fishing village and stores. Sailing is a way of getting to know people better than any other way.

I find having sailed around Scandinavia, the Pacific, Australia, Alaska, East Coast United States, and the Caribbean, I feel you really get to know the people far better. I’ve gotten spoiled. I don’t like a trip that isn’t on water.

Cruising is total relaxation, even under stress, conditions which occur occasionally in sailing. The stress is of a vastly different sort from the business or communications world. And there is relaxing stress. The change, which is a form of stress, is relaxation. I like lying out in the open. I have no doubt I’ve gained from sailing. I’m sure it’s been physically very therapeutic. Some say the kind of sailing I do — cruising, is not active enough to set the muscles to work.

Sailing is a way to commune with nature. I hate the restriction of a house or office building. I am very happy camping out. I like the stars, sun, weather. Even when it’s raining, it is more comfortable to be outside than it is inside. So I like being on the deck of a boat. It gives me a sense that I can translate into the business world.

In sailing, there is obviously a command structure and a relationship of people at work, of persons; that is important on a boat. A lot of fun is made of the Captain Blygh syndrome, the guy who gets on a boat and starts giving orders to his wife and children. And obviously that can be vastly overdone. It has ruined a lot of good sailing, and a lot of good sailing relationships – probably a lot of good family relationships and relationships with friends. But, having said that, it is also just as true that it is necessary at times that one person’s word is law. The captain is the captain. People must respond to orders; when a crisis is on hand, there is no time to debate.

There are other moments in sailing to have a staff meeting and consider the course of action. I do that on my boat, when it’s a matter of deciding when one course might be less comfortable than another. I put that to a vote with my crew – which way they would like to do it. It doesn’t make any difference to me. And if we’re going to live on the boat, why not make everybody happy? So we sometimes have a democratic vote: the course to take, the route to take, or whether to sail at night or don’t.

But when the crisis comes, people have to respond to one single voice.

So you do learn something about how to handle people, how you can best give commands without creating offense. Not to be too overbearing. I think that’s all part of life and the experience is intensified when you’ve got a situation, which can be one of life or death.

I put together a crew for offshore sailing. In the kind of critical sailing I’m talking about now, offshore gear can fail; this can be a tragic situation at sea at night. I’ve got a crew I’ve put together for long distance of offshore sailing, which consists of some regular stock players that I go to first. I know they can go and they are a fun crowd.

I’ve fallen into a good source of good sailors, airline pilots. And sort of my chief recruiting officer is Mike Ashford, an Eastern pilot who also owns McGarvey’s in Annapolis, the best sailors’ watering hole on the East Coast. He owns a skipjack, races in the Chesapeake Skipjack races. I sail down there every year. There’s also an explorer, a lawyer sometime restaurant operator, Brian Carey, Arctic explorer, adventurer.

My wife Mary sails with me all the time when we’re sailing inshore. She doesn’t like the offshore passages. She loves cruises. We have a long list of friends who frequently join us aboard. Mr. and Mrs. Andy Rooney.

I’m the skipper. Depending on the size of the crew, that determines what life is like aboard. It we’re going on a long offshore passage, we set up watches so that everybody shares the onerous duties, the hours people don’t like. On offshore passages, life is very pleasant. There are hours in the day when everybody’s up; early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, and in the evening for dinner. The rest of the time, part of the crew is sleeping, or up and around.

The daytime gets a little messy, some sleep and some don’t when they’re supposed to, and those who haven’t slept during the day are not quite as efficient as they ought to be at night. It’s a normal way to live. If I have enough crew, normally 7, that leaves me free to not take a watch. Then I’m up frequently during the night to do navigational chores, and as captain, make decisions if we need any. There are always two persons on deck. We overlap watches, so there is a fresh man coming up every hour. We have three watches of two people each. The crew likes short watches of two to three hours, depending on the voyage. I think that’s a better way to do it.

At night, it’s very easy to become somber. With a fresh man every hour, I know the logs are kept properly. And the crew is alert.

Wyntje, my boat, is named after the first woman who married a Cronkite in the New Amsterdam colony, November 16, 1642. The boat is in honor of all the women who made Cronkite men happy in the New World. The first boat, built in 1976, and the second, built in 1986, have been a delight.

People you meet sailing, cruising, are a wonderful cross-section of humanity. You know they are interested in the sea. You’ve got this common bond of the sea.

I am amazed at the people who cross oceans today. I don’t think the public has any knowledge, or a general feeling, of how many people are out there crossing the ocean. It’s a lot to me to be crossing the ocean in a small boat. I think I saw a figure of 2,300 boats or something like that checking through various islands in the Caribbean last year. The singlehanders I find very hard to understand. Thirty days is a long time to be out there and it’s quite a risk, very risky business.

There are a lot of young people today in the sailing scene, the cruising scene. A lot of them have been lured by the sea. A lot of them are very bright. There’s a lot to be learned from the experience at sea. There are some jobs, but not many good jobs. Captain of a boat is a fine marvelous career; I envy those who do it.

As a sailor, I don’t have any problems. I have felt like one of the masses. Traveling to some of the islands of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, with me, there is no recognition factor, and I enjoy that. I know that I’m not getting special treatment. And while in some places, I’d like to have special treatment, on the other hand, it’s nice to feel that I’m getting the common touch that everybody shares.’

Pearl Duncan