Through all my wanderings in salt water, I’d never given much serious thought to the underlying questions of what would attract a guy from Kentucky to the sea. I just know that over the course of my entire adult life, I’ve loved it and have been compelled to be near it and on it.
Call me unsophisticated, but I’ve never put much stock in the notion of genetic predispositions to things. I’ve lived most of my life marching to my own tune, denying and defying the notion that I’m somehow a prisoner of the DNA my ancestors handed down to me. I see plenty of myself in my sons and plenty of my parents in me, but I suppose I’ve generally favored the nurture argument over nature. I’ve shared some of my passions with my children—especially those involving the outdoors—and they’ve taken some and left some behind, which is as it should be, but I’ve never burdened them with the notion that they should do something I love because it’s “in their blood.”
However, as I approach my 60s, my outlook is officially under review. A recent foray into a genealogy project drove me into some research done by a distant relative, which revealed a strong seafaring tradition, albeit focused on the inland waterways.
I’d always been aware that my ancestors on my mother’s side were into commercial shipping on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. My great-great-grandfather, Capt. James T. Duffy, made his fortune in the coal-shipping and packet businesses on the river. As late as my teens, I would frequently see towboats bearing the names of my ancestors and relatives pushing barges loaded with coal and sand.
Up another fork of that line was Capt. Thomas Jefferson Howard. His obituary in 1909 describes him as “one of the best-known river men on the Ohio and Mississippi and the last surviving brother of the three famous boatbuilders, James, Daniel and John Howard.” It goes on to state that he served as chief clerk at various times on some of the most famous river steamers of the day including the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez. A prominent steamboat museum in southern Indiana occupies his family home and bears his name.
After messing about on small boats as a child, in my late teens I became aware of a compelling need to go sailing—not on the Ohio where I grew up or on the Great Lakes where I migrated to college, but on the Atlantic Ocean, and specifically, on the New England coast. While I could have gone sailing anywhere, that region to me embodied a seafaring tradition that tracks back to the European settlement of our country, not to mention the richest yachting culture in America.
I suppose in my youth I didn’t fully appreciate my own maritime legacy as well I could have, but as I’ve aged, I’ve begun to wonder whether those genes carry some weight after all. People often ask me how a Kentucky boy got into the trade I practice. My usual response is: “It’s a long story.” And so it is—perhaps one that goes back to the early 19th century. I guess it’s always been in my blood. It just needed a dash of salt.