Farewell, My Friend
Capt. Richard Thiel was the Editor-in-Chief of Power & Motoryacht for 25 years—in that time, he warmed many hearts, mentored many souls, had a helluva lot of fun, and, in his own unique way, became a veritable shining star of marine journalism.
It was about 7:30 on a recent Sunday morning when the phone rang. I glanced at the Connecticut area code on the ID screen before picking up the receiver and, for some reason I can’t to this day explain, felt a tense, premonitory anxiety that produced a shudder, head to foot. Whatever the caller had to say, it was not going to be good. I was certain of that.
“Bill, it’s Christine,” said the caller, “It’s about Richard—he’s had a stroke. He’s not doing well, Bill. He’s not doing well at all.”
I had been standing. Now I sat down, and, losing touch with my immediate surroundings, tried to concentrate on exactly what Capt. Richard Thiel’s wife, Christine, was saying. Richard had not had just one stroke, apparently, he’d already had several. He was at Yale New Haven Hospital, but would soon be transferred to a hospice in Branford, Connecticut.
“I’m so sorry,” I concluded after we had talked a good while, “I don’t know what to say—Richard always took such good care of himself, exercising and all. I’ll see what kind of flights I can get from Tallahassee up to Hartford and call you back, Christine.”
I was stunned. Richard and I had been friends for almost three decades, going all the way back to the summer of 1988, when he left his job as technical editor of Boating magazine to become executive editor of Power & Motoryacht. In 2009, when he and Christine got married, I had come up from Florida for the festivities, and stayed at their house for a couple of days, along with Richard’s daughter, Rikki Lee, and Matthew Rosen, who was soon to become his stepson. Richard was still editor-in-chief of Power & Motoryacht then, a legendary marine journalist if ever there was one, although such a portrayal, I’m sure, would have stretched way beyond his self-deprecating comfort zone.
A Guy Who Did Things Well
As you might imagine, I had plenty to think about during the flight up to Hartford, reviewing memories, stories really, about stuff Richard and I had done together. One of the most representative and revelatory of the lot came out of a trip we took five years ago, from Jacksonville, Florida, to the Golden Isles of Georgia and back, on my old Grand Banks trawler, Betty Jane. The point of the whole deal was relaxation—we had agreed long before taking departure to just have fun. No notes. No work-related photos. No nose-to-the-grindstone stuff.
The evening we pulled into Fernandina Harbor Marina in Fernandina Beach, Florida, the weather was cold and iffy, in keeping with the late-November time frame. The wind was blowing half a gale. And low tide was super-low, as it tends to be in northern Florida in the winter.
Because the spray-and-spume-enlivened surge was so fierce on the outboard side of the long face dock that guards the outer edge of the marina, we opted to go inside, where it was calmer. The only trouble was that lots of other boaters had made the same decision earlier in the day, and the inboard side of the dock was jam-packed with all manner of watercraft.
There was one spot where we could possibly squeeze in alongside, however. Or at least that was what the harbormaster said via his handheld VHF as he watched us idle slowly past, en route to a little turning basin. What we were to do, he explained, was swing a full 360, come back to the squeeze-in spot, duck in very carefully, and somehow tie up alongside, with Betty’s bow pulpit overhanging the taffrail of a big ketch just ahead, and her swim platform clearing the stem of a motoryacht by inches just behind.
Richard said he would handle the spring line, a very critical task under the circumstances, although our plan was simple enough: I would ease Betty nose-first into the berth and goose her diesel to start the stern swinging in, and Richard would control all movement forward with the spring.
“Ready!” Richard yelled from the deck below, as I slowly worked us in via the controls on the flying bridge. Then, to my great amazement and heartwarming relief, he almost immediately yelled, “Spring on,” an announcement that essentially took all the pressure off. Much emboldened, I throttled Betty up, the stern swung in nicely, and Richard stopped us right where we needed to stop via the most expeditiously thrown, snubbed, and tied-off spring line that’s ever saved my personal boathandling bacon. Richard was, in so many ways, a natural—a guy who did things well, sometimes almost miraculously well.
“Whoooeeee,” the harbormaster observed, eyeing Richard, “You guys really know what you’re doin’.”
I’ll Never, Ever Tell
Earlier during that same jaunt, something else happened that was also quite representative and revelatory, truly indicative of Richard’s character, his way of looking at life and living it. We were chugging along the Intracoastal Waterway at the time, not far from the U.S. Navy’s Kings Bay sub base in southern Georgia, and the channel we were navigating was narrow and fraught with a big, middle-ground shoal that was underwater, wholly invisible, due to the state of the tide.
“Want a sandwich?” I asked. Richard was handling the helm while I took a breather, kicked back in the copilot’s seat. “We got ham, turkey, Swiss, tomatoes, and, I think, some lettuce.”
Soon, down below in the galley, I hummed a tune, as I am wont to do when happy, while making a couple of genuine Dagwoods, complete with potato chips and pickles, all nicely assembled on paper plates. The green water sliding past the galley windows was beautiful. The sky was beautiful. Everything was beautiful. But then?
BUMP! BUMP! BUMP! Cripes! We were running aground! Dropping everything, I made the trip to the flying bridge in half a split second and there was Richard in the midst of correcting for what he termed (with considerable chagrin) a lapse of concentration—he had wandered from the channel a bit and touched bottom a few times.
“Damn, Bill,” he said, as he smoothed Betty into deeper water, “I’m so sorry—the number on that nun back there was so hard to read. I was trying to look it up on the chart and got sidetracked. Before I knew it—bam!”
“No big deal, RT,” I replied, then told him about doing almost the same thing some years before. Heck, I’d come close to driving Betty smack dab into the side of a canal one afternoon, after becoming overly focused on a GPS plotting issue. Had it not been for a guy blowing his boat’s horn behind me, I would’ve skewered a sand bank with Betty’s bow pulpit.
“But don’t worry,” I assured my friend, “This stays aboard the Betty Jane—I’ll never mention it to a living soul, not in this lifetime, anyway. Not a word.”
And I meant it. After all, how would it have looked had word gotten out? The editor-in-chief of a national recreational marine magazine runs his senior editor’s boat aground! In broad daylight! With a chart book in his lap! And a plotter glowing with the appropriate electronic cartography right before his very eyes!
Richard didn’t care, though. When I read his regular editorial letter a couple of months later in Power & Motoryacht, I was darn near flabbergasted to find a very truthful and courageous explanation of the whole affair. He blamed it on “the particularly male characteristic to focus on fixing something even when it’s not the most critical task at hand,” and, in doing so, probably reminded a whole bunch of readers (including me) of a bit of navigational bad behavior that’s dangerous, pervasive, and seldom if ever acknowledged, let alone honestly publicized.
“My only consolation,” he humbly and instructively admitted at the end of the piece, “was that I’d again learned that lesson about tending to first things first.”
A Rocking Chair at Bradley International Airport
Richard had this signature habit of sometimes simply disappearing, whether from a big, uproarious party, a giant, flesh-pressing event, or any sort of gathering that he found stuffy or cloying. With the irony that so often characterized his humor, he referred to the practice as “taking Irish leave,” a custom whereby the leave-taker goes out the side door of a bar or pub, subtly, without saying goodbye to anyone.
“Where’s Richard?” a friend would wonder at some point during a big boat-show extravaganza. Then another friend would admit to not really knowing, although he or she would usually add that Richard had been spotted earlier. A moment would pass. There would be an exchange of knowing glances. Then finally, grins, or laughs, or head-shaking would ensue. Richard had done it again. He’d somehow, mysteriously and invisibly, hit the trail.
When my plane touched down in Hartford, I was not as organized as I usually am. I had brought along an extra bag for no good reason, and was fumbling with the darn thing. Moreover, I was hurrying—I needed to get to the rental-car lot as soon as possible, and then drive south to the hospice where Richard was. For these reasons, I didn’t switch my cellphone on until I was well within the terminal, in fact not far from the exit.
Ding! It was Facebook Messenger.
The same tense, premonitory anxiety that I had felt in Florida came back. I opened the link, looked at my phone’s screen, and read a message from Richard’s daughter, Rikki. It said that her dad had passed away peacefully, quietly, about an hour before.
Again, I found a place to sit down—a rocking chair, just across the hall, with a decent view of all the airplanes and airport personnel, coming and going. Sure, I would drive down to the hospice in Branford to see Christine and Rikki soon. Most likely I could help out in some way. But before that, I wanted to just be quiet for a while, to try to understand what had just happened:
Capt. Richard Thiel: Californian; U.S. Army helicopter pilot; San Diego sheriff’s deputy; diesel mechanic par excellence; legendary editor-in-chief of Power & Motoryacht, most recently editor-at-large; a man of huge talents and even greater enthusiasms, with a sharp, self-deprecating wit, and an unparalleled propensity for having a fabulous time, wherever, whenever, or whyever he went; my great, good friend … was gone.
No sad goodbyes, no dramatic farewells, no teary valedictions. In keeping with an occasional and endearing habit of his, Richard had just, mysteriously and invisibly, slipped away. Farewell, my friend.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.