The Johnny Appleseed of sailing

Fri, 12/02/2016 - 11:15am

“Some people try to give me money, but I won’t take it,” says Bill Dunleavy, “my advertising leaflet says 'free' sailing lessons, so it’s free.” This quote from Dunleavey says much about the man. First of all, it’s crystal clear that he is generous. Secondly, he obviously has a passion for sailing. Thirdly, he loves sharing his passion for sailing, ahem, for free.  This is all good, refreshing stuff to hear. (More about this later).

Several weeks ago, Bill was getting his boat ready in Newport — he was tied up to the dock next to my sailboat — so I stopped by to see how things were going with his preparation for heading south. He does the same drill every fall; he leaves Payne’s Dock, and then heads to Newport to get her ready for the trip to warmer climes.

Stepping aboard Kemo Sabay, we find a smiling and friendly guy who is acclimated to living aboard a boat. Dunleavey, is a lean, strong and salty-looking guy who stands about 6’ 3." He and his boat are perfectly suited for each other. She’s a 41-foot cutter-rigged Hans Christian, built in 1991. Her beam and warm wood tones give her salon a very loose and homelike feel. This boat is solidly built, and was designed for blue water sailing. “I bought the boat from a couple from Prudence Island who had done a circumnavigation in her,” he said, “she’s built to take a pounding. She’s a great boat,” says a smiling Dunleavy. Clearly, he has confidence in her. Moreover, it’s been his home since 2004. Dunleavy’s first trip south was memorable; he brought islanders — and very capable sailors — Ed McGovern, Dave Todd, and Champ Starr along for the trip south. “It was cold, cold, cold, but we saw the Northern Lights off our stern,” he said.

In the early ‘70s, Bill Dunleavy’s sister Suzan was working at The Spring House. Bill would go out and visit her while he was in college. After graduating from Quinnipiac in ’75, he moved out to Block Island in 1976 and started to work as a bartender — he’s still tending bar. “In college it was all about baseball,” he says, “I studied English, but all I wanted to do was play baseball.” While working on Block Island, he got a line on a 29-foot Pearson Triton.

“I was going to pick her up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and as we got near the marina, a buddy said, ‘Hey, check out the name of that bar.’ It was called Fiddler's Green, and that became the name of my first sailboat,” he said. Dunleavy lived aboard Fiddler’s Green in the summer on Block Island, then he would head south and tend bar down in Florida for the winter. “Sailing back to Block Island one spring in ‘82, I got caught off Cape Kennedy in a gale, and a guy who was sailing north with me wanted to get off the boat in Cocoa Beach. I had to single-hand her back to Block Island,” he said. Without the aid of an autopilot, he had to hand-steer his boat back to Block Island while sailing inside and outside the Intracoastal Waterway. That is a long slog to be hand-steering a boat. However, according to Dunleavey, “It was a tough sail, but you know what? That’s all a part of it."

On April 15, 1992, Bill Dunleavy and one of his sisters opened a bar on Sullivan’s Island. It’s called Dunleavy’s Pub, and it’s been a great fit for this seasoned, amiable and well-informed barkeep. Dunleavey loves being a bartender. He's a very personable guy who seems to have found a nice balance with his seasonal jobs, and his nomadic lifestyle. This fall, after rigging out Kemo Sabay, he and Dave Todd, along with one of Bill’s high school buddies, Pete De Pascale, left Newport Harbor with a brisk and cool Northwest wind — 15 to 20 knots. He pointed his boat south, and rode this perfect fair wind, south. He posted a picture on Facebook as Kemo Sabay weathered the wind farm off Block Island. The above picture was taken while rounding Cape Hatteras and heading for Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. The three men had a safe passage, and now, as the others return, Dunleavy will stay in South Carolina for the winter, and then return to Block Island in the spring. All for the life of the rolling sea.

That life brings him to Block Island. There's a sign that says “Free beginner sailing lessons. See Bill Dunleavy at Payne’s Dock (New Harbor)." Dunleavy calls this his “high-tech advertising.” "Bill, why the “free” sailing lessons?" We want to know about this. As Bill explains it, “I played baseball, basketball, football, and track in high school and college. I loved sports, and you can only imagine the umpteen coaches who sacrificed their time for me. Well, it was simply time to give back,” he says, “so that’s what I do, I teach people to sail for free.” Dunleavy keeps his Sun Fish over near Payne’s Dock, and that’s where folks can find him if they want to learn to sail. “I love to take a kid out for the first time, and see how excited they get after making a few tacks,” he said. This can be a life changing event for certain people; Dunleavey knows this.

Bill Dunleavy is a guy who’s had a nice run in his life. He loves living aboard his boat, and his job. Furthermore, he can gain satisfaction by teaching a kid or adult to sail a small boat. He’s at the place in his life where this is what he is supposed to be doing. Finally, he’s a guy who rolls with the flow, and the following says it all about sailor Bill Dunleavy. “If the wind goes slack, then I wait for it to air up. Once, while heading back from Sullivan’s Island, I was 50 miles southwest of Block Island and I just slept, ate, and read. Then, the wind gradually picked up and the boat came to life, clacking and creaking, and off she went to New Harbor. It’s all part of it; you just go with what happens.”

‘Nuff said.