If there’s one person to blame for this adventure it would be my Uncle Hugh. You see, sometime in the late 1960s, after nearly a decade at MIT mashing together bleeding edge hardware and software into a fully functioning Apollo Guidance Computer* (AGC), Hugh took up sailing. To give you some idea of the importance of his work at Draper Labs you should watch Hugh on PBS’s NOVA episode: Apollo’s Daring Mission. Or better yet read his memoir, Left Brains for the Right Stuff – Computers, Space, and History.

The AGC was the first computer to empower humans do something that as a species we could not otherwise achieve. Computers doing cool stuff today is pretty banal, but 50 years ago Hugh’s work was pure science fiction. His work designing galactic navigation systems made sailboat racing out of Marblehead a walk in the park.

Sailing was deemed to be a good thing in our family and my mother actively encouraged it. With much hilarity we’d sail our small red dinghy across Scargo Pond during our long summers on Cape Cod. Sailing with Hugh in those days was a rare treat for us kids and always thrilling when we got the chance. After my parent’s divorce, summers at the Cape became less frequent and fortunately the Chicago Park District filled the gap with (low cost) summer sailing programs.

I got older, traveled the world, and eventually returned to Massachusetts in the early 1990s. All the while Hugh and his wife Vicki lived in Cambridge, MA, and sailed whenever they could with their kids, Robbie and CC.


By that time Hugh’s boat Mashantam, a lovingly cared for 35’ Vindö, was moored in Marion, MA. Marion is a pretty little harbor town roughly 90 minutes southeast of Boston. For many years Hugh and I day-sailed around Buzzard’s Bay, with an occasional overnighter if our schedules permitted. The arrangement was I would bring the beer and Hugh would bring the boat. It was a good deal.

Sailing with a captain that could (quite literally) navigate to the Moon and back, furthermore a Yankee that knows Buzzard’s Bay like the back of his slide rule, meant this lubber had no excuse for not learning the fundamentals of chart and compass coastal navigation. This was a transitional period for navigational technologies. Consumer-grade GPS was still expensive in those early days and deemed a luxury. Mashantam’s old Bendix radio direction finding unit (RDF) had retired along with most of the beacons. Nevertheless, the RDF was left in place atop a salon locker where it secured two winch handles, stuffed on either side and bulwarked by fiddles running around the top of the locker.


At Mashantam’s helm I learned how to hold a course and how to anticipate the roll of the sea and how to compensate early when steering downwind. Eventually, I could feel the current under my feet (just as Auntie Vicki said I should), and I got very good at spotting buoys a long way off. On Mashantam’s foredeck I learned the joys of hanking on and hanking off the jib. And how to flake the sail in the width of the side deck. I also learned how to reef Mashantam’s mainsail – the old way, with reef knots.

More valuable was assimilating Hugh’s style of sailing. Here are a few things every sailor should consider:

  • There’s a place for everything on a boat and things belong in their rightful place. Because, surely when you need those things, you don’t want to hunt for them
  • Things don’t happen that fast at sea, at least not in a sailboat
  • Listen to NOAA’s weather reports first thing in the morning, then reef early, reef often, or ignore it completely
  • A busy gut is a happy gut. To that end:
    • Five bells of the forenoon watch calls for a can of Spicy Hot V8 juice
    • Six bells hailed a savory snack of some sort – chips and salsa for example
    • Eight bells – well, that’s really the beer bell. Hugh would take a couple of chugs then issue forth an impressively long belch, announcing, “Ahh, the foghorn at Miller Light!”
    • One bell of the afternoon watch brought sandwiches. Occasionally pre-made, but usually handmade by the crew from various ingredients including such things as ham, salami, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard, tomatoes and lettuce.
    • An occasional snack as the afternoon deepened towards twilight, but mostly that time was spent anticipating dinner at The Wave – a late lamented Marion dining institution with the best chowder anywhere!
San Juan Islands

When I moved to the west coast in 2001 I was landlocked for many years, but my sea legs kept itching. Eventually I found my way up to Bellingham, WA, where I took lessons and chartered boats from San Juan Sailing. Steadily I began integrating all the elements of sailing I’d learned as Hugh’s crew into becoming captain of my own vessel.

Unk v2In 2008 it was my pleasure to invite Hugh on a week-long cruise around the San Juan Islands with a couple of mates, Bill and Tom. For the first time I would be captain and Hugh would serve as my first mate. After years of sailing together and our implicit trust in each other we fell into our respective roles. Most of the time the San Juan Islands make for easy sailing, but I was still damn glad to have Hugh with us.

Unlike many retirees, and somewhat to Vicki’s frustration, Hugh manages to massively over commit himself. He writes regularly and actively participates in local Cape Cod writing groups. As a past commander in the Cape Cod Sail and Power Squadron he still teaches navigation and maintains strong ties with the local boating community. As a NASA/MIT rocket scientist emeritus he supports various historical and scientific interest groups with technical advice. For Aleta and crew, Hugh is our sensai, cheerleader, and mailman, keeping us as honest as we can via the US Mail.

Wit, raconteur, rocket scientist, dog lover, sailor, and mentor. Cheers Unk!

(Note: this video was made 20 years ago. On a day when Hugh and I, assisted by Hugh’s amiable boss Chuck Norcutt, were trying to make sailors of my daughters Katie and Emma.)

*Click here to see an online AGC simulator




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