Do You Want to Go Sailing?
It’s hard to describe the curiosity I felt when I first saw the above photograph on the cover of the 2017 catalog for Defender Marine. The man reminded me of my late grandfather, Howard Nicholson, someone I’d never expect to see on the cover of anything related to boating.
Howard sold films for Paramount, served in the Pacific during the war, and then opened the Highway 51 Drive-in theater in Millington, Tennessee. He never owned a boat, but every summer he’d rent a tin skiff and we’d drift through the fog on the White River in Arkansas, ostensibly fishing for trout.
My first thought was that the photo was intended to satirize of the yachting glamor shot. The man’s cat-that-ate-the-canary grin was a jab at every art director who insisted on a perfectly blue sky as the cover-boat sails regally toward the camera. The twinkle in his eye was a knowing wink.
“What? Were you expecting someone younger, tan, and blonde?” he seemed to say.
Bringing people to the sea has always involved selling a dream. But sometime around the late 1980s when the popularity of cruising was riding high, the marketers’ idyllic visions became confused with reality. Based on conversations I had at this year’s Miami Boat Show, many of today’s boat buyers believe that there is nothing more to sailing across an ocean than writing a check and pushing an autopilot button.
It turns out that the man in the photo was Sheldon Lance, who founded Defender Marine in 1938, and the photo was indeed a subtle commentary on how the marine industry has changed. Lance, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, had a goal to make boating affordable to anyone, anywhere. His sales staff took the time to educate their customers, and his buyers were selective about the products they stocked. What began as a small mail-order business is now one of the longest-lived marine outfitting firms in the United States.
Sheldon, like my grandfather and many in his generation, never really stopped working. He ran the canvas cutting department at Defender into his 80s, often handling customer calls himself. His son Stephan, now CEO of Defender, selected the cover photo.
“I’ve had more calls about this cover than any other one,” Stephan said. “This was the start of our typical Sundays in boating season. [My brother] Andy and I would go get our Stiletto catamaran off the mooring and bring it to the dock. The cat, Floor Bored, would leave the dock at noon, rain or shine, wind or none. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome.”
A nostalgic image of a grandfather waiting on a wooden dock probably won’t inspire crowds of millenials to rush out and buy a boat, but I admire the way it defies the notion that the sea is reserved for telegenic young professionals on gorgeous boats. I believe this is one reason why my grandfather’s drive-in lasted long after so many theaters had shut down. He knew that an honest understanding of who you are and what you alone can offer—however prosaic it might seem—is essential if you want to keep sailing through changing times.