Smooth sailing

Jerry Veitch joined the airforce when he was 17, but it was the sea that soon lured him to his calling

Lillian Simmons
Published on June 13, 2012
Home sweet home. Jerry Veitch “fell into” working on boats more than 30 years ago, and had made his life on the water pretty much ever since. — Photos by Lillian Simmons/Special to The Telegram

Jerry Veitch is one of those Newfoundlanders who could put an arse in a catamaran.

But his specialty is sailboats. And if sailboats could be considered floating islands, Veitch is the person you’d most want to be stranded with.

Self-taught in a number of trades — welding, woodworking, fibreglass building and repair, machinist, rigging, sewing and sail repair — he’s travelled roughly 80,000 sea miles pretty much without a hitch.

When not at sea, he’s in Holyrood at the family home that’s been around for a couple of centuries. His father, Gregory, bought the house and land in 1943, the year he was born.

Over the years, Veitch has become accustomed to living in small sailboat quarters that encourage little luxury and lots of ingenuity. He has sailed across the North Atlantic, from the Canaries down the west coast of Africa, from Cape Verde Islands, back across the South Atlantic, the Windward Islands from Trinidad, north to St. Martin, the Leeward Islands from St. Thomas to Grand Bahamas, from Florida, Key West, north to and including all of Newfoundland.

He seems to laugh easily and often, a trait he may have inherited from his mother Josephine (Lewis). “Mom would say, ‘I used to be Joe Lewis — until I lost my title,’” he recalls with a chuckle.

Veitch didn’t set out to become a sailor. He joined the Air Force in 1961 at the age of 17 and trained to be a radar technician.

“The training was based on what the British did during the war. They took a whole bunch of farmers and whatnot and turned them into technicians and mechanics within a number of months. So it was very intense training, and it had to be good — or you didn’t have too many pilots around.”

After he quit the Air Force in 1966, he went to work with Marconi, travelling to Labrador overhauling radars and ground-to-air transmitters.

Falling into sea life

After finishing up work with Marconi, Veitch “kinda fell into messing around in boats” when a summer resident of Holyrood asked him to repair his old Canada Summer Games sailboat.

In 1980, he began racing and repairing boats at the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. When he saw an ad in Yachting Monthly looking for a skipper in Montego Bay, Jamaica, he said “why not?”

So he went to New Orleans and wrote for the U.S. Coast Guard’s captain’s ticket.

“I ended up in a sailboat in Jamaica, a dive boat, taking out tourists. It was great fun. I lived on the boat and got to be buddies with a bunch of U.S. American Peace Corps types down there.

“The sailboat became the R and R vessel for the Peace Corps. On the weekends, anyone who could escape from anywhere on the north coast of Jamaica arrived at the Wild Rover. I had them on the boat from Scandinavia, or their equivalent of the Peace Corps.”

When his Scandinavian friends went into the Jamaican interior to do their work, Veitch tagged along.

“There were beekeepers, animal husbandry, a bit of everything, teaching people how to grow different kinds of crops, shrimp farming.”

That spring (1985), the owner of the Wild Rover decided to take the boat back to the States, to do charters out of Miami.

“That got old pretty quick. The coastline is all condos from North Miami all the way to West Palm Beach, and there’s no place to tie up there.”

So, it was back to Holyrood where he settled in for about a year before jumping at the opportunity to go south for the winter.

“I got into this routine where I worked on boats here in the summertime and I’d go south around September and work on boats and then find someone who wanted to go down to the islands to go sailing, and I’d go on as crew or skipper.”

He spent the better part of seven years, from 1986-93, working winters, and sometimes summers as well, in “Florida and down island, the Exumas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands and Bahamas.

“I’d do boat deliveries up and down the Caribbean or wherever, and generally had a great old time of it, diving all over Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas, the Dominican.”

When his mother became ill in 1993, he returned to Holyrood to care for her. She died in 1994.

Sailing along

In 2000, Veitch and three friends crossed the Atlantic in a 40-foot sailboat. The trip was literally a breeze.

“The most wind we saw was about 20 knots (30 miles) an hour. Sixty per cent of the time we were under engine — so we ate our way across the Atlantic,” he laughs.

They landed in Cork and spent all that summer sailing around the south and west coast of Ireland up into Scotland, where he spent a month before returning home for the winter.

Two years later he was off again, this time flying to Grand Caneria, Canary Islands, and then across the South Atlantic to St. Lucia.

“I spent that winter catching rides on boats all up and down the Caribbean to the Windward Islands to Trinidad and all over. I’d find someone who was headed somewhere else and wanted a crew.” He shrugs, smiles and adds, “Island hopping.”

On one trip, in July 1995, he sailed along by the island of Montserrat where the Soufriere Hills volcano had begun erupting the week before.

“It buried the capital, Plymouth. We saw the volcano from about three miles offshore. The prevailing winds down there are always in the one direction, so you didn’t have to worry about the wind changing.”

That trip took him as far north as Saint Martin and back down to Trinidad.

“I spent two months wandering through the jungle (in Trinidad).

Veitch left the Canary Islands out of Grand Caneria with about 200 sailboats participating in the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers).

“It’s a combination of a race and a gathering of people who want to cross the Atlantic and are kinda half-assed afraid to do it by themselves,” he grins.

With that many boats doing the whole crossing, there’s a good chance at least one boat is within radio distance.

“We just sailed across. If we happened to come first, we came first, and if we happened to come last, we came last. In our class there were about 60 boats, and we came in about number 30.”

Little trouble

In all the years he’s been sailing, Veitch has seen very little trouble.

“I tell you my sailing has not exactly been strenuous. It’s partly lucky and partly making sure if there was a hurricane coming, I was somewhere else.”

His closest call happened in 1986 during a trip up the east coast of Nova Scotia. He was bringing a 27-foot sailboat to Newfoundland from Florida.

It was about 10 p.m.

“The fishermen were popping in and out of the fog.” It was one of the few nights of that trip when there was a bit of wind, so the boat was under sail.

Veitch used the quietness of the night and his senses as navigation aids.

“I hear this coosh-coosh-coosh-coosh-coosh,” he says. “This is the propeller of a ship half out of water.”

In the fog, there was no telling exactly where it was. But it was so close he could actually smell it.

“I started getting this smell of an old freighter, or old cooking smell from an old, old ship. The galleys on old freighters tend to get pretty fousty after 25 or 30 years with nobody being too particular and Lord knows what that ship has been carrying all those years.”

He fired up the engine and headed for shallow water.

“The worst thing about turning or making alterations in course in a situation like that is you don’t know if you’re going in front of it or away from it. By my ears, it was more or less there and it was getting closer, so I went that-away,” he laughs. “I said, no more am I going to the coast of Nova Scotia without my own radar.”

Hanging out

One of his favourite places for just “hanging out and doing nothing” is Grand Turk, which he describes as a “backwater, a ratty little island” in the Turks and Caicos. It has some of the most fantastic reefs in the world — luckily all accessible with a snorkel because sinus problems prevent him from deep diving.

“When you go below 30 feet, all the colours wash out anyway. You lose all the reds and the blues and everything goes towards the middle of the spectrum. The best colour is at about 15 feet.”

Another of his preferred haunts is the Thunder Ball grotto in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas.

“It’s a hollowed out rock off Georgetown. Part of the James Bond movie ‘Thunder Ball’ was filmed in the Exuma Islands. There’s a cave down there that’s full of every kind of tropical fish, and when you get in there they nibble on your toes. Every tourist that goes through feeds the fish and so they become used to it.”

For the past nine years, Veitch has stuck close to home, but he’s beginning to feel the call of the wind once again.

“It’ll soon be time for another adventure,” he says. “Maybe Turkey, next spring.”