April 23, 2007

From sea to land, man's memories are plentiful

Staff Writer

NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- After a lifetime of traveling the high seas, Capt. Arthur Kimberly's latest journey has brought him to a small white room in a New Smyrna Beach retirement home.

"I am a mid-Massachusetts boy who just wanted to go to sea, to faraway places with strange-sounding names " he said, sitting on the blue and white bedspread that covers his twin bed as he rubs the rump of his blind German shepherd, Lucky, her tail wagging in ecstasy.

For most of his adult life, this small-framed man lived on or near where salt spray filled the air. Now 84, the only salt tinge for Kimberly comes from the nearby Indian River Lagoon, and memories sometimes obscured by mental fog.

Hands hardened by years of hauling and making sails, though still strong, have softened with time ashore. A face, weathered by the sun and lined by age, peers from under a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, almost sad at the thought of being confined to land.

"I have always been on the sea," said the man known as Skipper by his loyal crews. "All my professional life."

Reminders of that existence still surround him. A sea chest rests at the foot of his bed; a photograph of his sailing ship, the Romance, hangs on the wall above his pillow. Models ships, some in bottles and others not, cover most flat surfaces and a life ring leans next to Lucky's dog bed.

Kimberly and the sea were a love affair that began for him as a youngster.

According to his sister, it started when his mother entered Kimberly's name into a contest for a pony.

"Our father said no (to the pony), but bought him a 12-foot cat (sail) boat, to sail on Webster Lake, (Mich.)," Jane Meyer recalled over the telephone from her Villages home. "That started it."

From there, the captain served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, earned his masters' paper in both steam and sail and traveled the world aboard ships of all descriptions.

The sea was where Kimberly met his late wife, Gloria , whose name he still carries tattooed on the inside of his right arm.

It was 1961, during a Bahamian cruise aboard the sailing ship "Yankee." Kimberly was the skipper; Gloria was a guest.

"She was better and smarter than I was about the sea," the captain said of his great love, who passed away in Detroit around Thanksgiving 2006. "She was a born sailor."

"We were completely simpatico personalities."

The couple married aboard the Yankee in the South Pacific during an around-the-world cruise, then found their way back to the New World and eventually their true calling -- introducing adventurers to life on the waves.

But first they had to find the right ship.

"I was working in Mystic, Conn., at the maritime museum," he said. "We had a small schooner, but wanted something bigger for deepwater voyages."

They had begun designing their ideal boat when a notice came in the mail in 1965 about the ship that eventually became the Romance being for sale for $30,000 in San Diego, Calif. She was rigged in the style of an 1800s Brigantine and had just finished work as an extra in the movie version of James Michener's novel, "Hawaii." The 110-foot tall ship, christened the Grethe, had been built almost 30 years before in Denmark, where she served as a trading vessel before her brush with Hollywood.

"We could not have bought an existing ship any closer to our ideal," Kimberly said of the vessel he and Gloria loved as much as each other. "The owner had the down payment within hours of knowing of her existence."

Within a year, the couple was island-hopping around the Caribbean, Kimberly in command and Gloria crewing and cooking. "Our milk run was an eight-day cruise in the Virgin Islands," he said.

One of their first guests was Virginia Caspari.

"It only took two days and we were good friends," she said by telephone from her Ocala home.

Over the next decade, Caspari sailed the Romance -- which she called "her ladyship" -- with the Skipper and Mrs. K more than two dozen times, both as customer and crew. He taught her about sailing a square-rigger, navigating by the stars and climbing rigging.

"He made me do everything from cleaning the cylinder heads on the diesel to rolling the sails," she recalled. "He was an outstanding teacher, so sage in his instruction."

"The Skipper" was also the only person who could get her to sew as she would sit with him on the sail bench hemming the Romance's sails.

Like Caspari, a voyage aboard the Romance had an indelible impact upon Temple Terrace resident Clyde Sanadi.

"It made an impression on everyone," said the financial planner, who named his company, Brigantine Finance, for his sailing memories. "Kind of like a tattoo."

As a 20 year-old college junior, Sanadi, now 55, spent a semester island-hopping as a member of Kimberly's crew. While the work was backbreaking, he said, the experience is one he will never forget.

"Capt. Kimberly was like a god, a second father," he said by telephone. "He had total control and perfect knowledge."

Sanadi said Kimberly would teach his crew what they needed to know and then let them go on their own. "He would let you get to a certain point and if you got into trouble then he would step in."

Caspari and Sanadi are just two of the lives the captain and Mrs. K touched, some who went on to become masters of tall ships of their own.

"Anyone who sailed on that ship has a very, very special emotional bond with Capt. Kimberly," Sanadi said.

Arthur Kimberly and Gloria spent 23 years aboard the Romance. Sailing her innumerable times around the Caribbean, on several voyages to the South Pacific including Pitcairn Island, and twice around the world.

"Pitcairn Island was my favorite stop," the captain said, recalling friendships made with the descendants of the crew of the HMS Bounty. A piece of copper from the famous ship's hull hangs on the wall of his room. A hand-carved flying fish from the island sits on his desk.

The Romance even carried Kimberly and his crews safely through two hurricanes at sea.

"It was 23 years of good, bad and indifferent," he said.

The voyage ended in 1989 when the couple decided it was time to furl their sails and retire. They sold the Romance to a party who planned to rebuild her, but in 1995 a hurricane broke her back. She now lies in an unmarked watery grave in the Virgin Islands.

While Arthur Kimberly continued to sail for a short time -- "I was not quite ready to quit yet" -- it seems a big part of his life ended when he walked off those decks.

After Gloria died, Meyer decided to move her brother closer to her family and with Caspari's help found his current home. They picked the New Smyrna Beach location because it was close to the water, she said.

Today, instead of commanding a ship at sea, Kimberly walks around his downtown neighborhood, sometimes getting lost and relying on the kindness of strangers to navigate his way home. But the spirit of independence he learned on the sea still remains.

"Far away from land, you are self-dependent. It is the freedom. Life on a ship is a good life," the skipper said. "I wish I had the opportunity to be back on a ship today. I miss it."


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