Monday, September 12, 2016

In Honor of Mark Handley

I never met Mark Handley, Windbird's last skipper: I only know him through his wife Judy's blog, the few posts he wrote there, our phone conversations and emails over the last few months, and the boat that he called home for the last fifteen years. Dawn and I really wanted to meet him, because he sounded like a really neat guy, a good guy, one of our sort of people - someone who dreamed big dreams, wasn't afraid to make them happen, and enjoyed sharing those dreams with the people he loved. But we were simply too late, his cancer finally too aggressive in the end. We planned to have Mark and Judy down to the boat in August but his health took a major downturn shortly before, so we decided to postpone until September 18th and if they still couldn't make it, we'd come to spend a few days with them up at Cape Cod. In the last few days it became apparent even that would be too much for him. And then last night he passed away at home in Falmouth, MA, with Judy by his side. They've been together 44 years.

I last spoke with Mark on Friday afternoon. I had a few boat questions that frankly weren't all that important, but I enjoyed talking to him and getting his perspective on Windbird's setup - at this point, everything that doesn't involve major carpentry is his handiwork. The change in his energy level and mental clarity from our last call a week or two ago was noticeable, but he was still able to recall changing out a boom bail slide in American Samoa a decade ago. I asked why the bilge pump and raw water intake vented loops were fitted with nipples and hoses to the scupper drain instead of the more usual check valves and the answer was typical Mark: "Check valves stick, especially in salt water and all the debris you find in seawater and the bilge. You don't want a stuck check valve gushing out water when you need the engine or bilge pump." A lot of things on the boat are set up with being hundreds or thousands of miles from the nearest civilization in mind. As I come across them, they'll remind me of Mark and all the time and energy he put into making this boat the fulfillment of his lifetime dream of sailing around the world.

I think the thing that impresses me most about Mark isn't just the circumnavigation - no small feat in itself - but the fact that he kept living aboard, kept the boat going, and did a fair amount of cruising including a number of offshore legs all while fighting cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for nearly five years. Of course that's largely thanks to Judy, who despite initially being a reluctant sailor ended up loving it and enthusiastically supporting their life afloat. She's another amazing-sounding person - another of "our people" - and I look forward to meeting her. The last time she and Mark were on Windbird, it was an emergency five-day delivery from Florida to Little River so that Mark could undergo an intensive drug trial in Boston. At the time Mark didn't have the heart to tell Judy that they'd probably be selling Windbird, but he knew. John Schwab told me that the last time Mark walked up R dock, he turned around, stopped, and looked hard at Windbird for a long minute. He knew it was his last time seeing her, and he was saying goodbye to a huge part of his life for the last 15 years. Judy told me yesterday morning how happy it made him to see Windbird in good hands. I'm so glad that we bought the boat when we did.

Now Mark Handley is gone, but his legacy lives on in Judy, in his two kids and five grandchildren, in New Hampshire and National Public Radio, in the many friends he made around the world, and in the boat that will soon carry Dawn and I across far horizons as she did Mark and Judy. I only hope that we will be worthy caretakers. Judy, you have our deepest sympathies. Please know that you and your family are welcome aboard Windbird as long as we own her, wherever she lies.


  1. You really captured the essence of Mark and Judy. I worked with Mark for 10 years in New Hampshire, and was a passenger aboard Windbird for two voyages. I followed their journey around the world. I wish you safe travels.

  2. Very nice tribute Sam. I know that, I for one will enjoy reading about the adventures that you and Dawn will have aboard Windbird as much as I have enjoyed keeping up with Mark & Judy. I walked by Windbird earlier this morning while showing another boat to an enthusiastic couple a few slips over. I glanced over at Windbird and thought of the first time I showed her to you. I remembered thinking later that you would be Windbird's next caretaker and that would make Mark & Judy very happy. Someone that really appreciates her.
    Sail on Mark and rest easy, Windbird is in good and capable hands...

  3. That is a very nice tribute, Sam. I'm sure that Mark's family are happy knowing their Windbird Home will be in loving hands. Extending sympathies to Judy and familiy in the hopes that their fond memories will help them as they go forward on their journeys.

  4. Very nice comments regarding Mark. As a long time Windbird (b)log reader, I've connected with Mark and Judy through email and amateur radio over the years and have appreciated the cruising wisdom from a very knowledgeable skipper. Although I'm sure Mark would have enjoyed a few more sails, I'm sure he is satisfied with who will be caring for his "home."