A tribute to John S. Nugent III
What memories wafted through the Camden Yacht Club during John S. Nugent's memorial service on July 11. Special memories that will remain true to John's legacy as a teacher, a shipwright, an accomplished captain, and most importantly, a gentleman, a husband and a father.
Every detail of the service was tenderly prepared and presented to the well wishers in the audience — to help see more closely the deeds that John had wrought during his life. Yes, John had suffered unfairly some of life's unpleasant realities. Yet there will be no more grieving over the sad facts. No, the service celebrated only what John had overcome and accomplished with the help of his friends and loved ones. As many know, God has a wonderful way of letting time heal the wounds; they will.
I was personally taken by some of the memories shared by the speakers, especially John's instincts and well trained awareness of the sea's potential — be it calm or full of wind and riptide motion. Several speakers brought this trait up. This gift, well nurtured, is what primarily reflected John's sixth sense as to how the sea sent its signals to his ability at the helm.
When I was a senior at Bowdoin College (the first semester -- 1973) I traveled home to Camden for a long weekend. Unbeknown to me a second cousin, Tom Farmer, was visiting my parents' Owl and Turtle Bookmotel that weekend. Brother Bill said to us, "Why don't you two take a sail on my Finn boat, I think John Nugent might be able to take the helm." Well, here begins the tale.
We three set off out of Camden Harbor and were in sheer ecstasy over the fair but steady wind from over Mt. Battie. After half an hour John asked if we would like to go to Vinalhaven and North Haven via the thoroughfare. Yes, we replied -- looking forward to a beautiful afternoon on Penobscot Bay.
As we rounded the bell and markers that announce the thoroughfare and started to enter it we noticed we were not alone, for some of the windjammer fleet were gathering on the Vinalhaven side. Suddenly and abruptly John said to beware because the direction was going to change. In the far distance John saw (totally in contrast to his two landlubbers) a small sailboat capsize after a sudden gust of wind tipped it over. Without any hesitation the Finn was on the new tack necessary to get us to the struggling sailors.
Every step taken as we got closer (in retrospect) was timed to perfection. We sailed close to 20 minutes until we got to the struggling people. This was in late September and the water was deathly cold. So every step John took was important. A doctor, wife, son and daughter were truly scared. John eased the speed of the Finn boat by sailing directly into the wind. As we slowed down to a slow steady glide John heroically lifted -- no threw -- the boy and girl into the Finn's cockpit. All of a sudden the wind changed and the sinking boat's mast tore into the jib, breaking the line holding it in place to allow manageability of the bow. Before we knew it there was no more time to get the parents. Time began to slow down and speed up at the same moment. We had to take another tack but now without a fully functioning jib. Awkwardly, we came around for a second pass -- John telling us to somehow secure the jib so he could more accurately steer the boat. As we glided toward the small boat its mast acted strangely and we had to abort the second pass. John came around once more on the third tack. He carefully nudged the Finn into a momentary stillness and again John heroically lifted the stiffening adults out of the water as if they weighed a mere 20 pounds each.
As all this was going on John was giving Tom and me numerous instructions to follow as best we could. What an experience. As John was heading to the dock on North Haven we noticed the powered ship from Outward Bound's Hurricane Island coming on the horizon. In another 10 minutes the family was on board that ship and we were on our way. John was in cool control of saving the lives of four helpless sailors and keeping the Finn in relative safety.
There's more to tell of that trip, which turned into a stay over on one of the windjammers at Vinalhaven, but I hope you get the gist of John's amazing ability to think clearly and show what he knew of the sea that day.
I pray that the likes of John's strengths will be conveyed by my little story. John was a capable seaman, and all that followed as we got to know him over the years clarified that.
Thanks for the opportunity to share this with you. Up until now, before this tale was told, John was to me an unsung hero.
With all my love to you, Sue, and your family.
Jeffrey M. Conrad lives in Camden.