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Jack Turner: the ‘Flying Tiger’ of marine publishing

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Given all the changes and upheaval taking place in media these days, newspapers and magazines with longevity and a strong, steady pulse are worthy of note.

On that point, Soundings magazine is celebrating its 50th birthday this month. And Trade Only will turn 35 next year. Veteran graybeard staffers like me sometimes wonder where the time has gone until we find ourselves hoisting a grandchild on our knee or reminiscing about the days when newsrooms were filled with cigarette smoke, the clickety-clack of typewriter keys and the din of reporters working the phones. It is a much quieter but no less busy environment today.

It is impossible to discuss either Soundings or Trade Only without a nod to the late founding publisher John P. “Jack” Turner, a smart, colorful curmudgeon of the sort who helped build the industry in those early go-go years, when wood was bowing to fiberglass and pleasure boating was on a steep ascent.

“There was a gold rush mentality. People were jumping into boats, builders were selling, and everyone was optimistic,” Turner wrote on the occasion of our 40th anniversary as he reflected on the glory days of the New York Boat Show and early in-water shows in Newport, R.I., and Annapolis, Md. “Publishers and manufacturers threw endless parties where the food was lavish and the booze gushed.”

Turner continued, describing a time when the grass, at least in hindsight, was a bit greener: “Going to a boat show was fun. Being an exhibitor was fun. Life was fun. The boating industry was a community of people who were in a business that got them out in boats, under boats and on the water, and that mattered far more than money.”

To be fair, Turner was the first to admit that what developed from the first “primitive” issue of Soundings that he and two colleagues cranked out in 1963 could not be replicated today — or even a decade ago. “I can say without a doubt that we wouldn’t even try,” Turner wrote 10 years ago.

But timing accounts for plenty in this world. What these men may have lacked in publishing acumen, even in the early 1960s, they more than made up for by catching and riding the huge wave of expansion that took place when fiberglass boatbuilding took hold and leisure time and discretionary income increased for the burgeoning middle class.

Notably, the publication that Turner bootstrapped into existence was not the typical boating magazine of the day. “From the outset it had been my goal to produce a real newspaper, one that treated boating and the marine world as news, rather than the glossy feature material from which the national magazines were constructed,” the former newspaperman once confided. “In those days, and for many years later, we viewed ourselves as wildcatters — the Flying Tigers of marine publishing — and we behaved that way.”

The same held true in spades for Trade Only.

Working with Jack Turner and his talented but somewhat motley crew was an education in publishing and in life, more an adventure than a job, especially in those early years. Turner was literally larger than life. The former Marine was a large, towering man with enormous hands and a big head and gaze that could lock on to you like a spotlight sweeping a prison yard.

He had a cutting wit, and woe to the pretentious blowhard who crossed too close to his bows, for he might use him as a whetstone, depending on his mood or the extent to which the interloper chose to bloviate.

A Renaissance man, Jack was an ever-changing piece of work: complicated, creative and restless as a line squall. At various times he was a fiction writer, gourmet cook, boatbuilder, sailor, woodworker, gardener, artist and more. And he created what may well have been the industry’s first Internet service — an electronic version of the Soundings brokerage section at a time when the Internet, in the words of one who was there, was still “geek land.”

“He was waiting for the technology to catch up with the elegance of the idea.” That’s how one industry watcher described it to me on his passing in 2005. “He was way out ahead … and he loved obscuring, behind his casual sloppiness, just how extraordinarily intelligent he was.”

When a magazine was completed and ready for shipping to the printer, Turner would raise a conch shell to his lips and trumpet an otherworldly call, summoning all hands into the galley or the old open paste-up area for a late afternoon thirst-slackening session of grog.

It’s easy to miss the old days, but we had our share of heavy weather, too — a near bankruptcy, layoffs, a libel suit or two, efforts to organize a union and other bumps along the bottom. The Great Recession was a long stretch of unsettled weather.

Today, both Soundings and Trade Only are healthy and growing under the ownership of Active Interest Media.

I miss Jack, even though we didn’t always see eye to eye. We continue to follow the path he set for fair, accurate and objective reporting on our sport and industry.

Turner started Trade Only as a supplement in Soundings in January 1978, and it went out to the hundreds of marine dealers who sold the magazine.

“Initially, I edited Trade Only,” Turner wrote in a look-back 25 years ago. “It was my brainchild, and nobody on the editorial staff wanted to go near it. A trade publication? B-O-R-I-N-G.”

“Trade only took off like a small rocket. Suddenly it was a newspaper. People were reading it and talking about it. There was no question but what we had filled a gap. I was having a great time writing and editing. The staff was even warming up to it.”

“Then, under the guise of ‘efficiency and organization,’ the editorial department took it away from me.”

Damn editors.



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