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COLUMN: Remembering Bill Bolling

We lost one of the dashing old-time, swashbuckling, hard-drinking sailors when Bill Bolling died recently. He was in his 85th year and totally convinced the various dings and leaks that had just about sunk him several times were temporary setbacks, that he’d be up and getting it done again in no time.

The ship’s log at South Seas Charter Service, where Bill was a partner with his wife, Patsy Kenedy, indicates he went down on Oct. 2.

Bolling started life in Winnetka, Ill. He graduated from Northwestern University, where he was a competitive swimmer, with a serious case of wanderlust. Recruited by the CIA, he did some covert underwater jobs (details unavailable), flew for a while as a steward for Pan Am out of California, then became a stunt man in Hollywood.

A shot once required him to be the sailor stranded on deck when a submarine did an emergency dive. He got sucked down with the sub and nearly drowned. When the director motored over to tell the shaken swimmer he had to reshoot, Bill renegotiated the price while bobbing in mid-ocean. Bill doubled for many Hollywood stars. Along the way, he swam with Esther Williams.

In the 1950s Bolling grudgingly joined The Bolling Co., his father’s advertising agency, where he ran the Los Angeles office. He married and fathered a son, G. William Bolling IV. He and his family moved back east in the late 1950s to run the Bolling Co. That didn’t last long. They moved to Fort Lauderdale, and Bill began delivering and refurbishing yachts.

Divorced, Bolling met Patsy Kenedy about 1970. Patsy is an accomplished sailor (she ran the deck for Ted Turner when he won the first World Ocean Racing Championship with American Eagle in 1970), race car driver and — as Bill was — a pilot. That Patsy and Bill were soul mates is an understatement.

Beginning with Yahoo, a 42-foot Alden yawl, the Bollings found worthy boats in disrepair, bought them cheap and rebuilt them. Then they went sailing, cruising for buyers. It worked. Over a 35-year period they transformed 13 boats from ragamuffins to Bristol condition.

Most famous among them was Puritan, the 102-foot Alden schooner. The work was hard, but the fun was worth it. Covered with sawdust or engine room grease by day, they were a glamorous couple by night. Bolling was equal parts salesman and renegade. Challenge was his middle name. “Use it up, get more!” he would often shout across the water at some hesitant sailor.

The Bollings’ most infamous yacht was Albert, a 120-foot Icelandic search-and-rescue vessel he and Patsy acquired in 1985. In the eyes of the Coast Guard, Albert had “drug-runner” written all over it, so much so that Albert was stopped and searched 17 times on the Eastern Seaboard in the course of four months.

No fan of government intervention, Bolling was outraged: Didn’t these guys talk to one another? When the Coast Guard stopped Albert in Wilmington, N.C., Bolling appeared on the bridge deck shirtless, brandishing a rifle. Bill and his son were arrested and jailed. At the trial, Bolling was reprimanded for his behavior, but the Coast Guard had its wrist slapped for harassment. Coast Guard guidelines for “stop and frisk” were rewritten as a result of the Albert fiasco.

I got to know the Bollings in the early 1980s when I was founding editor of The Yacht magazine. From their home in Marathon, Fla., Bill and Patsy wrote a column for the magazine that focused on powerboats. There wasn’t a yacht (power or sail), a broker, a company president or a maritime situation they didn’t know about. Their circle of friends included sellers, buyers and owners, from jet setters to dedicated homebuilders.

They had The Yacht burgee made for their Cessna 185 on floats, which they often set down on Oxford, Md.’s Tred Avon River. They would wade ashore and tie the airplane to a tree. That’s how they lived: Buzz you, then come for drinks. They’d arrive with a his-and-hers tote bag packed with vodka (his), rum (hers), limes, tonic and cups.

Certain things could not be left to chance, animals included. Albert’s permanent crew included a family of ferrets, a large rabbit and a dog. In Marathon, the Bollings kept two full-size Florida cougars amid the cats, dogs, cockatoos and parrots.

The Bollings retired to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., in 2002, where Bill amused himself by building an adventure trail through the brush. Large stuffed birds and animals would leap from the trees as trigger lines were tripped. A small locomotive (Mombassa RR) and a wrecked glider (Amelia Earhardt) were just two of the treasures donated to the trail by the Bollings’ many friends.

Bill Bolling seems to have finally used it up in this sphere, but there’s no question that in whatever exotic marina he might wash up, he will get more.

— Roger Vaughan



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