The Reason We’re Here

Jack Turner’s vision has made Soundings Trade Only the industry news source it remains today
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Jack Turner’s publications treated boating and the marine world as news.

Jack Turner’s publications treated boating and the marine world as news.

Jack Turner looked as if he walked straight out of a Hemingway short story. A bear of a man, the retired U.S. Marine filled any room he strode into with his flowing white hair and unkempt sea captain’s beard; he had a large head and enormous hands and fingers.

Colorful, smart and relentlessly creative, he never wore socks with his Topsiders, even on the coldest winters in Essex, Conn., where Soundings Trade Only is based. He liked jeans, hated neckties and gave a wide berth to bureaucrats, stuffed shirts and anybody with a whiff of pretension.

Turner was a kindly curmudgeon and the quintessential renaissance man: publisher, fiction writer, boatbuilder, sailor, woodworker, home chef, gardener and artist. The former editor of a weekly Connecticut newspaper, he founded Soundings, the consumer boating magazine, in 1963 and Soundings Trade Only in 1978 as an insert to Soundings. It became a standalone publication in 1979. He called them both “newspapers” for reasons other than the newsprint paper on which they were printed. Turner was an inveterate news hound.

“In those days, and for many years later, we viewed ourselves as wildcatters — the Flying Tigers of marine publishing — and we behaved that way,” Turner once wrote of the early years. “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.”

He insisted on fair, accurate reporting, and he enjoyed tackling subjects that other boating magazines shied away from. And he didn’t mind ruffling a few feathers in the pursuit of a good story, as long as we got the facts right.

I started working for Turner in the early 1980s, and both Soundings and Soundings Trade Only were great places to learn the craft. In the early years, his marching orders to the editorial staff were, “Be lively!”

We wrote about everything from the proposed ban on weekend boating to the luxury tax, from insurance fraud and trade shows to the cyclical nature of our industry — up for a few years, down for the next couple.

Counting staff writers, freelancers and columnists, we’ve had several dozen or more writers appear in the pages of Trade Only in the last four decades, and six or seven chief editors. I took the helm for a stint beginning in 2008, just as the economy took a nosedive. Those were interesting times. Michael Verdon, the current editor in chief, is doing a great job leading the brand into the digital age.

During the early years, you could never be exactly sure what was going to come out of Jack’s mouth, which was part of his charm. He had a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and he didn’t suffer fools. He used to refer to hurricanes as a “transfer of assets from the insurance industry to the marine industry.”

He subscribed to the “damn the torpedoes” school of publishing. He listened to his gut and was happy taking a flier on something only he could see. Not every move worked out.

“I have forgotten the layoffs that made the local press, the near bankruptcy, the battles between partners and investors, the libel suits, the union organizers, the angry employees,” Turner wrote in 2013 on the 40th anniversary of Soundings.

He was from another era, when you could start a magazine with a couple of friends sitting around your kitchen table with a bottle of gin, as he did with Soundings.

An English graduate of Colgate University, he also started the monthly woodworking magazine Woodshop News, which is still published, and toyed with a cooking magazine called Cook’s Muse, which he published online in retirement.

A natural contrarian, Turner was ahead of his time. In the mid-1970s, he and his son built a fast, 33-foot Bob Harris-designed trimaran named Foxy to prove the multihull naysayers wrong. He also published a daily newspaper covering Block Island (R.I.) Race Week, which was printed on the mainland and somehow made it back to the island each morning. And back when the Internet was still something of a novelty, he created the industry’s first web service for used boats, albeit a small one.

“Everything is so serious,” he once lamented in retirement. “Everywhere there is a consequence to anything not tempered, serious, regulated, sober, safe, restricted, watched, insured.”

Jack Turner enjoyed a good time and a stiff drink. For special events or after a particularly grueling deadline, he would blow into a large conch shell. The staff knew the drill: We would sweep into the galley, where Jack happily held court over Mount Gay rum and Heineken beers, a mischief grin spreading over his face.

Turner retired in 1998 after 34 years at the helm. There are only three or four people still with the company who worked with him. He passed in 2005 at age 73.

His name doesn’t come up too often these days, but his imprint is still felt in the daily news gathering efforts of Soundings Trade Only. His legacy is the commitment to good journalism that runs through the brands he started. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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