Eight Bells: Herb Payson

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Musician, Sailor, Author, Father, Husband, Friend


Herb Payson passed away at 9:38pm on Tuesday, July 28 surrounded by his family. It was a very gentle and soft exit. A wild coyote walked through the parking lot and took our attention for a minute or so. Within a breath or two he was gone. Nancy said later that he left with the coyote into the night.

He is survived by his wife of 45 years Nancy, son Philip, daughter Sarah Pollock and his step children Connie, Chris and Craig, numerous grand children and a scattering of great grand children. Herb lived long enough to celebrate his 88th birthday with a big party at his home. He lived a year for every key on his piano and at the party he played a song for the crowd one last time.

Herb was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 14th, 1927 to Herb Payson Jr. and Eileen McHenry. He spent his youth in Falmouth, Maine where he was a part of the large Payson family and learned his love of being on the water with his brother Mike.

At 18 he joined the Navy wanting to be a pilot. WWII ended before he attained that goal.

His first big love was music and he began playing piano at a young age. He went to Yale after the war to study musical composition. He was a founding member of the choral group Bakers Dozen at Yale which to this day sings some of his musical arrangements. He would hop on the bus down to NY City to see the great jazz players of the time. Graduating from Yale with a Bachelors in Music Composition he went on to the New England Conservatory of Music and received his Masters.

After the Conservatory, Herb, his first wife Pamella and their two children Eileen and Philip moved to Southern California where their 3rd child Sarah was born. He played his music for 20 more years, formed his own jazz trio, wrote commercials for Hollywood and even had his own night club where the “Herb & Joe Trio” could play for their following. He also produced several albums of their music. However, the night life was not all that Herb had in his dreams.

Sea Foam at anchor in the States

Sea Foam at anchor in the States

In 1973 Herb left the music business and began his second career as a sailor and cruiser. His wife Nancy was up for the challenge. They purchased a 25-year old, 36 foot long wooden sailboat Sea Foam and sailed 45,000 miles through 15 different countries throughout the Pacific. They shared this 7 year adventure with their blended family of 6 children who were on board Sea Foam at one time or another along the way. They sailed and explored the lakes of North America from Great Slave Lake in Canada to Sea of Cortez, in Mexico, towing a sailboat behind a 32' RV. They sailed and lived on the Boat Red Shoes where they ventured as far as the Amazon River.

Herb was not an adventurer by nature, but he and Nancy loved the cruising life. The slow pace, the community of fellow sailors and the chance to see and live with different cultures and places. Of course, living and traveling on a small boat in exotic places on a modest budget brought its share of adventures and early on in their journey Herb began to write about them. He wrote in a humorous and self effacing style that quickly became popular. Sail Magazine first published his articles. He ended up writing 3 books and dozens of articles for various magazines and was on the masthead of Sail Magazine as contributing editor for 20 years. Over the course of their sailing journeys they made many friendships that endure to this day.

When Herb and Nancy finally “swallowed the anchor” they built a house in Port Townsend where they have lived for the past 17 years.

In Port Townsend Herb volunteered at the annual jazz festival and everyone will remember Herb as the piano man who played everywhere, including upstage, uptown at Lanzas, and the Big Band series. He was also active in local politics and served as a volunteer in the community.

He and Nancy also continued their love of family and friendships and he loved being a grandfather to his 9 grandchildren. Herb had a vibrant and ribald sense of humor and he insisted on living life fully. Living with multiple health conditions he fought and survived long past what the doctors had expected.

He was preceded in death by his daughter Maha (Eileen), a heartbreak to the end. He is survived by his brother Mike, his wife Nancy, ex-wife Pam, son Philip, daughter Sarah, step-children Connie, Chris & Craig, 9 grandchildren and many great-grand children.

It was a grand cruise! He will be missed by many and loved and remembered by many more.

For the West Coast friends there will be a memorial service in Port Townsend at the NW Maritime Center, Sept. 2nd from 2 to 4 pm.



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