Eight Bells: A Conversation with Ned Cabot

Ned Cabot recently died in a tragic accident aboard Cielita along the coast of Newfoundland. The following interview took place in May.
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Author’s note: I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Edmund B. “Ned” Cabot back in May of 2012, when he was preparing to bring his beloved J/46, Cielita, back from Iceland to the States, by way of the west coast of Greenland. His excitement and true love of cruising the planet’s frozen, cold and lonely places were audible as we talked about his upcoming voyage and his future sailing ambitions.

Tragically, these dreams were ended when Cielita encountered a nasty storm along the coast of Newfoundland on September 1, 2012. Conditions built throughout the day, but were well within the realm of the crew’s experience and the boat’s seaworthiness. While reports are still developing, Cabot came above decks some time around 1200 hours to relieve the helmsman, just as a massive rogue wave struck Cielita, laying her onto her ear and jettisoning both the helmsman and Cabot into the water.

Cielita self-righted, pulling the helmsman back aboard, but, tragically, Cabot was lost to the frigid waters, despite his crews’ best efforts to save their friend and skipper. Also according to reports, Cielita lost steerage during this episode, thus compounding the rescue’s complexity.

Dr. Cabot leaves astern a wife and four grown children, as well as a legacy of helping others through his work as a surgeon and as a patriarch of one of Boston’s leading families. He is also well respected for his philanthropic work with various non-profits, including Sailors for the Sea, where he was a board member, and as a trustee of the Cabot Family Charitable Trust.

It is my hope that this interview expresses Dr. Cabot’s message of embracing adventure and living life to its fullest, while also striving to leave the world a better place. Dr. Cabot will be remembered as a skilled surgeon, a great sailor, a friend to the ocean and as an inspiration to all sailors who dream of peering just a little bit further over the white cap-strewn horizon.

—David Schmidt

Ned Cabot (69) discovered sailing when he cruised DownEast with his parents—long before radar or LORAN—in his father’s 49-foot Alden-designed yawl. By 18, Cabot was skippering the Alden on serious cruises, and, just before entering Harvard Medical School, Cabot took her to Newfoundland; he returned in 1970 and completed his first full circumnavigation of the island. Fatherhood and a successful career as a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital followed, absorbing his would-be adventure-sailing time. During this period, Cabot owned a C&C 34 and then a Beneteau First 42 (which he still maintains), before—following retirement—ordering Cielita, his semi-custom J/46, which he cruises extensively at high latitudes, including a 2005 voyage from Cape Breton Island to Scotland and a 2007 voyage from Scotland to Sptisbergen, during which he reached a latitude of just over 80 degrees North.

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What modifications did you make to Cielita before taking delivery?

I had [TPI] build her with an extra 1,000 pounds of fiberglass in the forward two-thirds of her hull, mostly as a small insurance policy for ice. I also added a semi-watertight forward bulkhead and a heavy-duty bilge pump in her bow.

What’s it like to sail in ice?

I haven’t been in flow ice—yet—but it may happen this summer on the east coast of Greenland, and I go there with great trepidation. Icebergs aren’t a problem because they’re easy to see, especially because it never gets dark in the high latitudes in the summer. Growlers are harder to see and they can be quite scary, especially if you’re running fast in big seas. Brash ice is spooky and exciting, but it isn’t a problem; you can just push through it at 1-2 knots—we’ve done miles this way.

Did you ever have any close calls?

During the 2005 trip we were off the coast of Greenland, sailing at eight or nine knots, and we got into a close-packed growler field—the growlers were less than a boatlength apart. We eventually sailed out to sea, but we got stuck in the worst storm that I’ve ever seen offshore. We had 60-knot winds and 40-foot seas in the Denmark Strait for 36 hours.

What kind of seamanship does high-latitude sailing require?

There’s no substitute for experience, and every experience is a new one. The more you’ve had to rise up to past [problems], the better off you are when a new challenge [arises]. Common sense, careful preparation and crew selection are all important.

Can you tell me about your work with Sailors for the Sea?

David Rockefeller Jr. started this organization after serving on the Pew Oceans Commission and realizing that the boating community has no voice for ocean conservation. He and David Treadway put together a small board of friends, and I’ve been involved since the beginning.

Am I correct that you rounded Cape Horn aboard Ocean Watch?

I was a supporter of the trip through my work on the board for Sailors for the Sea and as a financial contributor to the trip, so I asked for a berth. It was a great adventure but I wouldn’t say it was great sailing. Cape Horn isn’t in my top 100 capes that I’ve rounded from a scenic point of view, but emotionally, we all had a tear in the eye.

What are your upcoming cruising plans?

Cielita is currently in Iceland and we plan to go the west coast of Greenland. I originally planned to leave her there for the winter, but I’m having second thoughts—we might just sail her back to Nova Scotia instead.

A Photo Gallery of Ned's J/46, Cialita:

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