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Eight Bells: Steve Black, Founder of the Caribbean 1500

It’s with a heavy heart that I write of the passing of Steve Black, an icon in the world of cruising sailors. Steve’s passing came as a surprise to no one, as he fought a long-running battle with lung cancer in his home in Oriental, North Carolina.

Eight Bells: Steve Black

Passed March 17, 2014

It’s with a heavy heart that I write of the passing of Steve Black, an icon in the world of cruising sailors. Steve’s passing came as a surprise to no one, as he fought a long-running battle with lung cancer in his home in Oriental, North Carolina. His brother Mike was by his side until the end.

A Midwesterner by birth, Black didn’t get into sailing until his 30s, when he migrated to the east coast and took to the high seas for the first time. His star rose quickly, and he became director of US Sailing for several years while he ran an educational publishing company and managed the Sailing World NOOD (National Offshore One Design) Regattas throughout the country. Black was also a dedicated racing sailor, competing in trans-ocean events, many of which were single-handed. But Black will be best remembered throughout the sailing world as the founder of the Caribbean 1500 cruising rally.

“I saw the tremendous value in helping to get cruisers to their cruising grounds for the winter,” Steve said in an interview in 2009 at the start of his iconic event. “We started [it] so Americans and Canadians could get to the Caribbean, make new friends and do it a little more safely.”

Black first approached me in 2006. I was eager to expand my own sailing horizons and was looking for a berth on an ocean-going boat. Black, ever the matchmaker, connected my dad and me with the owner of Dress Parade, a Jeanneau 40 that was set to depart Charleston, SC.

“What struck me that year was how attentive Steve was to the fleet,” my dad told me recently. “We were the last boat to arrive, by an entire day, and still, there he was attaching our dock lines and greeting us with a bottle of cold champagne.”

Since then my dad and I have sailed on half a dozen other rallies, all on Black’s recommendations. Our story is by no means unique. Black had an uncanny talent for connecting people, and kept a binder full of information on eager crewmembers looking to get offshore. He’d pair the less-experienced owners with the most experienced crews, and vice versa, to ensure compatibility offshore and try and enhance the safety of his event.

Indeed several passionate groups formed out of this process, including the Order of the Salty Dogs and the Prairie Pirates, whom Black held in particularly high regard given his Midwestern roots. Steve led from the front, sailing in all of the events he ran. His last rally passage was aboard Lone Star in the 2013 Atlantic Cup. Fittingly, he won his class, and Black received a standing ovation from his longtime friends and supporters at the prizegiving in Bermuda.

Black was aware of his legacy and very particular about passing the 1500 torch. It took years of negotiations between him and the World Cruising Club before a deal was struck to continue the event under the new flag. Only in hindsight did I realize that Steve was not joking when he told me in 2009 that I could become “the next rally guy.” I’m humbled that he supported me. Black was devastated at hearing of a competing rally organization springing up just as the transition took place—he took the news very personally—and he worked hard, despite his retirement, to support the ongoing 1500.

But what stands out the most about Steve Black was his desire to inspire and help other people to fulfill their dreams.

“This is one of the last great adventures of our modern times,” Steve used to say at the Skipper’s Briefings at the 1500, just before the fleet cast off and headed offshore. It was enough to give you chills.

“If somebody only gets to do this once or twice in their lifetime, we really hope their memories are happy ones.”

As, indeed, are our memories of Steve Black.

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