Merritt N. Rhoad Jr.

David Peake
July 12th, 2022

  • Reid Bramblett / July 20, 2022 at 7:14 pm

    ​​Merritt Rhoad was my captain.

    He was never my Scoutmaster (I was the generation after his sons), but Scout Troop 116 is kind of like the mafia: Once you become a member of this family, you’re in it for life. So we called Capt. Rhoad out of retirement more than once to help lead the troop on sailing trips.

    On these trips, two of Merritt’s old Scouts—Mark Weiss and Stew Lee—would captain one boat, and Merritt the other boat, stuck with me as his first mate. I began with zero actual sailing experience. Oh, sure, I had taken sailing merit badge on a Scout camp lake, learning the basics of tacking and jibing in a little two-seat Laser. To graduate the class, you had to purposely pull the dinghy over, swamp it, then labor to get it upright again and slither back on board.

    But actual sailing? Nope.

    That first troop sailing trip, as I boarded our 35-foot sloop, Capt. Rhoad asked me. “Did you take sailing merit badge?” I told him I had. He looked at me hard for the only time ever and said. “Well, this isn’t the kind of boat you’re supposed to flip.”

    He taught me how to sail quietly and calmly, asking me to grab such and such line, or haul in the whosit sheet, or turn the diddly-dip crank, and then patiently waiting until I figured out what the heck we was talking about.

    After just two days of this, he said. “I think you’ve got the hang of it. I’m taking a nap. Wake me for third watch.” And that was it. He headed down into the cabin and slipped into the Captain’s Quarters in the bow, leaving me to pass along what I had learned to Scouts on board. I hope our frequent accidental jibing didn’t disturb him too much.

    Since we always timed these trips around the Fourth of July in Miami, I got to celebrate two birthdays with Capt. Rhoad.

    We toasted his 81st over Cheeseburgers in Paradise at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville in Key West.

    Capt. Rhoad got to spend his 74th birthday headed back north to Miami, sailing beyond our usual coastal waters to ride the Gulf Stream, burying the rail as we went the fastest we ever had. The captain was smiling.

    Two memories of him on those trips really stand out. One was when a Scout on the other boat jumped off for a swim and was immediately beset by jellyfish. Back on board and writhing in pain, his crew radioed us to see if we had any Sting-Away or something. Someone on our boat shouted into the radio. “Just pee on him!”

    “No, that doesn’t work.” Said Capt. Rhoad. Then he radioed the other boat. “Do you have any alcohol on board?”

    They responded that, yes, they had a bottle of gin. The captain paused. “Is it good gin?”

    Then he instructed them to pour it over the kid’s limbs and the pain subsided. He smelled like a dive bar, but he was fine.

    My other distinct Capt. Rhoad memory was from the first day we took out our 42-footer charter craft, which was too fancy for its own good and kept breaking on us. We got a late start, so the sun was beginning to set as we sped across Biscayne Bay, the boys blasting the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack and Capt. Rhoad quietly grumbling about it.

    A sudden squall came up, and inexpert hands quickly made a mess of things. Several starboard sheets got tangled in a Gordian knot and Capt. Rhoad did his best to keep us luffing while I and the strongest Scout, wind and rain lashing at our faces, struggled to undo the damage with the help of pliers.

    We got through that one, and the storm subsided. Then we attempted to use the fancy self-furling jib, but only managed to break the thing so that it would not furl. It was too dark and pitchy to try and fix it, and there was no way, with the wind what it was, to drop anchor with the jib still up. We would just have to keep sailing.

    All night.

    Mark and Stew’s boat had already tied up to a buoy in the lee of an islet and settled in for the night, so we sailed close to that area and started, well, pacing. This is when we learned that the boat’s fancy electronic GPS system didn’t always work. I had first watch and asked Capt. Rhoad what heading I should use. He pointed at the nearly full moon. “Head toward that for half an hour then put it at your stern for half an hour.”

    Capt. Rhoad took a dilemma and turned it into one of the most meditative nights I’ve ever spent, sailing to and from the moon.

    I haven’t sailed with Capt. Rhoad for a dozen years, but he’d pop into my life now and again. Sometimes it was just a comment on Facebook. Most recently, just five months ago, it was at the memorial for his fellow Scoutmaster, Heinz Heinemann.

    Once it was taking my boys on a bike ride along Forbidden Drive. We stopped for snacks at the Valley Green Inn and sat on a bench overlooking the Wissahickon. I pointed to the commemorative plaque on the bench’s top slat and asked if they know who Merritt Rhoad, Jr. was. They did not. I smiled.

    “He was my captain,” I told them. “He taught me how to sail.”


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