Growing up on the Water

A sailor progresses from dinghies to boats with cabins
Warren Middlemas
Warren Middlemas at the St. Andrews Marina in Panama City. Photo by Mike Fender

Spend enough time on the water and something unforeseen and unfortunate is sure to happen, given the vagaries of wind, tides and currents and the fallibility of vessels that ride waves.

Warren Middlemas III — some friends call him Lumpy for reasons beyond the scope of this story — was participating as a sailor in a steeplechase race in Mississippi Sound on a night when winds freshened to 40 miles per hour and gusted to 50.

Middlemas and Kim Davis

Middlemas and sailing partner Kim Davis, 1983.

“We lost our mast in about 15 feet of water, and it stuck in the mud in the bottom,” Middlemas recalled. “The Coast Guard had to be called to pull us in. That was about as scared as I have ever been on a sailboat.”

There was the time, too, when Middlemas was aboard a 34-foot Ericson sailboat headed from Pensacola to Isla Mujeres in a 500-nautical mile, biennial race sponsored by the Gulf Yachting Association.

“We were about as far away from land as you can possibly get in the Gulf of Mexico, and one of the shrouds (a part that supports the mast) started separating,” Middlemas said. “The wind was constant, and we had to swap a windward shroud and a leeward shroud. We made it and were able to replace the part when we got to Mexico.”

“Expect the unexpected” is a lesson learned early and often in sailing. Middlemas fairly grew up at the
St. Andrews Bay Yacht Club where he learned to swim. He was about 13, he said, when his father bought him and his siblings a Sunfish that the children would sail from their home in the Cove neighborhood of Panama City the short distance to the Yacht Club. There, they would sail with other kids, sometimes on Hobie Cats.

Middlemas’ father

Middlemas’ father

At the club, an accomplished sailor and member, Jack Laird of the Laird Timber Co., would come to teach Middlemas “pretty much everything I know about sailing.” Laird was a national champion in Flying Scot racing, a type of one-design competition in which all boats are of the same length and hull.

When Middlemas got involved in competitive racing, he did so first in Flying Scot events. At the time, the
St. Andrews Yacht Club annually hosted the Flying Scot Midwinter races, a weeklong event that drew sailors from around the country, some of whom camped out on the club’s lawn.

The relatively portable, three-person Flying Scot vessels succeeded Fish Class sailboats, which were larger and heavier and were pulled from the water only for maintenance.

By the time Middlemas’ children were growing up, the St. Andrews Bay Yacht Club had established its Junior Sailing program. His son and two daughters learned how to sail, first in Optimist dinghies that measure just over 7 feet in overall length and are described by Middlemas as “tubs with just one sail.”

Middlemas was a member of the Florida State University sailing team in 1983 and ’84 and competed against schools including Clemson, Georgia Tech, Tufts and the University of Virginia.

He remembers with fondness a collegiate race, the Wild Turkey Regatta, held on Lake Wauburg near Gainesville. FSU won the race and was presented with a bottle so big it had a handle on it.

Robbie Barnes

Warren Middlemas’s friend Robbie Barnes sails off the bow of a boat at Shell Island, 1985.

“That was one of the highlights of my career,” said Middlemas, who intimated that the whiskey did not survive the awards ceremony.

“Sailing is physically demanding, and it is so gratifying to get on a course and compete against other people without a motor,” Middlemas said in describing sailing’s appeal. “It takes a lot of knowledge and skill. You have to anticipate what the wind is going to do, and you have to pay attention to the tides. There are lots of variables involved.”

Achieving mastery that way can require a big investment of time.

“But some people are born with it,” Middlemas said. “I consider Jack Laird to be someone it just came naturally to. It seemed like he knew what was going to happen before it ever did.”

Categories: On the Water, Personality