Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   December 2015

Tribute to a Beautiful Friend
and an Incredible Sailor Donald Marmo:
April 9th, 1942 to October 16th, 2015

by Donald Stollmeyer

I love people who make me laugh. It cures a multiple of ills.
It’s probably the most important thing in a person.
— Audrey Hepburn

Every once in a while, if you are lucky, you will meet a person who is special. I met such a person in 1991. He was shy yet he was great fun to be with. He had a certain spark, a little-boyish grin that portrayed pure wickedness but only in the nicest possible way. About him there was a certain goodness of character, a concern for others, a very keen sense of humor, an interest in world affairs and a spirit for adventure. He had built a trimaran and a catamaran and he had an intimate knowledge of multihulls. He had sailed extensively across the world’s oceans and he had an acute understanding of the sea and sailing. Above all, he laughed a lot and he had the ability to make other people laugh with him. It wasn’t long before I was calling this man “my friend”.

Don Marmo’s sailing life began when he was a Boy Scout in Australia and met his lifelong friend Ken Conley who introduced him to sailing. Ken described Don at that time just as we know him today: “A skinny tall Boy Scout, his knobby knees resembling buds growing on twigs.” Several years later Don graduated to bigger boats but his passion was for multihulls, admiring their speed and stability. In 1964 he helped his friends Ian Eeles and Tony Spooner build a trimaran which for many years they sailed throughout the South Pacific, up to Hawaii, across to California and finally to Central America where they sold her in 1973. The young friends then went back to California where Don built a Crowther Spindrift 39-foot catamaran at a big old barn called The Ranch. “I remember they used to call me ‘Lightning’. Using a hammer, I’d never strike the same place twice!” The boat was launched in February 1976 and it was then that Don’s wonderful sailing adventures and his life aboard Ned Kelly began.

With his friends, Don sailed Ned to far-off lands that most sailors can only dream about visiting. In 1977, he sailed across the Pacific from the States to Australia; in ’78, he sailed via Fiji to Vanuatu, where Don registered Ned and resided for eight years; in ’86, upwind from Vanuatu to California via Samoa and Hawaii, “a piece of cake!”; in ’87 to Costa Rica via Mexico, then across the Pacific once again to Australia; in ’88 across the top of Australia through the Torres Strait to Darwin then on to Bali, Cocos-Keeling and Thailand, where Ned won the famous King’s Cup; then off sailing across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea to Sudan and Egypt, through the Suez Canal into the Med, to Cyprus, Turkey, the Greek Islands, Tunisia, Majorca and Gibraltar.

In 1990 Ned crossed the Atlantic via the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands, making landfall in St. Maarten. Except for a short sojourn when he took Ned to Rhode Island in 1994, Don remained in the Caribbean, cruising up and down the island chain, taking part in regattas and having friends cruise with him. He kept himself liquid (and in liquid!) by repairing houses and boats, and doing other odd jobs.  His desire was simply to earn enough, what he laughingly termed “biscuit” to be able to sail, to keep Ned in good condition and to spend time enjoying life with his friends. Don was as happy as a clam.
By the mid 1990s Don and I had become firm friends and what a joy it was to see him whenever we met. In December 1996, when I launched the catamaran I had been building for ten long years, Don sailed to Trinidad for the launching ceremony but in his own words, he really came “to make damn sure you finally get it into the sea!” He brought with him a video camera, not all that common in those days, on which he recorded the launching. That video, coupled with Don’s amazing commentary, is now one of my treasured possessions. 

Over the ensuing years our friendship deepened. We saw each other when I visited the other islands and when he visited Trinidad, and we were in close contact through e-mails that he regularly sent to his many friends all over the world. These e-mails were keenly anticipated because almost always there would include an absolutely classic joke or he would recount some funny incident. In December 2012, when I launched my second catamaran (this one only seven years to build), he again sailed down to Trinidad, this time with our friends Chris Doyle and Jeff Fisher, to attend the launching party and I guess once again, “to make damn sure you finally get it into the sea!” As always, it was a joy to see him.

In early 2014 I e-mailed Don to tell him that Karen, one of our friends in Trinidad, had contracted a little-known but awful disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). ALS is a very rare but fatal neurological disease that affects about one in 60,000 people every year, attacking the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles.  It’s strange to now reflect that Don replied to my e-mail with the words, “Oh my God, I looked up ALS and it’s devastating.” When Karen died in April 2014 he wrote me saying, “Thank heavens she went comfortably, it’s all any of us can hope for.” It was only one month after Karen died that Don e-mailed me to say he was having problems swallowing and his speech was becoming slurred. After the initial jokes about the amount of alcohol in his veins objecting to the presence of blood, we realized his condition was in fact very serious. Following initial tests in Grenada, Don sailed Ned to Trinidad in Sept 2014 where, almost unbelievably, final tests confirmed that he was also stricken with ALS.
The events over the next few months made me realize how many very good friends Don had accumulated in his life of sailing. On hearing the news, people from distant corners of the world contacted each other by e-mail to ask how they could help and an informal e-mail group of well over 50 friends was formed. Don’s great friend Craig Lovett organized an “Ice Bucket Challenge” for Don and an ALS donation in Don’s name. A bank account was opened so that friends could help with his expenses but he was not told about it because he would have objected. Then, when his speech got really bad, his friends bought him a “whizzy new talking computer” to help him express himself. Incidentally, Don loved high-tech gadgetry. He was the first person I knew with a handheld GPS.

With severely restricted movements, it was clear that Don could not remain aboard Ned Kelly so he reluctantly agreed to return to Australia where he could access First World medical care. Ned was duly sold to the son of a friend and he e-mailed me to say the lad liked to sail fast and “he’s a surfer as well. Perfect!”
On March 24th 2015 Don said a final farewell to Ned and his friends in Grenada. Phil Winters escorted him to California, where he stayed with his old friend Tony. While there, a wonderful event took place. Tony invited Don’s long-ago friends, many of whom had known Don when he was building Ned Kelly 39 years earlier, to a celebration party for Don at…. would you believe it…. THE RANCH! Don e-mailed me a few days after the party to say how wonderful it was, that “Tone wangled me into it” and “I’d forgotten how good my old friends are.” Then, in early April, Craig escorted Don from California to “Ostraalya” where Don quietly resided on the east coast with Lisa, another old friend and, very conveniently, a retired nurse. Ken, his old mate from their days in the Boy Scouts, and other friends were there to take him out and help him along. Over the next few months, as expected, Don gradually lost control of his remaining muscles. He survived a bad fall and a bout of pneumonia but nothing could stop the advancing ALS. Although it still came as a shock, we were not surprised when we received an e-mail from Tony, Ken and Carolyn on October 16th to say, “Our dear friend Captain Don weighed anchor and sailed over the horizon for the last time.”

As the news of Don’s passing spread amongst his cruising friends, inboxes in computers in various corners of the world began filling up with e-mails all bearing the same simple title: “Captain Don”. It was most extraordinary and in retrospect I think we all needed to comfort each other through shared words of appreciation of Don’s life and our profound love for him. Interestingly, many of the e-mails referred to Don as “my beautiful friend” and “my beautiful captain”. Mike wrote, “rest in peace beautiful man”; Robert wrote, “…one of the few beautiful people I have known” and Pat wrote, “farewell beautiful, dear and true friend.” I paused to consider why there was this recurrent theme, this focus on his beauty, because, in the physical sense Don would be the first to laugh at the notion that he was beautiful. In fact, one dear friend humorously described him as “a body attached to more arms and legs than anyone else!” Yet Don really was a beautiful person. He brought people together and he made people feel good. Indeed, as Kirk, another friend, remarked, “He gives one hope for the human race.” Or maybe Buzz summed it up best when he wrote, “Whatever the powers were that put Don’s existence together, they hit the jackpot”.

When Don was diagnosed with ALS he confided in me that the thing he would miss most is making people laugh. But Don will always make us laugh because even today when I hear a funny joke I think of him and that adds to my laughter. And I know his friends all feel the same way. For this and so many other reasons we will never forget our beautiful captain, Don Marmo. We thank you for being in our lives Don. Fair winds forever; you deserve to cruise in peace.


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