Dick and Dixie Goertemiller have spent decades cruising the Bay, sharing their lives and stories with loyal readers of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.
by Marty LeGrand
Among the stories Dick Goertemiller loves to tell (and they are legion), we’ll start with the one about Li’l Tiki. It’s a tragicomic tale and he spins it self-deprecatingly—two greenhorns (Dick and his wife Dixie) who buy a sad-sack sailboat and then barely avert catastrophe. It illustrates the unlikely course taken by Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s founders—a sailing-smitten commercial artist from Baltimore and his new-to-boating Southern bride—en route to becoming the First Couple of Bay cruising.
Richard and Dixie Goertemiller (GUR—rhymes with “fur”—ta-miller) are semiretired, their cruising days mostly behind them. Yet as I join them at a small restaurant up the road from their Reedville, Va. home, I’m struck by the resemblance to photographs of their much younger selves. He remains the trim, mustachioed skipper and she the neatly coiffed belle, his unflappable cruising companion of over 40 years.
Their personalities complement one another. He’s the dreamer and she’s the pragmatist. He’s right brain, she’s left. He’s the mainsail, she’s his rudder. She wasn’t his first true love—that was sailing. One trip aboard a fellow artist’s 19-foot daysailer and Dick was head over Top-Siders infatuated. He sought comfort in the pages of a how-to-sail book from Sports Illustrated. In short order he bought a 16-foot Comet, sailing it one season before moving to North Carolina. There he met Dixie (her given name) Epting.
“She was walking down the street and I wanted to meet her,” he says, sipping a diet soda. “I always say I picked her up on the street.”
Unruffled, she lets his joke breeze by. “I was talking with a friend, a mutual acquaintance,” she says. “Dick stopped to say hello to her and I took the chance to leave.”
“There went my plans,” Dick says. But he persisted, and in 1966 they married in High Point, N.C., moving days later to Catonsville, Md., a Baltimore suburb closer to Dick’s
new job. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Li’l Tiki.
“Dixie describes herself as still being in the stage of ‘Yes, dear. Yes, dear,’ ” Dick says. “That didn’t last too long—”
“You described me that way,” she says. (They do this a lot, gently correcting one another or finishing the other’s thought.)
“—I said, ‘I know how to sail, and I’d like us to get a sailboat,’ ” he continues. “As an alternative to me going golfing all weekend, she felt it was a good way for us to be together.”
Trouble was, her lack of boating experience was matched only by his misplaced confidence in his sailing know-how, acquired at powerboat speed.
“He was down there [North Carolina] for four years. Remember, he’d sailed one summer,” Dixie says, holding up an index finger as Dick just smiles. “We move. [He says,] ‘Dear, we have to have a sailboat. Sailing’s the only thing in the world. We have to go sailing.’ ” She replied, “Yes, dear.”
They found a sailboat that met their needs and meager budget. Built of marine plywood over hardwood ribs, Li’l Tiki was 24 feet long with a six-foot beam. “Ugly as homemade sin,” Dick would later write. She came with a caveat from the seller, who warned them the boat had been out of the water a considerable time. The implications did not immediately register.
“We said, ‘O-kaaaay,’” Dixie says. Laughing, she arches her eyebrows in that wide-eyed way Lucy did before confessing an “oopsy” to Ricky. “Today I at least know what to ask.” The couple forked over $1,000 for their dream boat, whose hull was about to take its first dip in 18 months.
Maybe you can guess the punch line.
“We got the boat into the water,” Dick says. (One of his brothers helped with the operation.)
“We putted around and put it in a slip that was loaned to us just for the weekend. That was on a Friday. On Saturday I took Dixie out to see our new boat.”
Which . . . wasn’t . . . there.
“The darn thing was underwater,” Dick says.
With all the gaps in her dried-out hull and no pump aboard, Li’l Tiki had sunk to the bottom in
no time. All they saw were four lines leading glumly into Middle River. With an irate marina owner
gesticulating wildly at them, the Goertemillers improvised a rescue plan.
“We were blessed, because it had some iron ingots—additional ballast—down inside. So I swam out and got on top of the boat and was pulling these ingots out and tying rope to them,” Dick says. “Dixie would pull ’em over and pile ’em up on the dock. . . . Once I get the last [ingot] off, I felt movement. I jumped into the water beside it and gradually it came to the surface,” where the boat was pumped dry.
By the following day, Li’l Tiki’s seams had swelled tight as a clam shell. “It never leaked again after that,” Dixie says. “So if you really want to swell a boat up, just sink it really quickly.”
So they learned a tough lesson; everyone does (perhaps not as dramatically). Their reaction, though, was telling. Except for an abiding aversion to wooden boats, the Goertemillers were undeterred by their inauspicious debut. Their future boating adventures, recounted with good-humored candor for readers of the magazine they founded five years later, bonded them with an audience as curious and crazy about Bay boating as they were.
Aboard a series of subsequent boats Dick and Dixie explored the wondrous Bay with Chesapeake Bay Magazine readers in figurative tow. Cruise-worthy rivers and scenic anchorages; out-of-the way islands and up-and-coming ports of call; gunkholes and hurricane holes; dockside restaurants and idyllic picnicking beaches—wherever they went, whatever they discovered, they shared.
“What a wonderful time,” Dick says often over the next two hours. Our table behind the salad bar is sheltered from other diners. Dixie’s choice, I suspect. She’s a stickler for courtesy, discreetly shushing her effusive husband whenever the conversational volume verges on impropriety.
They’ve lived in Reedville, in a house they built on Cockrell Creek, for 30 years. Long enough for Dixie to reference the restaurant’s past lives when giving me directions. (“Most recently it was the Crabby Waterman; started out as Pam and Bobby Deihl’s paint and decorating establishment.”) Their lives intertwine with the community. Dick sings baritone with the Northern Neck Bay Tones, a barbershop group based in Kilmarnock. Both worship at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Heathsville, Va., where she’s director of the choir in which he sings.
They find time for work as well, running a home-based distributorship of health and beauty products. And although they sold the magazine in 1974, the Goertemillers have hardly been absent from its pages over the past 35 years, what with the Log of Moon Song column, innumerable Cruise of the Month columns and the fact that Dick’s illustrations still appear in each issue’s Cruise of the Month column.
Two score and three years after Li’l Tiki, a 28-foot Newport, their ninth boat, graces their private dock. It’s a lifestyle the Goertemillers had never imagined when, as thirtysomethings, they took the gamble of their lives in the fall of 1970. Weary of his lengthy commute to an advertising agency and itching to swap the selling business for the sailing life, Dick concocted a plan. They’d start a magazine about the Chesapeake and Bay boating. They sized up the local competition: Chesapeake Skipper, a soon-to-fold sailing magazine, and two “freebies” targeted to the Eastern Shore. “There wasn’t anything regional about the Chesapeake Bay and all that this area has to offer,” Dixie says. They felt the time was right.
“Dick quit his job in February —this comes from being young and foolish—and we allowed ourselves two months to get that first issue out,” Dixie says. With a young son (the first of their three children) to support and no financial backers, the couple had only the moral support of their boating friends, some of whom volunteered to help.
“I describe the experience as jumping off onto an avalanche,” Dick says. “You cannot get off. All you can do is hold on and do the best you can.”
It took three weeks to sign their first advertiser. (Depending on which Goertemiller is remembering, either a binocular salesman or a real estate agent.) “I was so excited about it that I put the carbon paper in upside down,” Dixie says. The first issue, called Chesapeake Bay and Bay Country, appeared in May 1971. Instead of photos they used Dick’s artwork, including a handsome woodblock image of Hooper’s Strait Light on the front cover.
Nor was it boating-only. The issue’s 32 pages contained guest-written articles about Bay fishing, history, ecology (a regular column by “Millie, the Meandering Mermaid”) and artisans. Naturally it featured a cruising destination too: St. Michaels, Md. (“Shangri-La on the Chesapeake”). Individual copies were free at first; anyone who wanted to subscribe paid $4 per year. “Just like Good Housekeeping,” Dixie says.
The magazine office was their living room. Dick, the artist/storyteller, illustrated and designed each month’s issue and began penning a regular column, Cruise of the Month, about the couple’s wanderings. Dixie, the former legal secretary, was responsible for editing, proofreading, typesetting, bookkeeping and collecting ad revenues. She once staked out the offices of a delinquent advertiser for hours. He paid up. She had no choice, Dixie says; the three of them were living on $500 to $600 a month.
From early 1971 to December 1974, when they sold Chesapeake Bay Magazine and its spin-off annual publication,
Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay, the publishing newbies emerged as resilient as their first little sailboat. They’re quick to credit other influences.
“Look at how providence, the lord almighty” (“indeed,” Dixie interjects) “was looking out for us. We had no competition. It was a time when boating was really starting to have a resurgence through the charm of plastic and fiberglass. A lot of things just fell in place for us,” Dick says.
Nonetheless, waves of trouble threatened to swamp the endeavor. The magazine survived the blow Tropical Storm Agnes dealt the Bay in 1972, the boat excise tax Maryland levied in 1973, affecting many advertisers, and the nation’s energy woes in 1974. That year the cover of one issue read, “Will the Energy Crisis Kill Boating?”
By comparison, the Great Boat Show Flood of 1971 was a mere annoyance. Having been avid gawkers in 1970 at the first U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, the Goertemillers were exhibitors at the second. Bad timing. “We had gone way out on a limb with the dollars and printed extra [magazines] to give away at the Boat Show,” Dixie says. “The tide came in. The water rose at least a foot high over the dock into the tent. . . . We lost thousands of [copies].”
On the upside, the 1971 show helped launch the Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay. A magazine reader had stopped by to praise Dick’s “perspective” illustrations (the bird’s-eye views of shorelines that accompanied Cruise of the Month), telling them he’d remove and compile the pages into a notebook he kept onboard. Aha! thought Dick and Dixie. “This is a product we’d already produced,” Dick says. “Let’s put it together in one book and sell it separately!” The Guide’s first edition in 1972 consisted of the previous year’s illustrated monthly cruises. It would later expand to nearly 400 pages.
Li’l Tiki begat Dick’s signature illustrations. Banished from the marina where she submerged, the boat had to be moved to her permanent home on Frog Mortar Creek. Dick was able to chart his course, but when it came to recognizing the shorescape he was hopelessly lost. “I could not interpret what I was looking at.” He started sketching the creeks and harbors they visited. “That was the birth of the perspective drawings,” he says. (Although he had some formal art training from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, his talent is really self-developed.)
Not all feedback was positive. Powerboaters would sometimes raise a stink about the magazine’s sailing-centric coverage. “We were sailors, but we included both,” Dixie responds. “People would say, ‘Well, that’s a sailboat story.’ ”
To which they’d reply: “Does that mean you can’t do it on a powerboat?”
The Goertemiller boat that readers came to know best—Moon Song—was purchased after they sold the magazine. Moon Song the First was a Bristol 33. “It came down from New Jersey or New York,” Dick says. “We left the name on because we felt it was unlucky to change boat names.”
Still her husband’s diligent editor, Dixie chimes in. “No, that’s not why. The real reason is we left it because we liked the name; it was unusual and we’d never heard it. Otherwise we’d never be able to agree on a name.” They treasure the name so much, in fact, that it does not convey when they sell a vessel. (They’ve owned four Moon Songs, one a trawler.)
Our waitress checks to see whether we’ll need menus. Not yet. Dick has another story. Have I heard the one about the dead goose?
The magazine’s postal business was conducted at the small post office in Pasadena, Md., near the couple’s home. “We got a call one time, ‘Mister Goertemiller, your goose is here,’ ”
Dick begins. But Dixie puts a hand on his arm. “I got the call, so may I tell the story?” The phone call, she says, went roughly like this: Postmaster: Your goose is here. Dixie: My what? Postmaster: Your goose! Dixie: Well how do you know it’s a goose? Postmaster: It’s got a tag around its leg.
The Canada goose, shot by a gentleman on the Eastern Shore, was sent as a token of gratitude to one of the maga-zine’s advertising salespeople. “He didn’t know how to reach her except through us,” Dixie says. Retrieved from the post office loading dock (“fortunately, it was cold weather,” she says), the goose eventually reached its intended recipient—who served it for Thanksgiving dinner. (Top that, Vanity Fair!)
By late 1974 the Goertemillers realized they had more magazine than they could handle. “To move to the next level there were certain areas of expertise . . .
that we did not have,” Dixie says. Nor did they feel qualified to hire the right people. They wound up selling “their baby”—almost by chance—to its current publisher, Richard J. Royer, then an ad salesman for the Washington Star, whom they’d met in Annapolis.
Royer wanted to start an outdoors magazine and sought their advice at a meeting over lunch, unaware that Chesapeake Bay Magazine was on the market. Dixie, surprised that the topic of buying CBM never came up, said as they rose to leave, “Well, is that it? . . . You know we’re for sale, don’t you?”
They struck a deal. Royer got the magazine and cruising guide; the Goertemillers got their living room back. To ease the change of hands, Dixie stayed “temporarily” as office manager/bookkeeper. “We had [agreed on] a one hundred twenty day transition,” Dixie says. It lasted three years.
Dick Goertemiller, meanwhile, returned to the sales business, this time for a yacht brokerage selling a product he was passionate about. He continued to write Cruise of the Month.
To call Dick and Dixie the Bay’s Brad and Angelina would be a stretch, but by the late 1970s they were a hot item on boating’s social circuit. At Royer’s suggestion (as a magazine promotional effort), they became stars of the silver screen. Or, absent a screen, luminaries of any wall space uncluttered enough to show slides of their travels. “Dick can show slides and tell stories all night,” Dixie says. And so he has done for years—at gatherings of Power Squadrons, Coast Guard Auxiliary chapters, yacht clubs and other boating groups around the Bay.
Once he and Dixie were addressing a somewhat elderly group of boaters.
“It was hot as hell,” he recalls. The drinks were flowing, dinner had been served and Dick began his presentation, priming his audience as usual with a funny story. Suddenly, one guest keeled over.
“Down the line an old gentleman just went wheeeeew, plop! right in the middle of the aisle,” Dick says. “He’s dead!” someone gasped. Fortunately, the overheated victim had merely passed out. “He kind of stopped my momentum for a while.”
When Dixie’s magazine transitional duties ended in 1977, the Goertemillers moved to Reedville. They’d bought five acres on Cockrell Creek near a cove where, coincidentally, they’d twice sought shelter while cruising. One April day in 1989 Dick was hauling tree limbs up their hill when he became so tired “I couldn’t carry them any farther.” It was the first inkling of the grave challenge to come.
He resisted Dixie’s pleas to see a doctor until tennis ball-size bruises began to appear on his face. Measles, they thought, and consulted a doctor. He told Dick to get to the hospital immediately; his platelet count was dangerously low. “Don’t even trim your fingernails,” Dick recalls him saying. “If you cut yourself you’ll bleed to death.”
It was leukemia. “He was within a couple weeks of death,” Dixie says softly. For nearly two years Dick underwent chemotherapy.
Still, the Goertemillers kept working. Dick continued to write his cruising column. (Chronicling their past trips, it was renamed Log of Moon Song.) They were also editing and producing the Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bay again. Dixie worked on a TV tray at Dick’s hospital bedside, rousing him from his “chemo fog” when she needed his input.
Dick improved, then relapsed—twice. His oncologist, a nationally known researcher, eventually ran out of treatment options. Large amounts of additional chemotherapy could be fatal. Doctors harvested bone marrow for a transplant, “but he had already relapsed between the day he was tested and a few days later when they did the harvest,” Dixie says. It was the week before Christmas 1990. Other than small doses of chemo there was little to do but wait.
So they waited . . . and miraculously Dick slowly lifted from the depths of his illness. His body righted itself. “He’s here by the grace of God and a lot of, lot of prayers,” Dixie says. “It really is a miracle that he is alive today.”
Our dutiful waitress has returned.
After we order lunch, I ask Dixie whether her editing of Dick’s work ever created tension between them. “Absolutely, but we worked it out,” she says, with a laugh, but also with a finality that discourages further inquiry.
From leaky sailboats to monthly deadlines to bedside vigils they have worked side by side. Their partnership remains steadfast, as do the magazine and cruising guide they created. And semiretirement keeps them plenty busy. In addition to his Cruise of the Month, watercolors, Dick’s marine art appears in exhibits and galleries around the Bay. He still works in four media: watercolor, woodblock, pen and ink, and graphite (the latter a “ritzier way of saying pencil drawing,” he says).
Dixie keeps their business running and coordinates the couple’s schedules. They’re always eager to share their cruising stories, whether that’s over lunch at DeGaetani’s or with a slideshow at a leukemia cup regatta. And it would appear that the operative phrase of the partnership, whether it is she to him or he to her, is “Yes, dear, but. . . . ”