Ed Pitts is remembered as a sailor, who knew the currents and fluky winds of the Navesink River. He used that knowledge and his love of sailing to win a lot of sail boat races. As my son, Matthew, who used to crew for his Dad on Sundays at River Rats said, “I knew the back of Mr. Pitt’s head well because we saw so much of it as he sailed away from the rest of us.” When River Rats gathered on dock in day, after Ed’s untimely death in April, they talked a lot about what a great sailor he was, but they spoke even more about what a great guy he was and about his willingness to offer a sailboat ride or just the hand of friendship to those who came down to the River Rats dock. What follows are the recollections of River Rats, who remember Ed with smiles and awe at his ability to read the river and win a race, and some stories graciously shared by his life’s partner, DeeDee.
The first thing noted about Ed and his boat was its name, It’s the Pitts, and the second thing noted was how good a boat it was in spite of a noticeable scar on the hull. The story went that in one race,It’s the Pittswas punctured in a collision with a Sunfish. The result was a hole six inches in diameter just above the water line. Ed, apparently never one to panic, went back to the dock, covered the hole with duct tape, returned to the race and won it! Of such stuff are legends born.
One thing that puzzled everyone though, was the fact that even after Ed replaced the duct tape with a careful fiberglass repair job he didn’t paint the spot where the repair was made. There was lots of speculation about his keeping the scar as a reminder to other racers (or himself) about what could happen in a race. However, when I spoke to DeeDee after Ed’s death, she explained that with Ed, it was always about the utilitarian, the practical, never how something looked so there was no deeper meaning to the scar.It’s the Pittssailed fine with its scar so nothing more was necessary.
Several of Ed’s fellow sailors also noted thatIt’s the Pittswas a Rhodes 19 with no motor so it was essential for Ed to be able to read the currents and winds well in order to return home. My son remembers the back of Ed’s head in races, my husband, Blake and Kathy Hall remember how relaxed and in control he always looked approaching the dock (for the non-sailors reading this, that is no mean feat). Laura Noll remembers Ed moving his dingy, carried like a turtle’s shell on his back, down to the ramp. And, when he got the dingy in the water Ed headed for position A1 in the River Rat’s mooring field, a position he also held in many people’s hearts, along with a lifetime appointment to the River Rats Trustees.
DeeDee has very kindly donatedIt’s the Pittsto the River Rats and word around the club is that now the test will come for all true sailors. As long as Ed won races at the helm ofIt’s the Pitts, it was easy to say that he had a great boat. Now we may be forced to acknowledge what we always secretly thought, that the boat had a great skipper.
Ed’s father encouraged him to learn to sail and had a little boat built for him when he was a child. Ed in turn shared his love of sailing with his children. Laura Noll told of running the summer training program the year that Ed’s daughter Lee was River Rats head instructor. Lee recommended that an advanced sailing course be added to the program and set up the course, permitting young sailors to continue their training in Fair Haven. Ed supported Lee’s work as head instructor in his usual quiet manner. What DeeDee remembers is that Ed encouraged Lee to apply to become an instructor when she wasn’t sure she could do the job and later he encouraged her to apply to become the head instructor, again something she wasn’t sure she could do. He convinced her both times and both times she did a great job.
We knew Ed best as a sailor, but he was also a birder and Laura Noll described going down Fourth Creek in a kayak where she found baby birds. She didn’t know what they were, but Ed was able to identify them as juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons from her photo. Other River Rats remembered Ed identifying nearby birds from their cry as Ruby Crowned Kinglets. DeeDee shared recently that shortly before his death Ed added the sighting of an Icelandic Gull to his life list. It is certain that we will all miss his knowledge of the waterfowl on the Navesink and nearby waters.
It’s clear from all of the remembrances shared by old and new River Rats that Ed was a friend to us all and there are many reasons why, but among them might have been the cold keg of beer that Ed always had on tap in his home. Ed accomplished this feat by having a refrigerator with a tap in its door (a modification that he did himself) and a keg inside. Whenever he pulled together his annual crew to get the Rhodes ready for summer or to put it away in the fall, there was always a cold beer on tap for those participating. DeeDee has shared with us that they could not complete a remodeling of their kitchen until a proper place was found for the refrigerator with the tap. Since Ed liked to make things like the refrigerator with a beer tap work, it’s not surprising that within his family the Fair Haven Hardware Store, just down the street from his home, was referred to as Ed’s basement.
Several River Rats shared some of their personal stories about sailing with Ed or meeting him and they follow in their own words:
Tom Grunenfelder wrote from Indiana: “I have a lot of good memories of Ed. I’ll describe two here, the first because it exemplifies what Ed was perhaps best known for at River Rats—his legendary sailing skills based on detailed knowledge of the Navesink River—and the second because it is so fond to me.
My best friend Kay Mueller and I showed up late for a Sunday afternoon race one very still August day. By the time we launched, rigged, and were underway, so was the race. No worries. We set off from the dock, crossed the start line, and for some reason—it was just one of those days when we found a groove and did everything just absolutely right even when we weren’t trying--we soon caught up with the fleet, passed them, and coming up on the second mark, had only Ed in front of us. We passed him, too, very leisurely, having a nice discussion about light-air sailing. Ed was trying to figure out what we were doing. So were we. By the time that we rounded the last mark, we must have been several hundred feet in front of Ed. This was going to be a cinch. Not only were we going to win a River Rats race, we were going to win a race with Ed Pitts in it. And on the Navesink River! And in really light air! Well, the gods have something to say about hubris. We continued making slow progress towards the finish line. When Ed rounded the final mark, he sailed past the lay line for the finish. Had we humiliated him so badly that he was tossing in the towel and going home to River Rats? We should know better. Our progress became slower. And slower. Then it became negative. I wished we had brought along an anchor. Ed continued sailing well past the lay line for the finish, and only when he was well past it did he turn for it. Until we were caught up in it, we were totally unaware of a current that Ed knew all about—a small current with no visible signs and which in a decent wind would have been unnoticeable. But Ed knew about it and knew what to do about it. I don’t think that I have to add that he won that race.
Another afternoon, as I was finishing up some work at River Rats, Ed showed up for a solo sail. He invited me to go with him. (I was terribly honored.) This was not a race, it was just sailing. We “gunkholed” into the various bays and coves on the north side of the river, with Ed pointing out a pack of turtles here, a great blue heron there, a green heron here, a snowy egret there, and so on. He obviously enjoyed seeing all this wildlife so near his home. His appreciation of the river, and how much it was a part of his life, just stood out. There was nothing dramatic or adventurous about that afternoon. It was just a pleasant afternoon spent with a man who so palpably appreciated his environment. It was a simple afternoon, and one that I have remembered for many years. Thank you for that, Ed.”
Nancy Peters wrote: “I'll never forget my first day on the water as a student in the adult sailing class. I was told to step into the boat, so off I went onto the bow of one of the turnabouts (of course not realizing that the boat will just tip over when one does that!) I thought I was going right into the water, but then suddenly I was pulled back onto the dock somehow by Ed. It was amazing he wasn't just pulled in along with me! So I am eternally grateful to Ed for saving me from making a "splash" in front of the whole class. Ed and I also shared an enthusiasm for birds and enjoyeddiscussing our latest sightings. I will miss him.”
And from another Nancy (Gravina) the following memory of her first encounter with Ed: “He was truly a special person and so important to River Rats, he will be missed. Ed was the first person we met in Fair Haven. We had arrived a bit early for our appointment with our realtor to view the property on Battin Road. We wandered down to River Rats and it occurred to us that the end of the dock that stood before us would provide us with a view of the property from river side. So we “trespassed” onto the River Rats dock and as we approached the end of the dock there was Ed in his dingy coming in from a late afternoon sail. He could not have been nicer or more welcoming. To this day I attribute a large part of our commitment to the continued success of River Rats to Ed Pitts whose own commitment has had a tremendous effect on this wonderful community program.”
Bill Jaeger wrote: “Ed was a gentle, caring and engaging man. I can't think of a single interaction with Ed - teaching adult sailing, working on zoning/neighbor relations, sailboat racing, talking about growing up in Red Bank, discussing birding, or drinking a beer after turning his boat in the yard - that was not pleasant, enjoyable and worthwhile. Ed will be deeply missed at River Rats, in Fair Haven and in the natural habitats of Monmouth County.”
Frank Munn shared a sailing story: “I had just taken sailing lessons and my wife, Irene, and I were sailing to Red Bank. Ed was also out sailing and he quickly figured out that the Munn’s didn’t know what they were doing so he followed us, green sailors that we were, all the way to Red Bank and made sure that we were turned around safely towards home under his watchful eye.”
Two long time River Rats wrote about their friendship with Ed and about his contributions not only to River Rats but also to the larger community, which he served as a member of the Fair Haven School Board, as a member and former chair of the Navesink River Municipalities Committee, as a member of the Monmouth County Environmental Commission and as a member of the Fair Haven Environmental Commission.
Bill Martin wrote: “I had hoped to send you something more inspired about Ed, but his death is such a personal loss and so sudden I couldn't find the words. Ed and DeeDee were part of my extended family for 40 years of adventures, misadventures and just day-to-day stuff. But I believe many others feel this way - the town, also.Ed can't be replaced. He knew theRiver and its tributaries and nooks, as a mariner, as an environmentalist, as a citizen better than anyone I know. And he gave back to the river and the town in equal measure.”
Joe Malik wrote: “I have known Ed since I joined River Rats in 1976 and during all those years he gave much to supporting River Rats as Skipper and a long-time Trustee. As Trustee for many, many years he has led our efforts to update our zoning situation. Patience and quiet listening are virtues I associated most with Ed. Whether listening to the views of members or neighbors as we have gone through the twists and turns of resolving the zoning issues so that we are not encumbered in the future, Ed had the ability to sort through issues and bring them to a logical result. The conclusion of that effort will be part of his legacy.
His support of the environment was always evident in his leadership of environmental bodies both in Fair Haven and in the Two Rivers area. As an avid bird watcher, we could always learn about a new bird sighting down at River Rats.
His sailing skills were legendary and he took home a large number of our sailing trophies. In the fluky winds of the Navesink he was always able to coax his boat "It's the Pitts" around the course.
So to a dear friend we can say the traditional sailor's prayer, Fair Winds and a Following Sea.”
Joe’s words seem like a fitting conclusion but not without noting DeeDee, who shared a lifetime voyage with Ed and was his faithful crew on It’s the Pitts. We enjoyed the humor in their boat’s name partly because it seemed so the opposite of our experiences with Ed and DeeDee and their family. They were the Pitts, but they were also the best. Singly and together they have touched many lives and we are the better for having them in our lives.
Prepared with gratitude for Ed’s life and for all of the River Rats and their special memories of Ed,
June 11, 2010