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August 20, 2012
Simon Whitehead has returned to a spot on the Neuse River that he knew well.
Late Sunday afternoon, three boats gathered near Oriental #1, the marker, Reverend Jeremiah Day notes, “where all the races start.” Drizzle was falling, not unlike Simon’s native England. And as 8 friends watched, Simon’s ashes were spread on the waters he’d come to sail so often.Simon Whitehead at the 2010 Oriental Boat Show where he was representing Matthews Point Marina and Yacht Sales
Simon Whitehead’s work and life revolved around sailboats. When word reached Oriental that he had died on July 31 at the age of 71, the first words from most of his friends were about his love of sailing.
It wasn’t that Simon just sailed and raced a lot, they say, but that he did it with such skill. “A lot of people sail. Not that many sail well,” said Paul Abare, who taught sailing with Simon over the years. “He knew how to make a boat go.”
Like others, Abare said he’d seen races when other boats were becalmed in still air — but not Simon and his Capri 25, “Capricious.” “His boat would be moving.”Simon Whitehead sailing with his friend, Joe Bliss, in 1999. At a memorial service for Simon on Sunday, Joe noted that the rain falling outside was the kind of weather that he and Simon encountered a lot when they sailed.
Simon Whitehead settled in Oriental almost three decades ago. He worked as a yacht broker. He also taught at the Oriental School of Sailing. And for years, he kept the Neuse Solo Race going. (He did that, appropriately so, pretty much single-handedly.)
“He was a really great sailor,“ said Chris Daniels of Oriental’s School of Sailing. “His passion for sailing was tremendous.”
That applied off the water, too. Paul Abare recalled a time when Simon became agitated by a TV ad that used a sailboat to pitch its wares. It wasn’t the product — Viagra – that bothered Simon so much, Paul says. What unwound him was that the boat was moving forward while the jib was clearly backwinded. It disturbed him to see sailing presented in a way he knew was physically impossible.Simon, taking a group of Boy Scouts on a 2009 sail lesson. Chris Daniels, who runs Oriental’s School of Sailing searched for words the day Simon died. “He was,” said Chris, “a great Brit.”
Simon Whitehead arrived in Oriental from Britain about three decades ago. Thanks to Simon’s understated manner, it wasn’t as widely known here that about half a lifetime before that, he arrived amid a firestorm.
He was born in September 1940, just as Germany was beginning to bomb London in what would become known as The Blitz. Simon’s mother had been living in the besieged city, and as a safeguard from the German attacks, she moved to the outskirts, where Simon was born. The move proved wise. Simon’s ex-stepson, Corbie Hill, says the night before his birth, a German bomb leveled the London home where Simon’s mother had been living.
Simon grew up in Cardiff, Wales on the grounds of an Anglican cathedral; Simon’s father and grandfather oversaw the running of the cathedral. Caroline Parham-Ramsey says that a childhood in that church setting shaped Simon, as did his father teaching him to sail.
In that cathedral childhood, he sang in the choir. He was active in Boy Scouts, earning the British equivalent of the Eagle Scout rank — Queen’s Scout. Queen Elizabeth herself presented him with the honor, which he had with him decades later.Simon Whitehead teaching Boy Scouts to sail in 2009.
After graduating from London Polytechnic, Simon worked in business for a few years in London. (Corbie Hill recalls prying from Simon the information that he once drank in a pub with Roger Daltrey.) In time, Simon shifted to running a sailing school and by the early 1980’s was delivering boats across the Atlantic, making the crossing from London three times. He decided to stay on these shores, landing in Florida, and then in Oriental in the mid-80’s.
While he became known in and around boats, sailing wasn’t all Simon did. He was also very active at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, rising to Senior Warden, the highest position in the congregation. He worked with the youth groups, and with the Diocese.
Caroline Parham-Ramsey says Simon’s childhood on the cathedral grounds in Wales also led to a love of classical music, which led to a stint as an announcer at Public Radio East. He sang in the Pamlico Chorale.Simon with Charis and Corbie Hill, who had been his stepchildren, in a 1995 photo.
And while they were married, Simon helped raise Caroline’s children – Corbie and Charis Hill. Charis, now in her mid-20’s, recalled Simon working in his yacht brokerage office, noting a boat’s faults to potential buyers, at the risk of losing a sale. By example, she says, he taught her to stick with an idea. And she said to this day, she daren’t slouch when she sits. Her remembrances and those of her brother were read at a memorial service held on Sunday at St. Thomas Episcopal church where several dozen of Simon’s friends and those who knew him had gathered.Simon and his son, Tim, at Tim’s wedding in 2000.
Half a decade ago, around 2006, Simon moved across the Neuse River to Carteret County. He’d came back to Oriental for some races and for some boat shows. In recent years, he worked as a yacht broker at Matthews Point Marina. There, owner Jet Matthews remembers Simon for his grace. He was, Jet says, “gentlemanly.. respectful.” Matthews also recalls giving Simon grief – “a running battle” he called it – for sneaking cigarettes, even as he suffered from a respiratory ailment.
In the past year, Simon was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He’d been living in a rest home in Carteret County and then, after a hospital visit, he entered a hospice in Greenville, where after only a few days, he died on July 31. His death came as a shock to many here who had lost touch and didn’t know he was ill.
Simon is survived by his son, Tim Whitehead, who was raised in England, but lives now in Texas. Also a granddaughter, as well as family in England.Simon at the helm sailing with friends, Joe Bliss and Larry Walker.