The Art of Self-RelianceOn land and at sea, Captain Pat Mundus charts her own course.
Captain Pat Mundus can’t remember her first time on the water. “How could I? I lived on the water,” she says from her Greenport home overlooking Sterling Harbor. She produces a black and white photograph of a small girl with a black dog aboard the Cricket II, her father’s storied fishing boat. That boat saw a lot of action. Her father was Frank Mundus, the inspiration for the hard-nosed shark hunter Quint in Jaws. According to his daughter, Mundus senior always wanted a son. Instead he got three girls, and of those three girls, only Pat, the restless middle child, went to sea. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to get out of my father’s shadow,” she says.
No one would ever accuse Mundus of being anything less than her own woman. Like a character in an adventure tale, she escaped the confines of her native Montauk and the strictures of family life when she was just seventeen. She wanted to learn how to sail. When she told her father, she says, he more or less kicked her out of the house. And so, taking matters into her own hands, she bought a plane ticket to the Caribbean where she found work on a succession of boats. There her career might have stalled but for a chance encounter in a Bermuda bar with an old salt. During the course of their conversation, she found herself complaining about gender inequalities on board. “Every time there’s something new to be learned, one of the guys teaches it to one of the other guys, not me,” she lamented. The man in the bar turned out to be an oil tanker captain. He encouraged her to apply to a merchant marine academy, a proper four year program from which she would graduate with, in her words, “a giant coast guard’s license.” As Mundus tells it, “The ink wasn’t dry on my diploma before I found work as a merchant ship officer.” Often, she was the first woman with whom her crewmates had ever sailed. (Only four percent of crew members in the nineteen-seventies were women, she says, “and that included everybody from cooks to officers.”) Of the atmosphere aboard those ships, she says drily, “It wasn’t The Love Boat.”
Still, it was an education. Very quickly she learned to keep her distance and to project authority and to keep her own counsel at all times. In Saudi Arabia, she had to pretend to be a man, removing her jewelry and tucking her hair under a hard hat, and relaying orders through another man, or else the guys at the loading facility would have walked off the job. She sailed from Alaska to Panama, Egypt, and Yemen and around the Cape of Good Hope to deep water ports in Europe. She learned that if you are sailing through pirate-dense waters then you had better post extra look-outs and ballast your ship, high, high, to make it hard for men to climb up the rudder. Once, in the Gulf of Alaska, she was thirty miles from shore when her ship started to violently judder “like a Jeep on a potholed road.” The boat was rocked by the shock waves of a 6.7 earthquake that left a fourteen-foot crack in the bulkhead. “That one was pretty scary,” she recalled.
She lasted seventeen years, an extraordinarily good run, she says, which she owed in part to her late husband, Earl Vorhees, who for more than two decades took care of their home on Northwest Creek in East Hampton. The couple settled in Greenport a while back “after the glamorous Hamptons became a bit too glamorous for the likes of us.”
These days she lives a quieter existence both on the water and off. Seven months out of the year, she lives aboard the Surprise, her 57-foot-ketch, which she and Vorhees restored together. The ketch was designed for a big New England family by the distinguished naval architect Spaulding Dunbar in 1967. Mundus spends winters cruising the western Caribbean and the Bahamas. And from June through September, she runs East End Charters, which she founded to share her love of the East End’s waterways with others. Her fleet of fourteen yachts—ketch, catamaran, high-speed motor yacht, sloop, and other lovingly-restored vintage boats—are a familiar sight in Greenport Harbor. As the offspring of a man she describes as “an alpha hunter, plain and simple” and a veteran of what is arguably one of the toughest old boys’ clubs around, she feels an obligation to mentor women. Thus, it’s no coincidence that the Surprise’s charter captain is Liz Gillooly, a capable young local who grew up sailing at the Orient Yacht Club and has crewed on boats in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Mundus can also arrange charters on the Surprise with an all-female crew.
When she’s on land, she craves the simplicity of life on the water, and starts counting the days before she can set forth again. She wakes up every morning well before first light, since for years she did the four-to-eight watch. Since the death of her husband in 2013, Mundus’s first mates on her ocean voyages have been young women. Her most recent travel companion was an eighteen year-old goddaughter, who at the outset of the trip, she says, was just like “any other New England mall rat.” By the end of their journey, Mundus says, “that girl knew how to trap lobsters and catch her own supper.”
East End Charters