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Harold Phinney Jr. | 1934-2008

Air Force vet Harold Phinney Jr. loved sailing, family

Harold Phinney had military and civilian careers.

Harold Phinney had military and civilian careers.

TOWN 'N COUNTRY — Harold Phinney spent much of his life serving his country in the Air Force. But some of his life's defining moments took place not in the air but on the sea.

He had always loved sailing and in 1992 Mr. Phinney crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship as part of a celebration of Christopher Columbus' voyage.

A few years later, he was helping to sail a 19th-century schooner from Virginia to the Caribbean when the ship sank. Separated from his mates, he spent more than six hours alone in the ocean, treading water until he was rescued.

Mr. Phinney, 74, died Oct. 24 after several years of failing health. He grew up in Attleboro, Mass., and enlisted in the Air Force right after high school.

"He wanted to see the world," said his daughter, Juanie Fuqua. "And that's exactly what he did."

He spent his 22-year military career in communications and served all over the globe.

"He didn't like to boast, but we would find little articles about him from the local papers when we were going through his stuff," his daughter said.

The family knew that he served in Vietnam and was awarded several medals, but they didn't find out until later that he worked on several Apollo moon missions. "They gave coins to everyone who took part in those missions and we came across some of those coins," his daughter said. "He was involved in Apollo IV, VII and VIII."

Mr. Phinney was stationed on the island of Mauritius, off Africa, at that time, and was one of the people the astronauts communicated with when they flew over that part of the world.

In the early 1960s, he was stationed in Spain when he met a girl named Juana. She spoke no English and he spoke little Spanish, but they soon fell in love and married.

Juana Phinney never became fluent in English. Through a translator, she said that they never sensed a language barrier during their courtship because her mother never let them be alone. There was always someone around to translate, and Mr. Phinney gradually learned Spanish.

He loved military life but he loved his family more, his daughter said. He retired in 1974 because he couldn't stand the long months away from his wife and two children.

He spent the next 20 years with the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C.

After he retired to Tampa, he indulged his passion for sailing, first with that trip retracing Columbus' route and later aboard the historic schooner Alexandria.

The ship had been docked in Virginia, but new owners wanted it moved to the Caribbean. Mr. Phinney volunteered to be part of the five-man crew.

Heavy winds sank the ship one night and Mr. Phinney, buoyed by the life vest he always wore, bobbed in the water for nearly seven hours. The Coast Guard found him the next morning, miles from where the ship went down.

"He had accepted the fact that he wasn't going to make it," his daughter said. "He said, 'I was making my peace with Jesus Christ.' But then a Coast Guard chopper spotted him. He had some bumps and bruises and windburn from helicopter's rotors, but that was all."

Besides his wife and daughter, Mr. Phinney is survived by his son, Tom, a sister and four grandchildren.

Marty Clear can be reached at

Air Force vet Harold Phinney Jr. loved sailing, family 10/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 5:51pm]
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