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Observations: Bob gets his life back

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image Bob Bitchin and his wife, Jody, at the St. Pete Boat Show. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Fair winds, Mr. and Mrs. Lipkin. Thanks for helping to keep my dreams alive.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Bob Bitchin is getting his life back. Over the past 15 years, he has built one of the nation’s largest magazines devoted to sailing and blue water cruising and has changed how people see the sport, or more aptly perhaps, how people see the lifestyle. At 6 foot 4 inches tall and heavily tattooed, he has not only dispelled the image of sailing as a leisure activity of the yacht club set, he has literally cast it away — blue blazers, gold buttons and all. Bob Bitchin has helped to make sailing cool for the everyman and woman, and he has given hundreds of thousands of people something to dream about. In doing so, however, the biker-turned-sailor poured his heart, soul, and life into it.

According to Bob, his early life could be seen in the television series Happy Days. Born Bob Lipkin in Los Angeles, his brother is a chemist with a PhD and his sister is a software designer, but he chose a different course. In the biker world, he was a one-percenter — meaning he was the kind of guy that wasn’t just taking a break from an accounting job to put on a headband and hop on a mortgaged Harley Davidson for a weekend ride; he was the real deal running with clubs such as the Hell’s Angels and others. Over the years, he racked up 500,000 miles crisscrossing the nation on his motorcycle. He worked for biker magazines and then started his own. He wrote a book entitled A Brotherhood of Outlaws that was on track to be made into a movie starring Steve McQueen. When McQueen passed away, the movie was shelved.

Through either accident or fate, Bob discovered sailing and his life changed dramatically. Easyriders magazine made him an offer for his biker magazines, and he took the cash and untied the dock lines. Even though he was transforming himself from biker to sailor, he was still a one-percenter, only this time in the sailing world. He joined a relatively elite club when he circumnavigated the earth on his own boat, meeting his wife along the way. Before he even returned to California, he had a new magazine in mind — Latitudes and Attitudes — that in the 15 years since its inception has become one of the world’s largest and most popular magazines dedicated to sailing. The magazine has spawned other activities including a television show, huge seminars devoted to helping people live their dreams of cruising, and numerous charters around the world, drawing people to places in the Caribbean and South Pacific who may never have considered such an adventure before. Bob opened the door for them and made it easy.

Boat shows are in decline. They were once enormous events drawing people from around the country, particularly from cold weather places to warm places such as St. Petersburg and Miami. While the boat shows in both cities are still large affairs, they are a shadow of their former selves. Not all that long ago, readers of the various boating magazines would circle numbers on cards inserted into the magazines requesting information from advertisers and then wait days or weeks for that information to arrive. Today, anyone can create a boat show on the web from the comfort of their living room.

Bob Bitchin has felt that decline in his magazine. The magazine’s popularity is as great as ever, but the people who actually pay for it, the boating manufacturers and retailers who buy advertising, began to cut back as the economy made a turn for the worse. The cutbacks are evident in boat shows, too. Fewer vendors with smaller displays generally mean fewer people find it worthwhile to go. When it comes to boat shows, however, Bob is a magnet, with an enormous display tent and an afterhours “Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine Cruisers Party” offering live music, free pizza, and free beer. More than the free stuff, it’s certain that he himself is the magnet that draws hundreds if not thousands of people into the boat shows. In making sailing available to the everyman, he has made himself available as well. Hour after hour, he greets people in the always-enormous Latitudes and Attitudes booth, signing autographs and endlessly posing for photographs.

In 2005, Michelle and I worked two boat shows for a product we had created. Two shows were more than enough and I vowed never to do it again. It was wonderful meeting so many great people, but the hours were long and the demands were high. The endless stream of people cramped the muscles in my face into a perma-grin and I quickly ran out of unique things to talk about when people came by the booth. Thus I resorted to using tried and true lines, leaving me with the feeling that I was not only short-changing the person who came to see us, but I also felt….well, like a prostitute of sorts. The long hours of always being “on” took a toll and we never did boat shows again, except as one of the endless stream of visitors. It takes a special person to do it right.

For the past 15 years, Bob and his wife Jody have worked 10 or more shows each year, along with holding the seminars and charters and staging other events dedicated to his sailing (and armchair-sailing) fans. The magazine he created, and the lifestyle he so colorfully depicts in it, absorbed everything in his world.

“We’re getting our lives back,” Jody said with a smile on Saturday as people packed into the Latitudes and Attitudes booth at the St. Pete Boat Show.

Later that night, hundreds of people gathered after the closing of the show for the free pizza and beer and to listen to boat tunes from the Eric Stone Band, which includes Tampa Bay area musicians Steve and Shelly Hall. Bob announced that he had sold Latitudes and Attitudes to a group of four people, all boaters in their 30s (or so). Bob Bitchin, the publisher known as well as the magazine he created (could you name the publisher of Time or Architectural Digest?), was stepping down and thus, Bob and Jody were getting their lives back.

Bob Bitchin has “it.” No one really knows what “it” is, but it is rare and people have it or they don’t. It remains to be seen, of course, if the new owners of the magazine will have their own “it” to bring to the table. With four owners, they just might be able to match the energy level Bob has put into the magazine. Of course, it also remains to be seen if he’ll really be able to walk away from it. He told the crowd that he would still design the covers and write editorials. Then again, he might run away from it, perhaps on a motorcycle, perhaps on sailboat, but hand-in-hand with Jody to a life they can call their own, without the endless boat shows and perma-grins.

“Are you going cruising?” I asked Jody, followed a few seconds later by Michelle with the exact same question. She has probably already been asked that question a thousand times, and in the coming weeks will be asked it a million more times. Yet despite being asked twice within a span of 30 seconds, there wasn’t even a glimmer of homicidal rage in her eyes. In fact, her eyes reflected her genuine smile when she mentioned having a house since 2005 that they have hardly ever seen.

The big, tattooed biker-turned-sailing celebrity has come a long way since he first set foot on a sailboat all those years ago. He is a parent and a grandparent, and in 2009, he was elected to the board of directors for Sail America. He has written more books, this time about sailing, and has produced videos about his circumnavigation. But can a one-percenter ever really retire? Time will tell. Boat shows certainly won’t be the same without him. He not only opened the door for thousands of people to either live their dream or, at least, to simply dream, but he has been standing there, holding the door open and offering his hand.

Fair winds, Mr. and Mrs. Lipkin. Thanks for helping to keep my dreams alive.

Latitude and Attitudes Magazine can be found on the web at www.seafaring.com

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