Sailing With Faith

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As the caretaker of two wooden schooners and captain of Old Coast Adventure Company, Thomson Moore invites others aboard his living sculpture

Photography by MICHAEL SCHALK

THOMSON MOORE, the owner of Old Coast Adventure Company, is easy to spot among the crowded bar at Bubba Gumbo’s. For starters, he probably isn’t wearing any shoes.

Then, there is his smile. What Moore lacks in teeth — he goes by Captain Toothless on Instagram — is made up for with a mischievous, megawatt grin.

Regulars at the Tybee Island dive may actually recognize his voice before seeing Moore.

While Southern in nature, there is no slow drawl. The accent is hard to pin down. Like a modern-day Tom Sawyer, Moore speaks quickly with excitement, as he shares stories from a childhood in the swamp of South Georgia to sailing around the globe.

man sailing schooner

“I grew up in a blink-and-you-would-miss-it town called Naylor, between Valdosta and Waycross. As an only child growing up on a tobacco, cotton and peanut farm, my imagination was my best friend,” Moore says before taking a swig from his can of Red Stripe beer. “All it had was a flashing light, a volunteer fire department and the post office. That’s it, dude.”

As he tells it, his distinct voice played a pivotal role in how he bought his first boat. Several years ago, Moore was in a laundromat in Boulder Creek, California — a small, rural mountain community in the coastal Santa Cruz Mountains — when a woman approached him.

“You never really say that you are the owner,” says Moore, noting that it’s also “bad juju” to change a boat’s name. “You’re the caretaker. You keep her alive until you pass her along to someone else.” — Thomson Moore

“She said, ‘I know your voice. You tried to buy my boat,’” Moore recalls.

As it turns out, the wooden schooner named Faith was still for sale, waiting for him on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles.

“It started out as an internet love story,” he says of the one that almost got away. A few years before the laundromat encounter, he had seen the for-sale listing online and immediately felt attracted, but didn’t have the cash.

This time, Moore had enough money saved and wouldn’t let the opportunity pass him twice. They struck a deal.

“You never really say that you are the owner,” says Moore, noting that it’s also “bad juju” to change a boat’s name. “You’re the caretaker. You keep her alive until you pass her along to someone else.”

Like its caretaker, the circa-1956 schooner stands out at a crowded Tybee Island Marina behind Bubba Gumbo’s on Lazaretto Creek.

The design of the 50-foot boat is something special, says Moore. Special enough to take down the masts, load on to a semitrailer and transport it across the country to bring Faith home to Georgia.

“It’s hard to come across schooners, specifically in the style that I have,” says Moore. “They dwindled. Wood rots, and this region is not kind to wooden boats. When you go up to Connecticut and Maine, that’s where they thrive. Here, we have worms that eat them. People put sacrificial pieces of wood in the bottom of them to attract worms.”

The skinny beam and shallow draft make the boat appear older than it is — like something a buccaneer would commandeer. He attributes the design to the famed naval architect and maritime historian Howard I. Chapelle. According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Chapelle was a giant among small-vessel naval architecture.

“The Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum downtown is big on Chapelle because one of the main feathers in their hat is the SS Savannah, one of the first steamboats to cross the Atlantic Ocean, which was documented by and written about by Chapelle,” he says. “Faith is a pedigree vessel.” (Editor’s Note: The museum’s models of the SS Savannah and the Wanderer are based on the research Chapelle completed for the Smithsonian.)

Moore always had a natural affinity for design. He credits his late mother — an interior designer — for encouraging his creative side from a young age. He studied sculpture and modern painting at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

As a student, Moore was first introduced to sailing thanks to his friend Brock Scott and Scott’s parents, David and Wanda. With a few colorful expletives — as sailors do — Moore recounts the story of his first time at sea on the Scotts’ schooner, Jubilee, which was built in Daffin Park and coincidentally also a Chapelle design.

“There were six or seven artists on this boat, and we went straight to Sapelo Island,” he recalls. A storm came on quickly. There were sharks. Moore remembers feeling terrified.

And yet, he was hooked. “If something scares me, I run towards it.”

After graduating from SCAD, Moore spent a decade in Panama working on creative projects that adaptively reused spaces and existing structures throughout the country to serve the community in new ways. (He was doing consulting work in California on that fateful laundry day.)

While living abroad and traveling through the Caribbean, Moore’s yearning to weigh anchor grew stronger. Around this time, he also suffered the tragic loss of his mother.

So, when he met a captain at a party who gave him the opportunity to join a 38-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Moore jumped on board in Antigua. They traveled up to Bermuda, jumped across to Portugal, passed through the Broughton Strait, on to Ibiza — and the list goes on.

“I was completely green,” he says. “I thought it was a deck, not a floor. I thought it was a bathroom, not a head. I thought it was left, not port,” he says. “But when I got back from the trip, it was this metaphor. You will make it to the other side. I will prevail. It did something to me that was so significant. I realized this is living. After that trip, I came back and realized I wanted my own boat.”

A few years and many adventures later, after Moore finally took the helm of Faith, he sailed the vessel nearly 500 miles up the west coast to Big Sur. “I ended up stopping in Monterey Bay. I lived on her in this marine mammal sanctuary, Moss Landing, and I met the most amazing man of my life, Richard Arnold.”

A former captain of the Anheuser-Busch megayacht during the ‘70s, Arnold was 76 years and a seasoned shipwright when Moore arrived at the boatyard.

“I realized I wanted to spend my time barefoot and swimming,” he says. “It dawned on me: I can sculpt my own life.” — Thomson Moore

“He had already wanted a schooner but never had one,” says Moore. “He took me under his wing.” For a year, the unlikely pair worked together to restore the ship. “We became best friends. I learned everything,” Moore adds. “I became connected with it and understood the philosophy of wooden vessels — what they are. They were once living forests. They [weathered] storms. They had birds living in them. You take all this energy, and then you transform it and preserve it. … The ship is like a living sculpture.”

Since that inaugural, transatlantic trip, Moore has ventured out into the wild blue yonder again and again — racing to Zanzibar off the coast of Africa and running a catamaran yacht from Grenada to the West Indies. Last year, he worked with The University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography on the research vessel Savannah and spent 167 days at sea.

“My feet swelled up. I had ocean sores. That’s another whole story to tell.”

Now, he feels ready to stay closer to Faith, his family and the farm where he was raised.

“I realized I wanted to spend my time barefoot and swimming,” he says. “It dawned on me: I can sculpt my own life.”

Through Old Coast Adventure Co., Moore does just that. With help from his friends and fellow guides, Bennett Bacon and Kyle Sheffield of Georgia Coast Charters and Sundial Charters, Moore offers private sailing charters on Faith through the salt marsh and winding tidal creeks. As he hoists the sails, he charms his passengers with stories from the sea and extols the virtues of the region’s remarkable biodiversity — all told in his inimitable voice.

“Growing up, I never really knew my own backyard. I used to think, ‘The water is brown. Everything is gray. Who the heck wants to come here?’ Later in life, I realized the Georgia coast was one of the most important places on planet Earth.”

Recently, the Scott family passed Jubilee to Moore, too — expanding his fleet of vessels available for a sunset cruise or a day of bumming on a sand bar.

“I feel incredibly honored to take care of her,” Moore says of Jubilee.

“Everything I was looking for was in front of my face this entire time. It was a full hero’s journey. … Hopefully, I can get a business set up where I can pass that torch — just like people have passed it to me.”

Find this feature and more in the July/August issue of Savannah magazine. Get your copy today.