Mother, mother ocean, I’ve heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters
Since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all …
— Jimmy Buffett
The lines are from the tune “A Pirate Looks at 40.” At the risk of libel, we can’t accuse this week’s subject of felony piracy without so much as a conch shell full of evidence, nor would it be accurate to say he’s pondering a fourth decade.
The gentleman is many nautical miles past that age now.
A salt and a sailor, he knows something about sharks, though. That and the written word.
Q: Whatever happened to the Roanoke Times & World-News columnist Mike Ives?
“It’s raining here,” the 78-year-old Ives said from his waterside trailer park home in Bradenton, Florida, one afternoon last week. “I can’t get out. It’s annoying as hell.”
Sarasota Bay is right across the street.
The 17-foot sailboat Gypsy Rose, of which he is skipper, was tied up three blocks away in the marina, a convenience attached to his mailing address. Hard weather had set in and Capt. Ives’ Lyle Hess-designed Montgomery 17 was lashed safely in its berth.
The downpour reminded him of the 11-foot dinghy, the one he’d constructed under his carport with nothing but borrowed tools, some plans and a magazine article about boat building. The open boat is tied up close by the Ives estate in a cut in some mangroves.
“It’s been raining every day. Only bad thing about that is I’ve got to go bail the dinghy out every day or it’ll sink.”
In a dozen years of continuous sea service, that watercraft has not so much as sprung a leak, Ives pointed out. That says something about both the boatbuilder and the plan.
Ives and his cousin were little guys when they taught themselves the basics of sailing on an old sailfish — essentially a raft with a sail attached — on a little freshwater lake.
It wasn’t until he was an adult and moved to Florida to take care of aging parents 30 years or so ago that saltwater’s call became overpowering.
Living out of a van at that point — Ives is noted for his thrift — and a recent convert to the Sunshine State lifestyle, he was persuaded of the merits of life aboard a boat. Such was his residence for the next 10 years.
Buying the trailer lot brought him back to port, but that just amounted to shortening his voyages. Twice a year fall and spring he sets sail for a month or two.
“The Keys is as far as I get. These days, I’m lucky to get to Naples. I go real slow. I stop a lot.”
Next scheduled extended voyage south is October. Along with necessary provisions, he’ll pack beer to be consumed two servings per day. Ice cold.
“I know every place to stop for ice from here to Marathon Key.”
There is no first mate.
Voyages on Gypsy Rose (one of a series of boats named for a beloved pet dog, herself dubbed in honor of a famous gal whose trade was once known in polite society as “exotic dancer”) are solo.
“I don’t give orders well and I don’t take orders well.”
Those familiar with his career in the old afternoon newspaper, The World-News, and after 1977 the combined Roanoke Times & World-News would not be startled by that information. Ives didn’t break the mold. In his case, there is no mold.
“Ives remains one of the most memorable journalists ever to ply his trade in the Roanoke Valley,” wrote Dan Smith in a 2016 profile in the Roanoker magazine.
Despite a large and loyal readership, the massively gifted Ives was fired in 1979 for what eventually was said publicly to be his business dealings with a competing publication.
That was the company line. Smith quoted additional detail from Richard Wells’ Roanoker recap. In that account, the parting followed an extended loss of patience with “a 37-year-old hippie ... who broke every rule he could — dress code, hair, drinking, deadlines ...”
Gigs at the Arizona Republic and alternate weekly the Phoenix New Times followed. Column writing eventually gave way to a career on the road with another of his rare skills, pool playing.
Ask around at Guys and Dolls on Williamson Road. Somebody will remember. The dude could make a cue stick do anything but speak Latin.
One pocket, a diabolically difficult game, was his specialty. A balky heart put an end to that line of work.
“No stamina,” he says now. “After an hour, I’m missing position, I’m missing balls. I couldn’t make my muscles work.”
The word went out among his fellow hustlers that you just had to wait him out to beat him.
“I couldn’t stand not playing like I used to play. It made me crazy, so I just quit playing.”
He kept journals of his sea voyages and life as a land shark on green velvet in vague hopes of turning it into a book, but never got around to it.
Most of his writing these days involves the three crossword puzzles he does a day. He claims addiction.
“It’s worse than heroin. Horrible.”
Part of the holdup with writing his memoirs may have something to do with issues related to technology.
“I do not do computers at all. I don’t even know how to turn one on.”
He uses a flip phone that will text, but he never bothered to learn how. He still rolls his own smokes, the tobacco kind, 10 a day average.
One of his pocket billiards colleagues recalled in a 2008 forum at azbilliards.com how Ives would drive from Florida to Vegas to play in a tournament “because he won’t fly.”
Ives gets to where he needs to go just the same. A couple of years ago, he made the trip to Richmond to be with eldest of two daughters Chris before cancer took her. Daughter Karen and Mike’s ex-wife still live in the Roanoke Valley.
Ives returns to these parts from time to time to see them and old pals like retired Roanoke Times writer Chris Gladden.
Eventually it’s time to put to sea again. Or go roll one and drink some cold suds.
Buffett was in Virginia Beach a couple of weeks ago and with a salute to a military town introduced one of his hits by saying “It’s 1700 somewhere.”
Swashbuckler and Vietnam vet Ives still knows how to tell that sort of time.
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