Sailor chasing lifelong dream waylaid in Clewiston

Posted 3/28/19

CLEWISTON — A semiretired carpenter who’s aspired all his life to sail around the world is visiting the city’s Lake Okeechobee waterfront for a few days. Not by choice, though. He’s moored …

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Sailor chasing lifelong dream waylaid in Clewiston

CLEWISTON — A semiretired carpenter who’s aspired all his life to sail around the world is visiting the city’s Lake Okeechobee waterfront for a few days. Not by choice, though. He’s moored off the eastern end of the park because of an unfortunate encounter with a crab pot off Captiva Island that tangled up his prop and broke an engine part or two.

Robert L. Rothenberg is his name, and he needs to get his trimaran Aspiration back up to South Carolina. “It was the shortest distance besides sailing back down around Florida” to come through the Okeechobee Waterway from Fort Myers, he explained as we walked down the gangway to his boat, accompanied by his hobbling Siberian wolfhound, Hot Chii.

Robert’s a youthful-looking, easygoing middle-aged guy who was raised on Long Island during the 1970s. He had to turn down the classic rock tunes issuing from his sailboat’s sound system to be heard. “First time I saw a trimaran was in ’73. I said to myself, ‘I want to own one of those one day and sail around the world!’ And, um, it took 40-some-odd years. Forty-six years. I bought this boat last year, and was going to spend my summer, fall and winter sailing but we had Florence. Waylaid me for a month and a half.”

He’s got his Ascension based in Fairview, S.C., outside Charleston, but lives in North Carolina and works just four months of the year now. It’s given him a restart on his dream (hence the name “Ascension”), but after having raced Hobie Cats in Long Island Sound during his youth, he now must relearn all his sailing skills and adapt them to sailing the ocean blue. That’s not actually by choice, either, except for the living-the-dream part.

You see, Mr. Rothenberg has only one good leg now, and a shortened, reconstructed left arm. Although he has military service in his past and was involved in a certain war south of here during the 1980s, he wants to be known just as a loyal veteran (can’t discuss the classified details), and says: “But this is not a veterans wound. A lot of people ask that. Then when I tell them, ‘This didn’t happen in the service,’ they walk away, and they don’t talk to me. People. I got no time for them. That’s why I like sailing, and I’m on my own.”

He still runs a business up north, but the injuries suffered during a work project left him with broken bones, a plate and pins in his 3-inch-shorter arm and, eventually, a MRSA infection that led to the amputation of much of his left leg. “In 2016 I fell, and on July 26, 2017, I was amputated. This is my second prosthetic,” he said, taking it off.

I was sitting next to his first one on Ascension’s deck. “Read that, it’s pretty funny,” he commands. Lettering on it lies: “It’s just a flesh wound.”

“It is what it is,” says Robert. “I can’t change the facts … I like it because I can take it off and really shove it up someone’s ass if I wanted to. It’s great for when the boat is sinking; it works as a bailer.” That’s actually happened; don’t ask, but he had to sail to Stuart to get a 7-foot gash in his hull repaired.

Mr. Rothenberg explains that his sense of humor has gotten him through his challenges and set him off in pursuit of the elusive dream sunset somewhere past the horizon.
“I’m a Jew from the Northeast. Mom was a shrink; Dad was a CPA. So it was like growing up in ‘Star Trek.’ Cap’n Kirk and Spock.”

That humor came in handy when his husky Hot Chii was struck by a “Floridiot” driver up north five years ago. The wolflike Siberian bounced back quickly, Robert says — literally — and qualified to serve as first mate. He was 3 then. “He’s a Christmas dog. My friend thought it would be funny that I would get a dog born on December 25 because I don’t celebrate Christmas. But I’m dyslexic, so … dog, god ... it all works out.”

Already a world traveler (“I’ve lived in five countries: Germany, England, the States, Colombia and Peru”), he says he’s seen much of the Americas so his next destinations will be along an arc stretching from the Northeast to Northern Europe, the Baltics and, eventually, the Mediterranean to sail the Greek isles with his high school roommate.

There will be a lot more navigating before that, though. “The first two years is all about getting my sea legs, getting the experience on the water. I’m not crossing the Atlantic until I have sextant under my belt, and other navigational skills. I want to take some more classes this year. I want to be prepared. It’s foolish to think that you’re going to hop on a boat after 46 or 47 years and think, ‘Oh, I can sail across the planet!’”

Plus, he can’t leave the U.S. for at least 18 months until he gets his final prosthetics. Next season, though, he plans to become a member of the “Hemingway Club” of American sailors who set sail for Cuba.

“You get ... you know, there’s a camaraderie at that point, so you have like a support system, plus you get real good rum.”

Chris Felker can be reached at