A Foley man's aspirations take him around the world

By Brooke Conrad
Posted 8/15/17

Don’t stop dreaming. That’s Bill Courduff’s mantra.

The 88-year-old Foley man has lived many lifetimes, many dreams over the course of his years. His traveled across oceans and nations. He …

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A Foley man's aspirations take him around the world

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Don’t stop dreaming. That’s Bill Courduff’s mantra.

The 88-year-old Foley man has lived many lifetimes, many dreams over the course of his years. His traveled across oceans and nations. He has had adventures that others only dream of.

His latest dream is now a reality. On his 80th birthday Courduff, and his wife Carolyn, started writing books. So far they have published four titles.

“We’re going on a new adventure,” Courduff says. A youthful smile spreads across his face. “And to be 88-years-old and have a new adventure to look forward to is fantastic.”

The book titles are, “History of Belforest School 1896-1950,” “Chicken Talk 24-7,” “Chronic Lymphatic Leukemia Remission?” and, “Butterfly on the Water,” in which Courduff tells the story of his friend Thomas Soulantzos, the Koukla, and their experiences building Soulantzos’ dream ship in Taiwan and sailing it to New York.

“All sailors are romantics,” he says, slurring the words together in a combination of Long Island vowel-lengthening and a gravelly southern drawl. His graying eyebrows are always raised in an animated sort of way, revealing earnest blue eyes and a youthful smile.

“If you weren’t romantic, you wouldn’t even like the water,” he says.

And the tail of the Koukla is quite the romance – of a man’s love and longing for the boat of his dreams.

And it begins, in New York.

Courduff used to eat at Thomas Soulantzos’ restaurant, Poseidon, in Queens, Long Island. A long line of people were always waiting outside the door for a bite of Soulantzos’s fresh-caught gourmet seafood. The wavy, black-haired Soulantzos used to burst out of the kitchen, cigar in mouth, dressed in denim overalls and a floppy sort of hat, to laugh and joke with the guests.

“Everybody loved Thomas,” Courduff says, his lively face matching every inflection in his voice. “We met because he had a restaurant, and we loved the way he cooked seafood. Between going to the restaurant all the time and arranging fishing groups, we got to know each other.”

But Soulantzos had bigger aspirations than his restaurant. When he was a boy living in Egio, Greece, he used to climb the high bluffs overlooking the Aegean Sea to watch all of the colorful sailboats in the water. They captured his imagination, and he later said that the fluttering sails made him think of butterflies.

In 1956, when Soulantzos was 17, he left Greece for the United States to escape the poverty of his upbringing. He was hired on a merchant ship, where he learned to cook and jumped ship in New York, where he later married and had two children.

Soulantzos never gave up his lifelong dream of owning a sailboat.

After working his restaurant for several years, he eventually raised enough money to have someone design and build his boat. It was not just any boat. He hired George Stadel, Jr., a naval architect who was voted #1 Schooner Designer in 1983 by The American Schooner Association, to design it. Soulantzos’s boat would be Stadel’s 300th schooner design.

Next, Soulantzos had to find a boatyard. He began shopping all over the world for the right place, and, with the help of Stadel, he eventually settled on a bid from the President Marine in Taiwan. The Taiwanese knew how to build wooden boats, but they had never before built a schooner.

During the boat’s construction, Soulantzos traveled back and forth from his restaurant in Long Island to Taiwan to monitor the boat’s progress. He named his boat “Koukla,” which means “baby doll” in Greek.

“That was his baby doll,” Courduff says.

The boat was 75 feet long and over 60 feet high. Down beneath the stern, the galley was covered with oriental rugs, rosewood countertops, and green marble. It also had a gimbal table that would rotate with the motion of the boat, and a Victorian light fixture overhead.

“It was built like a classic wooden boat of 200 years ago,” Courduff says.

Courduff was the first person Soulantzos asked to join his trans-Pacific crew.

Courduff’s own love for sailing began in his early days, like Soulantzos, when he and his middle school friend, Bob Crump, would go out on Crump’s 19-foot Lightning sailboat. He later entered the Marine Corps in 1946 when he was 17, and played the saxophone for all of the various military bands.

“He kept volunteering to go overseas to fight, but they said, ‘We need you here,’” Carolyn said. “He was in all the bands, the marching band, the concert band, the jazz band. He spent all of his time at Parris Island.”

After two years, Courduff left the military and enrolled as a student at New York University, but after three years, he ran out of money from his GI Bill benefits and could not finish his degree.

Right after college, he married his first wife and they had five children. It was after that that he began his landscaping business, Courduff’s Oakwood Road Garden and Landscaping Company.

“He had magic hands in creating beautiful gardens, and he came away a very wealthy man,” Carolyn said. “He did landscaping for many wealthy people on the Gold Coast.”

Courduff met Carolyn in 1994 and taught her how to sail. The two owned a 14-foot Catalina sailboat named Honey Chile and sailed on it for 20 years.

After a lifetime of sailing, Courduff naturally jumped at the chance to help his friend Soulantzos sail his ship across the Pacific. The strange thing about Soulantzos’s passion for sailing was that he had never sailed in his life before he owned the Koukla. He knew nothing about boat construction. In fact, he gave no instructions to the President Marine about the boat’s rigging and assumed it would be easy for the crew to erect the boat’s two masts and six sails, along with all the wires, bolts, and lines.

“He had never sailed, but he liked sailboats,” Courduff says. “He liked the look of them. That’s the dreamer part of it.”

But as Soulantzos was preparing to bring the Koukla home, the boat suffered a terrible accident.

“When the Koukla was finally ready after three years of construction, the crew had just gotten there,” Courduff says. “It was 54 tons of boat, all wood. They had to pick up the boat and set it in the water, and after they had it in the air, all the sudden you have this bang, bang, bang. Fourteen tons of crane fell on the boat.”

By the time the Koukla was repaired, it cost Soulantzos another year and an extra $30,000. After four years, and four crew changes, Soulantzos was finally ready to bring the Koukla home. It was the summer of 1984.

Courduff was part of the crew, which consisted of himself, Soulantzos, Captain Richard Bailey, and two others. Courduff had to fly to Taiwan to meet the crew, and he still smiles as he remembers his first time seeing the country.

“Coming out of the airport going into Taipei—it’s a big place,” he says. “There are Chinese all over the place. I’m a foot taller than everybody, with my big hat as out-of-place as it could be. Then a guy says,” Courduff leans in, voice hushed, ‘Are you looking for your friends? Are you going to sail that boat?’”

Courduff chuckles.

“And he spoke English! From that moment on he told me what to do: go across the street, get in a cab. They have these little tiny cars.”

Then suddenly, without breaking his gaze, the old man’s eyes fill with tears.

“I felt safe,” he says. “I always felt safe in Taiwan.”

Unfortunately for the avid sailor, after so many years of anticipation, Courduff did not sail with the crew. His first wife wanted a divorce so he returned home to settle the legal issues concerning his marriage and property.

On July 4th, 1984, the crew, minus Courduff, began their voyage across the Pacific, sailing all the way to San Diego, then through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic Ocean, and on to Huntington, N.Y. The trip took a total of six months and was mostly uneventful. They finally arrived in New York on December 16th, 1984.

Soulantzos, unfortunately, began to decline shortly after his return. His wife had to care for the restaurant while he was away, and she did not want anything to do with the boat.

“Thomas comes home with his baby doll, Koukla, and he spends every moment with her,” Courduff said. “So Thomas has reached the pinnacle of his life, he’s reached every goal he ever wanted to. Now, what does a man do when he reaches every achievement? He starts to drink.”

Shortly after his return, Soulantzos entered hospice because of his drinking. He then bought a one-way ticket to Greece, and, after three months, was killed in a head-on collision.

“He was 45-years-old when he returned, and in 10 years at age 55 he died,” Courduff says. He squints his eyes thoughtfully. His voice never loses its enthusiastic inflections. Then his face brightens.

“That’s why you don’t stop dreaming,” he says, pointing to the ceiling with a smile and a fervent expression. “You always gotta pick a new dream.”

Courduff would probably still be sailing today, but after he had heart surgery, he could no longer stay out in the sun for long periods of time. In 2005, he and Carolyn sold the Honey Chile and it was time for a new dream.

After his book about his Tawain adventures, “Butterfly on the Water” was published in 2011, Bill and Carolyn began talking about turning the story into a movie.

“I know that the Taiwanese government is interested in building the movie industry in Taiwan,” he says. “We knew that ‘Life of Pi’ was filmed there, and it won all kinds of awards.”

So the two first decided to contact the Taiwanese Ambassador to the U.S., but with no success.

“So we thought, ‘Let’s not fool around anymore’,” his wife says. “Let’s just go right to the president.”

And that’s what they did. Within a couple of weeks, they got an email back from the Office of the President of Taiwan, telling them they are very happy about the book and that they would put them in touch with their Ministry of Culture about making a movie.

“They encourage their young people to have dreams,” Courduff says, “just like our book is about a dream of a Greek boy, and how the Taiwanese helped the boy achieve his dream of having a schooner.”

While he waits to see what might come of the film, Courduff says he will continue to write books and tell stories. He calls himself a “world class raconteur and a Renaissance man.

“There’s nothing like sailing,” Courduff says in his slow raspy drawl, a blissful smile spread across his face. “No motor, it’s quiet, you wait for the wind to blow you around—It’s a magnificent way to go.”