Navigating Life’s Changes

She was an elementary school teacher, he was a parole officer for the California Youth Authority. They both liked their jobs. The highlights of Gwen and Phil Cole’s lives, however, were the special vacations they would take to Washington State, where Gwen grew up. They moved to the area in the late 1960s, bought a 20-foot boat, and started exploring the Inside Passage along the Pacific Northwest coast.

It was on one of these trips that the light bulb went off. “We thought we’d write a tabloid newspaper describing good anchorages and state parks, providing useful information for people like us who enjoyed boating,” Gwen says, who graduated from Scripps in 1961. “But by 1978, we ended up creating a magazine. It was 72 pages at first—I did the research, Phil did the writing. With the larger boat, we traveled farther north. We started exploring more with friends, going up the coast and writing about the places as we went.”

They named their magazine Northwest Boat Travel, and for 26 years it has been a staple among boaters in the Pacific Northwest. Then, last August, Phil died unexpectedly. Aside from the devastating personal loss, Gwen now had to come to grips with the added challenge of taking over the business that her husband had managed.

“I’m still trying to figure out the business,” she says. “The magazine has grown to become a 296-page book. Phil did all of the graphics, layout, computer programming, and anything that had to do with money. We had two online bank accounts I didn’t know how to access. I was lost in the middle of it all.”

For the first time, Gwen found herself at a crossroads. The business was overwhelming to her as sole owner, yet she felt obligated to keep it a success, and honor her husband’s memory. She thought of letting the book go and continuing the website with the help of her stepdaughter, Trisha. Yet, she had to be realistic with herself and her capabilities. It was at this point, she made one of the hardest decisions of her life. She sold the company.

“The thought of organizing the materials and trying to pass on all the years of experience to someone else was mind boggling. I couldn’t make the decision for a long time. But, fortunately, the new publisher wants to do everything the way Phil and I did it. I’ll be the editor for two years, and Trisha will manage the website. We’ll be putting the book together just the way we always have. It will be a natural transition.”

Out of it all, Gwen learned to come to terms with her limits, and feel comfortable doing what was best for everyone involved—particularly herself. She was also heartened by the loyalty of her advertisers, who have continued to support the publication after Phil’s death.

She remembers her husband, and the work they did together, with pride and an overwhelming fondness. “We were fortunate to have been able to spend so many hours on the water—more than 2,700 places are listed in the guidebook. The memories are wonderful, even those of times when we thought we’d never make it. But we loved one another. And I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”