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Rescuing the Alice E.

Three boys in the summer of 1940 try to salvage an abandoned skipjack

Around and about the Sailing Capital of America, pleasure sailing is a way of life.
    Yet it’s a recent invention, relatively speaking.
    It took hold in one community in the summer of 1940, when Paul McDonald was an admiring 10-year-old summering on the Chesapeake in Fairhaven, way down south in Anne Arundel County. The late McDonald’s memoir, written 69 years later, takes us back to that summer.

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“ The teenagers of Fairhaven were consumed with sailboats.    
   This was an unusual time, maybe unique to these kids. Europe was at war. The deep economic depression was finally being overwhelmed by the need to arm ourselves and our friends. Available jobs were going to men and women who needed them to support families. Many willing workers had lacked regular employment for years. As a consequence, there were few summer jobs for teenagers. They had time to get involved with sailboats.”

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  Just how deeply the passion involved them you’ll read in McDonald’s narrative of the Alice E., written in memoir and collected in the Advocates for Herring Bay local history archive.

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   “Vernon Gingel, Tom Santmeyers and Herb Watson — members of the sailing group — had occasion to visit friends who lived on the Rhode River, about 15 miles from Fairhaven. There they saw an old boat with a mast sitting seemingly abandoned on a muddy bank. It was in disrepair and had no sails.
   Approaching the nearest house, they were directed to the widow of the boat’s dead owner. She wanted to get it out of her neighbor’s yard, she told the teens, but as a skipjack it was not worth anything because oysters were not worth anything.
   If they could get it floating and moved away, could they have the Alice E.?
   The widow agreed readily. Was she Alice? They never asked.
   Moving this boat was more than a three-man job so they brought the idea of owning a large sailing craft to the Fairhaven sailors. The idea seized their imagination. They met and decided that if they could float the hulk, they would bring her to the beach to undertake major repairs.
   Transportation to the work site on the Rhode River was not simple. The crew would have to sail there and camp in the boats or hook up with friends at West River or Shady Side.
   Since there were no fast food places in those days, food was going to be a problem. Communication between home and the site was nonexistent.
   They gathered tools, pumps, ropes and rollers to ease the drag of the skipjack off the mud. A couple of things were in their favor. No storms were predicted, and it was a full moon, so if they worked into the night they could see. They were on their own, with no adults.
   They patched the hull as best they could and muscled her into the water where she promptly sank. It was shallow, so they could still work on her.
   Several days of hard work passed before they found they could keep her afloat with two pumps running almost continuously. These were hand pumps so operators had to be changed frequently.
   The boys had not been able to recruit a powerboat for towing, so they would have to do the tow under sail. The Alice E. had no power of her own as her sails were gone.
   In mid-afternoon they got underway, towing in shallow water so if she sank she could be recovered. Two small sailboats at a time were harnessed to the hulk. The youngsters kept up the back-breaking labor of pumping.
   The sun went down and the moon came up. As frequently happens with a full moon, there was no wind after dark. They had rounded Franklin Manor Point, and Fairhaven was in view.
   Famished and tired to the bone, the workers gathered to decide what to do. Four stayed with the Alice E. to keep the pumps going. The rest sailed slowly to Fairhaven. Parents didn’t find out what was going on until they arrived in early morning.
   They were dismayed by the risk to the boys left on the hulk. The Bay was calm, so with good binoculars you could see them still moving around on the Alice E. In the calm, the sailboats were not going to do much towing. Outboard motorboats were recruited by the parents, and an all-out effort was made to bring in the Alice E.
   It took all day and everyone was worn out from pumping but she was moored before sundown. The whole community was buzzing, but the boys only wanted food and sleep.
   A short but vicious storm struck the beach that night and smashed the Alice E. into small bits. She had been rotten to the core. The largest piece recovered was one of her name boards.