This commentary continues the chronicles of Polish sailor Wladek Wagner’s family at Trellis Bay, picking up from part 17 in the June 20 edition of the Beacon.

Colonel Henry Howard, administrator of the Virgin Islands from 1954 to 1956, wanted to discuss Mr. Wagner’s plan for an airfield further before going to his superiors in London, but first he had to attend a royal visit on Antigua. Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, visited Antigua in early 1955 aboard the royal yacht Britannia on her first of many visits to the Caribbean. I also mentioned last time that Herbert Lee, an American businessman, had signed a partnership agreement with Mr. Wagner, bringing a great boost to the work on the clubhouse under construction on Bellamy Cay.

Just as the workers had used almost their last bag of cement, a sloop-full arrived, ordered from merchant Jose O’Neal in Road Town. The men offloaded enough with a small dinghy until the lightened sloop could move alongside the dock. Mr. Wagner was very interested in the boat’s unorthodox shape and ability to sail windward. An older man, John Dawson, who cleared the Wagners’ land in exchange for being able to make charcoal from the bushes he cut, told this tale of its origin: “In early days of the islands’ history, a sailor from a British Man of War stationed in the area showed the people of Tortola how to build good boats for inter-island using an upraised thumb and, looking up it, take these measurements: The length of the boat = the height of the mast = the length of the boom = twice the length of the keel. The bow to be built high and sharply raised, to dispense with a bowsprit and overcome steep waves. Some overhang aft and the stern low but wide to steady the vessel.”

Building supplies

When Mr. Wagner went to St. Thomas to buy a long list of supplies from the merchants who had helped them before, he was able to pay cash for the roofing material, plumbing equipment, service tanks and galvanised piping. After they got back, the roofing timber was prepped in the same way as the timbers for the Wagners’ Tamarind House: soaked with a mix of copper paint, pre-used crankcase oil, and old diesel oil. The roofing sheets were given two coats of white paint on the ceiling side and dark red on the outside. After the roof had been nailed down, Mr. Wagner’s wife Mabel applied the second coat, as the smallest and lightest person there. The roofing made the building look even better than they had hoped.

The main clubhouse structure measured 20 feet by 79 feet east to west, crossing the high part of the islet almost entirely. A large central section extended into the northern terrace to house the future bar area. Two inner partitions — between the central dining area and the kitchen at the west end, and the lounge-library on the east — allowed kitchen odours to be carried off by the wind coming from the west, and the lounge area to be cooled by the ocean breeze from the east. Natural cross-ventilation worked wonders.

Other parts

The lower part of each partition between the kitchen and dining area was a solid wall, with the upper section consisting of wide pine boards sanded and varnished to display the natural beauty of the wood. The central dining area was easily accessible from the large raised colonnaded terrace on the south side. Two bedroom wings extended southward, with four rooms on the east wing and two rooms on the west — each with its own toilet facilities.

On the west side, almost at sea level, a 14,000-gallon cistern was built, topped with a concrete slab. A wood structure sitting atop another concrete slab next to the cistern was added for a generator to light the entire islet. Two toilets were added on the west side, extending from the two-bedroom wing for general use easily accessible from the main grounds. Later, the kitchen area was enlarged, extending over part of the cistern. This new area was built of stone and concrete on the lower part and screened on the upper section with chicken wire for open-air ventilation. A concrete path led all the way down to the landing dock.

Final stages

By July 25, 1956, the main building on Bellamy Cay was in the final stages of plastering and finishing. It was exciting to see it finally taking shape and looking quite magnificent. However, it still lacked the essential power plants. Electric cable would have cost far too much locally, even though Mr. Wagner had decided on two smaller machines instead of one large one. They still had to be ordered, shipped, transported to Trellis Bay on his yacht Rubicon, and then installed on the cay.

Ms. Wagner commented on Mr. Wagner’s remarkable resilience, as he had to be sea captain, designer, builder, craftsman, technician, development planner, businessman and problem-solver. He was not able to tackle everything, but he knew well how to compromise and make do with what he had.

Lengthy correspondence about the power plants between Mr. Wagner, Mr. Lee, the Universal Motor Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Sheppard Diesel in Hanover, Pennsylvania, led eventually to a generating set from Universal Motor being shipped on a steamer from New Orleans, Louisiana, on Sept. 5, 1956, directly to St. Thomas.

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