In my Nov. 2 commentary, “More Trellis Bay history shared,” I described how Polish Captain Wladek Wagner and his men started building a shipyard in Trellis Bay. First, they recovered rails and the intact carriage and winch for hauling vessels from an old marine railway, and they recovered timber from a wharf on St. Thomas. Then they loaded them into his sturdy yacht Rubicon, built in 1898, and transported them back to Trellis Bay

Rubicon is a vital player in our story of how Mr. Wagner, who had set out at 19 on his epic voyages to become the first Pole to sail around the world, and his British wife Mabel, aged only 6 then, transformed the remote, bush-covered Trellis Bay into an internationally acclaimed yacht haven and created the Virgin Islands’ first airport nearby. Meanwhile, the yacht was their home and a source of income from being chartered.

On April 3, 1951, Ms. Wagner gave birth in Charlotte Amalie’s public hospital to Michael, a companion for her daughter Suzanna. Mr. Wagner had by then hired up to eight men from the boat-building community in East End, including Hubert Frett, Richard Penn, Glanville Penn, Henry Varlack, and Henry’s brother Kenneth. However, Ms. Wagner had to take the wheel on the Rubicon when she was his only crew.

He made steering a bit easier by changing Rubicon’s rig from its heavy gaff to a lighter Marconi, but what they really needed was a larger engine. Luckily, The West India Company had just become an agent on St. Thomas for marine engines and they gave Mr. Wagner, as their first buyer, a substantial discount on a new engine with time to pay and no interest, accepting just $50 in cash for a deposit.


A group of musicians hired Mr. Wagner to take them to Martinique, but when they arrived they discovered that their show had been cancelled. All that he had received from them was a down-payment to cover the cost of buying provisions for the trip. They offered to give him their instruments, but he did not want to deprive them of their only livelihood.

Around that time, the Wagners realised that they could not finance their dream from chartering alone. They needed a lump sum of money. The only thing of value they owned was Rubicon’s solid lead keel, which had been part of her since her launch. The only shipyard around that could replace it was the Puerto Rico Dry Dock in San Juan harbour, which the United States Navy built during World War II for small warships.

Puerto Rico

Ms. Wagner did not relish the thought of the rough seas she and their tiny tots might encounter on the way to Puerto Rico, but on Jan. 16, 1952, with Henry Varlack and Glanville Penn as crew, they sailed to San Juan to have the ten-ton keel replaced by a keel of concrete and iron. Mr. Wagner sold the lead to a scrap merchant in San Juan and spent part of the proceeds on buying 200 bags of cement as extra ballast.

The men welcomed their return to Trellis Bay, and the sight of so much cement reassured them that their jobs were safe. Ms. Wagner had to clean off the dust that covered Rubicon, despite the sheets of canvas laid around the bags, for their next charter. Work on the slipway proceeded faster with more tools and materials. However, the men typically went home at 4 p.m., leaving the Wagners to work by themselves until dusk.

Necessity mothering invention

The Cottage’s structure was finished by March 1952 but needed more work to make it inhabitable. Mr. Wagner urgently needed more rails for the slipway, so they sailed to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where they heard that some rails from a closed sugar works in Rio Piedras were for sale as scrap iron. He had them sent overland to Fajardo, where he and Messrs. Varlack and Penn loaded them on board.

Mr. Wagner installed a kerosene stove in the Cottage. It had been replaced on Rubicon by a new gas one they had bought in St. Thomas for chartering. The storekeeper from whom they had bought a sofa for their new home had happily let them take away some used boxes just wasting space. Mr. Wagner glued the cardboard to its walls and ceiling for insulation, then painted them.

He waited until the odour had gone before moving them into their new home, which was largely furnished by furniture that he had made from wooden panels rescued from Rubicon’s aft master cabin before its conversion into a room for the larger engine. Everything was carefully planned in advance. The kids had fun getting in and out of bunks, and Ms. Wagner looked forward to living ashore again.

Trellis Bay shipyard

In May 1952, Mr. Wagner sailed to St. Thomas to announce the opening of the Trellis Bay Shipyard, consisting of a workshop with a sawmill and slipway, next to the Cottage. The sawmill used a mail-ordered saw driven by the engine from a broken-up car to cut timber from the old wharf on Hassel Island into planks for the cottage and workshop walls. A concrete cistern was built on the west wall.

The slipway up which boats would be hauled from the sea was powered by a diesel engine from an old generator harnessed to the winch from the marine railway mentioned above, strapped to a cradle made from the old wharf’s supporting beams. The shore section of its rail track was set in a concrete base, and the seaward end sloped down the sandy bottom on wooden sleepers, with all but the iron rails buried in sand to protect the wood from teredo worms.

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