An alchemist dedicated to finding how to turn base metal into gold would have been amazed at Polish Captain Wladek Wagner’s ability to turn trash into useful objects (as I began recounting in my Nov. 30 commentary “Trellis Bay chronicles continue”). While replenishing his ship Rubicon’s store of ice in St. Thomas, he spotted some antiquated machinery, including some old fly wheels, in a nearby building.

The building’s owner was glad to let Mr. Wagner, Glanville Penn and Henry Varlack take all that junk away, as it gave him more space, but Mr. Wagner viewed the fly wheels as anchor weights for the mooring buoys in his future yacht haven.

Trellis Bay Shipyard’s first customer, a Mr. Humphries, lived locally in Maya Cove, East End. Hauling his 24-foot sailing boat Maya went smoothly, but the men had to keep clearing away sand that drifted over the rails at the water’s edge, stopping the cradle returning to the sea. This proved to be a constant problem.

Members of Club Nautico in San Juan, Puerto Rico came to check the yard’s progress from time to time. Mr. Wagner’s endeavours attracted some influential friends, but as good businessmen they would not have entrusted his team with repairs to their boats unless their work had not become known for its excellence.

In June 1952 a bulky black yacht named Enid sailed into Trellis Bay for repairs below the water line, with only its French skipper and crew on board. Her owners took a plane from Martinique to St. Thomas, chartered a boat to Trellis Bay, agreed a price for the work, and left.

The skipper and crew stayed there for about a month, waiting for the owners to return and pay for the work. Ms. Wagner noticed how well they had sewn new sails for Enid and paid them to make a new set for Rubicon from some Egyptian cotton he had stored away.

Darker days

However, cruising and boat repair contracts were sometimes few and far between, and their cash reserves dropped to scarcely enough to cover their commitments, while Rubicon’s engine needed a repair and the outboard motor was out of action, lacking parts. Stray cattle ate their plants and banana slips, and their stocks of food stores became low.

They depended for sustenance on Mr. Wagner’s daily trips to his fish pots at Red Point. Then he suffered a painful neck injury and had to go to St. Thomas for treatment. Some friends who heard of their plight sent Mr. Wagner’s wife Mabel some food and alerted the bush telegraph. A few days later a yacht owned by a Rockefeller sailed into Trellis Bay to be hauled and painted.

James Stillman Rockefeller Jr. (“Pebble,” to his friends) introduced himself as one of his family’s poor relations, but unbeknown to Ms. Wagner he had recently been appointed the president of National City Bank in New York (which eventually became Citigroup). He paid handsomely for the work on his boat.

New engine

Rubicon’s brand-new 130-horsepower Hercules engine was delivered in St. Thomas to the West India Company, which allowed Mr. Wagner to use its workshop and tools, and Messrs. Penn and Varlack helped him install the large engine in the former double cabin, build floors around it for maintenance, and fit a 32-volt charger for the engine and lighting. Then they wore snorkel masks to fix the new three-blade propeller to the boat’s shaft.

They thoroughly cleaned a used 220-gallon diesel oil tank a local merchant had given them and securely suspended it over the engine. Mr. Wagner sold the old generator and batteries and converted the empty old engine room into a single cabin with separate lavatory, toilet and shower.

Rubicon’s renovation and improvements helped Mr. Wagner obtain two long charters. Ms. Wagner took their children Suzanna and Michael — along with Russie, the dog a Danish friend had given her — on the 12-day trip to Martinique and Guadeloupe, but she stayed at home while Mr. Wagner cruised to Guadeloupe and Antigua.


Ceci Cromwell, heiress to the Dodge fortune, contracted Mr. Wagner to take her family for a leisurely cruise from Red Hook past St. John, Virgin Gorda, Beef Island and the other smaller islands in the Virgin Islands. Naturally, they stopped off at Trellis Bay. Seeing the little piano, Ms. Cromwell asked Ms. Wagner if she knew some music for which she had been searching throughout the islands.

She was amazed to see Ms. Wagner had a copy of the piece, and she invited the Wagners to spend Christmas in her home high above Charlotte Amalie. Mr. Wagner stayed on Rubicon while the rest of his family were feasted and showered with presents that had bedecked a tall Christmas tree.

However, Ms. Wagner’s most cherished gift came as a surprise from her husband: a battery-powered shortwave radio she could use to hear BBC concerts at Trellis Bay.

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