In my Dec. 13 commentary “Story of Trellis Bay boatyard recounted,” I probably understated the dire straits in which Polish Captain Wladek Wagner’s family found themselves following his injury amid a dearth of work at the boatyard. They had only $80 left in cash and little food, with no means of communication with their friends in St. Thomas until one dropped by and left whatever food he could spare.

Mr. Wagner and his wife Mabel used the down time to make a rough English translation of By the Sun and Stars, his book about his sail around the world, so she must have already learned Polish. Years later, she came across a note by him in which he expressed his admiration of the “underlying courage of a young girl who left her home to follow a stranger in true pioneering spirit … and a mutual bond of understanding.”


Shipyard work eventually became brisk again, but its cradle kept being stopped by sand drifting over the rails. Even worse, the old iron wheels on the cradle were slipping off the rails, so the men used an old hand-turning screw jack to raise it slightly and put the wheel back in place, calling out, “Jack it up!”

An inexperienced young skipper panicked when he heard that and radioed the coast guard to save his large schooner sitting in the cradle.

A 90-foot cutter from St. Thomas responded to the call from a “stricken” American yacht, but instead of positioning it in a direct line with the railway, its captain let it drift sideways into the wind. Its powerful triple engine pulled out the yacht, cradle and rails. The schooner was undamaged, but the boatyard was wrecked. After recovering from his initial shock, Mr. Wagner simply said, “We have to start over.”

Navy rental

Early in 1954, a group of United States Navy scientists chartered the Wagners’ boat Rubicon to tow some apparatus in deep water under sail for two weeks in arduous, complex manoeuvres, with Henry Varlack and Glanville Penn as crew. It earned Mr. Wagner enough to repay some loans and clear the final payment on the new engine. On his return to Trellis Bay, he uncovered a blanket on Rubicon’s deck, revealing a full-size Baldwin piano.

A long-time friend in St. Thomas who was moving his eye specialist practice to Miami had offered the piano to Mr. Wagner at a price he couldn’t refuse. When guests on yachts from Club Navico in San Juan visited Trellis Bay, they always asked Ms. Wagner for their favourite pieces. She commented, somewhat sadly, that Mr. Wagner never asked her to play.

Conch Shell Point

Mr. Wagner planned to start over by building a new slipway at Conch Shell Point, the entrance to Trellis Bay, in deeper water. After a path had been cut between the house and the lower part of the land, some of the workers began to clear the rest away while Mr. Wagner took Rubicon out on a charter. However, at the upper point where the slipway was to go, they encountered some massive boulders which the men couldn’t shift.

When Mr. Wagner returned, he showed them the most effective way to strike a sledgehammer on a boulder, then to find its grain and split it open by hammering on a cold chisel. Hubert Frett turned out to be the best at doing that. Dry brush was burnt on the most recalcitrant rocks until they were so hot that they could be split open by buckets of cold sea water being poured over them and chiselled down into more manageable pieces.

The smallest bits, like gravel, were piled up to make concrete, and the larger ones placed by the water’s edge to build a large dock on both sides of the slipway. It would form an effective breakwater and also provide a substantial concreted work area. However, the bottom of the bay was uneven and had to be built up by up to two feet for the part of the track extending under the water.

Mr. Wagner flew to Puerto Rico via St. Thomas to engage Abarca Machine Shop and Foundry to cast 24 new wheels for the slipway on steel shafts to roll on double rails, for extra strength, bolted to iron sleepers, to maintain the exact gauge. The men positioned each section underwater directed by Mr. Wagner in a dinghy peering through a glass-bottomed bucket — leaving the tops of the rails clear for four sections of track.

The work, however, had to be interrupted after Mr. Wagner heard that a 90-foot yacht called Lystria belonging to Ceci Cromwell and her husband had reached St. Thomas from Gibraltar.

They had asked him to harbour and maintain it at Trellis Bay and skipper it when they went sailing.

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