My Sept. 13 commentary related how Wladek and Mabel Wagner — who eventually lived for several years in Trellis Bay — had discovered she was pregnant and abandoned the voyage to Australia upon which they had set out in August 1948. The trip was intended to follow up his global voyage, which had lasted from July 8, 1932, until Sept. 2, 1939.
Mr. Wagner had been inspired while still at high school to make his epic voyage after reading Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and being taught by veterans of the 1920 Battle for Warsaw in which the Polish army had decisively defeated the Russian revolutionaries who had threatened to capture the reborn nation’s capital.
For years, he had gained the skills and saved up the funds he needed to fulfill his dream, without sharing it with even his closest friends or family. He trained at a sea school and taught himself boatbuilding by trial and error. His friends grew tired of bailing out a small boat whose planks he had sealed with raw tar, so he learnt how to caulk them.
His father built homes for incomers to the new port of Gdynia, and Wladek earned the fees from small projects that had to be approved by the planning authorities.
He served in the Polish Merchant Navy under the British Admiralty for the duration of World War II. Afterward, the exiled Polish government in London awarded him a medal for “honourable service on the sea 1939-1945,” but Poland had become a satellite of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — a different country from the one he had left, never to return.
He bought and restored Rubicon, a 77-foot ketch built in 1898 that had been laid up and neglected for years, and fell in love with Mabel, a young piano teacher by training whose father, a naval officer, had invited him to their home in the historic English seaport of Bristol. Overcoming Mabel’s family’s shock at their plan to sail to Australia, they left England in early August 1948 with a group of working passengers.
Most people left Rubicon in Trinidad, but Ms. Wagner’s discovery that she was pregnant led them to look for somewhere to spend the next seven months, with just Mr. Wagner’s brother Manek and two friends as crew. They liked the look of St. Thomas when they arrived there on May 5, 1949, and were quickly registered under the Aliens Registration Act of 1940.
Chartering in USVI
Rubicon attracted attention as the only large yacht in the bay, and small boats came out to greet them. Their living expenses and the cost of maintaining Rubicon left them struggling financially, so Mr. Wagner saw a chance to introduce chartering. The authorities assured him that it would not contravene the conditions placed on them, as the act restricted work on land but not at sea.
Tourists welcomed his offer to take them for a sail, as they had become bored after their initial enjoyment of life in the Caribbean. Mr. Wagner extended day sails into multi-day trips to neighbouring islands like St. Barts, which townspeople found very appealing.
Ms. Wagner found a friendly doctor at the municipal hospital in Charlotte Amalie to attend to her pregnancy. The baby, however, was putting increasing strain on her diminutive frame. So the need to depart to Tortola, the nearest port outside the United States, every 30th day, became increasingly irksome as her pregnancy progressed, and Mr. Wagner decided to berth Rubicon in Tortola. However, Ms. Wagner’s doctor advised her to stay in the hospital for the last few days of her pregnancy.
The couple’s respect for each other’s religious beliefs was shown in Ms. Wagner’s trust that her husband’s strong Roman Catholic faith would guide his choice between preserving the mother or the baby, if necessary. However, after Suzanne was born, she was baptised by an Episcopalian (Anglican) minister.
Mr. Wagner found a baby stroller in St. Kitts, much to Mabel’s relief, as Suzanne soon grew too heavy to carry everywhere. He built a flat-bottomed dinghy to facilitate guests landing on shallower beaches and invested in their first outboard motor, so that he did not have to row the dinghies everywhere. When their two friends decided to move on, St. Thomas volunteers came forward to replace them as crew.
Lynn Carlisle, an English resident of Tortola, asked Mr. Wagner to draw up plans for a guest house at Bar Bay, East End called Witches Brew, for which the foundations were being laid by workmen from East End under the foremanship of Haldane Davis, a young boat builder.
She offered Mr. Wagner less than the going rate for the job, but it was all that she could afford, so he gladly accepted it and moved Rubicon to Bar Bay. After approving his plan for a four-bedroom house, Ms. Carlisle returned to London to raise more funds, leaving her affairs in the hands of Mr. Jose O’Neal, a merchant in Road Town.
Witches Brew was finished late January 1950, but Mr. Wagner needed a safer anchorage for Rubicon and was attracted by Trellis Bay, Beef Island. Luckily, Haldane Davis had 10 acres of land on Trellis Bay, which he sold to Mr. Wagner for $700 in installments on Dec. 29, 1949, granting him immediate access to it.