Queen of the Fleet
Editorial by Peter Muilenburg
All At Sea - March 2007 Issue
The queen of the fleet in Coral Bay has, for many years, been the schooner Liberty. She sailed into Coral Bay, St. John one day about 20 years ago and assumed the crown by acclamation. The previous contenders gave up without a fight – they were simply outclassed and they knew it.
We hear the names of famous boat designers all the time but many of us don't know Herreshoff from Krushchev. The name John Alden rings a bell in Coral Bay because Libertywas an Alden design, and a beautiful example of his work—graceful sheer, narrow beam, classic schooner rig with a Marconi mainsail and gaff fore, with fine ends fore and aft, and low, unobtrusive cabin works. I myself had a particular appreciation for Liberty's stern, since that was what I was always seeing in races – like the unvarying and unedifying view available to sled dogs in harness – all but the lead dog.
Though Fletcher, Liberty's skipper, raced her with passion and exactitude he rarely had to. No matter where in the fleet he crossed the starting line, he'd start catching boats, taking their wind, sliding past them as though they were standing still.
Fletcher and Robin owned Liberty. Robin, petit and pretty, with a southern lilt to her speech, was teaching art to high school students not much younger than herself when she and Fletcher met and fell in love. Fletcher was rough-hewn handsome with a wide grin and lots of self-confidence. He had been born and bred to boats—his father owned a marina. Liberty had been a family project . . .they had spotted her neglected and deteriorating in a backwater and rebuilt her, laying up a stout sheath of fiberglass over her hull and topsides, in effect a new hull over an old traditional interior of wood.
If there were any worries about the added weight slowing her down, they were dispelled once she was launched and her sails raised. She was as fast as a bat out of hell. Alden's design from half a century ago could still kick the ass of just about any other traditional boat and of most modern boats as well.
When the three of them—Liberty, Robin and Fletcher—sailed into Coral Bay they made an impact way beyond their numbers. Liberty put Coral Bay on the map as far as racing was concerned, as she won the Wooden Boat Race at Foxy's often, not to mention the schooner race at the Sweethearts of the Caribbean and the annual Thanksgiving Regatta at Coral Bay.
Fletcher's charisma and his untouchable boat made him a natural leader and he wound about him some of the best people in the harbor as his racing crew. Every race would see about a dozen or so people boarding Liberty early one afternoon for a round of practice, everybody on board with a duty to fulfill in the scheme of things. It was an honor to be picked as one of the racing crew. Most notably, when it came time to haul her out and do the dusty, noxious boatyard work, Fletcher and Robin always had volunteers to help get the work done—now there's charisma!
Undoubtedly the peak of Liberty's racing career (so far) came at the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta in 1996 when Liberty fulfilled a dream by sailing the 200 plus miles across the boisterous Anegada Passage to English Harbour to compete against some of the worlds most elegant and renowned sailing yachts. The festivities and racing stretched for a week and, at the end of it all, Liberty came away with First in Class and First Overall, as well as the Concours D'Elegance. It was a clean sweep by the beautiful schooner from Coral Bay.
Proud as that was, racing success took a back seat to Fletcher and Robin's contribution to a community service program called Kids And The Sea, better known as its acronym, KATS. The program was established in all the islands but Fletcher and Robin and their cohorts took it far and away past the haphazard level which had prevailed. The program taught children about the sea, starting with swimming lessons and rowing practice and continuing into Optimist dinghy sailing and eventually hot racing in the widely popular Laser class. Fletcher and Robin tapped the energies of many sailors who had no children of their own and valued the chance to socialize together while doing something worthwhile. Every Saturday morning the children would be dropped off by their parents for half a day's instruction and fun on the water with the fleets of small craft.
It was an amazing success story—many of the children became expert sailors…one of them, Devon Boulon, became one of the world's top windsurfers. Just before lunch the boats would come back sailing through the anchorage with aplomb, calling back and forth, tacking close by Breath to get Santos, its little Schipperke, barking.
Nothing succeeds like success. Fundraising for KATS became a well-oiled machine. The yacht club regularly turned over the funds that accrued to its treasury. The biggest event was the Commodore's
Cup, all the proceeds of which benefited KATS. Robin kept the
organization's books, kept up the paper work, and was secretary/treasurer/organizer and—truth be told—the brains behind the scene, the one indispensable one. Eventually the word spread about what a well run, first class organization the St John KATS was and the St. Thomas Rotary awarded Fletcher and Robin with the Paul Harris medal.
But the best of it was the satisfaction and camaraderie at the end of the day. After the KATS instructors went out Saturday afternoons to race amongst themselves they would congregate at a local open air bar and pull some tables together and have a few drinks while contentedly discussing future plans. Fletcher would preside at the head of the table, with his leonine head all framed by a wild mane of bushy hair and beard, with Robin tucked in beside him, basking in his presence
Well, as does sometimes happen in this world, Fletcher died suddenly.
For a while, nobody wanted to see anything change. Friends helped Robin to keep Liberty up. They hauled her out and painted her bottom, raced her in the Coral Bay Thanksgiving Regatta. Nevertheless it was clear that maintaining a big wooden boat was not exactly something she excelled at. Hauling half inch chain around, going up the mast in a bosun's chair to replace a halyard, changing the oil, manhandling heavy anchors—Robin is a little woman more at home with watercolors than 50 lb cans of bottom paint. This had always been Fletcher's work. Although she always stood ready to help and did the varnish, it became clear that the best thing for Robin and for Liberty was to sell her to a committed owner, one who would preserve the nautical heritage inherent in such a vessel.
A friend of a friend showed Robin a clipping from a recent Wall Street Journal about Dorade, another classic yacht, designed by Olin Stevens, a contemporary of Alden's. She was 75 years old, almost exactly Liberty's age, and going strong. Her new owner intended to campaign her at classic yacht regattas along the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean.
Robin believes there is someone else out there who will discover Liberty, too, and begin a fresh chapter, competing again in these waters.
That's where a vessel like Liberty belongs, dipping her rail, casting a long lacy wake on the swelling sea.