I was 14 when I joined the Sea Scouts in NE Philly. The name of our “Ship” (troupe) was
the Blue Pigeon (don’t ask). We held our meetings in the cellar of a church in Frankford (a
Philly neighborhood). There was a Sea Scout base in Croydon, on the Delaware River, about
10 miles north of where I lived, where we had a barracks. About a half dozen other SS Ships
had barracks there too. We also had a 17-foot whaleboat, a 26-foot steel lifeboat with both a
motor and a sail, and later obtained a surplus 37-foot captain’s gig from the Navy. All of this
was free to any kid who wanted to join. Can you imagine that? I thought it was amazing! Free.
One day we took the whaleboat out for a row. We went down river a while, turned left at
Hawk Island, went up Rancocas Creek a bit, tied up to a restaurant dock, and had lunch. On
the way back we encountered a sailboat that had obviously broken free of its mooring and was
drifting off with the current. What to do? We were Sea Scouts. We had to help others.
So, first we took the boat under tow, and then me and Jack Hanratty jumped on board and
surveyed the situation. There was a main sail laid out on the boom, under a sail cover, a jib in
a sail bag, and an anchor with a chain and rope road. No motor. So the boat was sailable and
anchorable. Also, the wind and tide were both with us. We had all the necessary ingredients to
insure a successful conclusion of a trip back to the SS base. Well, there was one other thing –
neither of us had ever been on a sailboat before. But how hard could it be? What could go
wrong? We took off the sail cover and then cast off.
When clear of the whaleboat, we hoisted the main sail, with only minor difficulties, and
soon discovered that sailing downwind in light air was easy as long as you did not jibe (a term
we learned later). To jibe you have to move the boom from one side of the boat to the other, a
maneuver that could leave lumps on your head if you didn’t keep your head low enough.
So away we went, headed back to the SS base. But as the afternoon wore on, the wind
speed got lower, so our boat speed got lower. Finally the sun went down and the stars came
out. No big deal, we still had some wind and we also had enough favorable tide left to get us
It turned into a delightful experience. The low speed allowed us to lie down on the bench
seats and steer by the stars. We lined up a star with some part of the rigging and then
maintained that alignment as we went up the river. Every once in a while, we had to sit up to
see if the bow was still pointed in the right direction. If not, we then lined up a new star in the
rigging and followed it to the next check-point, etc., etc.
Eventually we made it back to base where we were greeted by a boatload of anxious
buddies. We dropped the anchor, dropped the sail, tidied up the boat, boarded the buddy boat,
and went ashore.
Later on, our leader took care of finding the owner, who came and reclaimed his boat.
Everyone lived happily ever after.
And now Jack and I were “experienced” sailors who could “sail by the stars”.
|The sailboat looked a lot like this,
maybe exactly like this.