Some time ago we took a time trip immediately after WWII and looked at the history of the brigantine “Black Pearl”, the last tall ship built here at Wickford. To recap, the 73-foot-long Black Pearl was built at the Perkins & Vaughan Shipyard, now the Wickford Shipyard, by Lincoln Vaughan for use as a family sailboat. Vaughan, who you may remember, built many wood-hulled submarine hunters for the US Navy during the war, used marine architect Edson I. Schock’s design plans for his sailboat brigantine which had 2000 square feet of sail area and a beautiful Hercules diesel engine. The Vaughan family sailed the “Pearl” from Wickford Harbor for over a decade and it was a splendid and familiar sight on this side of Narragansett Bay throughout this time. In 1959, Lincoln Vaughan sold the Pearl to Barclay Warburton III, a Newport resident and avid sailor. The Warburtons, who were so enamored with the Pearl that they gave their famous and trendy Newport restaurant its name, have sailed the Pearl literally all over the world; the 1964 New York OpSail, the 1972 Cutty Sark Transatlantic Tall Ships Race, and the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration in New York Harbor. It was for a time a featured exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, as well as an “extra” in the James Bond film “Thunderball”. All that excitement aside, the Wickford-built Black Pearl’s most significant contribution to sailing was undoubtedly its time as an inspiration and ASTA flagship; the American Sail Training Association. From its inception until 1993, the Black Pearl was the public face of this important entity; participate in Operation Sail 1983 and 1986, and in the celebration of the re-inauguration of the Statue of Liberty in 1988 with young people who take care of its lines and its rigging. In 1993, however, ASTA sold the Pearl to The Aquaculture Foundation, a kind of regional high school devoted to teaching marine science through hands-on techniques. Unfortunately, this well-meaning entity did not have the financial means to keep the Black Pearl at the level of maintenance it needed. Any avid sailor of wooden boats knows that these special ships require constant maintenance to survive and the Aquaculture Foundation did not provide the Pearl with the necessary maintenance it needed, so at the start of the 21st century, the handsome brigantine was in a state of disrepair. . Indeed, in 2008, she was out of the water in a shipyard in Chester, Connecticut, doing nothing more than “growing mushrooms on her decaying deck,” as my friend reported to me. and local wooden boat expert George Zachorne. Around this time, in a 2008 column, I ironically challenged Johnny Depp to come here to New England and save the real Black Pearl. This of course never happened, but in reality something even more remarkable happened. The Black Pearl was literally saved from the brink of destruction by Nicholas and Amanda Alexander.
The Alexanders are avid sailors and owners of sailing tours in the Buffalo NY area. They bought the Pearl to add it to the fleet of their charter company Liberty Excursions, which operates on Lake Ontario. After countless hours of restoration work and the installation of modern bow thrusters that would allow her to maneuver in the narrow harbor of her future home, by the Alexander, the Black Pearl, after 3 years “on the hard” (land dry) was refloated in waters near Chester Connecticut. She was then prepared for her long journey through Long Island Sound, around Manhattan Island, up the Hudson River to Troy, then across the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario and her new home in Olcott. New York. The Black Pearl is here now; 75 years after her maiden voyage here in her hometown of Wickford and is a welcome addition to Olcott’s waterfront. In addition to its duties as a charter excursion boat, it is also home to a local Sea Scout Troop, a high adventure branch of the Boy Scouts of America.
The fact that the Black Pearl was saved from some demolition to navigate the waters of Lake Ontario comes to please the mind of Lincoln Vaughan immensely. The fact that it’s now home to a Sea Scout troop, well, that just has to put a smile on Barclay Warburton’s face wherever its essence lies. All of this makes me, and all the others here at Wickford Harbor who cherish the memory of the Pearl, infinitely happy. Twelve years ago, I called on Johnny Depp, the fake captain of an imaginary Black Pearl, to come and save the day. What I got for my prayers was something even better; you see Amanda and Nick Alexander are real people, don’t make real heroes and they saved some of Wickford’s past for all of us. Thank you!
The author is the historian for the city of North Kingstown. The opinions expressed here are his own.