210923ind history

The Wickford Shipyard remains a picturesque part of North Kingstown but it wasn’t long ago that one of the ships which used to call the area home, the Black Pearl, was in danger of certain demolition. Thanks to the work of Amanda and Nick Alexander, however, the once iconic fixture of Wickford has found a new life sailing the waters of Lake Ontario.

Awhile back, we took a journey back to the time immediately after the Second World War and examined the story of the brigantine “Black Pearl” the last tall ship built here in Wickford.  To recap, the 73 ft long Black Pearl was constructed at Perkins & Vaughan Shipyard, now Wickford Shipyard, by Lincoln Vaughan for use as his family sailing yacht. Vaughan, who you may remember, constructed numerous wooden hulled submarine chasers for the US Navy during the War, utilized the design plans of marine architect Edson I. Schock for his brigantine sailing vessel which had 2000 square feet of sail area and a fine Hercules diesel engine. The Vaughan family sailed the “Pearl” out from Wickford Harbor for more than a decade and she was a splendid and familiar sight on this side of the Narragansett Bay throughout this period. In 1959 Lincoln Vaughan sold the Pearl to Newport resident and sail enthusiast Barclay Warburton III. The Warburtons, who were so taken by the Pearl that they named their famous and trendy Newport restaurant after her, sailed the Pearl literally all over the world; the 1964 New York OpSail, the Cutty Sark transatlantic Tall Ships race of 1972, and the Bicentennial Celebration in New York Harbor in 1976. She was a featured exhibit for a time at the South Street Seaport Museum in NYC as well as an “extra” in the James Bond movie “Thunderball”. All this excitement aside, the Wickford-built Black Pearl’s most important contribution to sailing was undoubtedly her time as the inspiration and flagship for the ASTA; the American Sail Training Association. From its inception until 1993, the Black Pearl was the public face of this important entity; participating in Operation Sail 1983 & 1986, and the Statue of Liberty Rededication Celebration of 1988 all the while with young people manning her lines and rigging. In 1993 though, ASTA sold the Pearl to “The Aquaculture Foundation” a regional high school of sorts devoted to teaching marine science via hands-on techniques. Sadly, this well meaning entity did not have the financial where-with-all to keep the Black Pearl at the level of maintenance she required. Any avid wooden boat sailor knows that these special vessels require consistent maintenance in order to survive and the Aquaculture Foundation did not provide the Pearl with necessary maintenance she needed, so by the start of the 21st century the beautiful brigantine was in a grave state of disrepair. Indeed, by 2008, she was out of the water at a shipyard in Chester Connecticut, doing nothing more than “growing mushrooms in her decaying decking” as reported to me by my friend and noted local wooden boat expert George Zachorne.  At that time, in a 2008 column, I, tongue-in-cheek, challenged Johnny Depp to come here to New England and rescue the real Black Pearl. That of course never happened, but actually something even more remarkable did happen. The Black Pearl was rescued literally from the brink of destruction by Nicholas and Amanda Alexander.

The Alexanders are sailing enthusiasts and sail charter excursion owners from the area around Buffalo NY. They purchased the Pearl to add it to the fleet of their charter company Liberty Excursions which operates on Lake Ontario. After untold hours of restoration work and the installation of modern bow thrusters that would allow her to maneuver through the tight harbor of her future home, by the Alexanders, the Black Pearl, after 3 years “on the hard” (dry land) was refloated in the waters near Chester Connecticut. She was then made ready for her long voyage through Long Island Sound, around Manhattan Island, up the Hudson River to Troy, then through the Erie Canal into Lake Ontario and her new home in Olcott New York. The Black Pearl is there now; 75 years after her maiden voyage here in her birthplace of Wickford and is a welcome addition to waterfront of Olcott. In addition to her duties as a charter excursion boat, she is also the home of a local Sea Scouts troop, a high adventure branch of the Boy Scouts of America.

The fact that the Black Pearl has been rescued from certain demolition to sail the waters of Lake Ontario has just got to please the spirit of Lincoln Vaughan immensely. The fact that she is now home to a Sea Scouts troop, well that just must bring a smile to the countenance of Barclay Warburton, where ever his essence resides. All of this makes me and everyone else here in Wickford Harbor who cherishes the memory of the Pearl, infinitely happy. Twelve years ago, I called on Johnny Depp, the pretend 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, no make that real heroes and they saved a piece of Wickford’s past for all of us. Thanks!

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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Mark Thompson


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