The story of the 1937 Alden cutter Zaida III is one of patriotic service to her country. It’s also one of quality construction, longevity and persistence. People who respect her have stubbornly sailed and cared for her for 79 years. In today’s culture of planned obsolescence, Zaida’s story is also a celebration of hand craftsmanship and time-honored skills.
When the United States joined World War II, citizens were shocked to discover that German U-boats were sinking cargo vessels just off the East Coast. Tankers were prime targets, but ships carrying cargo and passengers were torpedoed, as well. Outraged by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and realizing the death toll from U-boat attacks was increasing daily, Americans were dismayed to learn the Navy did not have the fighting ships to patrol our coastal waters. The Coast Guard — a branch of the Navy in wartime — was instructed to supplement our coastal patrol forces.
A fleet of civilian observation and patrol vessels was formed, manned by proven civilian sailors and navigators. Patriotic owners lent yachts that were larger than 50 feet. They were classified as Coast Guard Reserve boats. Skippers and crews with minor disabilities that precluded them from regular armed forces service were granted waivers and classified as Temporary Reserves of the Coast Guard. By 1942 this “Hooligan’s Navy,” as the professional Navy and Coast Guard sailors dubbed them, became the Coastal Picket Patrol. Forming a chain of coastal patrol areas from Maine to Florida, they were to look for submarines, direct heavier ships or planes to the spot, and to report Allied ships that had been torpedoed and, if possible, pick up survivors. Picket Patrol sailing yachts were used for the exclusive purpose of anti-submarine patrol because they had no sound signature and could not be detected.
Zaida was a product of three great yachting minds coming together during America’s unrivaled period of yachting. She was commissioned by a man who knew his racing yachts, George E. Ratsey of the famous City Island sail loft Ratsey & Lapthorn. She was designed as a cutter by John Alden and built to exacting standards by Henry B. Nevins in 1937. At 57 feet, Zaida was one of the smallest yachts in the Coastal Picket Patrol. She served among such notable yachts as the racing yawls Wynfred and Edlu II, the schooner Valor (112 feet), the brig Madalan (147 feet) and Crowninshield’s luxury schooner Cleopatra’s Barge (109 feet). All the yachts were painted Navy gray from stem to stern, impeccable brightwork and all, and fitted out with radio equipment.
Zaida’s wartime designation was CGR 3070. The Picket Patrol’s sailing vessels were based at Greenport, New York, on Long Island. Crews worked rotations offshore and, when ashore, were housed in Greenport’s Booth House, next to the former Sweet’s Shipyard. Remarkably, Zaida today is docked only a few hundred feet from this site.
On a December 1942 patrol, Zaida, rigged as a yawl, made her mark on history. Caught in a near-hurricane-force nor’easter off Nantucket Shoals, Zaida was knocked down. With her storm trysail destroyed and mizzen mast carried away, she was in shambles, without power and in driving snow. Zaida signaled for assistance. Her sails were shredded as the crew bailed frantically with buckets. The motion was so violent that her potbellied stove was torn from its mountings.
The HMS Caldwell came to her assistance, and to calm the seas to rig a towline, it pumped bunker fuel over the side. If the battered crew didn’t have enough calamity, the incapacitated yacht and sailors got covered in the slick oil as seas washed aboard. Eventually, a towline was rigged, and Zaida was taken under tow. A few hours later, the line parted, and the Caldwell was unable to relocate the yacht.
Her position was radioed to U.S. headquarters, and the search for CGR 3070 began, as she was driven farther offshore by each winter gale. Several heartbreaking sightings and near-rescues ensued while the crew struggled to make headway under bare poles. Out of food, weak and exhausted, and with three men injured, the crew sailed the jury-rigged but immensely strong Zaida back to the East Coast, making landfall three weeks later off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve. Her owner, George Ratsey, died the day after her arduous recovery.
A full account of Zaida’s hardship, the tireless search for her and her miraculous survival was recorded in the 1944 book, The Navy Hunts the CGR 3070, by Lt. Lawrance Thompson (USNR). Contemplating wartime communications, equipment and technology, compared with our modern-day survival and rescue gear, makes this book an engaging read. Comparing Zaida’s stalwart construction with modern racing yachts also gives pause for thought. Her crew survived because they believed in their own survival, knowing that Zaida would hold out.
Today, Zaida is owned by David Lish. He was 28 when he acquired her in 1978. He’d owned several classics and was the owner of a marine service and repair facility in Huntington, New York. Lish knew what he was getting into and had the skills to properly care for her. In addition to her sheer and pedigree, the yacht’s biggest appeal to Lish was her robust construction. He was moved by what Zaida represented: devotion to superlative materials, optimism and patriotism.
Lish’s story also is one of persistence and hope. He has stewarded Zaida’s preservation for 38 years. Besides occasional stints in Newport, Rhode Island, and New York Harbor, Huntington was the yacht’s base of operations until Lish moved to Greenport in 2011.
Zaida was built with 1-5/8-inch African mahogany planking over 3-inch bent white oak frames, fastened with Everdur bronze. Her frames are bronze-strapped, and her white oak floor timbers have additional bronze plates. The Honduras mahogany trunk cabin has bronze hanging knees on each third deck beam. Bronze bolts (1-1/4 inch) support her 11-ton lead ballast keel. Double shelf and clamp and double longitudinal stringers make her exceptionally strong. Her deck is double-planked with 5/8-inch teak over 1-1/2-inch longleaf yellow pine. The interior is raised-panel Honduras mahogany and butternut. Such materials would be out of reach in a modern-day replacement.
Lish sold his repair yard and became a union steamfitter in 1981. “Everything I learned from boatyard management and metalworking as a steamfitter was incorporated in the skills I used on Zaida,” he says. “I can’t say that Zaida has ever been refit or restored or rebuilt. All I have done is, well, everything needed to keep her alive, including planks and fastenings above and below the waterline as needed. I’ve refastened and recaulked the deck twice, replaced 16 keel bolts, replaced her rail caps and bulwarks, and recovered the coach roof.” (I’m fairly sure Lish doesn’t play golf.)
“It’s constant and never-ending sanding, painting and varnishing every year,” he adds. “She’s on her third engine under my ownership, the transom’s been rebuilt and replaced, and sister frame repairs were done as needed.” Zaida’s Sitka spruce hollow mast and booms are original, and Lish removes, inspects and varnishes them seasonally. “Every year jobs both big and small are undertaken so that Zaida can sail again, as she has every summer for the 38 years I have owned her.”
Lish says friends and family have been tireless supporters and assistants. “My wife, Bernadette, is Zaida’s first mate and priceless helper. She’s a full and enthusiastic partner. My son Damon always helped, especially with pulling and replacing Zaida’s 16 keel bolts, a backbreaking and tedious job. My daughter Coriander was a source of constant support over the years. Thank God I have them.”
Lish formed a historical preservation corporation for her, Friends of Zaida Inc. Inquiries have been made to the International Yacht Restoration School and Mystic Seaport Museum for acquisition. Both require endowments, which Lish endeavors to create.
“All my life I’ve been involved with classics because it was fun and challenging and I love sailing,” says Lish. “Those reasons still keep me sanding, but one of the major frustrations of owning Zaida today is that I don’t sail nearly enough due to the work required to keep her operational.”
Lish knows he’s done everything in his power to keep her alive for nearly four decades. “Everything I have done over the last 38 years has led up to next year, her 80th birthday,” he says.
Zaida represents the best period of yachting history, which Lish is ardent about. “She’s a testament to what can be accomplished when owner, designer and builder work in harmony to build a yacht that represents the very best of what was happening in the yachting industry in the 1930s,” he says. “Secondly, her use in the Picket Patrol during WWII was unprecedented in American history, and the bravery and sacrifices that were made by the men who served in the Picket Patrol should not be lost as the decades pass by. About 120 sailing yachts were used to patrol the East Coast from Maine to Florida. Today there are few left actively sailing to commemorate this amazing achievement.”
Yet Lish wonders about his ability to care for Zaida. He, too, is 38 years older, now maintaining her on his retirement benefits. “At some point I need to find a way to ensure her continued survival to honor an historical and beautiful sailboat emblematic of the American spirit — to honor her past and yet still be a part of our present.”
In the end, all wooden-yacht owners are caretakers, rather than owners; we care for them because we know they are built of irreplaceable materials with expert craftsmanship. Yet we hope someone else will take over when it’s time to pass the baton.
Maynard Bray wrote enthusiastically about Zaida in the September 2015 issue of WoodenBoat magazine’s “Save a Classic” section: “Zaida now needs help, like all yachts her age, despite the excellent quality of her construction.” It’s time for someone else to celebrate her and care for her.
Contact Lish for more information about Zaida at email@example.com or David Jones Yacht Brokerage, (207) 236-7048.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.