Bay Tripper

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A boaters’ landmark closes its doors

A boaters’ landmark closes its doors

Say goodbye to Viking Boat Supplies in Annapolis, Md., whose low-key owner, 74-year-old Pete DeSilva, is retiring after a 37-year run at a marine store that never seemed to change, reorganize, modernize or take itself too seriously.

Viking never had a Web site or mail-order catalog, and used to be open seven days a week. What it had, it had, and what it didn’t have and you needed, it would get within a few days, even if the order was only for a quart of paint.

I became a customer back in 1969, when Pete was new to the retail boating supply business and sailing, and I was brand new to boat ownership. I first turned to him for ideas when rehabbing an old National One Design daysailer I had rescued from a boatyard burn pile for $100. (I later sold it for $800.)

After so many years at the Eastport end of the Spa Creek Drawbridge, I expected Pete to always to be there behind the counter, seated in a high, beat-up canvas captain’s chair (which I put a “hold” on) or next to a clunky tool cabinet, with his skinny, white legs crossed. So the surprise announcement that Viking was “closing our doors forever” came with a degree of shock.

Pete is a slim, youthful-looking, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, white-haired, Harvard-educated shopkeeper with a post-doc degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. He chews unlit Garcia Vega cigars and always has a shy smile for his loyal customers.

What I always liked about the place is that no one ever approached and asked, “May I help you?” This is because regulars knew where everything was; the stock was never moved around as it so often is at other boating supply stores in town. There are four aisles, and what dedicated items were there always were there — replenished as demand dictated, of course.

On the first aisle to the left upon entering you’d find hardware and fasteners, in small plastic bags hung on hooks. It was curious that nuts, bolts, washers and fasteners were displayed this way instead of in bins, like other hardware and marine supply stores.

Paint and related products were piled on shelves at the rear of the store. Rope and outboards — Viking was a Honda dealer — were at the front, to the right. Upstairs were small boats and canoes, a couple of offices, and an outboard repair shop operated by Harry Burton (who will go mobile). This arrangement never changed.

On May 4, the first day of a “huge quitting business sale,” Pete was in his usual position behind one old, dusty computer with a new unlit cigar in his mouth. His helper, Frank Simmons, manned the cash register and always seemed a bit irritated at something. (Frank used to joke with me whenever I bought paint: “You aren’t painting that boat again, are you?”)

A small, battered front counter served as an immediate workbench area, and stuff always had to be shoved aside to make room for small repair projects. This counter was strangely clear of clutter for the sale.

I would stroll in from time to time, seeking solutions to various boating problems and, likely as not, Pete or Frank would come to my aid and solve them. A large tool cabinet near the counter was crammed with this and that, and many drawers had to be opened in the search for the right tool, because they were never returned from whence they came.

The problem object in question was laid out on the operating room table for immediate examination, consultation and what amounted to prompt walk-in surgery. (Such ER attention isn’t available at other boating supply stores, where high labor costs and a waiting period usually are involved.)

Viking also rented tools, installed trailer hitches, spliced rope, and did swaging and Nicropressing, repaired stoves and took on welding jobs. It sold no sailing duds for nautically clad dudes, nor deck shoes, sea boots, gloves, sunglasses, galleyware, fenders, foul weather gear, chairs and tables, marine trinkets and knickknacks, or books and charts. The posted hourly labor rate was $55, a bit on the low side as marine services go these days in Annapolis.

At the 9 a.m. sale opening, dozens of customers swarmed about looking for bargains. To help the crowd flow, I propped open the two glass doors to the place. Most items were only “20 percent off” at this early stage, but I knew this would change toward the end of June when everything “has to go” — including store fixtures, furniture, equipment and tools — to make room for a real estate firm that has leased the building.

I inquired about the price of an old outboard carrier (to handle my 5-hp Mercury 2-stroke), and Pete asked, “Two wheels or four? Old or new? Get back to me later on that.” So I taped a “sold” note to the aluminum cart with an indented mounting bracket; I’ll get back to him, as instructed.

A few days earlier I had conversed with Pete in his office, surrounded by oars and paddles and maritime detritus. I asked the year he opened, and he answered 1969. And how long have you been planning to retire? “Ever since I opened,” he said, smiling.

During the 1960s Pete owned a liquor store in Washington, D.C. “I got bored with it,” he says. “So I sold out, took off a year, and bought a new Rainbow sailboat from the late Jerry Wood, who had commissioned the Sparkman & Stephens design as an instructional dayboat for his new Annapolis Sailing School.

“Jerry became a very close friend and got me involved in one-design racing with that 24-footer,” he adds. “Not to boast, but I went on to win three national Rainbow championships.” The blue-hulled Rainbow, Calysta, has been stored on a trailer for years in his rear parking lot, and he plans to donate it to charity.

“I got the idea for this store when I went to Fawcett Boat Supplies to buy some equipment,” he remembers. “It was then the only ‘yachting’ marine supply game in town, except for Sadler’s Hardware, which catered to visiting working watermen. When I walked in I had to take a number and wait for it to be called. I figured I could do better than that and decided to open a store of my own.”

Pete bought a decrepit rooming house at 320 Sixth St. for $6,400, which he demolished, and paid $55,000 for the property that extends in the rear for almost a block with ample parking. “It was a strange neighborhood,” he recalls. “I had two gas stations across the street and one on each side of me. It was like Gasoline Alley. Just the one Shell station remains.”

He later bought a Catalina 27 sailboat but turned to power a dozen years ago because he wanted a trailerable boat to see some of the country’s waterways. He now explores local regions with his “longtime lady friend,” Peggy Stephenson, in a 19-foot center console Wahoo powered by a 120-hp 4-stroke Honda. They never stray too far from inns and B&Bs.

Last summer, for example, they cruised the Rappahannock River from its headwaters near Fredericksburg, Va., to the mouth at the Chesapeake Bay near Deltaville. They also have cruised the Canadian waters of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. This summer they and another couple are off to explore the lowland canals of Scotland in a slow-moving 30-foot charter boat.

To keep busy, Pete will resume developing condos on a site on Back Creek where he lives called “The Bluffs.” He made a good investment 25 years ago in what was then scrubby farmland near a place known as “Junk Jungle Lane.”

Born in Kansas City, Mo., the family eventually moved East, where his father was a psychology professor at Harvard and Yale universities. During World War II they moved to Washington when the elder DeSilva went with the federal government to work with the war effort.

Pete was employed at the State Department for a while but soon discovered Annapolis, sailing, and the boating business as a way of life.

“I have made a lot of friends and developed many loyal customers over the years here,” he says. “There is a lot of satisfaction in this business: helping people out, solving problems, and learning something new every day regarding boats and boating equipment. I took on selling and repairing outboards in the 1970s, when the sailing craze was under way and sailors required low-horsepower kickers.”

Future boating plans include the purchase of an older Grand Banks trawler, with which he and Peggy will do the Great Circle Route and then continue on to Mexico and the Caribbean.

For more information on the sale, which continues into early July, call (410) 268-8000 or e-mail viking_bs@annapolis.net . Remember folks, there’s no Web site or catalog.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.