Centenarians: NY-30s, Wm. Wood
His age has reached triple digits, but this New Jersey sailor still has some wind in his sails
Another sailing season is under way, and once again William Allan Wood has launched his venerable Tartan 27, Woodnymph II. As always, there are things to be fixed, particularly this year because he is passing his yacht along to his son, Bill. There is just so darned much maintenance, and after all these years of sailing, Woody — as he is known — can’t find crew that often.
So Bill gets the boat. But Woody wants Woodnymph II shipshape as he hands over the tiller, and there is that burned-out steaming light up at the spreaders. So, of course, he gets Bill to handle winch duties and steps into his padded bosun’s chair to go aloft.
No reason to quit the things you’ve always done just because you’re 100 years old, Woody figures. And no reason not to join Bill, who is 63, on his maiden voyage as skipper when he takes the Tartan on a four-day cruise down the Delaware River from her home of the last 35 years, and up the Atlantic coast to New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, where Bill has a home.
Woody turned 101 June 27. He already has reserved his home base, the Red Dragon Canoe Club in Edgewater Park, N.J., for his 102nd birthday party. A lot of people are seriously marking their calendars for the event, not because Woody is a great sailor, which he is, nor because he’s a very old guy. (You’d think to look at him he might be 80, but a fit 80.) They want to be at the party because William Allan Wood is now, and, according to friends, always has been, a good guy.
“He is the quintessential sailing gentleman, and everybody just absolutely loves him,” says Becky Ney who, with her husband, spent many summer weeks cruising Chesapeake Bay with Woody and his wife, Virginia. Those cruises are part of Woody’s sailing legacy. At one point, he co-founded a racing association to give sailors with cruising boats on the Delaware River a place to compete. And for many years he was a frequent trophy winner at regattas where Comets were racing. Indeed, his sailing history begins when, in about 1940, he discovered Comet one-design racing near his home in Delanco, N.J.
“I didn’t sail until I came up here [to Delanco],” says Woody, sitting in the modest bungalow that he and Virginia bought many years ago on Oakford Avenue.
Woody was raised in Haddonfield, about 15 miles from Delanco, the second-oldest of seven children. He wasn’t a high school athlete. “I was one of those that were slow developing,” says the 6-footer with the strong grip and broad shoulders. He graduated from Drexel Institute as an engineer and got a job at a pipe manufacturing company, where he spent most of a 35-year career as plant engineer. He met Virginia, and in 1937, when he was 33, they married and moved to Delanco.
“I had always had an interest in sailing,” he recalls.
In Delanco, on the Delaware River, he met sailors and began crewing for a Red Dragon member. By 1943 he was a member of that club, later to become a commodore and finally a “life member.” He bought a Comet and began sailing it in regattas throughout New Jersey and the Chesapeake. As soon as his son, Bill, was big enough — age 8 or 9 — they became captain and crew, racing their Comet named She’s Clear.
Woody commissioned the construction of a new Comet around 1952. It was built by a local mailman who happened to be a craftsman. The boat was built entirely of book-matched planks, and varnished so that the grain showed through. It was named, appropriately, Woody. And father and son collected more trophies.
As a skipper, the son says, Woody was very calm. “Never yelled. He was always steady. Never got excited or angry,” he says.
The pair spent most weekends from May to the Pumpkin Bowl regatta in November together at the Red Dragon, and they sailed most Wednesday nights, as well.
“Ever since I’ve known him, I’ve known things about his children,” says Ney.
By the time he finished high school, William Allan Wood Jr. knew he wanted to be a naval architect, so he enrolled at the University of Michigan. For his father that meant the days of having a permanent crew for the Comet were at an end. “I didn’t want to break another man in as crew,” says Woody. So in the mid 1960s, he and Virginia bought a 28-foot wooden cruising boat. They named it Woodnymph and began sailing down the Delaware River to the Chesapeake.
“Every place I know of on the Chesapeake is a favorite place. You can’t beat it,” he says. “When we first started to go to the Chesapeake, we went down by ourselves. But then as we started to go down, more and more people wanted to go. We ended up one year with over a dozen boats going down. Then they started to celebrate my birthday at St. Michaels, which we did every year.”
Those cruises would last two weeks and came a couple of times a year. By 1970 Woody was tired of maintaining a wooden boat and bought a new Tartan 27 with a centerboard, good for gunkholing in the Chesapeake’s shallow coves. It had better headroom than the old boat, and there was a dinette to port, a galley to starboard, an enclosed head, a good V-berth and a quarterberth. The engine was an Atomic 4. And in time, there was a needlepoint of the Chesapeake, on which Virginia stitched the names of their favorite ports: St. Michaels, Oxford and Easton.
One year, every dock at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels was occupied by the boats of Woody’s friends, and the boats of more friends were moored in the cove, recalls Ney.
“When we cruised, part of the thing was if two boats are next to each other, they’re racing,” Ney says. She remembers sailing beside Woodnymph II in an impromptu race when it was discovered that the Woods were short on toilet paper and Donald Ney was out of cigarettes. The two boats drew close, and Virginia, who smoked, put a pack of butts in a crab net and passed them to Ney, who sent a roll of paper back in the net. Then the boats drew apart and resumed racing.
“They were the most supportive, loving couple,” Ney says. “Fun-loving as well. I have warm feelings about how they talked about their children.”
In the same decade that the cruising began, Woody, Donald Ney and another friend were sitting around Woodnymph II’s dinette when they hatched the idea of starting a racing association for cruisers. Woody had found that in sailing, one of his great pleasures was the friendliness of people. “They were always courteous even though they might be a competitor in racing, and always helpful,” he says. “Everybody was there to help you out.”
That was the spirit he and his friends wanted for their racing organization. “What we tried to emphasize [was]: Look, we’re all amateurs. Everyone knows the rules. So you have the right of way, but if you take the right of way and hit somebody, you’re out. It was first, safety,” says Woody.
Keeps on going
Today, there is a trophy room at the back of Woody’s bungalow. There are silver bowls and cups tucked away in cabinets in the dining room. His favorite award is the first sailing trophy he won, a Plexiglas Comet for first place in the 1946 Lakanoo Boat Club Comet regatta. His most recent trophy is the 2003 Red Dragon Canoe Club William Allan Wood Trophy for the Master Sailor. Although it hasn’t yet been presented to him, Woody won the same award last year as well, just for sailing in the annual race around a nearby island. He and Woodnymph II finished second in the competition, out of the running for the Burlington Island Race trophy.
The trips to the Chesapeake ended seven years ago. Virginia had kept going, even when her health was failing. Woody lost her six years ago.
Woody, his health apparently fine, has kept going. He still drives to work at a Philadelphia plastics company three mornings a week. “Every rocket they shoot off has a piece of our plastic in it,” he says.
Becky Ney says knowing Woody as she does, she believes he’s not just collecting a paycheck. “I think if he wasn’t productive anymore, he wouldn’t go in because he would feel, I’m not carrying my weight,” she says. “And he does take a paycheck.”
“I try not to give up doing everything that I did before,” Woody says. When he ponders his own longevity, he repeats an old saying: “The time a person spends sailing is not deducted from his life span.”
“First you have to select your father and mother and see how long their ancestors lived, and then you get them together,” he quips, then getting serious. “I lived right because I’d rather feel good the next day than overdo it the night before. I’ve always looked ahead.”
His son passes along some of his father’s other secrets. “I’ll attribute it to what he attributes it to,” Bill Wood says. “Good genes, oatmeal for breakfast, scotch before dinner, good family and friends. Just one scotch, sometimes two.
“Now and then he gets a little discouraged,” Bill reveals. “He misses having somebody to talk to. He keeps going to the Red Dragon. He keeps going to the marina. He wanders the dock, talks to people.”
And Woody has another coping method. He retrieves a framed photograph from a closet off the bungalow’s living room. It is snapshot of him and Virginia standing on Woodnymph II just after they have arrived at a Chesapeake dock. She is leaning toward him, and they are both smiling.
“If I get down,” he says, “I just look at that picture and think of the wonderful times we had sailing.”