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Welcome to Wally’s world

New Jersey yacht club’s resident ‘curmudgeon’ keeps the members in line

The new member had arrived at the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May, N.J., in a large van crammed full with a 200-pound mushroom anchor, an inflatable dinghy and an 8-foot jonboat.

C. Wallace Stuard Jr., naturally, asked what he planned.

The new guy explained his vision, even as he began pumping up the dinghy. He would use the club davit to lower the anchor into the jonboat. Then, using the inflatable, he would tow the jonboat out to his mooring site. There, he proudly predicted, he would tip the jonboat over and drop his anchor in its place.

If he expected Stuard to offer assistance, he didn’t know “Wally.” Stuard has a fine collection of stories, and this promised to be a keeper. With one eyebrow arched, Wally withdrew and the mooring set unfolded.

It was dead low tide, Cape May Harbor having withdrawn from the Corinthian bulkhead, leaving a mud flat on which the jonboat sat when it received the mushroom. With some exertion, the new member dragged the metal boat to the water and then brought the inflatable up to begin the tow. It was only when he reached his mooring site that he realized his mistake. The anchor’s center of gravity was at the bottom of the boat. When he tried to tip the boat over, he now saw, the water would flood over the gunwale, filling and sinking the jonboat with the anchor still in it.

By now, Wally was in the club launch, circling, close enough to observe without becoming part of the story.

In desperation, the new member reached across the jonboat, grabbed the far gunwale and yanked up furiously. The jonboat, little heavier than a turkey roasting pan, whipped over in a perfect capsize, the anchor fell out and it settled harmlessly into the deep silt of the harbor floor. Stuard drew near in the launch and, his brow still arched, called out.

“That,” he said, filing away another story for his collection, “was more luck than good management!”

‘One of the good guys’

Some would say every boat club has a Wally Stuard, a fellow who always seems to be around when you are, and who has an opinion on every club matter. If true, these are lucky boat clubs, indeed.

In Wally Stuard, the Corinthian Yacht Club members have, according to some, more than an ever-present, unpaid watchman. They have an 83-year-old walking archive of club history; a capable pair of hands poised to solve the latest problem even if a committee — Wally loathes them — hasn’t convened; and a searing wit whose humor dances merrily in his eyes beneath those circumspectly arched brows.

“He’s a pleasant curmudgeon, but other than that, I love him,” laughs Wallace Barrie, a club member since 1969. “Wally’s one of the good guys. He’s a storyteller par excellence. He’s been around for so long, if he hasn’t done it, it probably isn’t worth doing as far as sailing is concerned. And he’s a great undertaker.”

A retired undertaker, that is. Before he retired, he split his time between Cape May and Ardmore, Pa., where the family, descendants of carpenters, has its funeral home. Before the 1820s, the carpenters built caskets. Wally has a story about that.

Stuard, whose family summered in Cape May, got his first sailboat as a high school graduation present in 1941. He had spent his recent summers working as crew on commercial fishing boats and, by the time he got his boat, had been sailing with friends for a couple of years. At the time, there was neither a yacht club in town nor any organized sailing.

Upon graduation, Wally stepped in line behind his forebears and enrolled in funeral director school. Then World War II started and, to avoid the Army, he enlisted in the Navy, serving on a minesweeper that patrolled the New Jersey coast. He got out of the service in 1946, married and, with friends, started the Harbor Sailing Club at a marina on the north side of the harbor. Then the group bought some land on the southern shore of the harbor from one of Stuard’s Ardmore neighbors, and built a ramp for launching their Moth sailboats.

Sparse accommodations

Earlier in the century, there had been another sailing club in Cape May — the Corinthian. When the old guard of that club saw Stuard and his friends becoming active, they gave the new group their charter and their club history with the understanding that the new group would take the Corinthian name, as well.

At first, there was no clubhouse, only cemetery tents provided by Stuard’s family. The tents shaded the club picnics and dinners. Wally didn’t ask anyone for permission. He just unrolled the canvas and erected the tent poles.

It was the same deal one year when club members decided they needed new docks. The club’s T-shaped floating dock comprises two long chains of floats that are anchored to pilings. The whole arrangement extends out into Cape May Harbor, a thoroughfare that joins Cape May Inlet on the Atlantic Ocean to the east with the Cape May Canal, which connects with the Delaware Bay to the west. The harbor is constantly traveled by fleets of whale-watching boats and day-fishing charter boats and enormous sportfishing boats, not to mention the ebb and flow of snowbird cruisers who pass through in the spring and fall. The result of this traffic is enough slopping water to wash a shipload of laundry. Stuard, having experienced the wakes for decades, believed the new floating docks needed to be 10 feet wide. Any narrower, he thought, and people couldn’t keep their footing.

A club committee thought differently and was prepared to direct that the docks be 6 feet wide. The way Wally tells the story, he called the committee members one day and said that the next day, he would be at the club building docks. If they wanted a say in the width, they should show up. When no one appeared, he quickly made 10-foot-wide docks.

Wally’s dock story continues. He had a plan. He built the docks upside down in the club parking lot so he could install the flotation. Once everything was assembled, he had to turn the docks over. Much like the new member setting his mooring, Wally’s plan involved attaching one end of a rope to one end of the dock section and the other end of the rope to the bumper of his pickup, which was parked on the far side of the dock section. He would lurch the truck forward and the rope would flip the section upright. The plan worked perfectly, in Wally’s telling. Except that in the flipping, the dock flung the flotation into the air and landed right side up with nothing underneath to keep it above water once it was launched.

The Bayberry Room

Earlier in the club’s history, at a point when women began joining, the members decided they needed a proper ladies’ lavatory. Wally went out into a thicket of bayberry bushes prepared to clear a spot for a portable john. Just then, an airplane towing a banner flew overhead, advertising the Bayberry Room. Wally thought that the perfect name for the new john.

Today, there is a cedar-shingled building where the john once stood. It houses the men’s and women’s facilities as well as the sailing schoolroom, and is still called the Bayberry Room. Such is Wally Stuard’s lingering legacy.

On the second floor of the same structure, on the harbor end of the building, is a loft with four windows looking out on the water. Everyone at the Corinthian knows this as “Wally World.” If the red dodge pickup is parked at the club and you can’t locate Stuard, someone will tell you to look in Wally World. There you find a colorful collection of burgees hanging everywhere and two steel file cabinets filled with old club photographs. On a desk, Stuard is charging batteries for the sailing school radios and for the club launches. There are boxes filled with all the items needed to conduct a sailboat race out on the ocean. Wally maintains them so race committees can simply load a box onto the committee boat and head to sea.

“It isn’t done by anybody else because I do it,” Stuard explains with a telling tilt to his brow.

“The reason we have an active sailing race [committee] crew is because Wally puts all the gear together,” Barrie confirms. “So they don’t have to think. He goes out almost every single weekend to the local ocean racing.”

A character with character

But Wally is known as much for his wit as his work. There are all the funny sailing stories, and a few jokes about death. Then there is the acerbic humor.

“He has an award here at the club. It’s called the outboard motor award,” Barrie explains. An outboard engine was evidently given to Wally a few years ago. Now the motor is given, according to Barrie, “to the person in the club who needs the most help. He gives it out occasionally to someone who has done an outstanding job of screwing up.”

Barrie won the outboard motor award a couple of times, he says. One time it was for his role in the club’s purchase of a boat that promptly took on water and sank. “Another time we had a group of fans — before there was air conditioning. We put the fan blades on backwards. I had a theory. I had picked up the theory in an engineering magazine.”

One of Wally Barrie’s favorite Wally Stuard stories involves a time when some of the kids in the sailing school got into trouble. Wally Stuard had been their instructor in knot tying. One night, a group of the students decided it would be appropriate to pilfer a fake cannon and hoist it on top of a tower. The prank backfired when the cannon slipped off and stuck in the ground. Police arrived and rounded up the kids. Stuard heard about it and went to the police station where he found the vandals sitting along a bench, awaiting their fate.

“Wally walked in and sat for a few minutes without saying anything and just looked at them,” no doubt with an arched brow, Barrie relates. “Then he said: ‘If you guys had listened to me when I was teaching you knots, you wouldn’t have been here.’ ”

A clubhouse fixture

Stuard’s boating credentials are solid. He has sailed to Bermuda a couple of times and once, when he was somewhat younger and Juan Peron was ruling Argentina, Wally was one of a half-dozen Americans who took a fleet of sailboats at Eva Peron’s invitation to race against that nation’s best sailors.

But it’s not the sailing that keeps him at the Corinthian. “This club,” he says, proudly displaying the recently renovated clubhouse, “has been my real interest.”

In 1951, during the fledgling period of the Corinthian, he was commodore. “It was fun being commodore here because [the club] was building,” he says. With little prompting, he will conduct a tour of the place, telling a story of personal involvement in each room. Then he will say a bit wistfully: “Almost every friend I’ve got is from here.”

“One of these days,” says Stuard’s friend, Barrie, “he’s going to pass away, and all I can tell you is the club is really going to miss him.”