Notes on the Eastern Long Island Sound Fleet and the Hurricane of 1938
by Ellicott McConnell
Whit Stueck sailing Altair shortly before she was wrecked by the hurricane of 1938
The Eastern Long Island Sound fleet was one of the original chartered fleets of the Star Class, being chartered in 1922. While its territorial waters were listed as being from Brandford Reef, just east of New Haven, eastwards to the eastern end of Long Island Sound, the boats were mainly sailed in the Groton - Mystic area, with the last of the fleet being located at Noank. The fleet was last listed in the 1979 Log.
Before World War II I was active in crewing for various members of the ELIS fleet, which had more than 20 Star boats. I was just a high-school kid at the time.
On September 21, 1938, occurred an event which greatly affected the fleet. The hurricane of 1938 decimated the fleet. It should be remembered that all the boats were on moorings in those days, and all of those which were not hauled prior to the hurricane were wrecked or sunk. All but one, that is, as will be noted below.
Some of the boats I have a particular memory of are the following:
Star # 3, Altair, was last owned by Whit Stueck. She was lost in the hurricane of 1938 at the Shennecossett Yacht Club in Groton, Connecticut. Just the year before # 3 raced in the 1937 International's. I know Whit was attached to the boat as an antique, even in those days. He notched the tiller every time he won a race, and the only part of the boat ever recovered after the hurricane was the tiller which had broken off, according to Whit, at the last notch. I believe he hung it over his fireplace, for he stated he intended to do so. Whit Stueck later owned Star # 1703, Scatterbrain, a Star he built himself in 1938 as a naval architect. I crewed for him in Scatterbrain at the 1940 ELIS Elimination series hosted by Pine Orchard Yacht Club and Sachem's Head Yacht Club, near New Haven. I had not met Whit until he called me out of my warm bunk in a friend's boat before seven one morning to help him scrub the Star's bottom free of invisible blemishes, in the cold water, of course. Whit took the championship, and I still have the winning crew cup on a shelf. Whit ran a yacht building and repair operation in Essex / Saybrook after the war.
Star # 196, Circe, owned by Albert Avery was lost at the same time. I sailed all the summer of 1938 in Circe with Arnold Avery, the owner's son, my high-school buddy. We used her as a daysailer. Star # 333, Colleen, was in the same fleet, and was bought by Albert Avery after the loss of Circe. Arnold and I sailed her during the rest of our high-school days. Arnold and I sailed the Colleen down the sound from Groton to Pine Orchard, where Arnold and another buddy sailed the Star in the races mentioned above. After consulting our chart, coming into Pine Orchard, we confidently sailed between a couple of buoys, remarking, so help me, that anyone not as smart as we probably would mistake the tide rip for a reef. At which point there was a horrendous crash and the Star buried her bow and stopped in her tracks. Arnold rushed several directions at once, loudly shouting "Shit a brick; shit a brick!", which must have been an inspiration of the moment, for it was the only time I ever heard Arnold swear in all the years I knew him, until his death last year. Fortunately, no harm was done, although two chastened young men learned the difference between large and small scale charts.
I recall sailing with Arnold in the fall of our senior year, on Labor Day, I believe. There were storm/gale warnings out, and the Coast Guard pointedly came up close to us with the weather flags showing on their small cutter, but we knew where and what we were doing, and had a glorious sail. It was our last together, as Arnold went to summer school the next year to prep for Cornell. (From whence he went to Annapolis, Class of 1946.) I crewed for other people in the summer of 1941 before going to college myself, but it was just for racing. No more long days on the Sound.
I remember that one of the boats of the fleet was owned by a Naval Officer, for this was in Groton, the submarine town. On occasion, if he were on duty and someone else was sailing the boat, he would view the races by periscope.
The only boat, not just a Star, but boat, that weathered the 1938 hurricane in usable condition was the Star # 868, Shirley, basically owned by J.L. Parsons Jr., but for all practical purposes owned and sailed by his cousin Sam and wife Shirley Jones. Shirl was a rare item in those days, a very competent lady who loved to sail single-handed. Sam knew something of hurricanes, and when it was obvious that this was no ordinary storm, he went out to the mooring and sank the boat. She came through the hurricane with mast intact, probably the only one for a hundred miles.
Sam and Shirl Jones were a great couple, and well-known among the sailing community at the time. Sam was brought up in the Parsons family after his mother died. After marrying in '36 he worked for a year or two in The City, which he hated....then the two of them went with George Vanderbilt, his bro-in-law, on a six-month expedition to the South Seas in the schooner 'Pioneer', later named Cressida, or vice versa. She still sails in one of the Caribbean tourist fleets....with a somewhat distorted history in the brochure, as I recall. They repeated the process in early '41, but to the South American area. In the meantime, they decided to scuttle the City, and lived in a small chauffeur's cottage at Eastern Point belonging to the Parsons. People like Rod Stephens were always dropping in. And I recall Sam muttering about Sterling Hayden forgetting about the ten bucks Sam loaned him when he stopped by for a couple of days on his way, as it turned out, to fame and fortune. Hayden visited again after the war when Sam and Shirl lived in Old Lyme, however, so maybe Sam got his money back.
During the time that Sam worked in New York City, soon after their marriage, he and Shirl used their Star, Shirley (Owner's Suite, two sleeping bags and a bucket) for cruising on Long Island Sound. I recall, with some disbelief at the time, of Sam mentioning that Shirl would insist on spending weekends on the water, even when it meant waking up to frost or light flurries on the deck. My skepticism was abolished one snowy winter night when the three of us were happily ensconced in front of the fireplace of their little cottage in Eastern Point, Groton. Or at least two of us were happy, for at that point Shirl observed it was a pity to just sit around the house, when it would be "so much fun" to row out to Pine Island in the dark for a picnic in the snow. Fortunately, sanity prevailed!
Photo and text from the 1922 Log
"Altair", E.V. Willis, Post Washington Y.C. Showing the most popular variation of the Marconi Rig, with straight mast and no spreaders. Since 1916 "Altair" has won nearly every series in which it has competed and qualified.
During that period Bill Dodge, (frostbite dinghy sailor, owner of a Star at one time, etc.) would occasionally bring over an outboard engine to put on the Shennecossett Yacht Club workboat, and anyone on hand would explore the Thames River and vicinity, perhaps looking for harbor seals, rare items in those days. Return was always by way of a local fisherman's to pick up some bay scallops for Shirl to sauté for us. One such afternoon, February 2nd, 1941, Groundhog Day, Sam, Shirl, and Bill, went ashore at Ocean Beach during a light snowstorm to pick up a cup of coffee, or just for a walk. Upon their return they found they had committed the unpardonable sin of not securing the boat, which was then drifting away from shore. The thought of having the Coast Guard bail them out was too much for Shirl, who stripped off her surplus clothing and swam out and rescued the boat. (Sam claims he unbuttoned and rebuttoned his own jacket three times before she was ready to swim.) I did not appear on the scene until later that evening when Shirl showed me that her legs were still scarlet from the dunking....a display I appreciated, for she had world-class legs.
There was a picture by Rosenfeld of Sam and Shirl sailing her, used in one of the yachting magazines as an illustration for something or other. There is also a photo of Shirl on the cover of Yachting, spring 1946 I think, right after the war; a distant picture which was appealing, because Shirl was climbing a ladder in a boatyard to look into a boat, in dressy clothes, as I recall, which gave a nice contrast. She was first and last a boater.