Sailing through Gotha

A photograph on the wall of Wesley Rodstrom Jr.’s office at Consolidated Yachts on City Island in the Bronx, New York City, speaks volumes about this storied place: one of the two men in the picture is Sir Thomas Lipton, the British tea merchant who tried five times to win the America’s Cup at the beginning of the last century. He never succeeded, of course, but his place in the history of big-time yachting is secure.

So is the place in history of City Island, N.Y., a small community at the city’s easternmost fringe, where the East River ends and Long Island Sound begins. It was at City Island where much of the work – construction, repairs, additions, modifications – involving the J-Boats and other huge yachts that dominated the contest for the Cup a century ago took place.  Sir Thomas Lipton would come here, Rodstrom explains, following his various boats’ transatlantic passages prior to each Cup challenge. (Presumably Lipton himself crossed by ocean liner.) City Island’s skilled crews would refit Lipton’s various Shamrocks (there were five of them in all) with the taller rig they needed to race, replacing the shorter, safer version that had brought the boat across the ocean.

In the photograph at Consolidated, Lipton himself, white mustache and all, stands next to a “tang” several feet long that lengthens a stay on his out-of-sight yacht, clearly part of the modifications that were made here.

Like waterfronts everywhere in this country during the past century, City Island’s has changed and changed again. The America’s Cup scene survived here until the 1960s and even later, as U.S. defenders maintained their supremacy over challengers and the America’s Cup itself remained firmly bolted to its base in the glass case at the New York Yacht Club. But the trophy left New York in the 1980s and hasn’t returned, and a lot of City Island’s big-time yachting activity left with it for places like San Diego or even further away.

Consolidated, bought by Rodstrom’s father in 1954 after it had gone bankrupt, has stayed around and is still a big player at City Island. Today the yard does all kinds of repairs and operates a machine shop, a carpentry shop, a paint and spray shop, sprays on Awlgrip (a paint treatment for fiberglass hulls) and operates a marina.

Jobs underway during my recent visit to the yard included major work on a big power boat’s wood topsides; repairs to various fiberglass boats plus engine work, waxing spars and other aspects of the annual fall haulout business performed by yards all over the East Coast. Next door a yacht club occupies the site of the former Nevins yard; up City Island Avenue, a new school occupies the site of the former Minneford yard.

During the Second World War, yards here built PT boats, admirals’ gigs and air-sea rescue boats for the U.S. and British governments, all out of wood. They were equipped with skidways and marine railways. There’s still a big safe in the Consolidated office that was installed to store the then-top-secret plans for these craft.

The departure of the America’s Cup, like the departure of much ship and boatbuilding from many longtime East Coast locations doesn’t mean that aspects of the maritime business aren’t alive and well here. Quite the contrary: City Island today is home to numerous yacht clubs, yard/marinas like Consolidated, an active fleet of sportfishing boats and even a number of commercial fishing vessels.

It’s essentially the boating center of New York City, where marinas and other facilities for small boats, at least, get pretty scarce as one heads down the East River toward Manhattan. New York has no shortage of large port infrastructure – the huge container port on Staten Island is the best example, and the Port of New York actually extends well into New Jersey – but finding a spot to dock a small boat can be a challenge. The city’s parks department operates docking facilities here and there, but finding a place to spend the night, particularly when one takes into account the currents and other challenging conditions in the area, involves a little traveling.

When I left City Island and headed west for Manhattan there was, in fact, no overnight dockage available until the Battery (small and booked up with regulars) and finally Chelsea Piers on the lower West Side, where a huge place designed for ocean liners has been converted into a fitness emporium complete with golf driving range, health club and – yes! – a marina where you don’t want to ask how much it costs to spend the night. Spend it we did, however, lacking other choices, and the fetch from across the Hudson meant that we rocked and rolled all night. One could see right away why City Island, removed from downtown and easily accessible to the calmer sailing waters of Long Island Sound, turned into such a center for small boats.

Wes Rodstrom lives in a Victorian house on the western side of the island that gives him a view of Manhattan in the distance. He doesn’t go to the big city very often, he says; most of the time the view is all he needs. Thomas Lipton, the humble grocer turned tea merchant and perennial challenger for yachting’s greatest prize, might agree.


David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront. He’s working on his post-retirement transition by leaving his snow shovel at home and sailing down the East Coast in the general direction of warmer weather.