At anchor off Madras, India, the captain of the S.S. Constitution State took his own life, which must have been disconcerting to the crew, and to a young Third Mate in particular. He had graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy just the year before, was kind of newly minted, and now he was on a captain-less cargo ship bound for Bombay, now stopped at Madras waiting for a new ship’s master.
Bombay and Madras, I gather, have little in common with Skaneateles, where the young boy began his life of adventure, pulling on the oars of a rowboat from which he could see his home, The Beeches. The house was built by Edward Trump and in later years was home to the family of Arve Wikstrom. Here the lad’s life took a turn when, in 1959, his father purchased the Phoebe, a 48-foot launch driven by a steam engine.
People fall in love with different things; Stephen Wikstrom fell in love with steam engines. And over the next three summers, he learned how to fire up the Phoebe’s boiler, to tend, oil, coax, tinker with, listen to and run her steam engine. In 1962, he made his first solo trip to the south end of the lake. As he grew into teenhood, he also learned that the Phoebe had potential as a “babemobile,” with young women waving from dock after dock asking for rides.
Deanne Bigsby, on the Phoebe; and just to the right, holding up his hand to signify rabbit ears, is Mike Reade, visiting from Maine Maritime Academy
One day, Steve’s father left a course catalog from the Maine Maritime Academy in his room, and Steve saw that one could actually make a living on the water, with steam engines, and see the world as part of the bargain. He graduated in 1969.
And so in 1970 he came to be on the S.S. Constitution State, built in 1943. The ship traveled around the world, a world, as it turned out, populated with more steam engines. In Korea and India, Wikstrom used cartons of American cigarettes, or bars of soap, to charm his way onto steam locomotives in the shipyards, running them up and down the tracks while his shipmates looked on in wonder.
There were other adventures. In Singapore, the ship was boarded by a band of Malay pirates who specialized in brass fittings, up to and including hose nozzles; they were summarily repelled by another Third Mate, Lance Orton, who, in Wikstrom’s words, “punched them all overboard.”
Forty-two years later, it was Third Mate Orton who brought this story to my attention at my grandnephew Jake’s graduation party where I met my brother Kent’s wife Donna’s sister Susie’s husband, Lance, and he said, “You’re from Skaneateles; I sailed around the world with a guy from Skaneateles.”
And thus a few weeks later, I found myself hailing Steve Wikstrom from the jetty at the Skaneateles Antique & Classic Boat Show, where he was, not surprisingly, tending the engine of David Conroy’s steam launch, the Sayonara. I was presuming upon what he described as “an exceedingly distant relationship,” but my wife and I were offered a ride on the boat, we accepted, and we got to watch Wikstrom feed the boiler, oil the engine, ease the cylinder head off dead center, adjust some valves, start up the engine, and away we went.
I had never been in close quarters with a steam engine before, and my first impression was that it might be hot — hot metal, hot oil and, of course, hot steam. But Wikstrom was working without gloves, although he did occasionally dip a rag into the cold waters of the lake before adjusting a valve on the boiler, and the engine was so quiet and well-mannered that I relaxed and began asking questions. On the subject of boats, steam engines and sailing, Wikstrom was only too happy to fill in the considerable gaps in my knowledge.
He said that he was done sailing around the world, and that now he just read about it: Lady Anna Brassey’s A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1881), Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) by Joshua Slocum, Alan Villiers’ Cruise of the Conrad (1937), the books of Irving Johnson, who circled the globe seven times in two different vessels, both named Yankee, Warwick Tompkins’ 50 South to 50 South (1938), about the voyage of the Wander Bird around Cape Horn, more titles than I could scribble down.
Wikstrom does his reading in a home on the shore of Cayuga Lake, and his boat, a St. Lawrence River Skiff, comes with a history of its own that includes the invention of Thousand Island salad dressing. The boat, a 22-foot double-ended motorized skiff, is one of a pair built in 1921, in Clayton, N.Y., for fishing guide George Lalonde and his son, Royal Lalonde, who was just turning 21 that year. The elder Lalonde was famous for his shore dinners at which he served a salad dressing created by his wife, Sophia. One of Lalonde’s patrons was Canadian actress and singer May Irwin — known to fans of historic cinema for the short subject “The Kiss” (1896), the first kiss ever on film — and Miss Irwin really took to the salad dressing.
Sophia Lalonde was happy to share the recipe with her, and also with Ella Bertrand at the Herald Hotel where Irwin stayed when in Clayton. Miss Irwin named it “Thousand Island Dressing” and Mrs. Bertrand added it to the menu at the Herald. Given that Wikstrom’s skiff was owned by Sophia’s husband or son, he is confident that the inventor of Thousand Island dressing was a passenger at one time or another. After this revelation, I began to realize that one boat = 10 stories; perhaps that is a conservative estimate.
All too soon, the ride came to an end. Approaching the dock, Wikstrom stopped the engine, and the Sayonara glided into its slip. “You don’t want to smash into the dock,” Wikstrom said, but recalled that he had done that at least once, but it was only a wood dock, which is the kind you want to hit, if you must.
Several questions were left unanswered. Orton said that in 1970 Wikstrom played the concertina beautifully. “Maybe one key at a time,” Mrs. Wikstrom commented. And each of the Third Mates maintained that the other was a living legend. This debate is not concluded. They both could be right.
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“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
― Water Rat to Mr. Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908)
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My thanks to Steve Wikstrom and Lance Orton for the stories, to Steve and Ellen for the photographs of the Phoebe, and Laurie Winship for the photo of Steve Wikstrom. If you’d like, do read more about the SS Constitution State. Also, more on The Beeches, and more on the Phoebe here and here. And Thousand Island salad dressing, of course.
And thanks to Deanne (Bigsby) Bourne, who writes from California, “I remember the day I rode on the Phoebe very clearly. I too was worried about the heat and the whole thing blowing up! I am flattered that my picture has been in someone’s drawer all these years.”