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Colorful as a Conch Horn, Solid as a Lignum Block: Manfred Dittrich

Part Two:  For half a century, Manfred Dittrich has been living in St. Thomas making sails for everything from Beneteaus to brigantines. Manfred, whose sailing career began on a square rigger rounding Cape Horn, has emerged from the test of time as one of the East Caribbean’s favorite characters—in a region famous for its characters.  In Part One (January 2008 issue, www.allatsea.net), Manfred left a traveling circus to answer the call of the sea and deliver a boat to the Caribbean with a friend.

The stepping-stone islands they ascended in the Caribbean seemed like a veritable stairway to heaven; and when they reached the Virgins, paradise itself blazed forth from unspoiled beaches and glossy blue coves. Unlike the other islands there was employment.  They sailed into the spectacular natural harbor of St. Thomas with its old colonial town bustling at the start of an economic boom based in large part upon sailing.  Manfred got off the boat in Charlotte-Amalie and never got back on.

Mike Burke of Adventures in Paradise fame was just getting his windjammer fleet into operation. It didn’t take long for him and Manfred to find each other.  He put Manfred in charge of making new sails for the fleet. For the Polynesia, flagship of the fleet, he sewed up, by hand, a 5,000 square foot mainsail-so big that he had to build it in an empty Miami parking lot.

When he wasn’t building sails he captained the windjammers.  He remembered coming into Miami harbor at the helm of a 120 ft. schooner—when the engine suddenly died!  There was a strong following wind and the boat was moving at a steady clip.  He had to stop her…he spotted an empty dock up ahead, steered in close to get men and restraining lines ashore and, in the process, the long bowsprit swept over the dock, snagged a telephone booth and slowly swung it out high over the water—to the accompaniment of screams of the terrified caller clutching the phone inside.

Three years with Burke went by in a blur of hard work and great success by which time the explosion in yachting on both sides of the Atlantic brought increasing numbers of boats to St. Thomas.  There was a crying need for a professional sail maker—into this breach strode Manfred. St. Thomas harbor was the yachting capital of the Caribbean and a romantic place back then.  Boats of all kinds—from 18 ft. single handed circumnavigators to vast, fully rigged ships—they all came through Charlotte Amalie to get engine parts, to meet or drop off crew, to load up on canned goods, to haul out.

The classiest act in the harbor—and the noisiest—was Antilles Airboats, the last of the Grumman Goose seaplanes.  Reeking with character, chronically low on spare parts, their engines deafened the harbor as they took off, roaring along the surface, seawater streaming in through the worn rivet holes, ‘til the old girl soared up suddenly, trailing sparkling droplets of seawater in her slipstream like a diamond necklace come undone.

In those days sailboats still carried much of the fresh produce to St. Thomas from the fertile Windward Islands to the "down island wharf" in Charlotte Amalie’s bulkheaded waterfront. Here the "down island" sloops and schooners—brightly painted, rust streaked, soulful wooden vessels—unloaded     heaps of bananas, plantains, mangoes, limes, breadfruit, and "ground food"—-assorted roots with dirt still on them.

St Thomas attracted quite a procession of remarkable vessels over the years. The vessels kept coming and Manfred kept sewing.  Three-masted, elaborately-carved Brazilian river schooners, massively-built Colin Archer rescue ketches, the aforementioned island sloops, a junk built by a Chinese village of solid teak, 100 year old plumb bow English pilot cutters, Dutch canal barges with varnished leeboards  and lapstraked hulls, stodgy Baltic traders, plus periodic waves of vessels caught in northers or tropical depressions while en route to the Eastern Caribbean, forced into St. Thomas with torn out clews, split seams,  and the occasional tattered remnants of failed roller furling.

They sailed under every kind of rig—sprit, lug, square, wishbone, lateen, junk, sliding Gunter, jub-headed and gaff.  They flew genoas and jennikers, mules and fishermen, watersails and storm trysails, topsails and mizzen stays’ls and flying jibs—he put his hand to all of them over the years earning a reputation that stretched from Puerto Rico to Trinidad to Newport for bulletproof sails and fine, old world handwork at reasonable prices.

As one old hand said, "If you don’t like a sail that Manfred’s built, you’re not going to like it for a long time." The yachting community has its high and low ends and, accordingly, Manfred used a sliding scale, charging the going price to those who could well afford it—blue blazer yachtsmen, wastrel heirs, millionaires and marijuana smugglers. "I have no problem with pot smugglers," he once, famously, said.  "They pay top dollar, cash up front."

Yet for a cruiser short of funds he’d work out some kind of deal with barter or labor, or let him do some of the work, like lashing on the jib hanks or hand stitching the clews. Or he’d take payment in kind, or by installments.  Or—what the hell—he’d dig out an old sail from his extensive collection, serviceable enough to do the job and give it away.  No wonder that well-known sailing artist Les Anderson declares, "Manfred Dittrich is one of the kindest, most generous persons I’ve ever known.  If not for Manfred there are many of us sailors who would not be sailing today."  If he took to you, he would like as not invite you to dinner at his rustic seaside loft/dwelling, put you up…even give you a job.

He usually had a couple of apprentices in the loft learning their trade from the master.  Many of them with his blessing established their own shops in St. John, Tortola, St. Croix, St. Maarten and others I can’t remember.  Rudy, who lived in St. Thomas, has worked for Manfred for decades. With Rudy taking care of business, Manfred traveled frequently to Santo Domingo where he dabbled in real estate.  One time, a local lawyer told him that the title to a property he wanted was hopelessly tangled.  He would need to get scores of relatives to sign off their claims—an impossible task, he cautioned.

But Manfred knew a thing or two about the West Indies, including a story about how expatriates managed to get electricity when appeal after appeal fell on deaf ears. "To get electricity, first you must buy a goat!"  In Manfred’s case, this meant hiring a popular local "bachata" band, roasting two pigs, and broaching a barrel of rum.  When the barrel was half empty, he passed the quitclaim around and everybody signed, all the relatives and about 50 others who weren’t even involved.  When the lawyer saw the signatures, he was blown away—and offered Manfred a job!

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