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An Unauthorized Memoire of Augie Hollen

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What follows is an unauthorized memoire of Augie Hollen—unauthorized because, while not exactly shy and retiring Augie shuns publicity; perhaps because, as some claim, he worked for the CIA many moons ago, in another life.  If so, it speaks well for the Agency that it recruited him, because Augie would have made a good operative—tough, resourceful, shrewd—reminiscent of Odysseus, the canny protagonist of Homer’s epic.  At any rate, he didn’t stay long and it was just as well.  The CIA in those days was owing more to the OSS than to Abu Ghraib.   He wouldn’t have been happy in Bush’s CIA waterboarding a suspect or leading him about by a string snugged up tight around the nuts.

He’s now in his seventies, still a big man with a powerful laugh, an angular face, and a mordant wit. Perhaps most noteworthy are his eyes, eager and spontaneous in the midst of a story, but never quite losing a certain guardedness.  Living in the Virgins all these years has given the wit plenty of material.  Commenting on recent runaway development here, he said, “Now that one can finally make a decent living here the place has gone to the dogs.” Another time he told me that he’d been born “two drinks under par,” which explained why rum was a staple in his larder.

Old Sailors Never Die

August Hollen was born and brought up in South Dakota but he wasn’t long for the prairie.  However, he brought with him prairie values all his life…a propensity for hard work and a remarkable mechanical aptitude.  As a youth he ranked second-fastest in the nation at setting type—his father owned a small newspaper.  Ever precocious, he got married at age 17.  “It felt so good I thought it must be love!” he laughed.  When they divorced, his ex-wife informed his draft board about his change in status and that’s how he landed in the service, where his test scores alerted the CIA.

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He was out of college with a degree in agriculture, working for an advertising firm in Chicago, when a friend recruited him to help sail a boat to the Caribbean.  Like many another wanderer to the West Indies, the Virgins looked very good indeed and so Augie went ashore in St. Thomas.

There was an economic boom on at the time, thanks to Fidel putting investments in Cuba at risk, so Augie had his pick of construction jobs and saved money for building a boat.  He chose a time-tested design that hearkened back to the 1650s, was swift and seaworthy and easy to handle. The resulting schooner, Taurus (appropriate for a cow horn) was built of strip plank of gommier wood saturated with WEST System epoxy (a new technique in those days).  It looked so good and sailed so well it invited emulation.

Reflections on Coming of Age and Caribbean Sails

Les Anderson was interested.  The yet-to-be famous marine artist was living on a 25ft long, 60 year-old gaff cutter Banshee, and had made it down the island chain as far as Trinidad by the skin of his teeth.  He was licking his wounds when Augie sailed in to the same harbor on a delivery.  After going over the boat’s myriad troubles—the boat had threatened to sink several times—Augie looked him in the eye and said point blank “Les, what you need is a new boat!” Les managed to get back to the Virgins, where he sold her to Rafe Boulon and took over Augie’s mold and spare lumber.

This was the start of Penelope, one of the prettiest boats in the West Indies.  Les figured, what better a model than Taurus, for which there was a mold and a stack of lumber left over from Augie’s project.  Les made a few alterations to the sheer and used a trunk cabin he cut off another boat.  Today both boats must be around 40 years old and they are still strong, due in good measure to the gommier wood they were constructed of, the choice of the Caribs for building their big dugouts, a rosy, tight-grained wood that was resistant to toredos and rot and water logging.  The two boats enjoyed racing each other.

Augie and Les spent a lot of time at Foxy’s.  They helped organize the first wooden boat regatta. It was on the occasion of one of the early regattas that Les sailed into Jost van Dyke with an attractive woman he had just met.  Over the weekend, Sylvia and Augie met and the rest is history.  When Taurus sailed out of the bay, Sylvia was aboard, as was the first place trophy. As Taurus came abreast of Penelope, Augie called out in his booming voice, “Winner takes all, Les.”

Eventually Augie sold the Taurus to Tommy “Nolegs” Kershaw who became an inspiration in Caribbean sailing circles. He became famous as a sailor despite his having had both legs blown off in the Vietnam war—hence the nickname! He came to St. John determined to learn how to sail, and with a group of supportive friends, especially Paul Hollings and Augie, he did.  After learning the ropes and assessing things, he bought Taurus and renamed it “Sea Legs.”  A name more apt would be hard to find.  Tommy campaigned the boat hard and to considerable success, often beating Les, a hard-edged competitor, in Coral Bay’s Thanksgiving Regatta and in Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race.

Sailing with Charlie: Oldies & Goodies

Augie couldn’t be without a boat—or at least a boatbuilding project—for very long.  Since he had recently bought property out at East End, he set up shop on the beach nearest his land there under the palm trees close to the water’s edge and got to work.  He had the hull finished and was getting ready to launch it when the weather took a turn for the worse—much worse—and did it for him.  Back-to-back hurricanes swept by, David and Frederick.  David was a “Great” hurricane, great as in Great White.  David went just to the south of Coral Bay.

Driving out to see the damage, hours after the peak winds, ferocious gusts made even my old Toyota Land Cruiser shudder.  We couldn’t make out the boat, but the heavy surf which roared at the shore made it clear that nothing could have survived.  Still Augie kept sailing, just on other people’s boats.

When first Augie arrived in the islands, he had worked construction, but eventually got to know Dick Avery, delivering yachts for him every year in the Fall. Augie’s remarkable mechanical ability stood him in good stead, as he was able to fix most things aboard.  Where other delivery skippers brought the boats in with a long list of things to fix, Augie brought them in ready to go out on charter.  He ended up doing two to three dozen deliveries from New England to the Virgin Islands, often doing two in a season. “It was like going on vacation,” declared Sylvia.  “We got our way paid up there, we could bring down anything we wanted and we got to go sailing, stopping in cool places like Bermuda.”

He decided to build his next boat in Coral Bay which back in those days was really the boondocks.  He struck a deal with Fred Smith to use the empty lot in back of his bar/grocery.  He got electricity from Fred, the site was close to the sea for ease of launching, and of course it was    only a few steps to the bar for a cold Heineken. There he built a mold out of conduit and chicken wire to the dimensions of a 31’cow horn.

People love to watch other people work, especially the building of something with the romance of a big boat. The word of Augie’s project got out and attracted a stream of boat-builder wannabes; but a handful of these onlookers were dudes who wanted a good boat but couldn’t afford one fresh off the shelf.  This group found each other and watched in fascination as Augie built the mold.  They plied him with questions and finally they came up with a good idea—it seemed obvious in retrospect—why not pool resources, buy Augie’s mold, share expenses like trucking, qualify for quantity discounts, be on hand to help each other when more hands were needed, and, in sum, pool their knowledge and resources, share the experience and the expenses.

Augie wouldn’t acknowledge his paternity of the Coral Bay cowhorns at first—he didn’t want to be responsible for whatever trouble they might get into.  But the sight of the six identical boats lined up parallel to the shore was a dramatic testimony to some kind of phenomenon and it became impossible for him to avoid being known as Augie Hollen, the “guru” of the Coral Bay boat builders.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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