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Colorful as a Conch Horn – Solid as a Lignum Block

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For half a century, Manfred Dittrich has been living in St. Thomas making sails for everything from Beneteaus to brigantines.  Fifty years is a long time—long enough to take the measure of any man—and 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.

He’s of a select and dwindling breed, one of the last men standing who are allowed by ancient seagoing custom to—excuse my French—”piss into the wind.”   That privilege sets apart those who have rounded the infamous Cape Horn under sail. Climbing up icy shrouds in gale force winds to cut away a blown-out sail required a set of cojones not normally found nor necessary aboard your average catamaran cruising the calm waters of the BVI.  If such a one decides to exercise his privilege, we lesser mortals can only assume he must have his reasons, say, “God bless,” and move out of harm’s way.

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

Manfred, St. Thomas’ pre-eminent sail maker, is a fixture on the island’s magnificent natural harbor, commonly sighted gunning his big, battered, red launch across the Charlotte Amalie chop to pick up and drop off sails, awnings, and colorful canopies. With his lank frame bent forward against the wind, his gaze fixed ahead, his remaining hair flying out behind, he resembles a great crested heron stalking fish in seaside shallows.

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I first met the man in 1970 when I bought my first sail.  Today, so many years later, nothing basic seems to have changed.  He’s still living on the same little island at the mouth of the harbor, he’s still lanky and agile at 70-something, still wearing his trademark weather-beaten engineer’s cap to shade eyes that are startlingly blue, still possessed of powerful hands that are bigger than normal, work-hardened yet deft.   He speaks softly, a little shy until he gets going, then in fluent English with a strong German accent that he stopped improving long before I met him, like a national flag painted on a wandering yacht’s self-steering vane, or as if to compensate having left his country all these years.

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Nine years old at the close of World War II, with his mother dead and his father struggling to survive, Manfred was sent to live with his uncle, the pastor of a small town on the Elbe River. There he grew up, with a fondness for water and proficiency with boats.  As soon as he finished his schooling, he left for the bright lights of the nearest seaport and apprenticed himself to a sail maker.

Three years later he found himself sail maker on the Pamir, a big four-masted steel vessel, rounding Cape Horn.  Sail maker was a vital position aboard.  It was tedious, occasionally dangerous work, hauling down a blown out sail and   dragging the heavy, wet canvas over the unforgiving steel decks, as waves boarded the ship’s waist. Endless hand-stitching barely kept up with sail after sail blown out in hurricane force squalls.   Manfred made two voyages to Chile and back and learned something about the ocean.  The Pamir was a school ship for him, as it was for the naval cadets on board learning their profession the hard way.

September 1957, the Pamir was about to be famous.  Manfred was not aboard this time—he had taken a softer job ashore, one with at least the possibility of women and beer.  Thus it was that he lay warm in his shore side bed—while his onetime shipmates, on a howling black night, went to their dismal drowning deaths. The Pamir had encountered a hurricane and her cargo of grain had shifted in the tumultuous seas.  Once she was listing, she listed ever further till she foundered.  That shocking loss of all but a few hands—including the cadets—put an effective end to the age of commercial sail.

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With that high seas tragedy fresh in his mind, Manfred decided to return to the rivers of his childhood, thinking that pushing barges around would be at least be safe.  He had yet to learn that most boats come to grief, not on the high seas, but in close proximity to land.

Learn it he did one cold night on the Rhine while working on a tug. Off watch, sound asleep in his underwear, he felt the impact and heard the screech of steel on steel as an out-of-control oncoming barge jumped the tug’s low after-deck and bore it down.  Icy water rushed into the tug as he sprang for the door and bolted out into the night—he leapt to the barge and managed to climb to its deck.  Not everyone was as quick witted and nimble as the youthful Manfred.  Two men died on the river that night.

He drifted from job to job looking for the right place, the right opportunity. Being a sail maker in the twilight of commercial sail limited his options.  He was on the beach at San Remo, Italy broke, wondering what to do next when the manager of a traveling circus hired him.  He had the skills necessary to work aloft with canvas, rope and rigging; and the circus, a little society closed in on itself, was much like a self enclosed ship sailing from port to port.  He traveled for a time with the circus, but the sea still called. He left with a friend to deliver a sailboat to the Caribbean.

February:  Part Two

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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