Christine Ehlers, age 98 as I write this, was once one of those “kids who live near water.” She holds a very special place in the celebration of the SS, as she is our Centennial sailor, born August 24, 1908, just as William Atwater and Ben Hallock were finishing the design of the one-design small sloop.
The Ehlers family owned the Corner Grocery (formerly the Nilsson & Bishop store) on the corner of Baycrest Avenue and South Road in Westhampton, just a few hundred yards from Beaver Dam Creek. Christine and her sister Helen grew up living over the grocery store, with the creek as their after-school playground.
“We made our own fun,” Christine says, remembering what it was like to have been a child in the days before World War I. “We used to row up the creek to Cook’s Pond to go for a swim.” She learned to sail racing with her friend Earlcdene Bishop, who “had a boat larger than an SS (I think it was classed as an Indian),” Christine remembers. “She handled the tiller, her father was the Captain and I was ballast!”
Sometime in the mid-1930s Christine acquired an SS, #92. She was in her late 20s at the time, and was a physical education teacher in the Westhampton school system, having graduated from Westhampton Beach High School in 1925 and the Arnold College for Hygiene & Physical Therapy in 1928. She kept the boat in Goodman’s Canal at the end of Baycrest Avenue, just a short walk from the grocery store, and sailed with Helen as her crew.
“With the wind usually southwest, we would tack going west and return home before the wind,” Christine wrote in a careful hand, in answer to the questions I had written down for her prior to our meeting. “Once in each of the first two seasons while Helen was standing on the front deck preparing for a landing I inadvertently let the boom swing around. The result was a dunking for Helen! The first time we went out the third season, Helen said, ‘Sis, if you are going to knock me overboard again this year, let’s get it over with today.’”
Christine doesn’t remember anything unappealing about the SS. Did you think it was a very wet boat, I asked her? “I don’t remember that part,” she said. But, she added after thinking on the question for a few seconds, “I was at the tiller. It was the one tending the jib who got wet, not me.” Ah, yes. Helen.
No, our Centennial sailor liked the rough seas, hated the days when there was no wind, and thought the best part of sailing was “Tacking!” Not a speedy reach or a relaxing downwind run? Nope, said Christine, “Tacking!”
The Ehlers family sold SS 92 after Christine joined the Army in 1942. “I was a physical therapist in the Army Medical Specialist Corps,” she says. “That’s the story of SS 92 while in my possession. I really don’t know where it ended up... I’d like to know what happened to it.” [NB: the fate of #92 may be unknown, as it is not on the list of surviving SSs.]
Christine Ehlers returned to Westhampton after World War II and has been retired for 47 years now. She never married and today lives alone with her black Labrador “Missy” in a tidy cottage on Oneck Lane, not far from where she grew up.
It was there that I interviewed her in the spring of 2006, in a meeting arranged by her friend Jean Halsey, who had advised me to submit written questions ahead of time because, Jean warned, “She’s sharp as a tack, but she may not be able to hear your voice -- she’s almost totally deaf.” In her three-page hand-written letter of answers, Christine had assessed the state of her own health this way: “In spite of being 97, except for a hip prosthesis that is out of kilter, I am doing fairly well physically and can still add 2 and 2 mentally!”
Dressed in a crisp navy blue skirt and a blue and white pin-striped Oxford, she walked towards me, leaning on a cane but leaving her walker aside, as I entered her house. Her eyes were alight and curious, her handshake warm and firm. We settled in the living room, where she sat in her favorite chair, with Missy leaning against her knee. I positioned myself on a stool facing her, our faces about two feet apart so that she could read my lips if she couldn’t hear me.
We managed to communicate, one very short question at a time, and the years slid by as she recalled living over the grocery store, rowing and swimming in the creek, sailing her SS. She was proud of the fact that, other than “periods away,” she has lived her entire life in the village where she grew up.
Even now, after all these years, the nearby water is never far from her thoughts. A painting she did of Beaver Dam Creek hangs over the mantelpiece, just a glance away from her favorite chair.
EPILOGUE: Christine Ehlers passed away in April, 2009, at the age of 100.
----- Meredith Murray
From an interview in preparation for the publication of “The Magic Boat and The People Who Sailed It, 1908-2008,” R.R. Donnelley, 2007.