George Sandberg, Teenage Boatbuilder

[Written by Meredith Murray for “The Magic Boat,” this story had to be cut in size for the final manuscript. Here is the original, expanded version.]

The Westhampton Yacht Squadron’s various club histories list all of the SSs ever built, but the whereabouts and ownership of two of these boats -- # 149 and #150 -- remained a mystery to members of the SS Association, the Great South Bay Yachting Association, and the various yacht clubs along the South Shore for almost 50 years. Until January, 2006, when a letter announcing the upcoming Centennial festivities was sent and re-sent through cyberspace to countless sailors via the modern miracle of e-mail.  Alexander “Skip” Pendzick was just beginning Center Moriches High School in 1959 when he learned that Louis Howell’s arthritis had grown so severe he couldn’t finish the two SSs he’d been building in his workshop on Lake Avenue. The numbers of the boats were already burned into the centerboard trunks -- #149, completed except for the deck, and #150, framed out with just the keel and sheer strake in place. Skip paid Howell $90 for the two boats. He kept the 149 for himself and sold the framed-out boat to his buddy George Sandberg for $40. 

The two boys had been best friends “forever,” according to George. The Sandbergs lived on Brookfield Avenue, some distance away from the water, but Skip’s family lived on Senix Creek, on the grounds of an old boatyard. “Pendzick’s Boatyard, that was my playground,” George remembers. “It wasn’t run as a boatyard then. It was just derelict.” The two boys built their first boat when they were in 6th grade, just “a little box,” says George, whose cousin Bill “Cut” Reden taught him how to sail, first in a Gil Smith cat boat and later in a Snipe Cut he borrowed from his high school English teacher, Mr. Debler.

Skip and George were only 15-years-old when they set to work on SS 149, and there was no one around to help them. “Skip’s father passed away when he was in 8th grade,” George says, “and my father had no boat experience.” Skip and his brother Dan, with some help from George, began to put the boatyard, located at 26 Union Avenue in Center Moriches, back into operation, and it was there at the reborn Pendzick’s Boatyard that they finished the 149.

“We couldn’t afford to buy sails,” says George. “Someone said the Fenners had some extra sails, so one day we walked down to Skip Fenner’s house on Union Avenue and knocked on his door and asked if he had an old sail.” Skip gave the boys a set of his old SS 2 sails that he’d been using as paint drop-cloths. SS 149 wore the “dropcloths” proudly for the next three years.

George then set to work on his own boat, the $40 #150, without any blueprints, with more curiosity and energy than experience. “What was kind of neat about putting this boat together,” he says, “was my mother would drive me to Riverhead Building Supply, and after I told them what I needed the stuff for, they basically gave it to me. They probably thought, hey, this kid is staying out of trouble! It was the only place we could get white cedar, which was basically logs, and they had to go out and mill them down.”

He worked on the 150 on and off throughout his junior and senior years in high school. “It was a chore,” he still remembers. “I struggled with it, just trial and error -- I didn’t have any plans, just a hammer. See that window? One time I threw the hammer through the window, I was so angry.

“The very last plank I couldn’t get in. I just couldn’t get it in, couldn’t make it work -- it was one plank up from the garboard plank. My cousin knew this guy named Harliss, a boatbuilder who specialized in building ice-scooters. He was a crankety old guy, not very cooperative. My cousin said if I went over there and talked to him and kind of hung around, that maybe he’d help me. So I did, I went over and I was with him from 9 in the morning until about 5 in the evening. He’d been a carpenter on a four-masted schooner, and he knew a lot about building boats. At the end of the day I finally got the nerve to say, ‘Oh by the way, I have an SS and I’m having trouble putting a plank in.’ He said, ‘I always wanted to build one -- bring it over here and I’ll fix it.’ So I went home and towed it over. The next morning I went back to ask him if he thought he could fix it, and it was all done. He’d done it overnight, and he wouldn’t tell me how he did it. I’d been working on it for months, trying to figure out how to get that plank in, and he did it overnight.”

George finished SS 150 during his senior year, and with great pride he berthed it alongside SS 149 at Pendzick’s. Not long afterwards, however, he and Skip narrowly escaped disaster in the 150. “We’d finished the boat,” George explained, “and I was out sailing with Skip. Around 10 or 11 o’clock at night we were becalmed. It was absolutely pitch black, and we heard a boat engine. And it was coming closer and closer. We didn’t have a flashlight, nothing. That boat came within inches of us, at full speed. I thought we were done for. As it passed we heard someone say, ‘Hey! There’s a boat!’”

Neither Skip nor George ever raced his SS, and neither one ever made any contact with the yacht clubs. “I liked everything about the water, and sailing was a part of it. The racing part never appealed to me,” says George. Instead he just sailed -- to the head of Senix Creek, out into Moriches Bay, exploring east and west. Half the time he sailed by himself, and half the time he took someone with him. Or the two SSs would sail together. “Skip would be in one boat, and I’d be in the other boat. One time we decided to see how far west we could go. We sailed to Great South Bay, way past the Smith Point Bridge -- I don’t know where we were. Skip’s brother was trailing behind us in an outboard, and we put up a little tent and slept on the beach.” When asked what they’d brought to eat, George answered, “Eat?? I think we just drank beer!”

The boys sailed over to the town beach at Great Gun, went for clams and crabs with their boats, and used one or the other of the SSs for camping trips. “We used to do a lot of camping,” George says. “We slept on the boat, one of us on either side of the centerboard. It was a perfect fit.”

Skip had the 149 until the early 1970s, when he sold it. George sailed the 150 until 1966 or 1967, when, he says, he “went to sea for a living,” beginning with service in the Merchant Marines, distributing supplies along the coast of Viet Nam.

SS 150 was still very much a part of George’s life in 1969 when he was courting his future wife Joy, who was not a sailor. He took her out in the SS to, Joy says, “drown me...in a hurricane.” Not so, says George. “It was just a squall. It was really blowing, and we flipped. I didn’t want anyone to know it happened because I was embarrassed, so I made her sit in the sun until she dried out.” However, George’s buddy Stan Abrahamsen had seen the SS capsize. “By the time we got back to town, everybody knew.” But, says Joy, “I married him anyway.”

Like George, Skip Pendzick, too, graduated from the New York Maritime College, as a Marine Engineer. After sailing for a few years, he earned a Masters Degree in Nuclear Engineering and went to work for Brookhaven Lab, where he currently is the Chief Engineer for the Accelerator. He and his younger brother still own and run Pendzick’s Boat Yard.

He never named the 150. “If I named it now,” he said, “I think I’d name it something like ‘Lost.’” Looking askance at the boat Joy mutters, “’Derelict.’” 

Six months later George wrote that he had “cleaned up” #150 and had put it under cover in a shed. But, he admitted, although things didn’t “look good for it,” he hadn’t given up yet. Not long afterwards he e-mailed triumphantly that he had bought his neighbor Ray Richmond’s SS 76 and was “getting ready for the Centennial!”

SS 150 may not make it to the yacht club for the 100th birthday celebration, but, with # 149, it is now safely logged into the official chronicle of SSs “that really were.”

And, “one way or the other,” Sandberg will be sailing an SS in the Centennial parade.

Today George Sandberg is a Captain in the United States Maritime Service. In 1990, after sailing for 20 years with the Merchant Marines and wearing ribbons awarded him by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy and the Merchant Marine, he “swallowed the anchor” and came ashore to teach at the Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, where he is currently the head of the Marine Transportation Department. 

Both George and Skip still hold the SS close to their heart. As George says, “I have sailed around the world a few times, sailed on every ocean and on most seas, aboard many different types of ships ranging from a 65-ft. research vessel to a 1,000-ft. LNG vessel, but some of my best memories are sailing an SS on Moriches Bay.”

SS 150 still survives but only barely, as it has been sitting uncovered in George’s backyard for the last 30 years. “It came real close to being sawed up and used for firewood last year,” said George as he and Joy stood on their lawn, looking solemnly down at the rotting hulk of a boat. “But I decided I’d try to fix it up. I think I can salvage it with stitch and glue. I have some other ideas. I have a complete set of ribs in the basement.” A few seconds went by before he added, “Joy isn’t too enthralled with the idea of my restoring my SS.”

But George’s imagination is captivated by the idea of sailing an SS in the 2008 Centennial celebration festivities. “One way or the other,” he says, “Sandberg is going to have an SS!”
EPILOGUE: George did indeed sail an SS in the Centennial parade, but it was not SS 150. Instead, George sailed #76, a boat he purchased from his Center Moriches neighbor, Ray Richmond. The “derelict” “flower pot” SS 150 George gave to Fred Scopinich in partial payment for the restoration of his “new” SS 76, which sailed in the parade as “The Spirit of ’76.” Fred miraculously brought SS 150 back to life, sold it to Paul Haines, and that boat, too, sailed in the Centennial parade. Paul named the boat “The Two Sisters” and registered it for the parade under the name of his two granddaughters Noel and Naomi Haines, who served as crew with Cheryl Baker and Sue Jenkins skippering.

After the Centennial, SS 150, once just a dream in the eye of an Center Moriches teenager, was trailered to up-state New York, where, renamed “Endurance,” it now resides with Paul’s son Will Haines, the author of this blog, who sails it on the waters of Keuka Lake every summer. From Center Moriches to the Finger Lakes, the fame of the SS continues to spread!

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