The Four Roses

Thu, 12/24/2020 - 5:15pm
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Who knows at the time what memories will stay with them all their lives?

Arriving on the island one morning just after the new year in 1973 with Peder Schaefer, a friend and co-worker from summers at the Narragansett Inn, I literally took off for an island tour in a jeep Eleanor Mott had graciously made available to us.

The day was bright sun, charged by a blistering wind that blew us from side to side down the deserted roads, the light glinting off the snow and ice which enveloped the frozen landscape in every direction. After we descended Bush Lot Hill and headed toward Sandy Point, the sight of ice boats racing up and down Sachem Pond came into view.

When we reached the shore by Settlers Rock, the first person I saw was Ken Rose. Ken was a carpenter who for many years oversaw the maintenance of all the wooden buildings that comprised the Spring House and Narragansett. Among my numerous summer jobs for the Mott Family, the absolute favorite was to be assigned as his assistant from time to time. 

Assistant is a very generous term as I was the next closest thing to useless. He tolerated my youth and inexperience with good humor and managed to somehow get some productive work out of me, mainly in the form of holding things or running for tools. I got a kick out of his good natured ribbing and learned a lot, some about carpentry, mostly about good old fashioned common sense, ultimately as valuable a life lesson as any I learned in my college courses.

As I stepped out of the jeep, he greeted me with a warm smile of recognition and indicated I was about to go for a ride, that was that, plain and simple. He then took note of what he colorfully indicated was my inadequate clothing and produced from somewhere a red union suit a few sizes too big for me. I barely had time to hand my camera to Peder and we were off, bumping, gliding and hurtling over the ice seemingly destined to be high and dry on the far shore when adroitly Ken came about and headed off at incredible speed in the opposite direction.

The sound of the wind in the sails and rigging and the feeling of being nearly airborne over the ice was an absolute thrill, as was being in his steady presence as we careened along. His skillful handling of the boat left me feeling every bit as safe as if I had stayed back on shore in the jeep. Fortunately, Peder had the good sense to take a photo and that’s me sprawled in the bow with Ken sitting upright, eyes focused straight ahead, at the tiller.

Skating and ice boating have been a mainstay of winter on Block Island for as long as anyone can remember. Edie Blane fondly recalls childhood memories of “islanders young and old stopping what they were doing and gathering by the pond shore to skate, ice boat or just watch when the ice was thick enough to be safe,” and in the memory of others, sometimes when it wasn’t. There was no time to waste as the weather could change overnight and the following morning could thwart the hopes of those intent on harnessing the ever present wind and having some fun with it. And there was no stopping for darkness if the moon was bright, or bonfires and car headlights trained on the pond, if it wasn’t. When The New York Times ran an article about winter on Block Island in February of 2004, the writer was so taken with this community phenomenon, a number of paragraphs were devoted to the exploits of the Block Island Hard Water Yachting Club.

Ken Rose’s daughter, Bernice Rose Dangelas, says his love of skating and iceboating made winter his favorite season. He built his first boat in 1934 when he was 13 years old. That February, The Providence Journal ran a story about life on the island in winter that reported how in recent months Ken’s “diligent hours resulted in a completed ice boat.” His mother contributed mightily by making the sail for a vessel that was otherwise constructed entirely by Ken from “available materials.” He built the one I rode in sometime in the late 40s after returning from service overseas in the Navy during World War II. And he never, ever missed the opportunity to hit the ice when the conditions were favorable, most often with his equally devoted sidekicks, Al Northup and Big John Littlefield.

Bernice doesn’t remember a specific moment when Ken stopped sailing the winter wind, but ice boating is a rigorous sport and she attributes it most likely to arthritic knees. There was no question of who would inherit the boat as his son, Cliff, was as ardent as Ken and committed to keeping the tradition alive. Whenever Cliff had the boat out on the pond, he welcomed all comers, especially kids, to join him and Geoff Hall says he taught many of them, himself included, the skills necessary to sail on their own.

On or off the ice, Cliff Rose was a valued member of the community, admired for his incomparable mechanical skills and helpful nature. Adrian Mitchell described him as “a hard working family man with a great sense of humor.” And, David Lewis, his childhood friend and school classmate, says Cliff and he were “best buddies from earliest memory and someone who in all that time was always fun to be with.” When Cliff tragically passed away from cancer at the age of 36, it was a devastating loss for his wife, Gail, and daughter, Danielle, his other family members and friends, and all those who call this island home.

In the aftermath, with everyone staggered by loss and grief, the boat disappeared from sight and consciousness. One day with winter in the offing, Geoff’s fond memories of ice boating with Cliff caused him to wonder what had become of it. He contacted his sister, Gail, Cliff’s wife, who told him where he could find it and that she wanted Geoff to have it. When he tracked it down, it was “definitely in need of work and sprucing up.” He set about restoring it, eventually building a new deck, re-screwing the hull, obtaining new sails, securing the rigging and re-painting the boat in the same colors Ken had chosen decades before. His final touch was giving it a name that reflected his pride at being its new owner and paid tribute to those from whence it came. He called it the Four Roses, after Ken, his wife, Marilyn, his son, Cliff and daughter, Bernice. 

Geoff nowadays also has a new hightech ice boat, but his flagship is unquestionably the Four Roses. He is just one of the people who have kept ice boating going on the island and when the conditions have been right in recent years Ed McGovern, Champ Starr, John Desmarais, Ray Torrey, Chris Blane, John Boy Littlefield, Mark Emmanuelle and Greg Schoonmaker are among those who have joined him at whatever pond afforded the best conditions. All that’s needed is adequate ice, which unfortunately has been completely missing for a number of winters. When it returns, however, have no doubt that many of those mentioned, and any number of skaters from toddlers to children and adults, will be ready to rekindle perhaps the island’s most treasured winter pastimes.

So, if you are on the island in the coming months and wake to find the ponds are frozen and the wind is up, don’t pull up the covers, roll over and go back to sleep. If you do, you just might miss the unforgettable sight of the Four Roses, sails trimmed and taught, flying across the ice.