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Here’s an OpSail story that’s too good not to share. And here’s how it went: As an OpSail sponsor, The Resident received two tickets to be in the Parade of Sail on Saturday, July 7, sunny hot, lovely. We were assigned to the Topsail Schooner Wolf. And, I thought, “Who better to invite to join me than Lifetime Chief of the Mohegan Tribe Lynn Malerba, leader of the Wolf People.” And so Chief Lynn kindly met me at the State Pier, New London, at 6:15 a.m.
We joked about being the first ones there and probably “missing the boat.” By an hour later, we grew antsy because there was no sign of anyone else who might be joining us. By 7:20, we were commenting on our jokes becoming reality! Quickly, we scanned our iPhones: Lynn clicked on the phone number for Julie, first mate and wife of Admiral Finbar Gittelman, while I sent Julie an email.
“Voicemail,” says Lynn.
A few minutes later, Julie phones, “We’re waiting for you over here at City Pier.”
We zoom over to the public parking lot adjacent to OpSail Headquarters and speedwalk to City Pier. A nice security guard helps us, “You’re lucky; I know exactly where that boat is!”
“Phew, we’re going to make it!”
Upon boarding Wolf, a classic 74’ gaff-rigged schooner built in 1982 and 1983 in Panama City, Florida, by master builder Willis Ray along with Finbar Gittelman, Admiral and First Sea Lord of the Conch Republic. Designed by Merit Walter, the Wolf is a Norfolk Rover-class steel-hull schooner.
What’s it cost to build a ship like this?
“We thought it would cost $100,000, smiles the Admiral, who serves as the ship’s
master, “but it cost double that.” Continuing, he said, “Most of us contributed our skills and time.”
The Admiral lights up another cigarette and shares, “the Wolf is home-ported at Safe Harbour Marina in Stock Island, Key West. She’s designated the Flagship of the Conch Republic and the City of Key West because it is patterned after the blockade-runners that plied the waters of the Florida Straits, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean in the 19th Century. “The Wolf is a Key West icon featured in many publications, films and documentaries.”
“What is the Conch Republic?” Chief Lynn asks.
“Ahoy,” shouts Finbar as he gives orders to raise the topsail, then intones somberly, “The Conch Republic, also known as Key West and the Florida Keys, like many nations was born from trouble.”
“Yes,” interjects Chief Lynn, who is 17th Chief of the Mohegans. “The Mohegan Tribal Nation was born when Chief Uncas broke away from the Pequots, removing himself from that Tribe and placing himself at the head of the Mohegans.”
Admiral Finbar shows us the gold wolf with emerald eyes that he wears on a chain necklace. “I am fond of wolves,” states the Admiral, “and we are so honored to have you aboard today!”
Lynn briefy shares her own history, telling the Admiral that she is one of seven children born to Loretta Fielding Roberge, the granddaughter of Matahga, also known as Burrill Fielding, 1862–1952, who served as Chief of the Mohegan Tribe from 1937 until his death in 1952.
The Admiral now recounts his own Tale of the Conch, saying “The trouble started back in the dark days of March 1982, when the U.S. Federal Government placed a Border Patrol roadblock at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City.
“A 17-mile traffic jam immediately ensued as the Border Patrol stopped every car leaving or entering the Keys, supposedly searching for illegal drugs or aliens who might be hiding under the front seats, in glove compartments, and in trunks.
“As the stories of the traffic jams were reported by the media,” the Admiral goes on, “visitors cancelled their reservations to come to the Keys. Our tourism industry was threatened.
“With no help from the court system to ‘call the dogs off,’ then-Mayor Wardlow told the media, ‘We are going to go home and secede.’ And, that’s how the Conch Republic was born. Soon, the Conch Republic Flag was raised over City Hall.”
As he lights himself another cig, Finbar prepares for the best part of his sea story of insurrection and independence. “The schooner Western Union, under the command of Captain John Kraus, went forth into the harbor and attacked the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with armaments of water balloons, conch fritters, shrimp, key lime pie, stale Cuban bread, and even spaghetti!”
We all enjoy a big chuckle on that one, and I must say that Lynn and I are enamored with the Admiral’s storytelling!
“Now,” continues Finbar, “The Diligence fought back with fire hoses – and thus commenced the Great Battle of the Conch Republic.”
And…there’s more! “In his new role as Prime Minister, Wardlow surrendered, but demanded foreign aid from the United States…which we are still waiting for,” chuckles Finbar. But, he says, “The roadblock was quietly removed, and the glorious Conch Republic was born!”
“It’s very important,” states Admiral Finbar, that “the succession and subsequent creation of the Conch Republic should not be viewed as a revolution against the U.S.A. Rather, it was quite the opposite…it was a protest against the folly of zealotry resulting in the people of the Florida Keys being literally alienated as Americans.”
Yet, let it be known that the U.S. Coast Guard, the object of the first act of military aggression by the Conch Republic government was never considered as an enemy. “The Cutter Diligence was merely a target of opportunity,” stresses the Admiral. “Let no one ever come under the impression that the U.S.C.G. has ever been considered anything other than a good friend.”
Though the Admiral’s tale was perhaps humorous, there are parallels to be drawn. Chief Lynn, known by her Mohegan name, “Mutawi Mutahash” which translates to “Many Hearts,” follows in the footsteps of many great chiefs, continuing the strong leadership role of women in the Mohegan Tribe. Like the Admiral, Lynn seeks to protect and preserve Tribal history, culture and tradition, for now and for future generations, just as does Finbar, Admiral and First Sea Lord of the Conch Republic.
Yes, it was smooth sailing aboard the Wolf on a Number 10 fine day, weatherwise. If it weren’t for an entanglement with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle’s anchor line, the Parade of Sail would have gone off without a single hitch, as they say!