A troika can give a group dynamic, productive leadership. One did that for the Class and San Francisco’s Fleet 17 in the ’70’s with Kirk Smith, Jim McCray and Joe Madrigali supplying elbow grease. Now, the other coast has a similar triumvirate at Fleet 35 on Narragansett Bay. Bob Taber is the official lifetime Fleet Captain, and at 83, he delegates a portion of the heavy administrative process and propaganda to Fred Bieberbach and Paul Bestoso so that he can concentrate on what he has done so well for the past 25 years, creating an environment where everyone, young, old, competitive and laid back can meet on an equal, low cost basis to enjoy the water.
As Chairman of his Narragansett Terrace Yacht Club’s junior sailing program, which he helped organize and fund, he has introduced as many as 35 youngsters a year into a lifetime sport. He served as prime mover and builder for the club’s White Horse Dinghy frostbite fleet. The White Horse, designed by another club regular, Justin Wood, sails every winter Sunday with all ages, including Bob who can still jump in and out of the eight footer. He was instrumental in establishing several special cruising, fun type races to a number of Narragansett Bay locations, at two of which, Comminute Lighthouse and Prudence Island, his club maintains moorings.
Bob enjoys a constant hunt for ‘fixer-upper’ Rhodes to add to the fleet. One of the prime conditions for introduction to his finds is that the potential owner agrees to race.
Bob’s creed that sailing should occupy every spare moment of one’s idle time was acquired over three quarters of a century on or near the water. With the exception of a WWII hitch in the Navy, keeping B-24s flying in the Pacific, the lifetime has been spent on the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay. At eight, off Pomham Light, in a wooden skiff with a blanket for a sail, he taught himself how to use wind and current to move a boat. Another introduction of this era was the Thompson sub-machine gun, seen by moonlight in the hands of local law men as they supervised the off loading of the region’s prohibition era products. Fortunately for future generations of sailors, no one spotted the awed eight year old as he peered through bushes.
Over the ensuing years, he helmed a gamut of craft ranging from RI Governor William H. Vanderbilt’s 72-foot motor yacht through large cruising schooners; various small one designs such as the Rhodes and Newport 24s; hot boats such as trimirans and wind surfers; DN Ice Boats and, finally, the White Horse. He gained the knowledge and elusive touch that have enabled him to maintain a distinctive competitive sailing edge well into his eighties.
Competition is just one contribution he makes to sailing. For years, he has acted as a sentinel from his home on a spot looking out on Bullock Cove and upper Narragansett Bay. When spying a boater in trouble, he scrambles into his skiff to lend a hand. His caring concern for others is operable on land as well. A gauge of a man’s esteem is the number and quality of personal anecdotes that his peers circulate about him. The following will give one an accurate reading.
Back when the Class ok’d racing without jumpers, Bob was noticed sailing Butterfly with empty upper sockets. Someone asked if he did it to save weight or to cut windage, and he replied, “The damn overhead door caught em and knocked em off.” Recently, his pals’ curiosity was fired by a newly acquired Mazda RX7 of dubious vintage. When asked if he was going cruising for chicks, he replied, “Heck no, I’m going to use its Wankel Engine to power the seaplane I’m building.”
Such a treasured Swamp Yankee cannot be evolved by the simple interaction of peers, the service and the sea. A catalyst to forge these into a finished being is needed. In Bob’s case, she was Alicia, his wife of 51 years, whose loss during a Thursday evening race was chronicled in the Providence Journal. A reprint can be found in the Spring 2001 Mainsheet. The first woman commodore in Rhode Island, she enjoyed sailing as much as Bob. He feels her absence deeply , but continues the sport they enjoyed together. To abandon it would be disrespectful.