Tom Hale – eighty years of sailing with his hand at the tiller

Tom Hale (right) accompanied by son Phil walks along with Hard A Lee as she slips into Vineyard Haven Harbor. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Tom Hale thought it should be a celebration. He thought the newspapers should be there on Friday, and a photographer, too.

The occasion was a boat launch. You will get little argument on Vineyard Haven Harbor about the appropriateness of a celebration for such an event.

It is not just any boat. Mr. Hale has owned many vessels over a lifetime of sailing, designing, building, and taking care of boats, especially sailboats. He has stood at the helm of some of the most magnificent boats that ever sliced a graceful reach through these waters.

But it was evident on this launching day, from the sparkle in his eye, that Hard A Lee holds a place in his heart like no other. Mr. Hale has owned Hard A Lee since he was 12 years old.

She is a lovely gaff-rigged Alden sloop, one of only six designed and built by the renowned yacht designer John Alden, better known perhaps for the 60-footers that came off his drawing board.

First launched in 1921, Hard A Lee is from a gentler time. She is known as an Alden 12-1/2, defined by her designer and length at water line, not by her manufacturer and length overall, as boats are often labeled now.

“She’s safe, she’s strong,” Mr. Hale says. “For a boat of her size, she’s absolutely perfect.”

Age has slowed Mr. Hale’s step, but he remains as sharp as a marlinspike, and he is ever ready with a mischievous quip.

As the diminutive Hard A Lee hung in the sling of a Travel Lift capable of hauling 20 tons of fishing boat, he turned to his son, Phil, who has followed his father as the proprietor of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard.

“Is that Travel Lift strong enough?” he asked with feigned concern.

Later, he gestured toward a 40-foot aluminum spar waiting to be stepped aboard a long, modern sailboat. “That’s her spare mast,” he says with a grin.

Mr. Hale has given much to his community and his country. He has built unpretentious clubs where generations of Island kids learned to sail. He has shored up sagging churches with scavenged boat rigging and designed swift, eye catching sailboats that still bob in the harbor.

When military regulations prevented him from joining the fight in World War II, he was not deterred. He scrambled to Italy to join the medical corps, serving with distinction, hauling wounded soldiers off the front lines. He was among the first to see the horrors of Nazi concentration camps when Allied Forces liberated the death camps.

Hard A Lee is his way of giving, too. For the past three years, Mr. Hale has loaned her to Sail Martha’s Vineyard, where she handles a stout load of summer sailing lessons in Lagoon Pond. Next to the high-tech 420s, and the Optimist prams, she looks ancient. But she is a favorite among kids of all ages.

“She’s easy for one person to handle, even for a relatively inexperienced sailor,” Mr. Hale says. “She’s an ideal learning boat for youngsters, teenagers, even adults.”

Mr. Hale’s daughter Annie and his grandson James left their shipyard duties for a moment to watch Hard A Lee slip into Vineyard Haven Harbor once again and revel a bit in joy and nostalgia with the family patriarch. In total, five generations of the Hale family have sailed Hard A Lee.

There was an unmistakable touch of sadness, too, as Mr. Hale walked slowly to the end of the launch slip.

He thought it should be a celebration, so he recounted the entire history of Hard A Lee, a half-hour’s worth, and he won’t be induced to skip ahead in the story. This is too important to leave anything out.

As Hard A Lee was lowered into the harbor, Mr. Hale explained her name. “Hard A Lee is an old term, a sailor’s term for a sudden shift of heading,” he says.

Mr. Hale has shifted headings more than a few times, suddenly and otherwise, in a long and eventful life.

Friday, he wanted to make sure someone was taking pictures, to record the beginning of the 80th uninterrupted year with one man’s able hand at the tiller.

The sparkle in his eye was reflected by a tear or two as Hard A Lee floated free from the sling.

Mr. Hale thought it should be a celebration.

“She’s still my boat,” he says.