Gerald Frank Lewis Trobridge

A Mariner Who Circumnavigated The World, He Helped Build The First Pride Of Baltimore

April 17, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Gerald Frank Lewis Trobridge, a mariner who sailed around the world in a boat that he built and later used his blacksmithing and machinist skills to help build the original Pride of Baltimore, died Sunday of complications from a stroke at St. Agnes Hospital. He was 94.

Mr. Trobridge, who was known as "Gerry," was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He dropped out of high school during the 1930s and became an apprentice blacksmith to help support his family after his father lost his job during the Depression.

With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the South African army, fighting in the North African desert with the Rand Light Infantry.

After the collapse of German and Italian forces in North Africa, Mr. Trobridge enlisted in the British army, spending the remaining years of the war fighting in Italy.

Discharged with the rank of sergeant major, Mr. Trobridge established an engineering business in Johannesburg after the war and fulfilled a lifelong dream that had begun in his youth, when he boasted to schoolmates that he was going to build a boat and sail to an uninhabited island.

In 1946, he started building the White Seal, a 36-foot-long, 15-ton steel-hulled ketch, next to his parents' house on a vacant lot.

He named it for a favorite Rudyard Kipling tale of a seal that roams the world looking for a safe place to live.

In 1953, Mr. Trobridge who was joined by four friends, crossed the Atlantic to Canada. While working in Canada, he met and fell in love with Marie Charlotte Hickey, a physical therapist, whom he married in 1957.

The couple, who had two children, continued their worldwide sailing odyssey of 63,000 miles that took six years and nine months to complete, until finally coming ashore to live in Durban, South Africa, in 1960.

"Dad completed his circumnavigation of the globe in 1959 and became the first South African to do so," said his daughter, Tracy Lynn Trobridge of West Friendship.

It was politics that forced Mr. Trobridge and his family to leave South Africa in 1963 and sail to the United States, living first in Long Island, N.Y., aboard the White Seal, and then to Baltimore, Florida and finally to Annapolis in 1967.

"He hated apartheid, and that's why we left," Ms. Trobridge said.

In 1968, Mr. Trobridge sold the White Seal, purchased a 5-acre farm in West Friendship where he raised goats, poultry and sheep.

He also went to work as a mechanical engineer for American Instruments in Silver Spring, which later became Baxter Laboratories.

However, Mr. Trobridge continued to lend his expertise in building or restoring such historic vessels as the Niagara, Lady Maryland, Federalist, Susan Constant, Californian and the steam tug Baltimore.

He also worked on the skipjacks Minne V and Anne McGarvey.

In 1975, Melbourne Smith, an Annapolis naval architect and shipbuilder, who was building the first Pride of Baltimore at a makeshift shipyard on Light Street in the Inner Harbor, invited Mr. Trobridge to join the effort.

His blacksmithing and welding skills led to his working weekends fashioning hooks, eyes, and other fittings from imported English iron, which were used in the construction of the replica of a Baltimore clipper ship.

"When it came to the Pride, Gerry was our blacksmith. When we needed a metal item, we didn't run to the hardware store and buy it. Gerry made it," said Fred Hecklinger, an Annapolis marine surveyor and name board carver, who managed the construction yard during the Pride's construction.

"He made everything and could make anything. He was innovative," Mr. Hecklinger said. "Anything that could be made from ferrous metal - steel or iron - he could make."

With his white hair, beard and cheerful South African accent, Mr. Trobridge was the very embodiment of a mariner.

"He was never grumpy and a good organizer who could work easily with the volunteers who had limited skills. He was just a plain, nice man," Mr. Hecklinger said.

"After the Pride was launched, Dad went along for the maiden voyage, and the sailing bug bit him again," his daughter said.

Mr. Trobridge began building a new boat in his yard, the Confidence of Falmouth, a smaller version of the White Seal, which he launched in 1984.

Mr. Trobridge and his wife sailed in their new boat, which they sold in 1996, shortly before her death.

Mr. Trobridge purchased a camper in 1996, named it Confidence and began touring the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

"I made the name board, and Melbourne did the carving and gold-leafing, which he installed on the stern of the camper," Mr. Hecklinger said.

During all of his years sailing the world's seas, one, the Arctic Ocean, eluded him.

"He drove in his camper along the Mackenzie River in Northwestern Canada to within 100 miles - the closest you can drive - of the Arctic. Then he boarded a small plane which flew him out" to the Arctic Ocean, Mr. Hecklinger said.

Giving up driving at 90, Mr. Trobridge became a volunteer guide aboard the Constellation docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"Age is something you have to put up with," Mr. Trobridge told The Sun in 1984. "I've had a helluva good life. If I was to drop dead today, I would feel I've had a wonderful life - I wouldn't have any regrets whatsoever."

His daughter added: "He did live a wonderful life, and he did just what he wanted to do."

A private gathering will be held April 25 at his farm.

Also surviving are a son, Thomas A. Trobridge of Haymarket, Va.; and four grandchildren.

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