When Burl Ives Blew into Town


I got an email from my friend Aurelio, a local artist who happens to share my birthday and fondness for a good Manhattan. Aurelio attached a photo of some shipwreck remains on the beach at the foot of Brooklyn Avenue and asked what I knew about them. I’m not particularly well-versed about Rehoboth shipwrecks, except that I know they used to happen a lot before improvements in weather prediction and navigation equipment. I volunteered to find out for him.

On April 14, 1918, extreme easterly winds forced the 640 ton Merrimac onto Rehoboth Beach. The Merrimac came to rest at the foot of Brooklyn Avenue in front of the St. Agnes by the Sea convent (which was torn down and replaced by the Star of the Sea Motel which was torn down and replaced by the current Star of the Sea condominium building, a real eyesore looming over the beach, in my opinion). The Merrimac sunk so deep into the sand that it couldn’t be pulled off the beach. So the town just stripped the top of it away and left it.

On September 14, 1944, hurricane-force winds forced the 2443 ton S.S. Thomas Tracy onto Rehoboth Beach — it landed right on top of the Merrimac. The Coast Guard couldn’t remove it, so they dismantled it down to the waterline and just left it there. The town has cordoned off the area to protect swimmers. Before the beach replenishment you could see the remains of the wreckage.

So what does this have to do with Burl Ives? Well, during my research, I noticed a photo in the book Rehoboth Beach Memoirs with this caption: “One windy day in 1957, the Black Spoonbill, which belonged to singer Burl Ives, was seen floundering in the surf south of Rehoboth.” That’s it. No more detail.

Needless to say, my interest was piqued. Why? Because Burl Ives is camp, baby, camp. Most people think of him as this grandfatherly figure known for such ditties as Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. But in his youth, he was a swashbuckling football player who liked to play the piano while intoxicated. And he was a serious actor too, best known for his role as “Big Daddy” Pollitt, the vulgar patriarch of a Southern family whose children return to the nest like vultures when they learn he is dying of cancer, in the 1958 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

I just had to go to the Rehoboth Beach Library to sniff out the story.

Seems Mr. Ives and his crew were sailing his $40,000 yacht, the Black Spoonbill, from New York to Palm Beach when it got caught in a storm off the Delaware coast. Ives and the crew — all seasoned sailors — were aware of storm warnings ranging from Cape Hatteras to the Delaware Bay, but threw caution to the wind and plowed onward towards Palm Beach where the balladeer had an engagement set for the weekend. The storm was more intense than they had thought and the Black Spoonbill was soon floundering off Rehoboth Beach. The wind and waves finally capsized the yacht and threw Ives and crew into the raging sea. Members of the Rehoboth Volunteer Fire Department, who had responded to the Black Spoonbill’s distress flare, rushed in to save the exhausted men. Ives, however, clad in a wool navy peacoat and yellow life vest rebuffed the aid and swam to shore on his own.

Afterwards at a pub, a flush and animated Ives regaled the locals with his account of the all day struggle to keep the Black Spoonbill afloat. When asked what kept him going in the face of danger, Ives, raised a glass of whiskey and responded: “gentlemen, when you’re struggling and when you’ve got pain, that’s when you know you’re alive.”

It’s a great story. Too bad it didn’t happen exactly like that…

Burl Ives wasn’t even on board the Black Spoonbill that day in 1957. His crew was sailing the yacht down to Florida. Covering a greater span of water during the night than they had calculated, the crew suddenly found itself embroiled in a storm and unable to navigate to safe harbor. The Rehoboth Beach Volunteer Fire Department did indeed rescue all six crewmen when the yacht capsized just off shore. The yacht was hauled to the Indian River Yacht Basin and Mrs. Ives came down from New York to oversee repairs. The local gossip columnist reported that Mrs. Ives and two crew members dined at the Dinner Bell Inn.

That, dear readers, is the real story of the Black Spoonbill. Pretty boring, huh? Imagine my disappointment after spending a couple of hours browsing through old newspapers on microfiche and this is what I learn. So, like any good Southerner, I just embellished it a bit. Tarted it up. Told it the way it should have happened.

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