Could everyone write one simple essay about something that once happened in Saltaire…that they saw or were a part of…and put it on one big website? Somebody should collect a lot of stories before we all forget. Otherwise it is like a line in “On The Beach” : The history of the war that now would never be written.” -(JO'H)

Sunday, August 2, 2009



Frank Mina Pix

We looked at a calendar and realized that it has been 40 years since this legend of Saltaire last rode the waves. It is time to reacquaint all Saltairians with Captain Al and all he means to this Village. Born in 1904, Skinner was a bayman all his life, at times a fisherman, teller of tall tales, an expert on the bay and its history; a rumrunner during Prohibition (or so he used to tell us ) a rum drinker (this we can personally attest to) , a raconteur and troubadour who could mesmerize an audience with his beautiful and raucous lyrics accompanied by his own expert accordion and piano playing.

Captain Al Skinner was one of of the most dominant and remarkable characters in Saltaire history. Forty years out, those who knew him still remember him like it was yesterday.

But to those who never knew Capt Al, and never knew why they named a watermelon party after him, we offer some recollections. We have written tons more about Captain Al on this blog. Just click "Captain Al" on the column on the left of your screen.


From the early 1950's through 1969, Captain Al Skinner was the regular Captain of the Saltaire Ferry, the Fire Islander.

The Village of Saltaire insisted that the ferry that serviced the Village be berthed in Saltaire at night, and its captain be available at all times in case of the need for any emergency evacuations. Skinner was given a small apartment next to the ball field, in what is now part of the Fire House. Its porch opened onto right field. Hence Skinner was more than a crew member of Fire Island Ferries. He was in fact, a full time resident of the Village. A central figure in those days, besides running the Islander, Capt. Al was everybody’s favorite working class hero. An acerbic wit, a great fun time guy, raconteur of bay stories and Saltaire gossip, men would crowd into the wheelhouse of the Islander to hear his latest ramblings, and during his free hours, Villagers, men and women would often congregate at his “Shim Shack” for revelry and talk. His shack was filled with risqué pictures and years of birthday cards. And lots of shim.

Not least of all, Captain Al loved people, and loved the Saltaire kids.

The biggest gift of Captain Al to all the kids of Saltaire was his birthday party. On his tab, he would buy and ship over from Bay Shore enough watermelon to feed every kid and grownup in the Village. Everyone would show up at the field, the watermelons were sliced and there was always accordion music by Captain Al himself.

The Summer of 1969 was Captain Al’s last year with us, so 40 years after Captain Al last crossed the bay in the Islander, and last treated the whole Village to watermelon, and last sang his raunchy songs, we still honor his wonderful legacy.

We never forgot you, Captain Al.
August 1, 2009



Sene Thorp says:

I will always remember Captain Al sitting in the shack with his accordion and if you came in to honor him with a hello or a cake he would make up a song for or about you.

"Molasses, molasses, icky sticky goo; molasses, molasses it always sticks to you" was always the refrain (it started and ended every little ditty)

He sang one about my dad when I brought in my cupcakes...the verse was: "we all know Jack Thorp, he's the guy that everyone knows, and when he gets all full of beer he reminds you of a hose!"

I will never forget that!

Sene (Thorp) Bostrom

James Connolly reflects:

I worked as mate on the Fire Islander and grew to appreciate how good a sailor Captain Al Skinner was. We traveled in all kinds of weather – wind , rain and worst of all fog. Al hit every mark on the nose every time in the fog and we mates would stand on the bow staining to pick up the next nun, can or flasher. Al was always in charge and never once lost his confidence.
Al had a fondness for alcohol and his shack in the Athletic Field was nicknamed the Shim Shack. A surprising number of people frequented Al’s Shack where the gossip flowed as freely as the booze. That said, Al never missed a boat and was never impaired on the water. Al seemed to know everything about everybody which worried more than a few.
Al played the accordion with enthusiasm. There were several Al Skinner nights at the Yacht Club where he regaled the crowd with the songs he wrote such as “Bring back some of Gilly Clark’s Chowder” as well as pop tunes with unsparing lyrics about some of Saltaire’s prominent citizenry.
Al had colorful nick names for grocery items that were frequently brought on board. Most of these names don’t bear repeating. Fair to say Al concentrated on paper products of various types.
Few people knew that Al was married and worked as a toll taker on a highway in Florida over the winter. I never met his wife and know nothing about her.
Al was crotchety on most days but underneath his crusty veneer he empathized with people especially when they underwent hardships notably polio and other misfortunes.

Jim Connolly

Denis O’Shea:

I have some old photographs of Captain Al's watermelon party circa 1960. It was the highlight of the summer for most Saltaire kids. Includes pics of Uncle Pete carving watermelons, Gaby Thorpe, my brother John, one of the Dunseiths and others I no longer recognize. The anecdote I have of Captain Al was how he used to blow the horn on the Islander to hurry the latecomers along. Captain Al had a schedule to keep and a drink at the end of the road and he wasn't about to be denied. So when he saw some tardy person coming along he would let that horn wail (man it was loud) to hustle them along and then they would really sweat to make it. (If you look at a) a Saltaire summer ferry schedule from 1960 what's interesting about it was how few ferry runs there were in those days. Most days there were three departures / arrivals for the entire day in the middle of the summer. We concluded Captain Al didn't have too demanding a work schedule.

Denis O’Shea

Cathy Bucheler Lund:

“I remember Captain Al giving me a dollar every birthday because he first brought me to Saltaire when I was 13 days old!”
--- Kathy Bucheler Lund

Diane Mc Manus:

I Love the posts about Captain Al! Lots of stuff I didn't know! What I remember most vividly are the watermelon parties. One year (or maybe on more occasions), Uncle Pete had us hide under the dock and when Captain Al came off the ferry, jump out and yell "Happy Birthday, Captain Al!"

I don't remember him blasting his horn when we were running for the ferry, although having only a few departures per day probably gave us enough sense of urgency... What stands out for me is that he waited. My mom and all of us kids were hustling with bags and groceries--and somehow we always made it, with a little help from the Captain, who, in my eyes at least, seemed to take it with good humor.
--Diane McManus

Remembering the Fire Islander and her Saltaire Captains...
A sound that will never be forgotten....always leaving the Saltaire Basin-especially on the first trip off the beach, @ 6:30 am known as "The Death Boat", when the air was still without breeze, the roar of the Fire Islander's center engine could be heard for take off to get enough speed up to jump the Saltaire bar to Bay Shore for another crossing. The Islander had it's own way of saying goodbye for now, see you on the next trip. Why did this roar happen- the Islander had a direct drive center engine (always in forward) and there was no water in the exhaust pipe when started up to muffle the sound thus creating this effective roar. This roar or even to say it could be some type of backfire, could be heard throughout the village bayfront with echos, a sound that will never be forgotten. Capt. Al, Skinner, Capt. Frank Mina, Capt. Robert Fuestel, Capt. Dick Ivery, and Capt. Justin Zizes, Jr. all had that pleasure in saluting a Saltaire departure. Also, before radar was installed on the Islander, and crossings were run on stop watch with times between buoys and compass courses(now everyone depends upon GPS & radar - well think about if the electronics fail) the old Saltaire dockhouse had the distinguished red roof and off orange painted walls for identification. When heavy fog occurred & zero visibility, & the closeness of the Islanders fog horn occurred, people on the dock were taught to yell "OVER HERE" to signal that the Islander was close and not to hit the dock. One other trivia note is that in the off season, before scheduled return ferry service actually happened, one had to raise the flag that was kept in the dockhouse to signal the ferry coming out of Ocean Beach to stop for passenger(s) for returning to Bay Shore. Another recollection was that Capt. Al always carried the cash box and the Islanders compass. to the Shim Shack for the evening and back to the Islander in the morning. Sometimes when Capt. Al did not have deckhand in the morning (the Saltaire deckhand had to have a day off or school was back in session in September) Capt. Al had to rely upon collecting the fares himself before the Islander left the dock or had to ask a passenger to collect the fares for this trip. He then had to reset the springline while entering the Bay Shore Marina so he could get close to the dock in Bay Shore and put the line on the pole in order to get the ferry to the dock. One passenger would then open the center gate to let the passengers off in Bay Shore, making their way to either their cars or to Tommys Taxi for the ride up to the train station which was a fairly tight connection. It was a different sight to see the people who were just in their shorts or bathing suits for the weekend to see them dressed in business attire. Upon arrival in Bay Shore a deckhand from the Ocean Beach Terminal would be waiting at the dock to fulfill the duties of the rest of the crossings.

never forgot the watermelon parties

A footnote to the great Al Skinner story is that for many years after he retired to his Florida winter estate, "Buzzards Roost," and returned to his roots as a poacher, (in this picture illegal cast netting,) he continued to send a check every August for the watermelons for "Capt. Al Day" on August 27th.

--Frank Mina


Reminder: for more on Capt. Al, just click "Captain Al" in the coulmn on the left.

1 comment:

Beaver said...

I, along with Frank Mina, visited Al a couple of times after he retired to Florida. Amongst the gourmet fare he attempted to serve us were smoked mullet, alligator, and rattlesnake meat. "It tastes just like chicken" he would say. Frank being the bon-vivant gourmet(who prior to getting married existed almost solely on spaghetti and sauce 3X a day) turned various shades of pale and offered to take us out for dinner. Naturally we went to an Italian restaurant.