Profile: The King of Rum Row, “the real McCoy”

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Remembering the man known as “the real McCoy”

Next time you hoist a sundowner in your cockpit at the end of a fine day of sailing you should, perhaps, spare a thought for Bill McCoy, the wanna-be cruiser who helped keep our nation in quality drink during the dark days of Prohibition. Though few remember him now, in his day McCoy, a teetotaler himself, was renowned as an honest rumrunner who never knuckled under to organized crime, never bought protection from government officials and never diluted or adulterated his product.

McCoy and his older brother Ben were successful boatbuilders in Jacksonville, Florida, around the turn of the last century (customers included Andrew Carnegie and the Vanderbilt family), but by 1920 as the Volstead Act took effect they had fallen on hard times. To recoup their fortunes they decided to smuggle booze into the country by boat, with Ben taking care of business ashore while Bill handled things afloat. Bill did all his smuggling in Gloucester fishing schooners, and of these, his favorite by far was an old girl named Arethusa. He maintained her meticulously and equipped her with a Colt-Browning machine gun so as to ward off the piratical “go-through” men who routinely tried to highjack smuggling vessels. His ambition was to make enough money so that he could retire permanently and sail Arethusa off on a cruise to the South Seas.

McCoy was one of the very first rumrunners and was an important pioneer. He was said to be the first to smuggle loads out of Nassau in the Bahamas as well as out of St. Pierre, the small French island off Canada’s Atlantic coast. Both these ports quickly became major transshipment points for foreign liquor inbound to the U.S. East Coast. McCoy also invented the “burlocks” or “hams” that became the predominant packaging method for marine booze smuggling. These consisted of six bottles swaddled in straw and sewn up in triangular burlap sacks that were easy to stow and handle.

Most importantly, it was Bill McCoy who pioneered the tactic of anchoring just outside the three-mile U.S. territorial limit to sell liquor to skiffs coming out from the shore. This quickly led to the evolution of what was known as Rum Row, a great necklace of smuggling wholesalers who anchored like a floating city just off the U.S. coast. The most popular location, the one favored by McCoy, was the Jersey shore, which was convenient to both Nassau and St. Pierre. Here the transshipping lighters that shuttled loads to shore were known as “Jersey sea skiffs,” open 28ft boats equipped with six-cylinder Pierce Arrow automobile engines installed in watertight boxes.

In addition to the ruthless go-through men, the merchants of Rum Row also had to keep an eye out for U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels. Because he had no friends in law enforcement, they were particularly interested in McCoy. His brief smuggling career came to an end on November 23, 1923, when Arethusa was boarded by a party from the Coast Guard cutter Seneca, which had orders to capture McCoy, regardless of whether or not he was in international waters.

McCoy immediately set sail and tried to head out to sea with the Coast Guard party, 15 men in all, still aboard. Seneca responded by sending one shot across the bow of Arethusa. McCoy returned fire with the machine gun on his foredeck, but when Seneca answered with a full fusillade of 4in shells, McCoy saw he had little choice but to surrender.

Much to his credit and true to his reputation, Bill McCoy made no effort to minimize his transgressions. When asked in a pre-trial hearing what defense he planned to make, he answered, “I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whiskey, and good whiskey, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy.”

In the end, McCoy pleaded guilty to the charges levied against him and spent nine months in prison. On his release, he returned to Florida and got involved in the real-estate business. He and his brother eventually started building boats again and often cruised up and down the coast together. But poor Bill McCoy, God bless him, never did get to make his voyage to the South Seas.

SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com

January 2017

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