Jim Roberts: From Delaware pilot to antique clock repair

February 7, 2011
Lewes resident Jim Roberts spent a career piloting ships up and down the Delaware River and Bay and through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Roberts repairs antique clocks for a hobby. NONE HENRY J. EVANS JR. PHOTO

Delaware native Jim Roberts of Lewes allowed himself to be drawn away from the First State only once.

Born in Middletown, Roberts, 78, began his relationship with the sea in the mid-1950s, before he began his career plying local waters as a pilot with the Pilots’ Association for the Bay & River Delaware.

He first started working near water in 1954, in New York City, where he served as a U.S. Coast Guard port security patrolman. There, he examined passenger ships coming in from the North Atlantic.

“We examined passengers’ luggage and bodies, looking for fissionable material,” Roberts said.

He said he dressed in plain clothes and carried a U.S. Customs identification card. “Nobody was supposed to know we were military,” he said.

Fissionable materials are raw, radioactive substances that could be used to produce a nuclear bomb, a device that loomed large over a post-World War II world keenly aware of an atomic bomb’s devastating capabilities.

“There was big talk about a suitcase bomb at that time,” Roberts said, referring to the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s and America’s fear that the Soviet Union was planning to use a nuclear bomb against the United States.

He said the U.S. government was looking for small pieces of radioactive material that, gathered in one place, would be enough to produce a critical mass sufficient to build a nuclear bomb.

Roberts did the job for two years, from 1954 through 1956, but never found any bomb-making material. “There was one time when our detector dials all went to maximum, but we don’t know what it was. It was so overpowering that it knocked all our equipment off-line,” he said.

He said there was one item containing radioactive material patrolmen detected and seized frequently – wristwatches.

Since the 1920s, wristwatch manufacturers had used a variety of radioactive materials to produce wristwatch faces that glowed in the dark.

“We got one man, he was a priest, and he had his winter coat on. We took it off and all inside it looked like it had cotton stuffed in it. And in each one [of his pockets] he had a Patek Philippe watch. He had watches worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on him,” Roberts said. Then, as now, Patek Philippe wristwatches were top-dollar, luxury items.

Out of the military

Roberts left the Coast Guard in 1956. “I had a getting out of the Coast Guard party all set up to take place on the Andrea Doria, of all ships. She never got there,” Roberts said.

The SS Andrea Doria was an Italian ocean liner that sank July 1956, after colliding with another ship, the MS Stockholm, off the coast of Massachusetts. More than 1,600 people were rescued from the Andrea Doria but 46 people died as a consequence of the collision. Decades later, Roberts would pilot the Stockholm through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

The Doria sank the following morning. Roberts said his departing party was still held, but at the Solders’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard & and Airmen’s Club, in New York City.

After service in the Coast Guard, Roberts entered the Pilots Association for the Bay & River Delaware apprentice program. “That was four years at $5 a month,” he said, chuckling about the pay. He said his wife, Judy (Atkins), whom he married in 1957, had to go back to summer school to earn a teaching certificate so they would have enough money to support themselves.

Piloting years

Roberts learned to become a boat pilot, a man familiar with local waters who would climb aboard large ships carrying all types of cargo, take command, and guide it into area ports.

“It was challenging. Probably less than a third of the ships had radar. You had to use the old-fashioned method of a stopwatch and timing between lighthouses, then get your little circular rule out and find your speed,” he said.

Roberts said when visibility was reduced by fog or sea conditions, he depended on lighthouses and knowing the ship’s speed and figuring out how long it would take to travel from buoy to buoy to get the job done, oftentimes, he said it was just plain, good luck.

He said when visibility was particularly bad, it was best to stop and drop anchor. “I did a lot of that,” he said.

He said pilots then and now still get on and off ships the same way – by rope ladder.

“The feds made one concession: you couldn’t hang a rope ladder more than 50 feet long, but that’s a heck of a ride, climbing up more than 50 feet,” Roberts said.

He said an empty cargo ship rides high in the water and a climb to the deck could be 70 to 80 feet.

“They lower a gangway down and hang the rope ladder down off the side of it, so it’s still a 50-foot climb,” Roberts said.

He said the worst rope ladder climb he had to make was after the ladder had been left hanging over the side in freezing weather and the rungs and handholds had iced.

“I have big hands, fortunately, and I could get my hands and arms behind the rope and just work my way up,” he said.

Roberts said in those days, ships were carrying a lot of iron ore to steel mills near Philadelphia.

Rolls of newsprint, mostly from Scandinavia, were shipped in; coal came by the shipload into Philadelphia, and ships carrying fruit were bound for the Port of Wilmington.

“There were seven oil refineries upriver. There weren’t many pipelines at that time, so we’d take the crude oil up and bring finished product back,” he said.

Lewes life

During that period, Roberts said life in Lewes was relaxed. “It was lovely. It was quiet. There weren’t that many people, so you really knew everybody,” he said. His and Judy’s first house was built on Third Street with money from a G.I. loan.

They later purchased a home on DeVries Circle, and after that they built a home adjacent to Red Mill Pond and next door to Raymond Atkins, his father-in-law. “From there, we came here,” Roberts said, talking about the historic home on Shipcarpenter Street where he and Judy live now.

Years ago, as a hobby, Roberts accidentally started working on old clocks, getting a grandfather clock his grandfather had owned working again.

“I finally got it started, I don’t know how. But it went on from there,” he said.

Now a collector himself, Roberts owns a Duncan Beard tall case clock, a highly collectable and valuable timepiece. He said his grandfather found the clock on the West Coast, although Beard made it in Delaware. “It came to me after my grandparents passed. I latched onto it and brought it home,” he said.

He said soon he’d have surgery on two fingers to restore his ability to handle small tools and clock parts, so he can resume his clockwork.

“I’ve got half a dozen clocks that people have been very understanding about waiting for, until I get squared away,” he said. After 38 years as a river pilot, Roberts, 78, has served on the Delaware Nature Society’s and Delaware Nature Conservancy’s boards of directors and has served a couple terms on the Lewes Board of Public Works. He has occasionally filled in for elected city officials until a mayor could appoint someone to the post. Roberts said although he’s owned boats in the past, today he wouldn’t want one.

“I’ll take a ride on somebody’s if I’m invited,” he said.

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