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The Water Witch of Maplewood
by Marcia Worth Baker
The "oldest continuously active troop with a Mariner interest in the United States," the Water Witch first met in the Prospect Presbyterian Church basement in September, 1935. Girl Scouting had existed in the United States for only twenty-two years then and was a year away from its first - and now famous - cookie sale. Its motto, "Be Prepared" seemed to echo a national mood of the years leading to World War II. For local Senior Girl Scouts, ranging in ages from 15 to 20, the new troop was a chance to learn sailcraft in the winter - Richardson treasures her handmade ditty bag - and to sail tall ships in the summer.
The girls' first "wider opportunity," the Girl Scout term for real-life experience, was a week-long troop sail on the yacht Ballantrae in May, 1937. Thereafter, most summers found local Mariner Girl Scouts sailing on the schooner Yankee.
"The Yankee kept us going," recalls Richardson. Chartered annually by local residents Skipper Irving and Exy Johnson, the cost to provision and provide for each girl was $36.00 in 1940. "Fundraising made it possible," says Richardson. In its early years, the Mariner Girl Scouts were easy to distinguish; Richardson recalls wearing the white-collared, navy-skirted uniform to her classes at Columbia High School. The United States entry into World War II heightened local interest in sailing and seamanship, and the group grew in size throughout the 1940s. It briefly divided into two groups: one remained the Water Witch and the other named itself Sea Serpent. Throughout the winter, the girls met weekly to study navigation, knot tying, and sail repair. Additionally, the girls performed community service for points towards the summer sail.
A Maplewood Mariner of the late 1940s, Alice Strahan (later Alice Strahan Sheldon), volunteered at the Orange Orthopedic Hospital. Her experience led her to medical school, and
Once they were married, in 1958, the Sheldons launched their own school ship program on the tall ship Albatross. On its second cruise, the Albatross sank in less than two minutes. Of the nineteen people aboard, six drowned, including Alice Strahan Sheldon. Her story - and that of the Albatross - became the 1996 Ridley Scott movie, White Squall. When the movie appeared in local theaters area newspapers published editorials by Mariner Girl Scouts Richardson and Judith Huggins Balfe who clarified details of Strahan Sheldon's story. Still, Richardson points out, even with fictional license taken, "there were five generations of Mariner Girl Scouts drawn to the theatre the afternoon I first saw the film."
As years passed, Maplewood's Mariner Girl Scouts turned out in force for reunions large and small. One mid-1990s reunion drew more than 170 Old Salts. And Girl Scouts beget Girl Scouts; Richardson lists numerous Old Salts who became troop leaders for their own daughters.
One current - and with a dozen years of leadership behind her, veteran - leader of the local Senior Girl Scouts is Sally Chew, a Maplewood resident and self-described "lifelong Girl Scout." Besides sailing, the dozen or so current Senior Girl Scouts participate in camping, parties, skating, ski weekends, volunteer activities, and creative fundraising. The price of sailing has climbed since 1940, and the troop fundraises throughout the year. Looking forward to this year's two planned sailing trips, the troop earns money with the traditional cookie sale, a candy and nut sale, bake sales, and a lasagna dinner sale.
Meredith Mondino, co-leader and 1997 Columbia High School graduate, explains that one of this
Service projects have changed with the times, as well. Still integral to troop activities, group volunteer projects range from the annual "greening," or decorating, of South Orange to a shared project with the Salvation Army in which the troop decorates stuffed bears to be given out to needy children.
"Whether through fun or fundraising," says Chew, "the girls build and maintain relationships with one another and with the leaders. What they value the most in the sailing trips with other girls is building relations and being there for a purpose."
The jaunty Mariner uniforms of the past have given way to casual, seaworthy clothing of the present. And many of the current Girl Scouts bring some sailing experience - from camp or family vacations - to the troop. The essentials, though are unchanged. As she looks forward to leading this summer's sailing trip on the Brilliant, based in Mystic, Connecticut, Mondino recalls a number of shorter sailing trips on the Pioneer, as well as the longer trip she took in the summer of 1996, when she was a Senior Girl Scout.
"We left Liberty State Park on a Monday and reached Block Island on Tuesday afternoon. The seas were rough, but I tell the girls now that it was like camping on a boat. With doing chores, keeping watch, singing songs, and sailing through the night, it was all the bonding that I remember best."
Marcia Worth-Baker, former Girl Scout in the Lenni-Lenape Council, lives in South Orange with her husband, daughter, and two sons.