bor’s mouth under full sail. She was an aristocrat, a thoroughbred from
her keel to her trucks. The sun turned her spread of canvas golden, and
my throat was tight and stiff as she came walking up the harbor like a
great lady entering a room.” McCoy couldn’t afford Arethusa, yet, and
settled for a solid, 90-foot, white-oak fishing schooner, the Henry L.
Marshall, which he bought for $16,000 in 1921. With a motley crew,
he set sail for Nassau. Bill McCoy was in the game.
Registering the boat as a British vessel to protect himself, he soon
had his first of many commissions. The Marshall offered capacity for
1,500 wooden cases of liquor, or for 3,000 cases wrapped in burlap
packages and nicknamed “hams.” Transit papers stated she was
moving liquor from one legal port, Nassau, to another, Halifax, Nova
Scotia. Even if he never made Halifax, there was no law stopping
McCoy from selling his cargo on the high seas en route. At the time,
territorial waters of the U.S. extended three miles offshore; boats
within that limit were subject to U.S. law, including Prohibition. As
long as McCoy stayed in international waters, he broke no rules.
ON ITS FIRST RUN, THE MARSHALL MADE $15,000. McCoy’s
next trip was to New York, where contact boats – small, local boat-men eager to make a buck – would putter out and take the Marshall’s
cargo. McCoy had arrived on “rum row,” that legendary stretch of
water from Montauk to Cape May that would fuel the gin joints and
speakeasies of Manhattan for the next decade. In just three months
he’d cleared $35,000 profit, and now, looking to expand, he headed
back to Gloucester to purchase the object of his desire, Arethusa. As
luck would have it, her owners were in receivership, and he got her
for half her estimated value of $42,000. Because another British-registered vessel already carried her name, she was renamed Tomoka,
but to McCoy she was always the Arethusa. When her old auxiliary
engine was replaced with a better, smaller one, the increased cargo
space allowed for an extra 1,000 cases of liquor, meaning that Arethusa
could now carry 5,000 cases, a cargo worth $50,000 a trip.
Now that McCoy had the boat he’d trust to any sea, all he needed
was a friend he could depend on. Loyalty was a scarce trait among
regularly defecting crews and customers, but when one of his cap-
tains gave him a “fat, black rubbery Newfoundland puppy,” he had
a pal for as long as he sailed. Old Faithful went everywhere with
McCoy, developing a habit of sharing his bunk as a puppy. When he
became too big, McCoy had a double bunk installed on Arethusa, as
Old Faithful refused to sleep on the floor. When business called and
McCoy had to be on deck, he’d leave the dog in his cabin beside an
unlocked drawer containing up to $100,000 in cash. “It was perfectly
safe,” he recalled. “If anyone had touched it, he would’ve had to kill or
be killed.” Old Faithful’s devotion to McCoy was unfailing. Once, in
Bermuda, McCoy went ashore to make loading arrangements, leaving
Old Faithful on board as usual. McCoy stayed at a hotel that night,
and in the morning, a hotel worker poked his head into McCoy’s
room and asked if he owned “a big black dawg.” Old Faithful had
swum ashore and lay under McCoy’s window all night.
With five boats now in his armada, McCoy was running crews of
dozens of men on monthly trips to rum row, transporting an estimated
2 million bottles over his short-lived career. When Arethusa would
reach the row, Ben would meet her laden with water, newspapers,
fresh meat, vegetables, and tobacco. By then, the row was a fully-
fledged regatta: Up to 100 boats at a time sat offshore, with jazz bands
and tourists coming out, and Bill McCoy the undisputed king.
McCoy had an understanding with his customers that if the boat
flew the British ensign, they should stay away, but if she had no flag
flying, she was open for business. He placed a bright electric light high
up in Arethusa’s rigging to guide contact boats, and a bucket under the
light kept the deck in darkness as business was conducted.
Despite the relative roguery of his trade, McCoy built a reputation
for being reliable and personable, and his product was always of the
highest quality. Unlike many of the unsavory characters who’d started
to frequent the trade, he was known to pay his debts, not dilute his
spirits, as others did. His rum was known as the gold standard, the
“Real McCoy,” and he set the price by getting top dollar – so much so
that his rates were published as the given for rum row.
His growing legend was fueled by newspapers and the anti-establishment feelings running rampant across the country. Reporters
gushed to a public fascinated by the swashbuckling smugglers, who
they thought were living a wild, nomadic life of cash, corruption, and
apparent seafaring glamour just off their coast. His fame wasn’t lost on
government officials either.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Nothing was more irritating to the State Department, the Department
Left to right: McCoy and a friend joke around on the Arethusa.
Souped-up contact boats carried the booze from the rum
runners back to shore.
McCoy helps heave up the anchor in Nassau, Bahamas.
Rye whisky packed like hams below deck.