After crossing the Pacific Ocean twice in a schooner—from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back, in 1935 and 1937, respectively—the Pattons were convinced they wanted to circumnavigate the globe one day. They sold the Arcturus but vowed to build their own schooner, keeping detailed notes in a little book titled “When and If we ever build a boat.”
They didn’t plan to execute the blueprint for their ideal schooner anytime soon, but fate intervened on July 25, 1937. Just a few weeks after the Arcturus’s final crossing—in which they got caught in a violent storm that delayed their arrival over two weeks—George suffered a severe fracture of his right leg while out riding with Beatrice, his daughter, and son-in-law at Green Meadows, their home in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Since doing nothing was “tiresome” for George, Beatrice looked for ways to keep him busy. With only his mind to keep him occupied, now was as good a time as any to commission their dream schooner. Inspired by the Arcturus’s beauty and maneuverability, she contacted its designer, John Alden, one of America’s premier naval architects and the owner of the Alden Design Offices in Boston.
Born in Troy, New York, on January 24, 1884, Alden spent his childhood summers at Sakonnet, Rhode Island. He enjoyed being on the water from a young age, blessed with an inherent knowledge of boats and an uncanny ability to handle them. After a move to Boston in his teens, he forewent an education at MIT and instead taught himself naval architecture. After several stints with local design offices, Alden ventured out on his own in 1909. His first few years in business were a struggle, but he was determined to make a success of the Alden Design Offices.
Colonel Patton could appreciate a man who focused on a singular goal, as well as one who was courageous and adventurous. Alden’s most significant design influence was his ordeal aboard the Fame in 1907. He offered to sail the schooner from Halifax to Boston after its crew was quarantined with smallpox, and he offered to do it with a skeleton crew in the dead of winter. The trip almost ended in disaster, but it made Alden aware of two things: his schooners had to be able to be sailed singlehanded, and he always prioritized seaworthiness over speed.
Instead of meeting with the Pattons in his office as he was wont to do with new clients, Alden traveled to Green Meadows to meet with them. He was particularly impressed with their knowledge and carefully noted their three requirements: a beautiful schooner fast enough for Beatrice to race, sturdy enough to sail the world, and maneuverable enough to be operated by one person. By the end of their meeting, Alden had made an initial sketch, which he passed on to his draftsmen in Boston.
On January 26, 1938, George signed a contract with F. F. Pendleton in Wiscasset, Maine, to build the When and If. His close friend Gordon Prince helped him decide on the name during one of the many evenings he spent at Green Meadows, keeping his friend company throughout his rehabilitation. Talking about the future, George said it no longer was a question of “When and If we build a boat,” but “When the war is over, and If I live through it, Bea and I are going to sail her around the world.”
Beatrice had been right; the When and If brought her husband purpose during the darkest hours of his convalescence. He stayed in close contact with the individual artisans who were building the When and If up in Maine, bitterly complaining to Clifford Swaine, who drew the lines of design number 669, that he had recently been passed over twice for promotion and if it were to happen a third time, he was going to resign the Army and sail his new boat around Cape Horn to Catalina Island, where he spent his childhood summers.
George was involved with every aspect of his schooner’s completion. He even designed the When and If’s private signal (an identifying flag present on all big yachts) using red, blue, and yellow, the colors of the Tank Corps as chosen by his soldiers in 1917 at its inception. He was so proud of the work that he told Beatrice to go see her in Maine in August 1938 because “if you wait too long she will be all planked and you wont know how well she is built.”
The When and If took about a year to construct and was rigged by Joe Ekeland, a master captain and a lifelong friend of the Pattons who had sailed with them to and from Hawaii. When she launched on February 6, 1939, she measured sixty-three-and-a-half feet, weighed thirty tons, and could sail up to 228 miles per day under the right conditions, with an auxiliary diesel engine for emergencies. She was constructed “like a tank,” with a double hull of mahogany over cedar and enough space below deck to sleep thirteen people comfortably.
After sailing the When and If from Maine to its home at the Manchester Yacht Club, the Pattons made their first extensive trip on June 28, 1939, sailing to Norfolk, Virginia. However, their enjoyment was short-lived, and when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, George put his precious baby in storage as a precaution. All he could think of were the events of May 1940, when any British vessel worthy of crossing the North Sea was asked to help evacuate the over 330,000 stranded British and French troops on the beaches of Dunkirk.
He referenced his schooner in several letters during the war, most often when he feared being sent home, and he expected his wife to be putting the When and If into commission sooner than expected. His fears never became a reality, and Beatrice didn’t have to refit her until June 1945, when General Patton returned home for a war bond-selling tour. Unfortunately, the little sailing they had time for during his month-long stay also was his last.
Beatrice had always been a natural on the water and a highly experienced sailor who participated in many races along the North Shore and in Hawaii. While the When and If might have stood as a beacon of unfulfilled dreams, Beatrice was out on the water as often as possible, going on long-distance sails with friends and family and teaching her grandchildren to sail along the rocky Manchester Bay. She shared responsibility for the When and If with her brother Frederick “Fred” Ayer, who inherited the schooner when Beatrice passed away in 1953.
When Frederick Ayer passed away in 1972, everyone agreed to donate the schooner to the Landmark School in Beverly to be used in a program for dyslexic children. Eighteen years later, she broke free from her mooring during a gale and crashed into the rocks prevalent along the North Shore. The insurance company deemed the When and If a total loss, but a private investor purchased and lovingly restored her. Her current owners are working hard to make the Pattons’ dream of sailing her around the world come true, raising money through sunset sails and private charters in Key West during wintertime and Salem during summertime.