From the Nov. 11, 1927 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Lying at her anchor behind the breakwater at Vineyard Haven may occasionally be seen a trim-looking schooner, clipper-modelled and with the lofty spars and top masts which signify the wind jammer. So clean and graceful is this schooner that she excites the admiration of many people who frequently inquire her to be a pleasure craft.

The answer to such a question as frequently given by the townspeople may not give the desired information, but tells a whole story, nevertheless: “That schooner? Why, that’s Zeb’s vessel.”

The point to be gathered is that there is now but one coasting schooner sailing from a Vineyard port and as for her owner there is but one Captain Zeb Tilton and there never was another, so that the schooner and her master occupy a unique position among men and vessels of the Vineyard.

Captain Tilton, he prefers to be called Zeb, is one of those famous figures upon which tradition is built and the tables of his various exploits will probably live for many generations after he has been forgotten.

Built for salt water as truly as the hull of his vessel, Captain Tilton first saw the light of day in Chilmark and obtained what little schooling he was able to get at the Cape Higgon School on North Road. At fourteen years of age he shipped on the Vineyard Haven coasting schooner Eliza Jane, Capt. Josiah Cleveland, and for seventeen years he sailed on that famous old Vineyard craft, preforming some of the hardest labor that has been done without the aid of machinery since the building of the pyramids.

The chief business of the Eliza Jane was the freighting of paving stones of the cobble variety. These were picked up on the Island beaches, boated aboard the vessel and taken to Providence or other cities where they were used. There was also considerable clay shipped from the Island and the schooner was employed on occasional wrecking jobs.

It was during this period while he was sailing as a foremast hand that “Zeb” began to attract the attention by his prodigious feats of strength. Hard work had not stopped his growth and he had reached the height of six feet with a corresponding breadth that appeared to be all “cast iron and rawhide.” Alone, he swayed up the schooner’s mainsail or hove the anchor-cable short. He, too, handled the whip tackle in hoisting out cargo. And when a cargo of clay was taken aboard, Zeb pushed one of the wheelbarrows, so-called, a monstrous, two-wheel contrivance that carried half a ton of clay and weighed almost as much as its load.

People began to tell stories of Zeb’s strength: the 700 pound anchor he carried across the beach; the lifeboat that was stuck in sand and which he launched alone after her crew of five men had given up the attempt. Another story was that told of his biting a huge chuck out of a hard pine timber when he needed the silver and had no knife or axe. These and many other similar feats helped to keep the name of Zeb Tilton on the lips of all who knew him, but his fame grew when he became master of his own vessel.

Following a season or two of fishing, which convinced him that he wasn’t built for small boats, he sailed as master of the Wilfred W. Fuller, a small two-masted schooner that had seen better days, but which was extremely speedy. People who had known Captain Tilton from boyhood prophesied “heavy weather” for him as a master, calling attention to his lack of education and saying that despite his years on the coast, he had always sailed before the mast and had never made any lengthy trips. But he soon convinced everyone that they didn’t know him at all.

Utilizing his great strength as usual, for the master of a small vessel must work with his men, and calling upon his marvelous memory and the instinct that he was born with, he drove the old schooner up and down the coast when there was wind to drive her and when the wind died out he got into his dory and towed her, but never stopped for anything short of a gale.

As confidence in his ability increased, so did his business and he outgrew the Fuller, needed a larger vessel, at last secured his present craft. In this vessel, the idol of his eye and heart, he has performed feats of seamanship that are almost without parallel. A larger vessel meant longer trips very often and Captain Tilton began to get freights for places that he had never seen. But without any hesitation he accepted them, running in on dangerous sections of the coast and up tortuous channels or rivers to his destination.

Nothing short of a gale keeps his schooner in port. Snow, fog or the pitch-blackness of night mean nothing whatever to him. Men who have sailed with him declare that he can see through fog and that he knows just how much water flows over every rock on the coast. His knowledge of tides and his accuracy in figuring speed, drift, leeway is so great that he never uses the log even in dead reckoning.

Compiled by Hilary Wall