Ed Collic doesn't remember a time he wasn't doing something that didn't have to do with boats. For most of his 80 years, Collic has been on the water in some capacity, either piloting, repairing, or noodling around with boats of all shapes and sizes. "I have always loved boats," Collic declares. "People joke that I have salt water in my veins."
In 2012, Collic was honored by the African-American Fire Fighters Historical Society for being the first African-American lieutenant pilot to command a Baltimore City fireboat, an honor that some feel was much delayed.
"Ed Collic was the Baltimore City Fire Department's best-kept secret," says George Collins, founder and president of the African-American Fire Fighters Historical Society and an active Baltimore City firefighter. "His love for the water made him the best navigator of the fireboat on record."
Collic's affinity for all things nautical began early. Growing up on Dolphin Street, the closest open water was the boat lake in Druid Hill Park. "I'd get my 50 cents together and get a rowboat," remembers Collic.
By the time he was 6, Collic was accompanying his father, an Eastern Shore waterman, on fishing trips. He recalls napping on the bow of an 18-foot fishing boat, bobbing in the Chesapeake Bay with hooks baited for rockfish, striper, and croaker. "We'd come back and give fish to the whole neighborhood," he says.
After graduating from Carver Vocational Technical High School (In April, Collic was elected to Carver's Hall of Fame), Collic served in Korea with the newly integrated Army. "Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in a segregated city, I knew very little about white people," he says. "We didn't go to church together, we didn't play together . . . it was living in a foreign country." After the Army, Collic worked at the Sparrows Point shipyard. Being close to the harbor and watching boats go by, "I knew someday I would have a boat."
With a wife and three children to support, he needed a better-paying job. After being accepted into the fire department and finishing near the top of his class, he was assigned to a firehouse on Gay Street. Baltimore in the early 1960s was a changing city, remembers Collic. "The projects were being built," he says, and many homes still had old-fashioned cook stoves that constantly caused fires.
Life as an African-American firefighter wasn't easy, but he made the best of it. "I could only use one toilet and one wash basin. They didn't allow me to join the union," says Collic. "If you sneezed the wrong way, they could fire you." Still, he persevered. Eventually, he was allowed to join the union. Soon after, Collic heard that the fire department was looking for men to serve on fireboats. With two vacancies available, Collic jumped at the chance to apply.
Even though the marine division wasn't popular, Collic had to use reverse psychology to get on the fireboat. "I told my lieutenant every reason why I shouldn't be on the fireboat," Collic laughs. "Next thing-I'm on the fireboat!"
While Collic was thrilled to be on the boat, his colleagues were less than thrilled. They warned that as an African-American, he would never achieve the rank of lieutenant pilot-a rank he soon attained. As a lieutenant pilot, Collic commanded a fireboat docked at the foot of President Street. "The first day I was in charge of the company, one guy said, 'I wonder who my boss is?'" Collic remembers. "I walked around in front of everyone and said 'I am.' Things got quiet. It was hard to work in an environment where people were waiting for you to make one mistake."
In 1984, a fire boat was requested to go to Port Deposit to help a train carrying hazardous materials that derailed on the Susquehanna River. That night, Collic piloted his fireboat in dangerous conditions for more than 50 miles, the longest run a Baltimore City fireboat had ever gone on. "I thought to myself, This is my time to shine," Collic remembers.
In time, more African-Americans joined the fire department. In 1988, after 28 years-20 of which were spent in the marine division-Collic retired from the fire department. He started E&C Charter Services, operating boat charters and delivering boats along the Eastern Seaboard. E&C was housed aboard the Lady Ethel, a 46-foot houseboat named for Collic's wife. Collic also worked as a captain on the water taxi, ferrying happy tourists around the Inner Harbor. In his spare time, he invented the C-Hook, a device designed to help sailors put a line on a piling. Collic was one of the original members of the Dolphin Cruising Club, the first African-American yacht club in Baltimore.
After a lifetime on the water, Collic rues that, for the first time in half a century, he doesn't own a boat. He was forced to sell his boat last year because of rising dockage and fuel costs. Sitting in his tidy home in Halethorpe, surrounded by colorful model lighthouses, with his wife, Ethel, nearby, Collic says he is content. He still teaches boating basics and advises people who want to learn about cruising, and many of Collic's former students and colleagues invite him out on their boats.
"As long as I can do something around the water," Collic says. "I'll be happy."