A wooden boat called Opus

The author and her husband, as newlyweds, aboard Opus. Photo courtesy Jean Kerr

June 2023

By Jean Kerr

Rockland, Maine. January 21,1984. At least a foot of snow lay on the ground that weekend, and my future husband and I were holed up at a cozy inn. The occasion? We were falling in love. Not with each other – that had long since happened – but with a classic wooden boat. We were contemplating buying it. Were we ready for that giant leap? After all, this was a real commitment.

My betrothed had sold his Town Class daysailer after a lot of fun (and a few slightly scary) outings. Soon after, in Rockland, we’d set eyes on a 28-foot Ralph-Winslow designed sloop that was wrapped in canvas in the yard of The Apprentice Shop. I thought she looked cold and a bit lonely. She had been donated as a tax deduction/contribution to the boatbuilding school. But, for us, it was pretty much love at first sight.

Standing knee-deep in snow, I held the canvas cover aside to glimpse a near-perfect cedar hull. She was gorgeous, even though she had not been shown the TLC she deserved in quite a while. Classic, jaunty, rugged, sound and stable, Occasion was the cruising boat of our dreams.

Though she was only 28 feet on deck, the lack of full bulkheads below made her feel much more spacious than anything we’d looked at of a comparable size. She could still sleep four (good friends or family preferred), and had a head and a galley.

I should mention here, as we considered this purchase, that my husband had been employed by Gordon Swift, a renowned New England boatbuilder. So he was undaunted by the structural repairs and refits that Occasion would undoubtedly require.

“I’ll do the interior paint!” I announced enthusiastically, thinking of apartments I’d lived in. How hard could it be? A brush, a roller, masking tape, some good quality latex and good to go, right? Not right. Not at all. It turns out a wooden boat, unlike a house, requires a lot of sanding.

We did it – we bought the boat. After she came home, I found myself in the forward anchor locker with an orbital sander in a pose somewhere between being crouched and in a fetal position, wearing oh-so-stylish safety glasses, beneath a light clipped to a deck beam.

The overhead was even more fun. And the interior brightwork? Seven coats! I was okay until it needed to be done again 10 years later.

The paint cocktail was a mystery unto itself: paint stirred endlessly for perfect consistency, a dash of Japan drier, Penetrol until it was just right. Later in my apprenticeship, I was allowed to mix my own paint.

The exterior got at least another one or two coats along with two to three coats on the hull, which we took down to bare wood about every five years. Her sheen was like a shaving mirror.

We had never loved the name Occasion, her name when we bought her. Gradually, the name Opus came to mind: A work of music, an epic poem, a cartoon penguin . . . and, um, work in its literal translation. A lot of work.

It always cracked me up when we’d be settling into an anchorage, and someone in a passing tender would ask, “Is that a fiberglass hull? It can’t be a wooden hull. It’s so gorgeous!” The captain would say, “No, just an old wooden boat.” There was something a bit confusing to me about the goal we were trying to achieve.

At that point, I began to think I’d appreciate my husband having a contortionist girlfriend who could fit in the rope locker, and was an expert on wooden-boat finish. I would have made dinner for both of them every night. She was a beautiful thing, our Opus, and still is, but the helpful, limber girlfriend never appeared.

Over the next 25 years we cruised the Maine coast, tucking into coves and harbors both new and familiar on every voyage. Almost all came with a bit of a story. Our annotated copy of the 50th edition of “A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast” records meeting amazing people, kind and Zen-like diesel mechanics, and lobstermen who saved us when our anchor fouled on a sunken tree trunk. Also: The beautiful fall night we climbed the spreaders to watch the northern lights; occasionally running across AWOL dogs (often ours); hitting hull speed on the perfect reach across Penobscot Bay; and being hard aground on a drainer of a tide on the wrong side of the channel at Jewell Island (while laid over, her bottom got a good scrubbing like we had that planned). Amidst all of this my captain was, if not always cheerful, always working on a way to solve any problem at hand.

We’ll never forget the exquisite beauty of a perfectly clear morning on Penobscot Bay, the smell of coffee wafting up from the galley. The first sip of a rum and tonic when the anchor was set. The warmth of the tiny coal stove below on a raw or rainy day. Watching the porpoises, seals and whales that occasionally joined us for a few minutes. The yearly clambake for two on the rocks of Hell’s Half Acre near Merchant’s Row in Penobscot Bay.

But here’s the thing: While Opus will always be loved, with the captain pushing 70 and me not far behind, we just can’t care for her in the way she deserves. She needs refastening and a new diesel and, of course, ongoing TLC. She is otherwise sound and still gorgeous.

Our beautiful lady is also pushing 70. Our dream is to find a couple like we were 45 years ago – keen to discover the charm of wooden boats and the sheer joy of exploring afloat. A couple that understands that a wooden boat is a commitment that requires either money or time . . . or preferably both.

The fantasy? Opus swings on a mooring with folks aboard who love her as much as we do, and they’re happily recounting the adventures they’ve had and planning the ones yet to come.

Just like we did.

Points East columnist Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including, “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of “Northeast Flavor” magazine and a regular contributor to “Cruising World.”