Privateer end game

Privateer (red bottom) after she was dealt a deathblow by a neighboring boat. Her hull wracked and distorted, she was declared a total loss. Photo by Mike Martel

By Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

I peer through the chain-link fence, fingers grasping the rusty wire, feeling like I’m on the outside of a detention center. The gate is locked. Inside is a sad collection of old and derelict boats. Some of them were condemned and some were abandoned – both power and sail – and while most are fiberglass, several are wood. All patiently await their destruction by a hydraulic yellow monster. My wooden sailboat Privateer, on stands at the far end of the pen, awaits her fate. I have to shake my head. Geez, John Alden gave her beautiful lines. In her prime, with her deep, full keel, and conservative attributes, she was probably capable of sailing around the world. Now, she’ll never sail again. I’m still numb with disbelief.

I drive by here almost every day to see if she’s still there . . . and she is. No bones to pick over yet. This is the mythical Mutia Escarpment – Tarzan’s fictional jungle domain – with its riches of ivory, the cementerio de elefantes, the place where old boats go to die, their bones plucked and scattered by vultures. Condemned by my insurer after being knocked over in a Fall River marina, she is now the property of the salvor who – in league with my insurer – acquired her after she was declared a total loss. I stare down at my feet. There are no pieces of silver there. Still, I feel an uncomfortable sense of betrayal, though I’d been given no choice, no back door, no escape strategy. It’s the end game for an old boat I’ve struggled some 20 years to save.

I spent seven years in the late 1990s restoring Privateer in my backyard. She was a gaff-rigged yawl built in 1930, and had been through a few hands since – some more caring, some less. I had restored a couple of boats previously, including two motorboats, a 16’ lapstrake outboard runabout and later a bigger project, as well as a 33’ Richardson sedan motor cruiser built in 1951. My maternal grandfather had been a boat builder and had once worked at the Herreshoff yard. When he worked on his own boats, I watched him. So, after his passing in the late 1980s, I sought to emulate him.

Repairing and rebuilding wooden boats is something these days that few people know how to do. It does require some special training. But mostly it requires common sense and the ability to learn by doing and to learn from others. Most importantly, one must not fear doing actual work. Too often I’ve heard the objection, with reference to wooden boats, “But aren’t they a lot of work?” Well, of course they are! But life is work. Are you afraid of a little work? The divine arm sweeps the table clear, and the work-cowards roll off into the dustbin. Those of us left are willing to sweat, and want to build and create tangible things that move through water and somehow seem more alive than their fiberglass brethren. We want to be creative, and to tackle projects with a pencil, paper, and a piece of wood in one hand, and a chisel in the other. We want to smell fresh-cut yellow pine, and linseed oil and pine tar, and even varnish.

After Privateer’s original restoration, I sailed her for a number of years. After that I sold her, and again retrieved her a few years later after her owner abandoned her at a marina on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The owner had stiffed the yard, walked away, disappeared. I bought her at auction and had her trucked back to Rhode Island where she was placed back under the big red oak in my yard. I built an enclosure around her, and began her reconstruction once again. This time I repaired and rebuilt things I hadn’t previously, and fixed prior mistakes. I took pleasure in the opportunity to right a few wrongs in terms of workmanship, and found great satisfaction in it.

I re-launched Privateer in 2016. The following year, on Labor Day, she was t-boned by a 41’ fiberglass yacht whose owner was trying to beat his way out of a crowded harbor on a windy day. At the time I was below, working. The captain of the other yacht didn’t think anyone saw him – besides the friends aboard his boat, of course – and attempted to scurry off. I alerted the Coast Guard, who went and paid him what I hope was an embarrassing visit.

I hauled Privateer out for the season, and next summer bided my time as a fine wooden-boat restorer, Jens Lange, repaired my Privateer in his Baltic Boat Works. The would-be runner’s insurance company footed the bill. She was done in the fall, looking quite literally as though nothing had ever happened to her. But by then the sailing season was over. Privateer was trucked to a yard in Fall River and prepped for winter.

In February of 2018, during a storm, Privateer was knocked over by another boat that was unstable on its stands. In the accident, Privateer’s hull was wracked and distorted, and everything had either moved or was skewed slightly. Repairing her was out of the question. So, with a heavy heart, and still disbelieving, after all those years of dreams and work, I removed everything I was allowed to take, including her tattered ensign, which would never fly again. Such is life.

We had a small dog for more than a dozen years, and she was dear to me. When she died, a friend reminded me that nothing eases the pain of losing a dog faster than having a new puppy in the house. People around me were also saying, “Mike can’t go for very long without a boat.” I wasn’t sure either trope was true – until one day I was. It was time for another project.

Jens the boat restorer’s advice: Don’t buy the first one you fancy! I gave this admonition lots of thought and then went and did something impetuous anyway. I saw an online listing for a classic old wooden boat, and it was love at first sight. The boat was a 33’ single-screw mahogany-planked motor cruiser built in 1929 by the Crosby yard in Osterville, Mass., and I just had to have her.

Once all the paperwork was signed, I called Jens. I could almost see him nodding his head at the other end of the phone. He knew I was interested in this boat and had advised me to avoid it; it needed a lot of work. “Yes,” he finally said, “I knew you were going to buy it.” Either he’s wise, or I’m transparent. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.

On July 12, a big Brownell truck delivered the boat to my house and parked her, blocked her, and set up her stands right under the old oak tree where Privateer had been restored. As he tightened the last boat-stand screw jack, the Brownell driver asked me a question I’ve heard many times: “What does it take to restore an old wooden boat like this?”

“A lot of beer,” I answered. “A whole lot of beer.”

And so, the dream begins anew. Time to get to work.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.