Restoring the family Thistle

Hull #355, Hardalee, back in the day (above). After 30 years of (mostly) dry storage, Hardalee was moved from the Midwest to Maine, where, after a partial restoration, new memories are being made aboard her again. Photos courtesy Susan Olcott

Midwinter 2021

By Susan Olcott

The boat sat in my grandparents’ basement in St. Louis under a water leak for 30 years. Today, it bobs up and down on my mooring in Casco Bay, Maine. Its white transom bears the original name, Hardalee, as well as the homeport designation of St. Louis, Mo. My girls and I put the lettering on ourselves after it returned to us two years ago.

For the first 40 years of the Thistle’s life, it was sailed and raced in St. Petersburg, Fla., Ephraim, Wis., and the Mississippi River with a crew of my mother, her younger brother, my grandfather, and sometimes my grandmother. This boat could be credited with one of my grandparents’ closest friendships, my parents meeting, and partly why I now live in Maine.

I was honored and excited to have the Hardalee in Maine, but also quite daunted. I was 10 years old at most when I last sailed aboard her, just about the age my girls are now. I had always been a passenger, never the skipper. How to rig her, how to launch her, how to handle her . . . this was all unfamiliar ground. While I wanted to feel like I was taking over an old, familiar friend, the truth was that I’d never really known the boat in the first place.

Hardalee’s 1,300-mile journey to Maine began with an overhaul of her trailer at a boatyard in St. Louis. Meanwhile, I was tasked with the job of finding someone willing to take on the job of repairing a 69-year-old boat. I started at our local marina and found a few people, but none with the time to tackle a 17-foot sailboat. I finally connected with Rob Blood, who had a boatyard in Standish, Maine. My girls and I drove the boat up on a hot, sticky day and unloaded buckets of spare parts, innumerable bags of old sails, and a random assortment of my grandfather’s tools.

And then, we left her there. Thus ensued many back-and-forths about different parts, specifics about the rigging, and the plans to make a new mast. I found an old set of plans in a Ziplock aboard the boat. Between these, YouTube, plumbing my mom’s memory, and also a bunch of trial and error, we were able to rig the boat. My exchanges with Rob were probably confusing at times, but always full of good humor.

The goal of the first season was to make the boat watertight. On July 1, nearly a year later, Rob delivered Hardalee. I had assembled a team of hearty sailing women to help me assemble the various pieces/parts of the boat and step the mast. It was a touchy situation on a hot day but, after a lot of womanpower, the job was done. Then, the moment of truth: We backed her into the water. Success! She floated for the first time in 30 years. As my girls climbed aboard, I could see in them my nine-year-old self, tow-headed in a puffy Mae West orange life jacket.

The real goal, however, was for my mom to sail. This was her childhood boat. She grew up taking trips to Door County, Wisc., every summer to escape the heat in St. Louis. One of those summers, she and her younger brother, Jim, took sailing lessons at the Ephraim Yacht Club. My mom was 17, and Jim, 14. They were both hooked, making the case to my grandparents that they needed a sailboat. On the long drive home, they stopped at a lake in Springfield, Ill., and happened upon a sailing regatta. The boats they were sailing were Thistles. When they got home, a friend of theirs mentioned that there was one locally for sale, hull #355.

Once the boat was purchased, the challenge was to learn how to sail it. That’s where the legendary “Uncle Les” comes in. There was a group of Thistle sailors at the Harbor Point Yacht Club on the Mississippi River. One of those sailors became my grandfather’s best friend and an honorary member of our family. He owned hull #445 and had the reputation for being a speedy racer. Soon, the Hardalee joined those races, and Les taught my grandfather how to both sail faster and tweak the rig to make the boat speedier. The group raced every Sunday and became tough competitors. My grandfather didn’t like to lose. My mom remembers some choice words being slung when the boat wasn’t sailed fast.

The family brought the Hardalee up to Door County to race it there, as did Uncle Les with #445. Both of their names are inscribed on many trophies at the Ephraim Yacht Club, the place I’d eventually learn to sail. As kids, we’d tuck ourselves in the point of the bow and bury ourselves in sail bags to keep warm.

My grandfather and Les not only sailed together, but they also painted watercolors in the countryside around St. Louis. Not too many years later, Les, who was an architect, met a young fellow architect who he’d eventually introduce to my mother. They not only got married, but my father took over Les’ architectural firm when he retired. In this manner, Hardalee played a critical role in shaping my family.

On a perfect summer day with a gentle south breeze, my friend and I pulled the Hardalee up to our dock and my mom stepped aboard. As the sails filled and the water made its signature echo-y calunk as it slapped the wooden hull, a look of unadulterated joy etched my mother’s face. As she took the tiller, my friend commented, “I can see you know this boat.” This was the moment that made all the effort worthwhile.

Since then we have made further improvements to the boat, and each time we sail her she feels a little more familiar and a little more comfortable – like the boat from the family stories. I am only now getting to know her strength and beauty. Watching my daughter Lili curl up in Hardalee’s bow atop a sail bag, while her sister Phoebe mans the helm, I’m confident that this generation – the fourth generation to sail this boat – is making more great memories.

Freelance writer Susan Olcott, a resident of Brunswick, Maine, has conducted experiments aboard lobster boats while getting her M.S. in Marine Science, planned and led snorkeling and kayaking trips in San Diego for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, accompanied kids on bike tours in Europe and the U.S., taught biology to military personnel in Sardinia, Italy, and published essays about all these adventures in various publications.