“On the rollin’ sea,
the mighty one speaks to me,
the rollin’ sea,
she rise, speaks to me…
on the rollin’ sea when she
Nobody has heard of Olu Dara but he sings the best sailing song, maybe I should say
“sea-song” that I’ve ever heard. .. well,
along with Jimmy Buffet’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor.” It
plays over and over in my head accompanied by the soft slap of the sea
Waves lift my vessel, then
roll under the keel, one following another, as boat and ocean have done
together since far, far back in pre-history. My voyage, from busy
Coral Bay to
the stillness of Hurricane Hole, is brief, and my boat is little—only 14 ft
long, a classic native hull under gaff main and scrap of jib—yet she carries
me as sweetly and to as much purpose as Queen Hatshepsut’s long galleys
plying the great Nile. Small as my boat is, and as I am, we too are part of the great drift,
the great flow, the dance between man and boat. They dance, they sail, they
sink, they drown, and new ones are built and born to take their place.
Man’s perennial fascination
with wooden boats has deep roots. “Wood” and “Boat” are
two strong words to conjure with. Wood is attractive, unlike the molten metals
and reeky chemicals that have turned wooden boats into
an endangered species. Wood and boats have so much history, such a legacy of
great deeds done — whole migrations of peoples, explorations, trade.
We have explored the oceans by now
and the baton may be passed from oak and teak to titanium. Metal may rule, but
we’ll never love it like we do wood; lignum
vitae to balsa, it’s alive, it’s a co-spirit, an ally, a powerful and ancient connection to which countless people
have entrusted their lives
is a man of his word and when he announced that he and Trish were going to sail
Rob Roy across the Atlantic
in the year 2005, leaving no later than early July, I believed him. There is
solidity about the man, a sense of purpose and drive that now and then makes
itself known through the genial, ‘aw shucks’ exterior like the butt
of a revolver showing beneath a shirt.
was good to David, and David good for
St. John. He’d sailed here maybe 15
years ago on his 32’ sloop, Blue
Rail. Having worked as a plumber he took up the trade here and flourished,
riding the endlessly cresting wave of new construction. He also fell in love
with a remarkable woman, as lovely within as without, and she with him.
“Trish is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Dave responded
feelingly when I asked. And it was here, or next-door in Tortola,
that he acquired Rob Roy, a 56-ft.
Arthur Robb design. She was down on her luck, neglected and leaking when David
saw the potential, bought her and began to restore her to her former glory.
Being a natural leader, and
possessed of the biggest wooden boat in the harbor, Dave was an obvious choice
for Commodore of the Coral Bay Yacht Club. He was so right for the position,
the membership re-elected him year after year until he begged off in order to
pursue his dream of sailing across the Atlantic and cruising Europe.
He planned to set out in the spring of 2005, well before the onslaught of
hurricane season and there was still plenty to do to get his vessel ready for
come what may.
It was on the most recent haul
out, the one that was to address the last little details, when a soft spot was
found in the stem. The stem is part of the backbone of the boat to which the
planks all attach. There isn’t a more critical piece of timber on the
boat—and Rob Roy’s was
rotten—enough so that patching it up was out of the question. They’d
have to make a new one; a difficult, time consuming job by any standard.
As the deadline approached and
with Rob Roy hauled out, its stem
removed, all the planks spreading out, one had to wonder. Projects always
manage to take longer than even the most realistic estimate allows. This one
was hemorrhaging time and money and had been for months. I thought to myself,
another case of the wooden boat blues. In fact, I had thought that some years
ago when Dave first sailed the extravagantly lovely yawl into her new home,
Back then Rob Roy was a classic case of the wooden boat blues about to
happen. She was wood, old, and a Classic. By Classic, I mean unusually
beautiful or fast, and Rob Roy was
both. She was close to 50 years old, having been built by Herbert Woods in
for August Borenstein, a successful NY haberdasher
who, being Jewish, wasn’t allowed in the NY YC.
A quarter-century later, she came
into the possession of Bill Kaufman who owned the West End Shipyard in
Tortola. He had her for twenty years and won many a
Wooden Boat Race. Then, when Kaufman left for the States, Rob Roy stayed behind, for sale, as she wasn’t up for the
passage. She sat for some time in West End,
neglected and falling into disrepair, her selling price being marked down, and
then down again, until finally Dave couldn’t help himself. He
didn’t so much buy her as come to her rescue.
The wooden boat blues involves
old wooden boats into which one pours
huge amounts of energy, time, skill, epoxy and…
did I mention money? Yes, lots of money to solve problems, like a seriously
leaking garboard plank or a row of cracked ribs behind the ice box, or
discovering rot in the mast behind the tangs. Fixing one issue often brings to
light new problems, like rows of sharks’ teeth always ready to advance to
replace the ones that are lost. There are so many chronic problems in aging
wood construction. If it’s not the keel bolts rusting away, so that the
keel is in danger of coming detached, then it’s the planking going soft
around the corroded screws, or electrolysis attacking the gudgeons and pintles or the propeller shaft, or stainless chainplates that are pitted and unreliable. It takes a
stalwart heart to see it through. Most attempts to rescue an old boat founder
under mounting costs and problems.
Luckily for Rob Roy, David was determined and he did see it through. He hauled
her out for months at a time during which he went over the boat with a fine-tooth
comb, replacing sea cocks and fastenings, finding a little rot in the cockpit,
which became a lot of rot the further it was dug into. Eventually, the whole
cockpit had to be replaced. Bill Wilson and his brother, John,
shipwrights, became steadily employed while Dave generated the money to pay
them and keep things moving forward. And it did pay off. Rob Roy shone with varnish, sailed like a bat out of hell, and held
up Coral Bay’s
reputation at the Antigua Classics Boat Regatta (a Who’s Who of great wooden boats) that had first been
established by the late great Fletcher Pitts on
She strode past all underlings at the Wednesday afternoon races. She finally
seemed ready to take on the big Atlantic ocean.
Now with the bad stem dropped in
their laps at virtually the last minute, all bets concerning
Rob Roy’s departure date were off.
One more time, Dave had to dig deep, and the weeks leading up to the beginning
of hurricane season went by in a blur of work. Dave and Trish worked late of nights
while attending to their business commitments during the day. With the help of
Bill and John, and that of Dick Burke, Joe Landsteiner and others too numerous
to mention, the boat came together at the last minute and motored out of the
mangrove swamps of the boat yard into the blue Caribbean in a hurry. They left
for the Azores a few days later, without even
a shake down cruise. They had to go before the weather window closed.
When she raised her sails and
caught the breeze outside of Coral
Bay she seemed to soar
like some mighty bird beginning a long migration.
A couple of weeks later, the word
reached us that Rob Roy had made it
to the Azores in good order and Dave was sitting with Trish at one of Horta’s outdoor cafes sipping chilled local plonk and eating olives, whilst gazing happily at
Rob Roy, their gorgeous boat which their
blood sweat and money had given a new lease on life. Beyond her varnished masts
across the channel, the exalted cone of Pico also summoned them to sample wine
and olives in its cafes, just the first of many delightful islands and ports
which lie ahead.
Fair Winds and following seas,
Dave and Trish, and may the dogs of joy lick your feet where so ere you go.