Bringing Yankee back to life - Soundings Online

Bringing Yankee back to life

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The storied schooner Yankee was built by the Dutch government in 1897 as Loodschooner 4, a robust vessel that could go out in all kinds of weather and pilot ships to port in the stormy North Sea.

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Since the 1950s, the schooner has been an eerie underwater presence in a cove in the Bras d’or Lakes of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She rests in about 6 feet of water and is overgrown with algae, the top of her pilothouse still dimly seen beneath the rippled surface. 

All The Romance, None Of The Hardship Yankee will be a true sailing vessel, spending summers on the Maine coast, winters in the Caribbean. Amenities will include comfortable cabins, hearty meals, a well-appointed main saloon, fresh water for showers and on-board laundry. Recreational activities will include offshore fishing, snorkeling, exploring remote locations and enjoying the ship library. Yankee will be reproduced as close to the original design as possible; offer accommodations for 10 to 12 passengers in five to six cabins; feature diesel power cruising at 10 knots; have Duradon or Dacron canvas sails; and meet SOLAS international safety requirements. For information or to make a donation, contact: • J.P. Boudreau, (978) 879-6063 • Lou Boudreau, (902) 531-2258, cell (902) 279-0307, lou@topsailyachtsintl.com

Between her beginning and her demise, Yankee has a history entwined with two of the most fascinating sailing families of the Americas. Both families — Irving and Electa Johnson, followed by Walter and Terry Boudreau and their children — were pioneers in early-20th-century charter tourism and a sail-training industry that today continues to keep alive old sailing ships and their traditions.

Yankee is the focus of one such revival, as the Schooner Yankee Foundation (schooneryankeefoundation.com) — headed by Walter and Terry Boudreau’s son Lou with the help of Lou’s brother Peter, cousin J.P. and many others — prepares to build a replica-cum-restoration using the Dutch ship’s original line drawings.

“We had a huge stroke of luck,” says Lou Boudreau, who lives in Chester, Nova Scotia. “J.P. is always posting fabulous pictures of ships and schooners” on the Schooner Yankee Foundation/Topsail Yachts Facebook page. “So about a month ago, this guy in Holland, who likes ships, too, looked at the page and looked at the Schooner Yankee Project, then contacted J.P. and said, ‘Oh, I have the plans. Would you like them?’ And J.P. said, ‘Well, yeah, we’d love them.’ I had already decided to do the replica. This lends an incredible amount of authenticity to the project.”

Given half a chance, Capt. Lou will talk your ear off about his passion project, the next step in a lifetime spent on boats and the culmination of his own career in the charter and offshore fishing business. Recently, he and his family were up at the little Bras d’Or cove to dive on Yankee’s wreck, take photographs and identify timbers that can potentially be salvaged and incorporated into the replica — perhaps enough timbers to be able to call the project a restoration.

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Irving Johnson was a Massachusetts farm boy born in 1905. According to a biography provided by Mystic Seaport, he began training for a sailor’s life as a teenager, both in the Merchant Marine and as a private yacht captain. He moved up the ranks, joining a succession of ships. An amateur filmmaker, he documented his November 1929 trip aboard the 345-foot barque Peking in the film “Around Cape Horn.”

Yankee under sail.

On the schooner Wanderbird, he met a college woman, Electa “Exy” Search, who was returning to the States from a summer in France. They married in 1932. Irving had the idea that people would pay to experience a moderate version of adventure under sail, and he needed a tough seagoing vessel. So shortly after marrying, the couple purchased the Dutch-built Loodschooner 4, named it Yankee and set out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, with a crew of enthusiastic amateurs. Although Exy “knew nothing at all about sailing at the time,” as their son, Robert, wrote in her obituary, she immersed herself in the maritime life. The Johnsons alternated between 18-month circumnavigations and 18 months of sailing trips on the Eastern Seaboard. The first Yankee made three world voyages, in 1933, 1936 and 1939, before the Johnsons sold her in 1941 to the Admiral Billard Naval Academy in New London, Connecticut, for use as a training vessel.

During World War II, Irving joined the Navy as a South Seas expert. Afterward, the Johnsons continued their business with the purchase of another North Sea pilot boat, which they converted into a brigantine and renamed Yankee. Four more circumnavigations followed. In Exy’s obituary, Jim Gladson — president of the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, a sail training program that named a pair of ships after the Johnsons — called the couple the “de facto parents of character-building sail training.” They wrote eight books, were featured in National Geographic articles, films and videos, and toured the country, presenting lectures and films about their trips. Electa later donated Irving’s films to Mystic Seaport.

In 1958, with naval architect Olin Stephens, they designed their last Yankee, a 50-foot steel ketch. For the next 18 years they sailed Europe’s canals and inland waterways and voyaged up the Nile River.

“They really worked as a pair; they complemented each other’s abilities,” their son Robert wrote. Electa “was not the phenomenal hotshot sailor my father was.” But she was fluent in French and German and spoke six other languages. “She bought all the food and bartered with islanders, sometimes trading clothing, a machete or a stick of tobacco for a machine part or whatever else we needed.”

In 1975 the Johnsons retired to Hadley, Massachusetts, where Irving had grown up. He died in 1991, she in 2004.

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Guy Walter Boudreau was born 13 years after Irving Johnson in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and also grew up with a passion for the sea. Walter came from a long line of sea captains and acquired a taste for the sea as a boy, sailing the family’s old sloop. During World War II, Walter’s sailing adventures took a horrific turn. He was 24 and crewing aboard the merchant barkentine Angelus when the ship was sunk by a German submarine. Walter and his shipmates faced the freezing North Atlantic in a small open lifeboat without food or water. Over the next 10 days, Walter witnessed the death of all but one of his shipmates before they were finally spotted by a plane and rescued.

Undiscouraged, Walter indulged in just a few weeks of recuperation before he was back on a schooner carrying cargo for Barbados. Other expeditions followed. Then he spotted a newspaper ad that read, “Dude Schooners Out of Camden,” placed by Capt. Frank Swift, who was building the nascent windjammer tourist fleet in Camden, Maine (Swift’s operation continues today as Maine Windjammer Cruises).

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Walter tried one of the trips and made a decision that shaped the rest of his life when he spotted a striking white-hulled topsail schooner moored across Camden Harbor. It was the Johnsons’ first Yankee, which had been sold to new owners after serving the Naval Academy. Walter found the owners, swung a deal and was suddenly sailing home to the Bras d’Or Lakes to set up his own charter business.

It was 1948 and the venture took off. The next year, Walter married an adventurous young woman who loved to sail. Walter and Terry developed the business, running weeklong voyages — not luxurious, but great fun. Like the Johnsons, the Boudreaus took paying passengers, who engaged in crew duties, on weeklong cruises.

Their son Lou was born in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and was later told he first went to sea aboard Yankee at 6 months old. “I’ve got pictures of me,” he says. “My father had put me in a white deck bucket — I was 3 or 4 years old — and swung me out on the end of a yardarm. By the look on my face, I’m not sure if I thought that was cool or not.”

Lou recalls the ship could accommodate about a dozen people. He has tons of photos from those days, and the original brochures that advertise lobster boils and trips to explore the lakes and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“There are dozens of beautiful little coves and little beaches where you can swim,” Lou says. “It was a good place to do that.”

The couple added a second schooner, Windbloweth, then a third, Doubloon — as well as four more children. The summer season was short, so in the fall the family began sailing Doubloon south to develop the business in Florida and the Caribbean, where they were charterboat pioneers.

Leaving Yankee in the care of a crewmember, they migrated annually. Around 1955, they returned north to find Yankee had sunk at her mooring. Her demise was suspicious. It was pretty common knowledge that the ballast in Yankee’s gimbaled dining table held valuable lead ingots that Irving Johnson dove up from the wreck of the HMS Bounty at Pitcairn Island. The schooner had been vandalized and stripped of fittings and gear. The top of the teak main hatch was ripped off, and the dining table removed.

By then, the couple had already decided the Caribbean was the place to run their business year-round. They could buy large sailing yachts for a few thousand dollars, and there was an endless supply of folks willing to pay to explore the unspoiled Caribbean. They relocated for good and grew a collection of historic vessels that included Ramona and Le Voyageur, 138-foot steel schooners designed by Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and built in 1918 and 1921, respectively. Lou recalls them fondly.

Ramona and Le Voyageur would heave anchor early in the morning and round up to set sail in the lee of the island,” he writes. “They were an awesome sight, these tall sparred ocean Valkyries sailing close-hauled under full sail to the north and then running downwind to the west of the island.”

In the early ‘60s, the family opened and ran the first hotel in St. Lucia’s remote Marigot Bay. Lou recalls a “magical” childhood, learning patois, roaming hidden coves, and diving and spear-fishing in the crystal-clear waters for lobster, conch and other seafood for the charter guests on board the family’s yachts.

Irving and Exy Johnson in a photo taken aboard Yankee on the first half of the Second World Cruise in the late 1930s.

Walter and Terry gracefully aged. Richard Dey, in his memoir Adventures in the Trade Wind, quotes a friend who describes the couple as tanned and wrinkled by years of sun, a “seasoned, salty pair” who “certainly knew how to run large yachts” and enjoyed telling tall tales over drinks. But in 1989, when Walter turned 70, they decided they’d had enough of hurricanes, retired and returned to Nova Scotia.

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Since her sinking in the 1950s, Yankee has continued to attract interest from sightseers. Boudreau doesn’t mind divers viewing the wreck, and he’s appointed the Baddeck Barnacles Diving Society as her “unofficial protectors.”

Not surprisingly, Lou and his brothers are also noted figures in the maritime community. G. Peter Boudreau is a vice president and chief designer at Tri-Coastal Marine in Richmond, California, and has led the design and builds of notable projects, including restoration of the 1854 sloop-of-war Constellation. Robert Louis Boudreau sailed for his father and is now a marine and tourism consultant, property manager and author whose books include The Man Who Loved Schooners, about his father, and Where the Trade Winds Blow, about his own life on the sea.

Lou always had the idea of rebuilding the Yankee in the back of his mind. “We launched this project a couple of years ago to see if we could get traction,” he says. “All of a sudden, it’s taken off.”

With Peter leading the design, the Schooner Yankee Foundation is on track to contract with shipbuilder and consultant Harold Burnham of Essex, Massachusetts. There may be no one better suited to lead the project than Burnham, an 11th-generation member of a shipbuilding family rooted in Essex, and a 2012 National Heritage Fellow and master shipwright. The project is expected to cost $5 million. The result will be a Yankee returned to life, offering a wide range of voyages tailored to the needs of sail-training organizations, individual clients and the Schooner Yankee Foundation’s own cadet program.

For Boudreau, the project is deeply meaningful.

“You know, I’m 65 now and I’ve got two kids, 12 and 14,” he says. “I didn’t marry or start a family until quite late because I was at sea. I suppose it was the realization that if you don’t do it, you won’t do it. And this is a happy story. It’s one of these stories where, ‘Wow, the schooner Yankee is going to sail again!’ It’s the realization that we have the wherewithal, and it’s the right thing for us and for all the thousands of people who will sail on it in the future.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.