Skip to main content

Nine lives for an elegant schooner

Steady, steady as she goes. Silently, effortlessly, the staysail schooner Martha glides through the calm water, passing the waving and camera-wielding crowds on the bulwarks of Point Hudson. It’s the traditional sail-by at the end of the Port Townsend (Wash.) Wooden Boat Festival, and with her gleaming spars, white topsides and light-green sheer stripe (it’s actually called Martha green), she’s the hometown boat, the belle of the ball. Her decks are stacked with friends and supporters.Standing at the helm, I feel the curious mixture of pride and humility that comes with being in charge, however briefly, of a fine ship. At 104 years old, Martha is as young and spry as ever. She’s a working ship, a Pacific Northwest icon, a lady with a past, a cat with nine lives and a ship of hope for youth and young adults who were dealt a difficult hand in life. A prized piece of floating furniture she isn’t.

Martha is expertly campaigned and maintained by the Schooner Martha Foundation and has gained iconic status in the Pacific Northwest.

A tycoon’s racing yacht
Martha was designed as a gaff-rigged racing schooner by B.B. Crowninshield and built by the legendary W.F. Stone yard in San Francisco in 1907 for lumber baron John R. Hanify. She had fast lines, but with her centerboard she was unbalanced at first. Hanify, also a commodore of the San Francisco Yacht Club, had her modified with a smaller mainsail and a split-head rig so she could live up to her potential. He raced her successfully until his tragic death in 1922 sailing a small boat on San Francisco Bay.
Her next owner moved her to Southern California, and in 1934 she was bought by actor James Cagney, who often sailed her to Catalina from Newport Beach to entertain his entourage. In the 1960s, Martha returned to San Francisco and was acquired by Edgar F. Kaiser, the industrialist whose daughter Carlyn directed Camp Four Winds on Orcas Island in the San Juans and used her for sail training.
Through the years, Martha was reconfigured with a staysail rig and a ballast keel, but she always performed, which is a testimony to her design. Disaster struck in 1976 when a lift dock collapsed during haulout in Seattle, smashing her port side and damaging the deck. Declared a total loss, she was to be sold for scrap, but good ships find good owners.
Del Edgbert, a longshoreman from Olympia, Wash., who had a good eye for fine lines and fine joinerwork, managed to outbid the scavengers. In a painstaking effort he restored Martha and sailed her for 19 years, to Alaska and San Francisco and points between, earning accolades for his stewardship. In 1995, Edgbert donated the vessel to the Northwest Schooner Society on the condition that she be used and maintained properly. It seemed like a good idea, but the plan proved difficult to carry out.

Sailing a ship to find purpose
Today, Martha is in fine fettle as a charter boat for sailing vacations and as a platform to teach at-risk youth ages 12 to 18 about duty, teamwork and trust. It’s a salubrious concept that can help people find a path forward in life if they are willing to accept it. “If you come to sail on Martha, you’re not going to be limited to one task,“ says Robert d’Arcy, 54, her keeper and captain. “You’re going to do every job on board, and you’ll learn about problems and how to fix them.”
Teaching seamanship and instilling confidence through competence is how d’Arcy defines the purpose of Martha’s educational programs as he remembers his younger years. “If it hadn’t been for sailing and working on boats,“ d’Arcy says, “I’d probably gotten myself into a world of trouble.”
Instead, the trajectory of his life intersected with Martha when he was looking for a new challenge and the schooner was looking for serious help. The match, in this case, was not made in heaven but on the Seattle waterfront.
As a third-generation shipwright who grew up in Warwick, R.I., d’Arcy learned the craft from his father, a third-generation immigrant from Scotland. Dad wasn’t pleased to learn that his son wanted to get into wooden-boat building in the 1970s when fiberglass was all the rage. But Robert stuck with it and stuck it out until the wooden-boat renaissance took hold in the 1980s.
He refined his skills at Mystic (Conn.) Seaport, where he helped restore the whaler Charles W. Morgan and the fishing schooner L.A. Dunton, among others. When he moved to the West Coast, he briefly worked in home restoration but also got to know the schooner Zodiac and her skipper, Tim Mehrer, in Seattle. Mehrer was involved in the Northwest Schooner Society, which had Martha on its hands but realized that the boat needed an owner with “fringe benefits” — i.e., one who could do more than touch up varnish. They thought they had their man in d’Arcy.
“At first I wasn’t interested because I didn’t have the financial wherewithal, but as I researched her history I recognized she was a U.S. yachting icon,” he says. D’Arcy was hooked. But before the first planks came off, the Schooner Martha Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was set up as the owner of the vessel, inspired by single-ship trusts in the U.K.
Then Martha and d’Arcy cut a deal: He became the caregiver who not only sailed her but also repaired, maintained and upgraded her from stem to stern, from top to bottom. Name any scary, tricky, dirty project and he did it, supported by scores of volunteers. And it’s still not done. It’s never done. A lead keel, a new foremast, a new rudder, new rigging — the list goes on.
But Martha returned the favor by giving d’Arcy a job and a purpose and by introducing him to his future wife, Holly, whom he met when she was working on the schooner’s sails. The athletic Holly, 49, who was on the varsity crew team at Oregon State University, married d’Arcy and, of course, the ship. “The concept attracted me, being on the water and teaching,” she says. Now she’s first mate, purser, planner and instructor, promoting sustainability, conservation and recycling.

Turning students into teachers
Emma Gunn, 21, is a Martha alumna who learned the ropes at age 15 and now is a deckhand, like several other former students. “I learned more than sailing,” says Gunn, who wants to become a delivery captain and sail around the world. “I love teaching kids to sail and see them doing their best to become better. It’s a steep learning curve, but sailing has given me so much. When kids come on board, they leave their baggage behind and realize that we are not just on the same boat but also in the same boat.”
On the same boat, for sure, is Mary d’Arcy, 8, the bright and self- conscious daughter of the ship’s caretakers. A true schooner rat, she confidently scampers all over Martha, her home and playground for part of the year. Following her every step all the way to the bowsprit is her friend Trillium Burbank, 6, who joins Mary as she clambers onto the bobstay, assuming the role of figurehead under the watchful eyes of Holly.
The schooner has a heavy workload, which pencils out to two days of turnaround between sailing trips. D’Arcy and his wife are unpaid volunteers, carried by their enthusiasm for the cause and making a living with boatyard work in the offseason. “We control our burn rate to show donors a lean operation,” is how d’Arcy puts it.
But lean doesn’t mean skimpy. Martha is hauled for at least one month each year to tend to her needs — some structural, some cosmetic — but when she is back in the water she’s ready, not just for her guests but also for racing. In a race around San Juan County in 2009, Martha, then at the tender age of 102, dusted the entire fleet of classic and modern racing yachts. Adding to her lore, she’s the oldest working sailboat in the state of Washington and flies the San Francisco Yacht Club burgee as the club’s oldest living flagship.
At $160 to $175 a day (including three meals), a berth for a week ain’t cheap, but thus far the foundation, which also works with area schools, has been able to cover the fee for students of modest means. “Any and all who want to come are welcome,” d’Arcy says.
As my trick at the helm ended, I joined the happy crowd of guests who, like me, enjoyed Martha’s relaxed vibe. For sure, she’s a magnificent ride for fun and recreation. But by teaching at-risk adolescents responsibility and teamwork, giving them a sense of purpose and belonging, Martha also is a beacon of hope. Her long and colorful history aside, to me that’s the true magic of this schooner.

Confident mariners Mary d'Arcy (left) and Trillium Burbank clamber on Martha's bobstay, supervised by first mate Holly Kays d'Arcy.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.