A fine-art fix for a floating masterpiece

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Two winters ago, on a family cruise through the West Indies, Kirsten Scott poked her head out of the cabin of the sloop Eleda and spotted another classic wooden sloop drifting, apparently crewless, through the anchorage on Dominica. She didn’t need her lifetime of sailing experience to know that should this lovely yacht make open water, it might not be seen again until landfall in Nicaragua. Dispatched in their vintage Lawley tender, Scott’s husband, Ross Gannon, and son, Olin, were soon aboard The Blue Peter and secured her to a mooring in the upper harbor.

When the owner of the wayward vessel returned from his shore leave later in the day, he learned of the narrow miss and came to meet his rescuers, the Gannon family. This is how Matthew Barker, the owner and master of The Blue Peter of London, came to know Gannon, Scott and their twins Olin and Greta of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

While developing a friendship with the family, Barker came to recognize that Gannon was half of the small but esteemed Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, a yard in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, known for building and restoring wooden boats. And since wooden-boat owners never miss an opportunity to share the problems, situations and challenges associated with their vessels, Barker soon had Gannon crammed into the space under the cockpit, accessed through the lazarette hatches. There was a leak around the stern tube and gland where the rudder post comes through the horn timber at its junction with the stern post.

In the dim light of the cramped quarters, Gannon pronounced his findings: “Yes, you have a serious leak here.”

“I thought so,” agreed Barker. “The bilge pump has been cycling steadily for years, more so lately.”

“Well, we can’t do much for you here,” said Gannon, ”but if you ever get up to New England, come by our shop on Martha’s Vineyard, and we’ll see about fixing her.”

On a July morning last summer, a long, sleek sloop with a very tall rig sailed into Vineyard Haven and took a mooring in the outer harbor. Even from shore, her pedigree was apparent. Her varnished hatches, cabin sides and rails gleamed, and the sunlight sparkled off her fair and perfectly painted hull. If you looked long enough, you might have noticed the steady stream of the cycling bilge pump. Barker and The Blue Peter, an Alfred Mylne design launched at Burnham-on-Crouch, England, in 1930, had made their way to the Vineyard.

Over the summer, I came to know Barker as I cranked his ship’s old non-self-tailing winches in local regattas. Not only is he good company and a great host, he proved to be an excellent sailor. On more than one occasion, much to the chagrin of locals accustomed to being regular winners, he stepped to the dais to collect first place. In late August, we sailed to a first-place finish at the prestigious Herreshoff Classic Yacht Regatta in Bristol, Rhode Island, icing Barker’s reputation as another British interloper in the starchy New England racing community. All the while, the bilge pump spewed the North Atlantic back from whence it came.

Future master shipwright Zolie Clark filling holes created by new work.

As late summer turned to fall, we waited for the large commercial marine railway across the harbor to clear of an extensive rebuild to a service barge. The railway at Gannon & Benjamin, where I work as a shipwright, was too small to accommodate the 65-foot yacht. In mid-November, in a blustery chill, The Blue Peter rolled up the hill. We wasted no time dismantling the hydraulic steering and carefully removing the topside paint under her counter to access the fasteners of the old horn timber and the frames and floors that were condemned.

The work was surgically precise. We had to access an integral part of the boat that was installed at her earliest stages of initial construction without demolishing more subsequent construction and creating more work — and requiring more money ­— than even a passionate wooden-boat owner could stomach. But as with most wooden-boat restorations, the more you dig, the deeper the problem gets. And Gannon is one of those masters who will not stop digging until he has established the true extent of the damage.

On the first day we removed the rudder, rudder post tube and gland. We also sectioned and removed the five original frames that were broken or compromised, five floor timbers and a 5-foot length of the original horn timber. The uppermost part of the sternpost was worn and soft from years of the tube working back and forth underway, creating a major leak. It was brutal work carried out in less than 3 feet of space under the cockpit, but we had determined the full extent of the damage and now could plan our strategy for the repair.

This kind of work is physically demanding. It demands strength, agility and flexibility, and often requires working in odd positions and cramped quarters for long periods of time. On the second day we enlisted Zolie Clark, one of the most talented young shipwrights I have ever met. A 20-year-old native Vineyarder who has worked at G&B since he was 13, he has an innate ability that borders on genius and cannot be explained.

Ross bolts in a new upper section of the rudder post.

Over a two-week period, Clark was contorted within the confined space — in good humor and doing excellent work — alongside Gannon, who doggedly executed this intricate restoration without complaint. For the most part, I worked from the outside on a high scaffold under the counter — in the weather but at least standing most of the time.

We installed a new upper section of the rudder post and replaced a 5-foot length of the horn timber, in three pieces and bolted them together. These were fashioned of Angelique. Clark made patterns for new sawn frames of live oak and sister frame futtocks on both sides of the new horn timber. New floor timbers, much heavier than the original and also of Angelique, support the heavy bronze plate and gussets and better secure the hydraulic ram to the rudder post.

Rather than use the old bronze cast gland and rudder post tube, Clark fabricated a new one with a larger surface area and better fastener layout. The fabrication and fit of the new bronze plate is a work of art. It’s a pity it will never be seen, but it will give Barker great confidence in foul conditions.

It took a full day to set up and bore a 2¾-inch hole through the new Angelique timbers, cutting a fraction of an inch per pass. But the plan came together with great satisfaction as the new bronze fabrications were worked into place in the new timbers and bolted to the floors and frames. The bolts for the timbers and other bronze work were fabricated from bronze rod stock and threaded for custom lengths.

As the work continued inside the aft section, I restored the outside of the hull. After the removal of all the old fasteners and installation of new ones, it resembled Swiss cheese. We cut off old plank ends to accommodate work access, bored lateral holes through planks to get bolts low in the horn timber close to the rabbet, and generally disassembled the hull planking from the frames, keel and horn timber. I scarfed on new plank ends, sweet-nailed and filled holes, and rehabilitated the old hull.

The Blue Peter, here sailing in the 2015 Opera House Cup off Nantucket, raced on the Caribbean circuit this past winter and spring.

Throughout the project, Barker was the epitome of British pluck. It’s rare that we make repairs such as these with the owner present. It is just too painful to watch. But Barker wanted to participate and kept himself busy stripping and revarnishing all of the interior sole panels, cabinet doors and companionway stairs. As I would finish a section of the hull, he would follow with fairing compound and primer. If we needed surface area wooded to access fasteners, he was there with the heat gun and scraper. As the project lengthened, the days shortened and we found more damage, Barker maintained his humor and stiff upper lip.

As with most classic yachts that still survive, The Blue Peter has benefited from conscientious and visionary owners who have the wherewithal to properly care for and maintain her. All of us who work on classic yachts greatly appreciate those who support them. The horizon wouldn’t be the same without these lovely floating timepieces.

The Blue Peter was relaunched early last November without a hitch. I’m happy to report that she has been tearing up the classic-yacht regatta circuit in the Caribbean. And the bilge pump is quiet.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.