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Valentine - The grand old lady of the river

Jody Dole photos

Herb and Sharon Clark still shudder at the memory of that day.

It started with the ringing of a telephone at 5:30 a.m in the fall of 2011.

“It was a friend calling,” says Herb, an Essex, Connecticut, businessman. “He said, ‘I see your boat lying on its side along the river.’ I said to him, ‘That’s impossible. She’s on a mooring in Essex harbor.’ ”

With a sinking feeling, the Clarks hastened to the Connecticut River to see for themselves. And there she was. Valentine, their beloved boat of 30 years, beached on a sandy strip of land along the river, helpless and forlorn.

“Wasn’t that an awful sight,” says Sharon. And even more so for being so unexpected. “I had come down the evening before to check on the boat. It was very windy, but she was lying nicely.”

An inspection showed that the windlass had pulled out of the foredeck, leaving a gaping hole and setting the 50-foot Elco at the mercy of a north wind and the tidal river’s currents. It was good fortune that Valentine fetched up on that sandy stretch of riverbank; the hull and running gear weren’t badly damaged and the interior was largely intact.

Deck repairs were made at Chisholm Marina in nearby Chester, Connecticut. And now Valentine, the boat Sharon Clark calls a “grand old lady,” is right where she belongs — on the Essex waterfront, a touch of vintage style and panache with her red-heart-on-white pennant flying from the mast.

The Clarks couldn’t be happier to have Valentine back. Over the years, the Elco — launched for a Boston owner in 1929 — has become part of the fabric of their lives. Valentine has been the family boat, making short cruises and day trips when the Clarks’ children were younger. Now the grandkids come aboard. She’s been a familiar sight on the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound for three decades.

“It a labor of love and a major commitment to own what is now an 89-year-old boat, especially a 50-foot wooden one,” says Herb.

Adds Sharon: “But it’s been more than worthwhile.”

Valentine came into the family Feb. 14, 1983. “I’ve named all our boats, and this one just came naturally,” Sharon says. “But I think Valentine really fits the boat.”

They’d first spotted the old-timer in WoodenBoat magazine, and she wasn’t in the best condition when saw they her at a Morehead City, North Carolina, boatyard. Elco was among the most prestigious names in boatbuilding, and this was hull No. 1 of the Bayonne, New Jersey, company’s line of 50-foot, twin-engine motoryachts. She had a pair of 20-year-old Palmer engines, and time and ill use had taken their toll inside and out. But she’s an Elco, and her unmistakable character and classic lines were intact.

And there was something more, something about this boat that made her different. “She was a grand old lady, but she needed to be bought and loved,” says Sharon. “And I do love old boats.”

With the yacht in rough but running condition, the Clarks “hopped on board and headed north,” recalls Herb. Everything went well until they reached Chesapeake Bay, where the Coast Guard stopped them.

“We must have looked like gypsies,” says Sharon. “They searched everywhere, looking for anything. I think they thought we were running drugs, and admittedly we were kind of ramshackle-looking.”

After being cited for a minor infraction, the Clarks continued on, eventually docking the boat at her new home in Essex that spring, where she’s been a fixture ever since. “It turns out the boat had been in Essex before,” says Herb, “though I didn’t know it at the time.” Known as Sunny II, she was outfitted in the 1940s at the Dauntless Shipyard in town for service as a Navy coastal patrol boat, based in New London, Connecticut, and keeping watch for enemy submarines. “She still wears her three service stripes on the starboard side, representing her three years of duty,” says Herb, who came to own the Dauntless yard for a time in the 1980s.

Her Essex roots run even deeper than that. A young man named Mike Chase worked for Elco in 1929 and later, as Adm. Chase (and a resident of Essex) maintained that he delivered the new boat to its original owner in Boston that same year.

Valentine has survived other close calls through the years. Clark once “careened” the boat on a mud flat to paint the bottom. With the boat heeled over, the incoming tide began to pour through the ports into the engine room. “I realized it was sinking,” says Clark. “The fire department came with their big pumps and saved the day.”

In 1991, Valentine fell over on a marine railway, putting four holes in her side. Lloyds of London, the insurer, totaled the boat. The Clarks bought her back for a dollar and set about the major repairs. “She was all twisted out of shape from falling over like that,” says Herb. Using a series of turnbuckles and iron plates, Valentine was yanked back into shape. In fact, iron bars and cleats in key places still hold her square.

Today, Valentine leads an easy life, cruising local waters with family, friends and business associates — and still powered by those 1964 Palmers. “They’re simple and straightforward, and we just keep on running them,” says Clark. The couple also generously offers the boat for local fund-raising events. “We auction off rides for many charities, and it has been fun to use for philanthropic events,” says Herb. “Generally, a ride brings quite a bit [of funds], and I enjoy getting people on board to experience the boat.”

Docked at the Essex Yacht Club, Valentine has also been memorialized in the background for many a wedding picture, a glamorous star of the Essex waterfront.

What does the future hold for a 50-foot wooden motoryacht that’s closing in on 90 years? The Clarks aren’t sure. It certainly isn’t a practical boat for this day and age, and old wooden boats aren’t big sellers on the used-boat market because they’re very expensive to maintain. Some of the office workers kid Herb about digging a hole in front of his Essex workplace and dropping Valentine in it. “We could hook it up with power and I could use it as an office,” he says.

But there’s no thought of selling the “grand old lady” yet. Taking a summertime cruise aboard Valentine with a convivial crew is too much fun. “There’s nothing quite so magical as being on the water all day,” says Sharon.

Sitting in the wheelhouse, surrounded by the craftsmanship of a bygone day and the memories of a lifetime, the couple concurs: “We are going to use it as long as we can.”

November 2014 issue