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A 50-foot freebie

A Massachusetts man decides to give away the gaff-rigged schooner he built in his back yard

A Massachusetts man decides to give away the gaff-rigged schooner he built in his back yard

Jack Christensen became somewhat of a celebrity when word spread that he wanted to give away a 50-foot schooner.

A self-taught builder who has virtually no sailing experience, Christensen spent 17 years building the boat in his Marshfield, Mass., back yard. But when it was complete, he says he was disappointed by the high cost of insurance, the “nitpicking” safety codes, and the lack of available moorings off Massachusetts’ south shore. So before he even launched the boat, Christensen announced his intentions to donate Queen Jean (named after his wife) to charity. And when that didn’t immediately pan out, a story in the Wall Street Journal sparked a flood of phone calls from schooner lovers across the country.

During a recent interview at Christensen’s home — a former summer estate dotted with sheds and a carriage house — a man from Boulder, Colo., called to inquire about Queen Jean. “You’re number 66,” Christensen told the caller.

Not all the calls were from people interested in obtaining the schooner. Some called to chat about boatbuilding, schooners or sailing. Others offered moorings or sailing lessons. Christensen says he was touched by the response.

Christensen, indeed, found a home for his schooner. He gave her to another Massachusetts man who plans to sail around the world with his family. All he has to do is arrange to have the boat transported out of Christensen’s yard. There also is a waiting list of other potential owners if the arrangement doesn’t work out. While Christensen says he wishes he could sail her for at least a season, he isn’t bitter or unhappy about the experience.

“I had the fun of building it,” the 68-year-old says. “There are builders and there are sailors. Sometimes there are both. I’m a builder.”

Originally from Windsor, Conn., Christensen graduated from MIT in Cambridge, Mass., with a degree in electrical engineering through the ROTC program. After serving as a pilot in the Air Force, he returned to Massachusetts to pursue a career in fund raising and development with universities and non-profit organizations. Other than a five-year stint at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Christensen has lived in Marshfield and worked in Massachusetts for 34 years, retiring last year.

Christensen says he likes to work with his hands and is particularly fond of building things. While working part-time as development officer for Heritage Plantations, a complex of museums on early American life in Sandwich, Mass., he launched his own kitchen and bath remodeling business. After reading a book about building violins, Christensen built 13 and restored several others. Then he made cellos. Several years ago, he bought an old Greyhound bus and converted it into a camper.

“I’ve undertaken a lot of projects,” says Christensen.

Christensen nearly 20 years ago decided to take up sailing. His plan was to find an old boat that needed some work. He found a few that sparked his interest but none that also met the approval of his wife. That’s when he decided to build his own.

He read books on the subject and decided to build a boat suitable for cruising. Originally thinking of a simple 20- or 30-footer, Christensen’s plan evolved into a gaff-rigged schooner because he liked the look. He found plans for a William Garden 60-footer and scaled it down 10 feet.

Queen Jean’s hull is cold-molded spruce with two layers of fiberglass cloth; the ribs and keel are red oak. The deck is made from two layers of plywood and epoxy, and the masts and booms are made from spruce. Her wheel was built from mahogany.

Christensen taught himself to weld and make sails. He sewed canvas together using his grandmother’s old sewing machine. “I’m pretty proud of the sails,” he says.

The interior is Christensen’s own design and features four single and one double berth. The galley is simple, with a sink, alcohol stove and insulated icebox. A used Perkins 4-cylinder diesel is in the middle of the galley, hidden by a cover that doubles as a table.

He was planning to launch the boat in May, but when he tried to insure his schooner he was told he didn’t have enough sailing experience. One agent suggested Christensen hire a crew, but that didn’t interest the former pilot.

“Maybe I’m naive, but if I can fly an airplane in three dimensions, I can sail a boat in two dimensions,” says Christensen.

He also encountered problems finding a mooring for the 50-footer. When he found himself lying awake at night worrying about the details, he decided to give the boat away. “Life’s too short,” he says.

A local non-profit organization dealing with mentally handicapped adults and children expressed interest in the schooner and commissioned a survey.

“The survey knocked me hard,” says Christensen.

The survey turned up several problems — the wrong kind of electrical wiring was used, there were no battery covers, and one of the fuel tanks was too close to the battery, according to the surveyor. The expert also says he found soft spots near the keel, but Christensen says he still can’t find them.

The non-profit decided against acquiring Queen Jean.

A story about Christensen and his schooner in the Boston-area Patriot Ledger newspaper sparked the interest of a local Wall Street Journal writer. After the story was published, the phone calls started.

Christensen sometimes takes the wheel of Queen Jean, imagining himself sailing the high seas, from the comfort of his back yard. He longs to sail at least once aboard his creation, and he might get his wish. The new owner has promised to take Christensen on at least one excursion.