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A Great First Boat

Ownership of an old Pennant stoked the cruising appetites and dreams of two teenaged friends
Sunburst with her 1960s paint scheme, the way the author and his friend bought her in the fall of 1971. 

Sunburst with her 1960s paint scheme, the way the author and his friend bought her in the fall of 1971. 

The old sloop intrigued us. She had nice lines and the most outrageous paint scheme imaginable for a boat, with bold colors straight out of Haight-Ashbury. An artist, perhaps assisted by pharmaceuticals, had worked hard to buck yachting convention. The rest of the boat was less striking. Her seams were beginning to open as she had been left uncovered for some time. Her best days had been before we were born.

The year was 1971. Between the two of us, my friend Dan Moreland and I had owned sailing dinghies, a wooden skiff and a waterski boat, which we ran in our home waters near Rowayton, Connecticut. The sense of freedom underway thrilled us. So did voyaging narratives, including Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. We were chafing for adventures. And we thought we were ready. We had worked at McMichael’s Boatyard in nearby South Norwalk, where the old sloop sat. We sanded and painted wooden boats, puttied seams, waxed fiberglass topsides, varnished brightwork, stepped and un-stepped masts, hauled and launched. We were scrambling to learn the arts of the sailor in a suburban boatyard.

Boat owners don’t always pay their bills. In that era, after sufficient time, yards could auction abandoned vessels to recover money owed. By September the buzz around the boatyard was that Sunburst was to go on the block. Auction day found Dan and me pacing anxiously, scanning the crowd for competition. Vinny Coccoli, the yard manager, started bidding at $370, the boat’s unpaid storage bill. No hand waved. Suddenly, for $185 each, and with smiles all around, we were yacht owners. Vinny, a chain-smoking Italian immigrant and talented mechanic with a big heart, agreed to let us keep the boat at the yard, with access to the shop, crane, and a winter slip. Vinny did not share our dream of cruising, but he made it possible.

F. Schneider built Pennant sloops for many years at his shop in College Point, New York. They were simple belowdecks, but not Spartan. Our 1947 24-footer had two bunks, a Wilcox Crittenden marine toilet, a two-burner alcohol stove and a tiny galley sink with a hand pump for fresh water. Her sails were intact, and her outfit included an anchor and miscellaneous gear. Framed in oak, with white cedar planking and mahogany cabin sides and trim, Pennants were hard-chined and relatively easy to build, yet ahead of their time with V-hulls and iron fin keels. Our boat had an 8-foot beam and a draft of 3 feet 9 inches. Her tiny 3/4 jib was set on a club for self-tacking, and her huge mainsail came equipped with roller reefing at the gooseneck. The long boom required a boomkin for the backstay. There were no sheet winches. Designed and built right after World War II, the boat had been innovative. In the ’70s, she was recast as traditional. That’s what we wanted. Sitting in her dusty cockpit we imagined her lifting to a sea.

A friend of the boys admires the work they did on the Pennant, stripping the topsides and the hull bottom. 

A friend of the boys admires the work they did on the Pennant, stripping the topsides and the hull bottom. 

Restoring an abandoned boat is not for the faint of heart. We began by obliterating the paint scheme, envisioning instead glossy black topsides, with a saucy yellow boot-top and red bottom. Removing all the paint gave us a chance to inspect the hull more thoroughly. Planks appeared sound. She would need underwater seam compound, but no caulking, except for the garboards. The most substantive problem was the rotted toerail. We ended up replacing it with stair-tread nose molding we bought off the shelf at the lumber yard. We added a half-round oak rubrail just beneath it. Both were well-bedded, fastened with silicone bronze screws.

As autumn progressed we faced our first real challenge. Would she float? She was destined to spend the winter in a slip, because it was the cheapest option. We worried, but our seam compound had done the trick. What about the ice? Someone said that in the absence of a bubbler to keep river ice from damaging a wet-stored boat, one could surround it with evergreen trees. So, without money for a bubbler we collected cast-off Christmas trees and placed them around the boat.

That winter we continued working on the boat. We sourced parts, borrowed tools and asked experienced men for help. Having stripped everything, we began to varnish indoors: main boom, jib club and tiller—eight coats on most of it. Then, as the weather warmed, we varnished the mahogany cabin sides and the new oak rails, not realizing that oak doesn’t take varnish as easily as some other woods, and that it blackens quickly. The problem would appear later.

Friends showed up at the yard, intrigued. Like Tom Sawyer convincing village kids to whitewash the fence, we cultivated them, especially the girls. We imagined the delights of co-ed cruising, far from the constraints of home. Inexperienced labor, however, no matter how willing, comes with costs. A girlfriend shook a quart of expensive varnish, ruining it with air bubbles. We threw a fit, until we saw her crestfallen face. We were taking ourselve much too seriously.

Dan and I hoped to sail far, perhaps the length of Long Island Sound, and onto Cape Cod or Nantucket. But first we had to get the engine running. She had a 10-hp gasoline inboard, a Blue Jacket Twin, the little sister of the famed Atomic Four. We changed the oil, drained the fuel tank, added new gas and a new fuel filter, and replaced the points and sparkplugs. It shrugged, refusing to start. Mechanical novices, we fixated on spark. Points, plugs, condenser were all new. Must be some problem with the distributor. We removed it. Neither of us knew how the timing gear worked, and that if the engine turned over with the distributor out, it would be difficult to re-mesh the distributor’s gear for proper timing. Things went from bad to worse. Our DIY operation did not include funds for a mechanic, so we jettisoned it. Then we yanked the gas tank. (It sat in my parents’ basement for decades.) We still needed an engine, so we bought a used 7.5-hp Elgin and mounted a bracket.

Sea trials came in the summer of 1972. With her impressive mainsail she skedaddled on a reach, but never pointed well, thanks to shapeless sails and less-than-ideal trim. Worse yet, when driving her hard, the fin keel torqued the keelson, and her garboards leaked. As summer wore on, we dialed back our cruising aspirations.

Ignoring the Elgin as much as possible, we challenged ourselves to sail the boat. She would not go to windward with jib alone but could jog along under just a reefed main. We sailed, anchored, shot the mooring and docked, gaining confidence. Occasional squalls gave us a taste of cruising challenges to come. We crossed Long Island Sound a few times, but that was it, maybe 25 miles from our mooring.

Afloat in McMichael’s Marina in Norwalk, the boat with Dan Moreland (on deck) is ready to sail in 1972.

Afloat in McMichael’s Marina in Norwalk, the boat with Dan Moreland (on deck) is ready to sail in 1972.

After two years we sold the boat we had renamed Jury Rig, at a profit. We had never packed a month of provisions into our storage space and the girlfriends had not shown up for overnights, yet there were no regrets.

The story doesn’t really end there. We both ultimately satisfied the itch to cross salt water. Dan went on to a 50-year career in large sailing ships, attaining his license as Unlimited Master in Steam, Motor and Sail at a young age. He has directed the restoration of iconic historic vessels and worked commercial tugs. He sailed around the world seven times as captain of the barque Picton Castle and he is about to set out on one more circumnavigation.

I spent 10 years as a licensed Mate and Master of big schooners in the western Atlantic, logging thousands of miles before going ashore as a
professor to write maritime histories. I restored a classic 36-foot yawl with my wife. We later exchanged wood for fiberglass and campaigned our Valiant 40 to the Caribbean four times before embarking on a multi-year voyage from New Hampshire to New Zealand. Teenaged ownership of that old Pennant whetted our appetites. Jury Rig provided a cup from which we were lucky to drink deeply. She was a great first boat. 

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.

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