A new cruising dream built from scratch

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After losing his boat in a storm in 1996, Art Kappele built a motorsailer and is ready to cruise again

After losing his boat in a storm in 1996, Art Kappele built a motorsailer and is ready to cruise again

Mariner wasn’t just a sailboat. She was a dream. When the restored 12 Meter ran up on a beach to be pummeled by waves, sawed into pieces and trucked away to a recycler, it wasn’t just a boat that died; it was a man’s dream. This is the story of a dead dream revived.

Art Kappele, a semiretired mechanical engineer, and two friends set sail from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., Oct. 21, 1996, on Mariner’s maiden voyage as a cruising yacht. Headed for the Florida Keys, the 62-footer ran into deteriorating weather from Hurricane Lili, which lay 600 miles offshore. Kappele fell asleep at the wheel after fighting all day and much of the night through 15- to 20-foot seas and 45-knot gusts. Mariner ran aground on the beach eight miles south of Lake Worth Inlet at West Palm Beach. Salvage efforts failed, and the uninsured yacht — a racer that wasn’t fast enough to make the cut for the 1974 America’s Cup defense — languished on the beach for a year. Finally, a beachfront-condominium association raised enough money to cut up the aluminum hull and remove it — piece by piece.

Three years later an arbitration panel awarded Art $7,500 for salvor negligence. The panel said if the salvor had secured Mariner on the beach overnight she might not have lost her mast, but it judged Kappele mainly at fault for the boat’s loss. In one nasty night he lost Mariner, the five years and $160,000 he had spent buying and restoring her, and a lifelong dream to slip the lines and go cruising.

Kappele, now 60, latched on to that dream almost 40 years ago and clung tenaciously to it. He had met a retired Army colonel who was sailing around the world with his wife, and to Kappele — a Cobra helicopter pilot, wounded in combat and recently returned from Vietnam — it seemed the most excellent of adventures, a welcome counterpoint to what he had seen as a combat gunship pilot.

“[The Colonel] was personable, a real people person,” says Kappele. “Some of the things we talked about were his travels, exciting places he had been. I liked his … spirit of challenge and adventure. He was soft-spoken but military in his determination, drive, self-discipline.”

But the dream stayed on the back burner as Kappele went on to college, graduated as an engineer and became an expert in robotic plating processes. He designed systems, worked as a consultant and was awarded five patents, including one for a filtering system that McDonald’s restaurants use today to clean french fry oil.

In 1991 Kappele decided it was time to retire. After 20 years his dream to go cruising had distilled into a potent brew of equal parts desire and determination. He credits his dad with instilling in him a hands-on aptitude and can-do attitude for tackling tough projects.

As a kid, the two of them dug out a basement together at their Cleveland home — using just shovels and a wheelbarrow. Later father and son bought an old airplane, and after working with his dad for two years to restore it, 15-year-old Kappele learned to fly it. He soloed it at 16 years old, got his private license at 17, and qualified for his commercial license at 19. “My father always told me, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to,’ ” he says.

A fresh start

Kappele realizes now that Mariner wasn’t the best choice for a cruising yacht, but the price was right — $30,000 — and she had a history and pedigree. Designed by Britton Chance, she had raced in the defender trials with Ted Turner at the helm and Dennis Conner as tactician, but lost to Courageous, which went on to successfully defend the Cup. Mariner wasn’t a very comfortable cruiser, and with her fin keel, narrow rudder and deep bustle between the fin and rudder skeg, the 12 Meter reputedly was never very easy to maneuver.

“I was trying to do this without being a millionaire,” says Kappele. “I thought Mariner might be the right boat. It wasn’t. Mariner was for racing; it was not a good cruising boat.”

Yet when Mariner went up on the beach that night she still was his dreamboat. Interviewed after the case went to arbitration, Kappele said it wasn’t just Mariner’s loss that hurt him but the fight over what he thought was a botched salvage and a clause in the salvage contract that required binding arbitration of disputes — with no appeal.

The $7,500 award hardly seemed reasonable, but he couldn’t appeal it. “I was devastated by the whole thing,” he says. The boat was gone. His life savings were gone. Five years of his life were gone. The dream was dead — a pipe dream now.

That was before he met up again with Renée — now Renée Kappele — an old friend of 23 years. The two had kept up correspondence over the years and got together to catch up whenever Art was in Cleveland, their hometown. Renée, who is 44, is a spirited woman. Orphaned and adopted as a child, she left home at 17, worked hard and made her own way, eventually founding and building a general contracting business restoring fire- and water-damaged homes.

She had just been through a divorce and faced a new crisis: Some sores on her chest had been diagnosed as aggressive melanoma. If she went in for cancer surgery, she would be laid up for weeks, possibly months, and would have to close her business. Kappele, visiting in Ohio, advised her to forget the business and get the surgery. She could convalesce and heal at his home in Florida and explore some new directions.

That was in 1999. Renée recalls sitting across from him at his NewSmyrnaBeach home that year after her recovery and seeing the utter disappointment in his eyes when he received notice of the long-awaited settlement for Mariner.

“Art and I both needed a fresh start,” she says. “I told him, ‘If this is what you really want to do, you’ve got to do it. Why don’t we build a boat ourselves? Between the two of us we could get this project going.’ ”

After what he’d been through with Mariner, Kappele was hardly in the mood to build boat from scratch — not at first anyway. “I sat down and analyzed it,” he says. He looked at his options: buy a boat, build one or forget it. If he built or bought, he’d have to go back to work. How long would he have to work to save enough for a boat? How long would it take them to design and build one themselves?

“I always thought of [building a boat] as something great to do, but I knew how long it would take,” he says.

Kappele estimates he has invested 10,000 hours in Magic Dragon, his new 65-foot aluminum motorsailer. It has cost the couple about $200,000, excluding labor. Among the biggest expenses: $40,000 for aluminum and $6,000 for pilothouse windows.

He started cutting aluminum for Magic Dragon in his garage in NewSmyrnaBeach six years ago. He built the hull in a rented shed a few minutes from the house, and in the summer of 2005 he motored her to Jacksonville and transited the St. John’sRiver to St. John’sMarina in Satsuma, where he and Renée now live in a motor home dockside while they finish the boat.

The dream awakens

Kappele decided that, indeed, if they really wanted a cruising boat, they would have to build it themselves to get what they wanted at a price they could afford. He wanted a long-term cruising boat — basic and affordable, not an opulent floating condominium. He liked the Steve Dashew design philosophy of a long, lean, efficient hull made of aluminum for toughness. He took the outline of a design to three naval architects, but when they wouldn’t give him what he wanted and handed him a sheaf of liability exclusions for their work he decided to take a crash reading course in yacht design and draw up the plans for the motorsailer himself.

It wasn’t rocket science — not for an engineer anyway — but still it was a steep learning curve. “I wouldn’t see him until 8 or 9 at night, he was so into his books,” Renée says.

The couple resurrected Kappele’s industrial design firm, went to a nickel plating trade show in Orlando, Fla., and picked up 10 well-paying contracts to design plating systems. They worked at that for about a year, and at the end of that time they had saved enough money to get started and buy the marine-grade aluminum for the hull and pilothouse, rent a warehouse and purchase aluminum-working tools. Meanwhile, Kappele worked a couple months a year to fund construction.

“When you’re building one-off, you don’t have a mold,” he says. “You build your boat like they built the old wooden boats.”

They laid out the hull’s I-beam ribs and stringers — the ribs at 24-inch intervals, the stringers 12 inches apart — then welded aluminum plates to them. Kappele had bought a textbook on welding and did the work precisely and by the book. Renée helped with cutting the aluminum, grinding the oxide off and bending each plate to a precise curve in a roller bender. They started cutting I-beams in the garage in 2001, and four years later the hull and pilothouse were finished, though not attached to each other because they wouldn’t be able to roll the boat out of the warehouse.

Measuring 65 feet with a 14-foot beam, 4-foot, 8-inch draft, and a mast that reaches 60 feet off the water, Magic Dragon is a motorsailer and coastal cruiser. Her lead keel is 18 feet long and weighs 22,000 pounds — more than half of the boat’s 42,000-pound displacement — so she has a very low center of gravity and can right herself quickly. “She’s a very stiff boat,” says Kappele. Under power of her 1,500 square feet of sail and rebuilt 128-hp Detroit Diesel, Magic Dragon should motorsail at 10 knots and reach 13 knots under engine alone, he says.

The hull and deck are 1/4-inch aluminum plate, the keel sides 1/2-inch, and the bottom 1-inch plate, says Art. The boat has two double cabins, an equipment or crew cabin, and a pilothouse with lots of visibility. Other features include a 250-gallon water tank, interior steps instead of ladders, a walkaround engine room, four watertight bulkheads, cleats welded to the frame under the deck, four lifting eyes welded to the frame so she can be lifted with a crane, and big electric winches so if she grounds they can set anchors and use the winches to free her.

This is the boat that Art and Renée wanted.

Fabricating the keel was particularly laborious. They visited marinas in Virginia and North Carolina to salvage lead from the keels of abandoned sailboats. Using a chainsaw, they’d cut the keels into 50- to 200-pound chunks, cart the pieces home, stack them inside eight compartments in Magic Dragon’s keel, then pour molten lead around them.

“I felt like a pack mule,” Renée says.

When the time came to roll Magic Dragon out of the shed, the couple dismantled one of the shed’s sheet metal walls, rolled out the hull and pilothouse, and trailered them to a boat ramp. There, they attached pilothouse to hull and launched their new boat without a mast. They motored to the Satsuma marina, where they still are working on Magic Dragon.

“The boat is livable now,” says Renée. “We’ve stayed on it a couple of times.”

The Kappeles will have to move the boat out of the marina to the other side of a low bridge before they raise the mast. That will start the countdown to cruising.

Magic Dragon is named for Puff, the dragon made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary in the song of the same name about an imaginary dragon that sails with his playmate and explores faraway lands. Target date for the shakedown cruise, when they plan to exploreChesapeake Bay and New England — maybe even do the Great Loop — is early this summer.

“That’s the beginning of the gypsy lifestyle,” Renée says.

Kappele’s dream finally is coming true, but it’s not just his dream now. It’s Renée’s, as well. “The way I look at everything in life is you can’t change the past,” he says.

But you can always start over from wherever you are. Ask the Kappeles.

Editor’s note: The Kappeles have chronicled some of this story and are sharing what they’re learning about building a boat at

www.sailing-starting-over.com .