Bay Tripper

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Breathing life into neglected boats

Breathing life into neglected boats

Do-it-yourself boatyards are of great interest to me because I can do my own boatwork there (such as it is), check out others doing their work or, in a pinch, pay someone to do what I can’t handle. Such places also provide rich story material.

Sometimes I am pleased to give advice to other amateurs who make the same mistakes I did years ago, which helps them. And watching pros do their thing helps me, although I have reluctantly accepted the fact I will never reach their level of perfection. Still, I have learned things, often the hard way.

Fine boat carpentry, however, is beyond my talents for the most part, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking up woodworking projects. I can finish wood, but I cannot always measure, cut and assemble it precisely, mostly because I don’t have the proper tools. (At least that’s my excuse.)

Still, I have a cockpit table built from scratch, but I seldom rig it for use. Varnished and stowed in view, it dresses up the cabin and provides some bragging rights, as in: “Would you believe I did that?”

I admire craftsmen who have perfected the art of boatwork, and from time to time I run into a roving, self-employed professional who can do it all and has done some work for me.

Master carpenter Mike Spicer — a 56-year-old red-bearded, pipe-smoking, independent craftsman — makes professional calls in his truck with his dog, Roy. He is a quiet fellow with an easy smile and provides short answers to long questions. Stem to Stern is his one-man home workshop in Crownsville, Md., where he lives with his non-boating wife, Gini, a registered nurse. When he isn’t working, he sails a 1946 Owens cutter and races log canoes on the Miles River.

Spicer’s specialty is bringing neglected and butchered boats back to life. He prefers long-term projects to short-term fixes and superficial surgical repairs. His fees are somewhat less than most boatyard rates because of his low-overhead operation, but they’re high enough to discourage all but the most determined boat owners.

“I turn down a lot of jobs because I have too much work as it is,” he says.

When I sailed my Sailmaster 22 to Casa Rio Boatyard in Mayo, Md., late last November for winter haulout, I poked around the yard’s big workshed to find out what was going on while waiting for a ride back to Annapolis. Tucked away in a cold corner was a 36-foot Chesapeake Bay classic, a cabin cruiser (“sedan fisherman”) designed and built in 1960 by Ellsworth Wingate, a farmer who produced high-quality boats by “rack of eye” near Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Wingate had a reputation for turning out workmanlike vessels with lovely, traditional Bay lines. This particular boat looked like hell after being neglected for several years, but clearly the owner thought it worth saving. Her hull had been wooded and the transom ripped out, so someone was doing something with her.

I spotted Roy the retriever guarding a stick near a bowl of water, and caught the sweet fragrance of pipe tobacco wafting in the air. Following the scent, I found Spicer on the end of a pipe, at work inside.

The boat was purchased around five years ago by Don and Donna Hekler from a man who traded her for a van at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Md. “I saw the ad in Soundings with a photo and was smitten,” says Don Hekler, who is 57 and financially independent. “Soon, Donna and I were off to the Eastern Shore to look at it and go for a spin.”

When the engine started, Donna — who works full time — thought of her late grandfather’s cabin cruiser, and her mind began spinning nostalgically back in time. The Heklers were trapped and soon learned that love affairs with boats aren’t always consummated with logical decisions.

“Donna was unusually quiet on the drive back to Annapolis,” says Don, “but then she surprised me by saying out of the blue, ‘I think we should name the boat Evelyn Marie,’ after her mother. So we had a boat project on our hands that we bought for $18,000.”

Soon after the purchase Don’s parents and Donna’s mother became seriously ill and had to be cared for. The boat sat neglected in a slip in Annapolis and slowly deteriorated as family matters took precedence. After the parents’ deaths, the Heklers turned to the boat but soon realized they didn’t have the talent or resolve to restore her. However, they did have discretionary funds.

They found Spicer through word of mouth and turned him loose after a survey by Fred Hecklinger of Annapolis. “If I had known then what I know now, I’m not sure I’d do it,” says Don. “But we were soon too far into it to quit. Chesapeake history took hold, and logic flew out the window.”

Hecklinger’s late 1999 survey report was full of warnings, and the boat’s condition would worsen in the following years as it sat neglected in its slip. “Some rot has developed in the original planks, and some sections of planking have been removed and replaced, often not to the best standards,” reported Hecklinger. “Some of the replacement planks are rather short. Rot has continued to develop in some sections of the new planking.

“It must be considered that the extent of the rot and deterioration … cannot be determined until the areas in question are opened up, and that cannot be done until preparations are made for repair.”

Indeed, the more Spicer picked, poked, prodded and pounded, the more problems he found. “There was a lot of stop-gap butchery in the name of carpentry, and all that had to be dismantled and done properly,” he says.

Ten repairs were regarded by Hecklinger as “essential.” If left unattended, he noted, “they could lead to further deterioration or complications, which could lead to a loss of structural integrity and could endanger the vessel.” Correcting these conditions, he added, “will require rather high cost to repair or recondition.”

The boat was planked with 36-foot-long strips of2-foot-wide local loblolly pine, a soft pine not known for its rot resistance. “That took a lot of steam box work to bend that wood,” says Spicer. “You would have to search long and hard to find a place to even get wood like that milled.” The bottom is cross-planked cedar in a herringbone pattern.

Spicer and his young helper, Shawn Hughart, replaced a half-dozen oak frames, half of the port side, and a third of the starboard side. The foredeck was replaced and covered with Dynel.

By early July, the topsides had been prepped and the bottom soda-blasted. The new mahogany transom was varnished, with many coats to come. The final coat of semigloss white will be applied by Spicer and Hughart with roller and brush.

The Heklers and Spicer decline to discuss ongoing costs. “It’s less expensive than buying a new boat of this size and type,” says Spicer. And it’s still too early to estimate the number of man-hours the project will require. “Depends on what else we find,” he says.

Hekler has too much money tied up in her now to stop short of complete restoration and rebuilding. At some point before winter, the boat will be launched and moved to Hekler’s home slip, where Spicer will finish the interior. By that time a 200-hp Yanmar will have been installed.

The Heklers plan a leisurely trip in late 2006 down the Intracoastal Waterway in Evelyn Marie. As for Spicer, he says, “there’s always another boat out there begging for attention.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.