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Bay Tripper

A boat for life … and it’s a sweet life

A boat for life … and it’s a sweet life

As a longtime boating writer who is still finding boats and boaters to write about, I am occasionally asked if I have any favorite published stories. I do, and maybe one day I’ll compile a selection for my only grandchild when she takes up the sport (I hope) and maybe gets curious about her sailing paternal grandfather.

At any rate, one of those favorites in that collection will be a sad yet inspirational human-interest tale that ended happily. It told of the decline, fall and recovery of a family’s beloved sailing yacht, La Dolce Vita, which played a major role in the family’s own recovery from personal tragedy in a tropical paradise.

I stumbled across this vessel almost 10 years ago at a do-it-yourself boatyard. What made it all the more interesting to me was the fact that four women were refinishing the teak brightwork on this older 40-footer, which thankfully has a fiberglass hull. My late wife was no sailor and never showed up at a boatyard on my behalf except to drop me off or pick me up — an invaluable service — and she expected nothing in return except dinner at a good restaurant. (Prepping for those trips to the boatyard, she would carefully cover her car’s front and rear seats to stow unwelcome boat stuff that always came with me.)

It was a daunting task for Sheila Ross and her three daughters to strip, sand, glue and refinish the Sitka spruce spars of Dolce Vita — they dropped the “La” and use “DV” when referring to the boat — with an epoxy resin base and 14 coats ofa three-part varnish and final clear coat. After introducing myself, I was invited on board and immediately became curious about two inscribed builder’s plates. One noted that the yacht was built in 1968 for “James Ross” by Cheoy Lee in Hong Kong, and the other proclaimed that it was rebuilt in 1993 by “The Ross Women.”

As I look back on that first interview with the determined mother and leader of those Ross Women, I was pleased that she trusted me enough to reveal a personal, emotional past to explain the story behind those two brass plates. For years she struggled with the alcoholism of her husband, Jimmy Ross, which led to his tragic death in 1978 in the British Virgin Islands. They eventually lost everything but Dolce Vita, along with the sweet life the boat represented, and had to move on board to get on with life.

“I couldn’t afford to restore DV, but I just couldn’t bring myself to let her go either,” Ross said. “She served as our home and provided a safe haven when our lives were falling apart. She was, and remains, a trusted member of the family.” So I went ahead and wrote the story about the attachment these women have for this yawl and how it saved them and they, in turn, saved it.

Over the years I would spot in the distance what I thought looked like Dolce Vita sailing on Chesapeake Bay out of Annapolis. Last October I finally crossed paths with this distinctive boat as it headed out to race in an annual vintage-boat regatta sponsored by Good Old Boat magazine. I could hear the crew laughing as they came up and passed close enough for me to introduce myself and shout, “Hey! I think I wrote about that boat a long time ago!” They waved and replied, “Yes, you did!” and were gone to catch the start.

This winter I became immersed in a major housecleaning project, and began sorting through cardboard boxes filled with 40-plus years of newspaper and magazine articles and issues and “stuff.” I came across that story and decided it might qualify for an update.

Mother Ross, now a fund-raiser for the Lung Cancer Alliance and a two-time lung cancer survivor herself, lives in a waterfront condominium with a slip on Back Creek in Annapolis. It originally was purchased as a home for Dolce Vita, and the condo was rented out. “We still work on DV ourselves, but not as much as we used to, especially me,” she says. “Last summer we again stripped the spars, but this time we did not use a toxic three-part finish and went with eight coats of Interlux’s Goldspar varnish. Much kinder on the lungs, you know.

“Every other year we leave the boat in the water and call Tom Kicklighter at Diversified Marine Services to scrub the bottom and touch up the hull,” she continues. “Harvey Smith is our mechanic, whose wife, Susan, must be on hand when he wiggles into the tight engine compartment in case he gets stuck and can’t back out again without help. Jessica Faulkner also helps with the varnish work.”

Daughters Heather Ross, 45, Audrey Ross King, 43, and Emily Ross Eyres, 41, still sail the boat, mostly on weekends. They often are joined by Heather’s daughter Crissie, 18, and Audrey’s children — Samantha, 10, Nicholas, 11, and Gregory, 8. Also in the wings as crew are Emily’s children — Gabrielle, 7, Cassidy, 4, and Peyton, 2. The sisters all live near one another in the Bethesda, Md., area.

They haul Heather up the mast to sand and varnish aloft. The artistic Crissie rehabbed the transom nameboard and applied gold leaf over the Chinese lettering. Nicholas took a sailing course at KidSail last summer and has asked to invite five friends to join him for a weekend cruise on his 12th birthday. “I like to hoist the sails and steer,” he says. “DV is an important family heirloom, and I plan to teach my children to sail the boat.”

Sheila Ross also is focusing on the future, which looks promising boatwise, with seven grandchildren standing by to help care for and sail the family’s boat for life. “The children are learning the difference between life on shore and on the water, which involves a regular check of small details and being aware of any strange sounds,” she says. “Initially, they missed TV, but they got over that quickly. They have a new inflatable dinghy with a 10-hp outboard to play with, and they handle it well.”

Those trying times in the faraway islands are an unpleasant part of a troubling past, but that past and the family’s survival by staying together cannot be completely ignored, so forgive me for rehashing a few details. By 1974, Jimmy’s illness began to take hold, and there were serious consequences. “He was handsome, successful, charming, intelligent and rich — such a neat guy and a great sailor, too,” Sheila told me in that interview 10 years ago. “His parents owned coffee and sugar plantations in Puerto Rico, and he was a high-salaried vice president with one of the world’s largest international advertising firms. He had it all: a fabulous penthouse in San Juan, a home in St. Thomas, a wonderful job, and a loving family with three young daughters and a beautiful yacht we all loved.”

It took his distraught parents a long time to accept what had befallen their son. Sheila, of course, battled with it but was determined to keep her family together and be independent. She sailed Dolce Vita to St. Thomas with the girls before Jimmy died, and berthed the boat at Yacht Haven. They adjusted to the liveaboard life, with other families and young children in the boating community around to lend support. They lived on the boat there for almost five years.

Sheila got involved in local politics and eventually landed a job in Washington with the USVI delegation in Congress, where she worked in both the House and Senate for almost 20 years. When they moved to the States they left the yacht on a mooring off a small marina, supposedly in the care of an itinerant liveaboard. The boat nearly sank during a hurricane in the early 1980s but was rescued by the operator of Avery’s Boatyard and brought ashore, where she continued to decline. Dolce Vita was dying a slow death in St. Thomas.

“It broke my heart,” said Sheila. “There was nothing I could do to save her. The girls were in college, and I was busy earning a living in Washington. But I could not get the boat off my mind. We had lost one member of the family in the islands, and now we were about to lose another. It was unbearable.”

The rescue of Dolce Vita began when Sheila arranged for a friend — the owner of Tropical Shipping in St. Thomas — to transport the yacht to Florida in the late 1980s. From there, the boat was trucked to a yard on Maryland’s upper Eastern Shore, and by 1991 it had landed at Casa Rio Boatyard in Mayo, Md. Here, the Ross restoration finally began in earnest with the help of Victor Montenegro, a highly respected St. Thomas shipwright. By 1993 Dolce Vita had a fabricated teak deck, an AwlGripped hull, and a new 50-hp Perkins diesel. She had returned to the sweet life again after so many years of neglect.

Dolce Vita turns 40 this year. Her keel was laid in 1967 at the Cheoy Lee shipyard in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and in 1968 she was shipped to Jamaica (in two teak crates) and then sailed to St. Thomas. “Like any member of any family, she continually requires attention and tender, loving care,” says Sheila. And that’s where the Ross grandchildren come in today. Their parents learned the nautical ropes aboard DV when they were children, and now it’s the turn of the next generation to take up the sanding, varnishing and sailing.

An air of happiness long ago displaced the lingering sadness of the past, and it is revealed for all to hear in waves of persistent laughter over the water when members of the Ross clan are headed out into the Chesapeake for another sweet day of sailing.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.