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Bay Tripper August 2007

Recycling boats with a nauticalnomad

Recycling boats with a nauticalnomad

In the early 1970s Gary Lee, a former professional golfer and caddy in Ohio, was driving a 3-ton milk truck out of Fort Myers, Fla., and looking for a place to live when he wasn’t on the road. He figured a sailboat might work, so in 1976 he bought a new North Star 26 for $9,000 with no sails and free dockage.

“I didn’t care about sails. I just wanted a place to sleep and to avoid paying rent when I wasn’t hauling milk,” explains Lee.

That purchase 30 years ago created in him a lifelong passion for boats and the lifestyle that goes with it. This obsession has led to owning at least 50 sailboats at last count — a number always subject to increase. He attempted to compile a requested list but warned it might be higher by 10 or so. “Some old boats came and went in fairly rapid fashion, always at a little profit,” he says with a laugh.

I met this unique, self-admitted boat nut last spring while working on my sailboat at Port Annapolis Marina and Boatyard. A reader of this column, Lee recognized my 1962 Sailmaster 22 and came up. “Hey, I might have a story that will interest you,” he said, and this is the outcome of that first meeting.

In mid-April Lee, who is 67, had just arrived from Key West in a 1974 deep-keel Columbia 30, with a mother cat and four kittens. The boat was powered by a 5-hp outboard he mounted on the transom because the Atomic 4 gas engine needed work. He had sold his 1969 Bristol 26 in Florida, and a marina owner asked if he was interested in buying another boat.

“No, no, no. I own too many boats as it is — but maybe I’ll have a look,” he said. It was the Columbia, a solidly built, cavernous sloop with a roller furling jib and sails that sleeps six. The marina owner had taken possession and wanted it out of there. “If I get a free slip, power and water, and use of the head and showers while fixing it up for takeaway, we might have a deal,” he said. Lee got it for $1,500.

This is now one of his many projects, and when he’s finished cleaning and painting and getting it ready for sail this summer, he will ask $4,000 (without a functioning Atomic 4). As of early June, he had scrubbed and painted (one coat of white Rust-Oleum) all the interior compartments — a mammoth job in itself, squeezing in and out of storage areas. He also refinished the interior woodwork and bought two anchors and a new portable potty. (All his boating materials are from Wal-Mart.)

“I’m not into this for the money,” he says. “This is a hobby I enjoy. I’m alone. All my personal possessions are stored in one boat, and my vast collection of boat parts are in another and in my truck. I never throw away anything. I enjoy recycling older boats back to life. I make a small profit, but if I put a price on my hours of labor I would have to ask $20,000 for the Columbia.”

Today he has outright title to four fiberglass sailboats, all stored and effectively abandoned at Port Annapolis by discouraged owners. But by next week or next month he may own two or three or four more. He has his eyes on a Cape Dory 28, Dufour 27, Alberg 30 and a South Coast 23.

Lee lives aboard a 1976 Ericson 27 at the large Back Creek boatyard with his cat, Kiki. In October he sails it to Florida to spend the winter, sail around, visit friends and loaf. “I’m renaming her Foreplay, and she’s a keeper,” he says. He plans to replace the Atomic 4 with an $850 Volvo diesel he will install, but he will mount a new 6-hp 4-stroke outboard on the transom as backup.

He has had a working, “first refusal” agreement with Port Annapolis for five years to take possession, fix up and (most importantly) remove unwanted boats with clear titles. They take up valuable storage space and bring in no rental income. The marina, in turn, charges him nothing, as long as he continues to move boats out and away (seven so far). That’s how he got the Ericson. It sat unattended for 10 years until its owner lost interest and stopped paying storage fees. The marina took possession and sold it to Lee for $800.

Another project boat might be a 1976 Columbia 29 with a long to-do list that could keep him busy for a couple seasons during his summer forays in Annapolis. Neglected for 15 years, the boat is a gloomy pit of mildew and rot requiring a lot of TLC.

Lee, an Army vet, was an Air Force brat who went to high school in Europe, golfed for years in Ohio and Germany, managed liquor stores in Maryland and Florida, and drove a milk truck — among other jobs. He married and had seven children before taking to the water as a happy, nautical nomad. A short, stocky, friendly type full of good humor, he has suffered a heart attack, but that hasn’t diminished or curtailed his adventurous spirit. He has been up and down the Intracoastal Waterway 30 times and once met a woman in Jacksonville who traveled with him for about 10 years until she left to get married and have children.

“I have had seven children, why more?” he asks. “Kiki is my mate and companion, and when she has kittens I sell them. Her last batch of four sold for $25 each. She can have as many kittens as she wants.”

Kiki relaxes in air-conditioned comfort (an $89 Wal-Mart window unit rigged in the companionway) when her master is sweating bullets working in hot boat interiors. Turned loose, she leaps from boat to boat as a free spirit but always comes home when called.

Lee wears a wide-brim sun hat and shorts, and around his neck is a lanyard with 12 keys dangling from it. “I can’t go searching for keys when I go from boat to boat for this and that,” he explains. From his Ericson summer home he is surrounded by unwanted boats no longer cared for tenderly and lovingly. Some of them seem beyond saving, even as a gift, although one can’t help but think of them as once being new showboats fresh from the factory.

“Here in the Baltimore-Washington area, you can find free boats or needs-work vessels for under $1,000,” he says. “People making six-figure salaries here let boats go for little or nothing when they lose interest. But in Florida, where boats are burned up by the sun, money is tight, and you’ll get something like an Ericson 27 for $800. No way.”

Jogging Lee’s memory by going over his long list is an amusing experience and serves as a starter guide to his life and travels. He is an expert on finding cheap marinas and free dockage and showers wherever he goes. His owner’s list of boats ranges in size from a 1968 Highlander 18 to a wooden 55-foot yawl built in 1968 that sunk twice under him at a dock. He cut that one up for parts, which contributed to his extensive collection of nautical fittings and equipment.

Here and there in the list are an Irwin, Ranger, Bristol, Grampian, Pearson, Hunter, C&C, Columbia, Newport, Cal, Morgan, Eastwind, Contest, Spirit and Seafarer. He looks for boats built before 1980 and from 24 to 30-some feet. They must have clear titles, first and foremost.

“Some you couldn’t give away,” he says. “There’s a 1972 Cheoy Lee 31 here with a solid fiberglass hull, lots of exterior teak and a teak deck with hundreds and hundreds of screw holes, all of which must leak. I looked inside and found foul, stagnant rainwater above the bunk boards. The yard drained it for inspection and revealed a muddy swamp. A dead boat for sure, although it would probably float. But you might catch a disease while trying to clean it.”

It is amazing what bleach, soap and water, and white paint will do for a tired, old boat. The Columbia 29, for example, is a project in progress and is attracting interest. Lee uses P.O. Box 15549, Columbus, OH43215 for his summer address, and P.O. Box 65, Alva FL 33920 during winter. He also has a cell phone — (239) 233-1976 — that isn’t set up to record messages, but calls are registered and usually returned.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.