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Bay Tripper January 2007 - Soundings Online

Bay Tripper January 2007

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A restoration, then a road trip

A restoration, then a road trip

When Steve Brown began looking for an old sailboat in 2000 as a special, surprise birthday present for his sailing wife, Lisa, he was a non-sailor with little knowledge of sailboats. He heard of an abandoned vessel about to be auctioned off at Fort Washington Marina on the upper Potomac River, near their Maryland home at the time, and decided to have a look.

“I had no idea what the boat was worth, and when I got there I was the only bidder,” he recalls. “The boat was a filthy mess. The bow got caved in when the pulpit was trapped and crushed under the dock, I was told. The retractable keel was frozen in place, and the cabin was full of smelly, murky water. But I saw the boat through rose-colored eyeglasses — not what it was, but what it might look like after a complete restoration.” This fiberglass, flush-deck, racing-class sailboat was built in 1977 by S2 Yachts of Holland, Mich., as the S2 6.8 Exciter — the smallest (at around 22-1/2 feet) in a series of small “high-performance racers” offered by the builder.

Brown, 47, paid $2,000 for the boat, although it might not have been the wisest bid. The marina was delighted to get rid of it, probably at any price. It had taken possession of the beat-up, derelict vessel, and she came with a full set of sails — with no outboard, the stove-in bow, and a rotted deck core. (A search on eBay turned up an S2 Exciter of the same vintage selling for $520 last summer in St. Petersburg, Fla. It was described as being “in good condition, with an outboard, but in need of sails.”)

Regardless of the Exciter’s grim appearance, Lisa Brown immediately fell in love with her birthday present, and she and Steve soon became attached to it. They cleaned it up, caulked the holes, bought an outboard and sailed it regularly — in as-is condition — and happily on the Potomac.

Fast forward to early 2006. The Browns were planning to relocate from Maryland to new jobs in Seattle. Steve is a wine importer, Lisa an executive with Starbucks, and they have no children. But they couldn’t bear the thought of leaving behind their now-beloved sailboat.

Some three years previous, happy with the Exciter, they’d decided to find a pro to rejuvenate it. They did some research on boat restoration and eventually tracked down Tommy Solomon, a 43-year-old yacht restorer from Edgewater, Md., to bring the boat back to life. Solomon took one look and advised them against such a project. “It will cost too much for what the boat is worth,” he reported. “My advice is to find another boat in better shape.”

But the Browns weren’t discouraged and later returned to Solomon, pleading with him to take on the job. It was something they assured him they wanted to do, emotionally and financially, and work got under way early last March. “The ultimate cost was tens of thousands of dollars,” says an uncomplaining Steve Brown, who declined to provide a final figure.

The Browns laugh about Solomon “becoming our family doctor because we regard our boat as a member of the family,” explains Steve, who figures the restoration was “well worth the cost after seeing the finished project. So what if I’ll be working a year to pay off this debt?”

They now day sail Bubbles (Lisa loves champagne) regularly out of their Lake Washington marina, six miles from home. “That means in the rain, too, because if you don’t sail in the rain you won’t sail in Seattle,” he says. “The boat is fast and attracts a lot of attention. We thought we’d finish the interior ourselves to save on costs, but now are thinking about asking Tommy to do it because we could never match his quality of work.”

Solomon is used to handling near-basket cases of nautical neglect, so he had at it when he realized the Browns were fully committed to the ambitious project. The 4,400-pound boat was, indeed, a mess — inside and out — and the more Solomon tore into it the more damage he found. He removed the rotted balsa coring and replaced it from the inside. Freeing the 1,100-pound swing keel, frozen inside its centerboard slot in a fully raised position, was another major undertaking.

He sanded, primed and refinished the entire exterior; stripped the bottom; and removed blisters and applied barrier coatings. After a primer, he sprayed on white Awlcraft 2000 topside paint. All hardware was removed, cleaned or replaced, rebedded and refastened, and all holes permanently sealed. The job was completed in late June and Solomon, as is his custom, amassed a meticulous digital library of daily progress documenting the boat looking its worst on the way to looking its best.

The Browns later contributed a testimonial for Solomon’s Web site (www.tommysolomon.com ). Here’s the gist: “Do you love your boat? We certainly love ours,” they wrote. “The proof is in the selection that we made as to who should work with us to bring her back to life. As boat owners, we have seen the hacks and the amateurs. Our boat matters to us, and having her restored was a serious investment.

“We received, via e-mail, daily photos and detailed work-progress reports, and Tommy called us at least once a week to discuss options as the job progressed. We slept easily knowing our boat was in his care from start to finish. Moreover, when the job was completed, he hauled her 3,078 miles from Maryland to Seattle and delivered her safely.”

The delivery option was something that came up later as a possibility, and it got Solomon to detailed thinking and planning, things he loves to do. A wildly imaginative boat repairman and adventurer, he took advantage of the delivery to trip out on the trip and make it another interesting chapter in his life.

According to the detail man’s records, he drove a total of 10,013.9 miles, burned 730 gallons of fuel at a cost of $2,050.36, and spent $638.18 on food and $756.38 on lodging during the round trip. He also accumulated a library of 2,765 digital images.

A gearhead fascinated by heavy machinery, Solomon first had to rig a custom trailer to handle the load with his state-of-the-art pickup truck. Solomon’s $53,000 vehicle is an important member of his family: a white Super Duty Ford F-350 (362 hp) King Ranch Crew model with a 6-passenger cab. It weighs in at 6,870 pounds, measures 20 feet long, stands 7 feet off the ground, and has an 8-foot “beam.” He loves his truck.

Solomon departed Maryland Aug. 1, towing his 4,400-pound load cross-country. “During the first part of the journey I turned off all sounds — CD player and A/C — to listen carefully to what was going on under and around me,” he recalls. “Sounds can tell you a lot.”

In western Iowa, when the temperature hit 106 degrees, he decided to turn the A/C off for good. “I wanted to feel everything about the experience of the trip in a natural state,” he says. “I had the freedom of doing what I chose, so I did it.”

Solomon focused on the delivery and getting it done as quickly as possible. After the delivery, he took time to visit his Bering Sea crab-fishermen pals in Seattle, and hit the road from there. It turned into an enchanting, serendipitous, free-wheeling exploration along the blue highways of the Far West. (There isn’t enough space here to recount all of what he did, and whom he met coming and going.)

He brought along tokens of the Atlantic coast (a bushel of Assateague Island clam shells) to hand out along the way as mementoes of where he came from. He also left behind single shells, placing them in conspicuous places. In fact, the Browns have a shucked clamshell displayed on the fire hydrant in front of their home.

“It’s amazing,” says Steve Brown. “People walk by, pick it up and look at it, and put it right back. It’s still there.”

These clamshells opened the door for a number of encounters, one of which had almost mystical overtones. A clamshell given to a Navajo Indian on the Utah-Arizona border gained Solomon permission to overnight in his open truck bed at a restricted, prehistoric Indian site in Monument Valley.

“Close to dusk, an Indian arrived with a pipe, and we smoked and told stories as the sun set,” he says. “It was magic. The shell to him represented life from a faraway ocean he would never see. Next to delivering the boat to the Browns, it was the highlight of my whole trip.”

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.