She was 97 years old, but her age didn’t matter. For at least one judge at the 37th Antique & Classic Boat Festival in Salem, Massachusetts, picking the winner was almost predestined.
“Can we just go ahead and name her the most beautiful schooner in the world?” Queene Hooper Foster asked the other judges.
She was referring to Malabar II, a 1922 John Alden-designed 42-foot LOD wooden schooner. Her beautiful lines and pristine condition drew loads of admirers. By the end of the first day, the judges had voted her the best sailboat at the festival, and by the end of the weekend the spectators would do the same.
The gaff-rigged schooner is a testament to a nearly lifelong commitment from her owners, Jim and Ginny Lobdell of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, who fell in love with the boat when they first saw her in the mid-1970s. “We were just thunderstruck,” Ginny says.
At that time, the Lobdells were hard-core cruisers. They had started sailing on Lightnings in the 1960s while in college. On weekends, they would cross Long Island Sound on the 19-foot one-design dinghy from East Haven, Connecticut, using a boom tent and a camp stove to overnight with their dog and firstborn child. A second child and a move to Martha’s Vineyard, where Jim took a job as a high school industrial arts teacher, meant an upgrade to a 1938 30-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop. Summers were spent on the boat to avoid the high summer rents on the island. As the kids got older, the family upsized to a 1974 34-foot William Albury Bahamian cutter.
After a broker introduced them to Malabar II in Maine, they did not want any other boat, but they couldn’t afford the $37,000 asking price on Jim’s teaching salary. They had two young kids, a dog, the Bahamian cutter and a $23,500 mortgage on their new house Jim was building with his own hands.
But their banker pointed out that they had equity. “Back then, I had no idea what equity was,” Jim says with a self-deprecating chuckle. Selling their Bahamian cutter and increasing their monthly mortgage payments from $177 to $314 got the deal done. “In my wildest dreams, I never dreamed I would end up with a boat like that,” Jim says now.
The family spent the next two decades cruising to Maine and the Chesapeake Bay. While they lived aboard, they rented out their Vineyard Haven home, which paid their mortgage for the rest of the year. They also took Malabar II to Nova Scotia and Bermuda.
They maintained the boat themselves. Every year on Mother’s Day, Jim would haul Ginny up the masts for spar varnishing. Then, Hollywood came calling for the 1999 Kevin Costner movie Message in a Bottle, in which Malabar II got a starring role. The movie was not a critical hit, but it made the Lobdells some money. The next year, Jim and professional boatbuilder Andy Lyon put Malabar II and the 1939 63-foot schooner When and If (once owned by General George S. Patton) in the Lobdells’ backyard and replanked both boats. Andy would scarf lengths of silverballi together, and every day after Jim got home from teaching, they would install one new plank. They also gave Malabar II a new stem, rudder, floors, some framing and a new set of sails.
Today, Malabar II has spars that look brand-new, protected by shoe grease and the leatherwork Jim added to the mast hoops. Ginny finally stopped going up the mast when she turned 60; the boat and sticks now get pulled every winter when Malabar II enters her custom-built-barn. To protect the sails, the couple always use sail covers—but not at the boat show, so spectators could see the perfectly flaked sails.
Belowdecks, Malabar II’s layout is almost exactly what Alden drew in 1922. The only exceptions are a box below the shortened companionway steps that allows for easier access to the port and starboard bunks, and a temporary bunk in the bow. The forward bunk was installed by a good friend of the Lobdells, Miles Thurlow, who at age 17 served as Jim’s first mate on When and If after Jim retired from teaching. Thurlow now sails Malabar II regularly with his wife and kids.
Thurlow also does a lot of the maintenance. A master rigger and boatbuilder, his splicing work is evident all over Malabar II. He also manufactured bronze gaff saddles for the boat.
Jim still makes sure that he spends at least one month of the year aboard Malabar II himself. He tells people he won’t be at their weddings or funerals during that time. “You won’t miss me if I’m not there,” he jokes about missing a funeral.
When the day comes to part with Malabar II, the Lobdells plan to pass her along to Thurlow. For now, they all have adopted a practical approach to maintenance. Instead of varnishing they give the on-deck teak a light cross-grain scrubbing with a little detergent.
“I tell people, ‘She’s a pretty girl without makeup,’” Jim says. And the festival’s judges agreed.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.