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Building S.S. Grace an exercise in faith

John Rynne had no burning desire to build a boat until he saw the picture of a San Juan Island halibut schooner in Reuel Parker’s “The Sharpie Book,” a digest of shoal-draft wooden sailing boats.

The 37-foot flat-bottomed centerboard sharpie captured his imagination. Designed in the mid-1800s for commercial fishing offshore in the Pacific northwest, the schooner was just about the right size for Rynne to cruise together with Sally, his wife of 23 years. He was smitten by the workboat’s classic lines and its gaff rig, which he knew would demand a fair amount of tending under way.

“I like to be busy when I’m sailing,” says Rynne, 65, who lives in Naples, Fla., in winter and Oakland, Maine, in summer. “I fell in love with it.”

Recently retired from his tree-care and landscape business, Rynne had not been idle. He is a classically trained trumpet, trombone and French horn player who performs in local musical theater. Still, he was looking for a retirement project and a use for all the cypress and mahogany he had milled and saved from his years as a tree-cutter. A skilled woodworker, he had built furniture for Sally before, each piece marked with a signature heart cut into it. She had hoped he might build more. That was the plan until friend Rich Hardt gave him Parker’s book and proposed he build a boat. “I told him, ‘You must be crazy,’” Rynne says.

He pooh-poohed the idea until he saw the San Juan schooner. That was about four years ago. The Rynnes launched S.S. (“Supernatural Saving”) Grace in May. Thirty-seven feet long with a

10-foot beam, Grace’s hull — along with deck and flooring — is cold-molded with two layers of marine plywood sandwiched between resin-impregnated fiberglass. She has an 8-foot retractable centerboard weighted with pigs of lead. With centerboard up, S.S. Grace draws just 23 inches, board down 4 feet. The two masts are Florida cypress, the rudder blue spruce with white oak. Port frames, interior paneling and cabinetry, handrails, tiller, centerboard, fife rail, bowsprit, cabin steps and other woodwork are a mix of mahogany, cypress, beech, black walnut, white oak, blue spruce, cherry, white ash and Southern pine — woods Rynne saved himself or was given by friends. Much of the ornamental work is mixed-wood inlay. “I like the mixture of woods,” Rynne says. “I love the inlays. That’s the way it should be. It pleases the eye.”

To underscore that Grace is not just John’s, but Sally and John’s, he has cut hearts into wood polished to a spit shine in the cockpit, along the bowsprit, and in the saloon dinette and drawers. “I just love the shine and the hearts,” Sally Rynne said. “He put the hearts in for me.”

Two-and-a-half years in building, S.S. Grace isn’t a testimony only to Rynne’s skill and perseverance but to his faith. A devout Christian, he said he was troubled at the thought of spending all that time, effort and money building an extinct boat — “a white elephant” — until he and Sally prayed about it and the project became for him an adventure in faith, one that could draw in many people and give him an opportunity to share his story with any of them who wished to hear it: How in 1996 through faith and prayer and chemotherapy he was cured of what doctors had told him was “incurable” bone marrow cancer.

“The interaction with people became of far greater value than the building,” he says. Rynne insists that S.S. Grace is not the work of one man but of many people who helped in many ways to carry the project forward. A sailor for 35 years, Rynne had owned a succession of boats, the most recent a Westerly 25, but he had never built one. He had no expertise as a boatbuilder, no design plans, no place to build it, and a limited budget for such expenses as custom hardware.

In summer 2001 he and Sally went to Maine, the Mecca of wooden-boat building, in search of plans and any expertise they could tap. At the Wooden Boat Show in Rockland, Rynne stumbled upon sharpie author Parker, who happened to have a set of plans for the San Juan schooner in his Jeep Wagoneer. At that same show, he met Clay Seelgen, a retired industrial arts teacher from Connecticut who had taught boatbuilding classes and — it turned out— now lived in Naples. Seelgen asked if he could help Rynne build Grace. Winfield Lash, the boatbuilder and naval architect from Hatchet Cove, Maine, looked over the plans and changed a few lines so the boat would be more livable. Ray Loubier, a retired machinist foreman from Winslow, Maine, donated more than $8,000 worth of custom hardware he built himself from blueprints that Rynne drew up. Gene Louguidice, a Naples friend, loaned him a piece of property for 2-1/2 years for his boatyard, let him use his workshop to loft the boat and put in a lot of work himself on Grace. Louguidice’s wife, Rose, sewed sail, deck and cabin covers. Some of the instructors at Rockland’s Wooden Boat School shared their expertise with him. A tire business in Maine that had ceased balancing truck tires gave him a ton of lead to take home with him. He melted down 1,660 pounds of it in a cast-iron bathtub and poured the molten lead into pigs for ballast. Whenever he needed something, people were there to supply that need. “It has been a blessing,” Rynne says.

“This has been a true work of love for him,” adds Sally Rynne. “There have been some frustrating moments, but he has been happy.”

Rynne said during sea trials Grace performed well in light air under 568 square feet of sail including headsail, and motored at 7 knots under power of its twin 9.9-hp outboards. The Rynnes planned to sail up to Maine early this summer with a crew of experienced sailors, moor the boat at Hatchet Cove and do some coastal cruising off New England this summer — and every summer that they can. Whenever he drops anchor in a harbor, Rynne plans to serenade his neighbors in the anchorage with Dixieland jazz and maybe a few hymns, then tell them the story of S.S. Grace and his healing and his faith. “My goal is to share this boat with as many people as I can along the way,” he says.