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Cherubini comeback born in a Dumpster

By David O’Reilly

When Maryland yachtsman Chris O’Flinn bought White Hawk, a 44-foot Cherubini ketch, in November 2003, he was proud as a boat buyer can be.

“I’d loved that boat for more than 20 years,” he says, remembering the day her original owner first took him for a sail on Long Island Sound. With her raked masts and clipper bow, her paneled interior and glowing mahogany trim, “I’d never seen anything like White Hawk,” he says. “It sailed magnificently. I never forgot her.”

There was only one boatyard O’Flinn wanted to restore White Hawk. But when he called the company in Delran, N.J., bearing the Cherubini name, “They would not even take my calls.”

He soon discovered the Cherubini family — builders of some of the most magnificent sailboats of the late 20th century — no longer ran the company. Worse, the current owner, Independence-Cherubini Corp., was in bankruptcy court. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Cherubini was gone.”

Or so it seemed.

If O’Flinn was disappointed, his loss could not compare to that of 39-year-old Dave Cherubini.

Dave’s uncles, John and Frit Cherubini, had inadvertently launched the business in 1975 by building a ketch for themselves in their suburban Philadelphia backyard. With lines reminiscent of a Chesapeake bugeye and Francis L. Herreshoff’s legendary Ticonderoga, their 44-foot Diana turned heads. “They never meant to start a business,” Dave recalls. “But buyers came knocking.”

Over time, John and Frit — together with their brothers, cousins, kids and nephews — would build nine 48-foot schooners and 32 ketches, which are 44 feet. So graceful were their lines, so perfect their proportions, that when French author Ferenc Mate sat down to describe Cherubini yachts in his book, “The World’s Best Sailboats,” he confessed to his readers he could not find adequate words. He came close, though, with “drop-dead gorgeous,” and “the greatest crowd-pleaser in any harbor,” and “timeless beauty that stirs the soul.”

Alas, soul-stirring, timeless beauty does not come cheap. Custom made, and taking 10,000 to 12,000 man-hours apiece, Cherubinis were in reach of only a few buyers. Despite their high price tags (in the million dollar range), profits were elusive, and in 2000 president Lee Cherubini (Dave’s cousin) brought in investors to keep the business afloat.

The new partners admired the sailboats but, after building just one schooner, their renamed Independence-Cherubini Corp. turned to making luxury ocean trawlers and jet-drive runabouts. Within three years nearly all the Cherubinis — including Lee and Dave — had left the company.

Independence-Cherubini did not last, however. Late in 2003 the company filed for reorganization bankruptcy protection. Retaining only its trawler line, it vacated Delran and relocated to Annapolis.

“I was just sick,” Dave recalls during a tour of the Cherubini yard, where he began as a painter and finisher back in ninth grade.

As he speaks, a band saw whines behind him, sparks fly from a metal lathe, and a tapping comes from deep within O’Flinn’s White Hawk. Alongside her sits First Light, also built here in 1977. Her new owner, Rob Turkewitz, says he brought her back to be restored and “Cherubini-ized.”

And standing in the foreground are three Cherubini CC-20 runabouts. Dave’s new company, Cherubini Yachts LLC, acquired rights to them from Independence, and has begun to build and market them under the family name. What’s more, prospective buyers in Britain, Australia and California have inquired about ordering new sailing yachts.

It’s been quite a turnaround for a company headed for the scrap heap less than two years ago. And had it not been for a curve of plywood Dave found in a Dumpster just days before the end, Cherubini Yachts might today be just a fond memory.

The turnaround began in December 2003, about the time O’Flinn’s phone calls were going unanswered. With no one in the family equipped to reclaim the business, Dave — then restoring yachts and Steinway pianos for a living — concluded the end was at hand. Glumly, he drove one morning to the Independence-Cherubini yard to retrieve his 40-foot Rhodes yawl.

Parked in the I-C yard was a Dumpster. “I needed a few pieces of teak,” he recalls, “so I looked in.”

There, buried in sawdust and metal scraps, he spied a familiar curve: the plywood template that had once shaped the caprails for the Cherubini schooners.

Stunned, he pulled at the template, and another curve appeared: a rudder alignment jig. Dave jumped into the Dumpster and — like an archaeologist stumbling on a hidden tomb — began to dig.

Here was the router jig for the ketches’ handrails, and the crown template for the deck beams. Here was the casting jig for a rudderpost, a routing jig for a galley countertop, and a template for a steering pedestal. He retrieved dozens of such pieces, including the signature curve of Cherubini yachts: the template for the coaming around their elegant, elliptical helms.

To the departing owners “this was all firewood — just trash,” Dave recalls, “but these were pieces of family history. I was practically in tears. I thought: ‘We can’t let this go.’ "

With the owners’ permission he tossed the templates and jigs into the back of his van and drove home. “The whole time I’m asking myself: ‘How could we save this?’” Soon he was on the phone to family and former co-workers, asking if they wanted to join him.

Some were bitter or burned out and wanted no part, but five family members and former employees said yes, including his uncle, Joe Cherubini, a longtime boatbuilder and cabinet maker. Dave then went back to the former principal partner and negotiated a long-term lease on the Cherubini offices, shop and yard. His new company also bought the hull molds and exclusive rights to build the legendary ketches and schooners.

Only one thing was missing: customers.

Just about then, Dave got word that a Maryland man was looking to restore White Hawk. He called O’Flinn and explained his dream of restarting Cherubini yachts. O’Flinn, owner of a Washington-area brokerage firm, listened warily, but a few days later drove the three hours to Delran to meet the new workforce and tour the shop.

“I was just so impressed with their honesty and heart and skill that I decided to take a chance,” he says. “I asked Dave to bring the boat as close as possible to its original specs, and I committed to paying them.”

“I’m very pleased,” says O’Flinn. “The boat looks just great. If you’re a traditionalist you can’t take your eyes off it. When my wife, Dianne, saw it she said, ‘This is the most beautiful sailboat I’ve ever seen.’”

Turkewitz, a Charleston, S.C., environmental lawyer, likewise awaits the day this summer when he steers First Light into Charleston Harbor. “I wouldn’t have bought it if the Cherubinis hadn’t been available to do the refit,” he says. “I’m delighted to be helping the Cherubinis get back on their feet.”

Getting Cherubini Yachts back on its feet remains a formidable challenge, however. Dave has avoided heavy borrowing, hoping instead to earn operating revenue from high-end restoration work and his 1920s-style Cherubini CC-20 runabouts. With their classic, mahogany-topped “retro” look and 240-hp Mercury jet engines, they are “the intersection of technology and tradition,” he believes, “and perfect for baby boomers.”

Still, the dream — the gold ring — remains new-yacht construction. Making them profitably means lowering costs without compromising integrity. One possibility is offering decks of fiberglass instead of more costly epoxy-on-wood. He is also giving thought to building two or three yachts on speculation and selling them near cost as a way “to get the Cherubini name back in circulation.

“The dream continues,” Dave said last fall, as White Hawk — her masts restepped, her teak bright, her varnish gleaming — was being readied on the weighs for her sail to the Chesapeake.

“There’s another generation of Cherubinis waiting to be built,” he says. “This is what we want to do.”

David O’Reilly is the religion reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He sails Cirrus, a Lippincott 36 sloop, on the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay. He is a former president of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., which operates the traditional wooden sloop Clearwater to promote the heritage and ecology of the Hudson River and other New York waterways.