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Classic sharpie built as act of faith

A novice Florida boatbuilder and two crewmembers sailed a home-built 37-foot flat-bottomed centerboard sharpie some 2,000 miles north, arriving in Bath, Maine, on June 19 after 22 days at sea.

A novice Florida boatbuilder and two crewmembers sailed a home-built 37-foot flat-bottomed centerboard sharpie some 2,000 miles north, arriving in Bath, Maine, on June 19 after 22 days at sea.

Two-and-a-half years in building, S.S. Grace isn’t a testimony only to John 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 his wife, 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, prayer and chemotherapy he was cured of what doctors had told him was “incurable” bone marrow cancer.

Rynne, a Floridian who recently retired from the tree-care and landscaping business he owned, says he 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 boat 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. The new retiree had hardly been idle. He is a classically trained trumpet, trombone and French horn player who performs in local music 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 eight-foot retractable centerboard weighted with pigs of lead. With centerboard up, S.S. Grace draws just 23 inches, board down four feet.

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.

They plan to sell their Florida home and settle in Maine permanently, mooring the boat at Hatchet Cove. They also plan some coastal cruising off New England this summer. And 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.