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Larinda: a tale of triumph and tragedy

The sinking of the schooner Larry Mahan spent decades building was the beginning of tough times

The sinking of the schooner Larry Mahan spent decades building was the beginning of tough times

Larry Mahan, a visionary who spent three decades building the replica Boston schooner Larinda in his back yard, and who with his wife went on to become a star in the tall ship and sail-training world, could no longer see a future for himself last summer. And so, inside his Cape Cod home, the sailor took his own life.

Mahan, who was 63, had come through a patch of tough times that began in 2003 with the sinking of Larinda in Nova Scotia. Ironically, as Mahan’s life has ended, Larinda is coming back to life, resurrected by a new owner who expects the colorful, 86-footer to return to sea in two years — a continuing tribute to her creator, who died at his kitchen table in Barnstable, Mass., June 11.

Mahan appeared to be one of the few people actually fully in control of his life when Larinda docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 2003, on her way back to Massachusetts after a triumphant tall ships cruise of the Great Lakes. He and his wife had become known for their positive attitudes and their message of “dare to live your dream.” Then Hurricane Juan took control. Striking Halifax, the storm tore a retired Canadian naval vessel from its mooring during the night. The 205-foot ship crashed into Larinda, sinking the ferro-cement schooner precisely where the city’s sewage system emptied into the harbor.

“It’s devastating,” Mahan said at the time. “The Larinda was my baby.”

The dream had become a nightmare. Larinda was sold to an insurance company, and the Mahans began searching for a new ship aboard which to restore their lives.

Barnstable police Sgt. Sean Sweeney says Lawrence Mahan took his life at 2:23 a.m. on that June day in a single-family home in the town’s Hyannis section that the skipper was sharing with a 20-year-old granddaughter. Mahan had called a friend and said he was depressed and wouldn’t make it to daybreak, Sweeney says. The friend called police, who found Mahan dead from a gunshot wound. It was the second encounter in 2005 between Mahan and the local police.

One month and a day earlier, Mahan was driving his Chevy Suburban in town when a car pulled into traffic in front of him, Sweeney says. On the far side of the car was a bicyclist, whom Mahan did not see. The Suburban struck the 36-year-old man, who died two days later. No charges were filed in the case. “Larry wasn’t speeding or doing anything,” Sweeney says.

In the days just before the accident, Mahan had completed a two-month voyage from California, sailing a replacement for Larinda to Cape Cod. He had bought the Hawaiian Chieftain from a California sail-training entrepreneur. He renamed the 103-foot square-topsail ketch Spirit of Larinda and told people he would begin running summer charters on Cape Cod. On Larinda’s Web site, Mahan announced that his new vessel would “carry the same mission and goals as Larinda always did. Giving youths the opportunities to expand their horizons, learn teamwork while developing sailing skills, has been one of our goals. These will continue.”

The skipper continued: “I wish to thank all of you for your notes of encouragement and support. Your contributions have helped to make the Larinda dream continue.”

That dream began, according to Mahan, when he was a child. In the fourth grade he read a British tale, “The Little Grey Man,” about gnomes who built a small boat. Though as a young man he clung to the hope of one day building his own ship, in the 1960s he opened an automobile alignment shop in Hyannis. “If you wanted your front end aligned, especially a four-wheel drive, it was Larry’s Alignment,” officer Sweeney says. “He cut you a fair deal. You knew you weren’t getting gouged.”

When he wasn’t in his alignment shop, Mahan found time to volunteer on shipbuilding projects, where he learned the skills he would need to fulfill his dream. In 1970 he bought the plans for a 1767 Boston schooner, and the ferro-cement hull began to take shape in the yard outside his home. He acquired 100-year-old pine and a restored 1928 diesel. Friends, relatives and even strangers pitched in. And if you went into Larry’s Alignment, you saw photos of the work in progress framed on the walls.

J. Gregory Milne, a member of the Barnstable Town Council, was a customer and remembers taking a group of troubled teens with whom he was working to Mahan’s home in 1995 to see the ship under construction. “[Mahan] had a certain gentleness to him and a certain kind of touch with the kids,” recalls Milne. “These were emotionally disturbed kids, and in a matter of minutes he had their undivided attention. He showed them what [he was] doing, how they were building the boat. It was pretty extraordinary.

“It was interesting to see the kids kind of relate their own plight,” he says. “They had all been through something in their life that was not too pleasant. They found some great inspiration from Larry: If you dream something and it may seem impossible and insurmountable, it’s not. That was the main message he sent them away with.”

When Larinda — named for the Mahans’ children, Larry and Linda — was launched in 1996, its junk rig had deep red sails, and there was a 300-pound bronze cannon on deck. In addition to the other museum-quality carvings that abounded, her figurehead was a green frog, dressed as John Paul Jones and carved from a hunk of 100-year-old cypress.

Larinda soon was among the tall ships sailing in events organized by the American Sail Training Association. “Probably one of the most popular boats in the fleet,” says Peter A. Mello, ASTA executive director. “[Mahan’s] heart and soul obviously went into her. The magical part of it was that so many different parts of the boat were so unique. Among tall ships, she stood out. Not only did she physically stand out, but he and his wife, Marlene, were the most generous and open people to invite people on their boat.”

In her eight seasons afloat Larinda had a busy schedule. She left Cape Cod in April 2003 and headed south. The Mahans picked up crew and fuel along the way, and made stops in Jamaica and Grand Cayman before returning to the States in Key West. By May 31 the little ship was back at Cape Cod for reprovisioning. Then Larinda sailed north around the Canadian Maritime Provinces and up the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes, where the crew participated in the Tall Ships Challenge 2003, with appearances in Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, and Chicago before returning east in August. After stops in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, the Mahans planned to stop in Halifax and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, before returning to their winter dock on Cape Cod.

There were reports when Larinda arrived in Halifax that Hurricane Juan could reach that city. The Mahans and crew doubled their lines and braced for the storm. The first winds arrived at 10:30 p.m. Sept. 8, howling in the rigging. The entire crew remained on deck, tending lines and adjusting fenders to keep Larinda from slamming against the dock. When the wind reached 100 mph, the crew could no longer hear each other speak. But soon, above the scream of the storm, they heard the crack of a parting bow line. The Sackville, a Canadian warship, was moored at a neighboring dock by its owner, the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust. Larinda’s crew watched helplessly as the Sackville drifted toward them. It was 1 a.m., and the 905-ton ship hit Larinda’s port quarter, where it repeatedly hammered the schooner with its bow. Water poured in through a large hole in Larinda’s stern, and pumps were unable to keep her afloat. Larry Mahan was standing knee-deep in water on the midship deck railing when he finally followed the rest of his crew to sanctuary on the dock.

Two weeks later, Larinda was brought to the surface. But in the time she spent on the bottom the schooner had filled with filth from a sewage outflow, and the Mahans gave up any hope of salvaging her. They signed the boat over to an insurance company, which sold Larinda to a Halifax businessman for $28,000 (Canadian).

Arthur Scott, 51, was in the business of disposing of “international waste” — that is, waste products aboard ships that arrive in Halifax and are registered in neither in Canada nor the United States. “Basically, I bought it because I fell in love with the vessel, and I thought it was a shame to scuttle it,” he says. “The man put 26 years of his life into the vessel, and it showed well.”

Today, Larinda is docked in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, her restoration about 60 percent complete, Scott says. “She’s basically been totally cleaned and disinfected,” he says. “Most people that have boarded her say she smells as nice as a new ship. There’s absolutely no odor on her at all. It was an extensive environmental project.”

He says raw sewage had to be pumped from the hull, which was then steam cleaned and pressure washed. Wood was removed and washed down with disinfectants. The engine was removed and rebuilt, and is ready to be returned to he schooner, he says. The wood that is salvaged will be stripped and sanded for refinishing. “[Mahan] came forward and basically provided me with all the specifications of how Larinda was put together,” says Scott. “By the time it’s done, it will look every bit as good as when Larry dedicated his energy and time to it.”

Scott bought Larinda at public auction within a month after the sinking. He says his company, International Disposal Services, has been doing cleaning restoration jobs with sewage for the past 15 years. “We were quite familiar with how we would start the cleanup,” he says. “If you just looked at the vessel and didn’t have any knowledge in the field, you would just consider it a write-off.

“I’m hoping that she’ll be completely recommissioned for the big event that’s going to be held in Halifax in 2009 for the tall ships,” Scott says. He also hopes to make an appearance in a smaller event in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Spirit of Larinda has been renamed Hawaiian Chieftain and has sailed back through the Panama Canal to become part of another West Coast sail training program. The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Wash., operates the tall ship Lady Washington. “We had partnered with [the Hawaiian Chieftain] since 1993 and steadily since 1996,” says Less Bolton, the organization’s executive director. “We do shipboard education programs with schoolchildren. The two tall ships travel together from San Diego to British Columbia.”

Bolton says the partnership ended last winter when Mahan bought the boat from its former owner. When Bolton learned that Hawaiian Chieftain was back on the market, he says he moved to buy her. Larry Mahan’s boat joins an organization that hosts 12,000 to 15,000 schoolchildren a year, Bolton says.

Late last year, there was a small ceremony along the harbor in Halifax to remember Mahan, according to Canadian news reports. A chaplain said a prayer and flowers were tossed into the water.