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Seeing a dream through to the end

A home-built 52-foot schooner takes to the water, her skipper’s final chapter in a 20-year project

A home-built 52-foot schooner takes to the water, her skipper’s final chapter in a 20-year project

It was the time that every designer, builder and backyard daydreamer hopes for: the day one’s own creation finally sails.

Dave O’Neil ended up with a July day “made in heaven,” as one friend put it, for the first sail on Extrapolation, the 52-foot schooner the naval architect started lofting in his Essex, Conn., basement more than 20 years ago. “It was perfect: a sunny day with a 15-knot breeze,” says Rives Potts, manager of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn., where O’Neil’s boat was prepped for commissioning.

But it wasn’t an everyday shakedown run, and there was one moment that would stick in the minds of all on board. Heading into the southwesterly on Long Island Sound, the crew got out the schooner’s unconventional loose-footed foresail, which O’Neil designed to overlap the main like a jib. The so-called “gaff-a-wobbler” — part gaff sail, part gollywobbler — was O’Neil’s “baby” and the subject of some speculation among his friends regarding how it would work.

Well, it turned out the designer had it right. “We set his sail, the one that people said wouldn’t work, and it worked perfectly,” says Potts. “It drew just the way Dave wanted it to.” In fact, the big schooner performed so well, it started pulling away from the marina’s chase boat.

When O’Neil died 16 days later, at age 65, ending a four-year bout with cancer, he knew that the boat he’d left behind was a winner. “He was thrilled,” says Jacqueline Boutin, one of three daughters who grew up with the boat in the back yard, using it as a jungle gym. “But he had already sailed the boat so many times in his head, I don’t think he was surprised.”

Says Potts: “Looking at that sail, he [seemed to realize] he’d conceived, designed and stuck with building this boat, and here he was sailing it at last. A 20-year-old dream was finally complete.”

The boat

And what a boat she is, with her dark red fiberglass hull, gleaming brightwork and what O’Neil said was a “real bowsprit” crowning a sharp clipper bow. Potts says the big schooner might be the most-photographed boat at Pilots Point, which boasts some impressive yachts among its 2,000 slips.

O’Neil said inspiration came from within, from ideas he’d nurtured himself, beginning as a youth growing up around Darien, Conn., a sailors’ town on western Long Island Sound. “I was one of those kids in history class who sat there drawing boats in his notebook,” he admitted in an early July interview. “And I spent a lot of time around the boatyards and the waterfront.” A sail on the Sparkman & Stephens-designed Cotton Blossom as a youth made him a big-boat admirer, too.

O’Neil was drawn to the yachts of 19th-century British schooner designer William Fife as well as Nathanael Herreshoff. “To me [the schooner] just has the right look,” said O’Neil. “And I’ve been rewarded by the number of people who’ve stopped by the boat and asked about it. That’s been very gratifying.”

As for the gaff-a-wobbler, it’s part of a carefully thought-out rig and sail plan O’Neil designed to give Extrapolation (a name harking back to O’Neil’s days as a 505 sailor) better upwind performance. The masts are closer together than on a conventional schooner, with the mainmast stepped farther forward around midships, and the foremast farther aft. The main and foresail are smaller than normal, leaving room forward for a big headsail that could drive the boat upwind. “We’ll let the main and jib do the work,” he said. “We’ll sail as a two-masted cutter.”

Not withstanding her classic appearance, Extrapolation is modern, built of fiberglass and balsa core (all fiberglass from bilge to keel), with a teak-over-balsa deck. She carries 200 gallons of fresh water, has a walk-in engine room for her twin 60-hp diesels, and can be steered by autopilot from a pilothouse nav station.

The boat was designed as a family cruiser, with a pair of heads, a big galley in a midships saloon, and accommodations for up to nine. The layout below calls for master staterooms aft and forward, each with a double berth and an adjacent head. The main saloon, in a nod to modernity, has a U-shaped dining area, a large galley at the foot of the companionway, and berths for five more people, including pipe berths and a convertible dinette. This is a big, comfortable, capable boat intended to carry the whole clan as far as Bermuda, the Caribbean or Europe.

A life of its own

Looking at Extrapolation, it’s hard to imagine that this elegant schooner came to life in a back yard. And it’s even harder to imagine that O’Neil found the time to do most of the work himself, with occasional hired help.

A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., and a former Naval officer, he also raised a family — after building a house for them — started his own naval architect firm (Seaworthy Systems), and won the acclaim of his peers. He was named president of The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. He was a member of the American Bureau of Shipping, and was given an honorary doctorate of science at his alma mater.

Yet to his daughters, Dad and the boat were inextricably linked, and they can hardly recall a time without a schooner in the family. They recall seeing blueprints on the drawing table in the den, even before O’Neil started building. Their father truly enjoyed the whole process of designing then building, they said.

As the boat took shape — first in the form of a skeleton-like mold dubbed “the dinosaur,” then as an upside-down hull — a certain routine developed. “On Saturday and Sunday he was headed for the back yard to get busy working on the boat,” says Joanne O’Neil, Dave’s wife, who also remembers her husband dressed in fiberglass suits and masks.

Lots of people pitched in, in different ways, says Joanne. And big events during the schooner’s construction — such as fiberglassing parties, turning the hull over, taking her out of the yard — became gatherings for friends and family. O’Neil recalled seeing the newly finished hull, empty and with no deck, right-side up for the first time. “That was quite a moment,” he said. “Then I realized we have to put a shed over her, or she’s just going to fill up with water.”

Along the way, the once-inanimate object developed a life of its own. “At the launching at the house, seeing her leave home for the first time, it was very emotional,” says daughter Allison O’Neil. “We grew up with the boat. She is like having another sibling; we love her that much and know her that well.”

O’Neil remembered the launching well. “As much as I loved seeing her there,” he said, “I was glad to get it out of the yard. And when the hull was launched, when it touched the water for the first time, there were chills up my spine.”


Those were some of the moments O’Neil reflected on in the days leading up to the shakedown sail. “This project has provided me with many hours of satisfaction over the years,” he said. “I always enjoyed sitting back at the end of the day and looking at what you did, letting your eye follow your thumb a

little while. That’s the way it ought to be.

“For me, it’s always been about the journey,” he said. “I consider myself the creator, designer, the builder — not so much the sailor. With my situation it’s pretty much going to guarantee that. But I’ve come to grips with it. I’ve done my job. The boat is finished, and I’m happy with it.”

Joanne recalls her husband saying something curious, that the boat wasn’t as important as they all thought it was.

“ ‘It was really about the family,’ he said. I know what he meant now. He was building more than just a boat,” she says.

O’Neil’s wish for Extrapolation was that she would be enjoyed by those who know her best. So the extended O’Neil family — which includes three sons-in-law, one grandchild and another on the way — are committed to becoming more and more competent as sailors.

“The boat has become all the more important as a connection to him, too,” says O’Neil’s oldest daughter, Jennifer Sarwar. “And it will give his grandchildren a chance to know their grandfather through his boat and his love of the water.”

Years ago, a friend of O’Neil’s gave him two coins, one from the year of his birth and the other from the year he graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy, and he held on to them, against the day he’d launch his schooner. “Now, they’re where they belong, under the masts,” says Jacqueline Boutin. “He will be aboard that boat in spirit everywhere she travels.”