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The long life of the little yacht Elf

The 117-year-old sailboat was destined for the chainsaw when a young man was smitten by her

The 117-year-old sailboat was destined for the chainsaw when a young man was smitten by her

A steel-stiffened spine, a human soul and sweet lines are the secrets to the very long life of the little yacht Elf.

The steel is in a series of small plates, each bent at the ends in precise angles, that were bolted to the oak frames of Elf when she was built in Boston in 1888. The human soul belongs to Richard Carrion, 53, who for more than two decades has been the shepherd of Elf’s restoration — a project that by next spring may, once again, have the clipper bow of this pretty, historic 38-footer parting the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

But without the sweet lines, Elf now would be little more than a bundle of kindling, a sorry ending for one of George Lawley & Son’s 19th-century designs that still elicits from a master shipwright the terms “stunning” and “beautiful” and “really first class.”

Elf is among the oldest — if not the oldest — yachts in the country. Her birthplace, the Lawley boatyard, was the equal of the Herreshoff yard in Rhode Island, according to historians. Lawley built boats of the highest quality during the same span that Nathanael Herreshoff was winning international acclaim. There are those who will claim Elf was the first small yacht to make an offshore cruise just for fun, without a race or commerce as an incentive. There is no question that she was as beautiful as she was quick.

“She was a boat that everyone knew about in the early days,” says nautical historian Llewellyn Howland. “If she was an ugly boat … I don’t think she’d still be around.”

It was the use of steel plates that allowed the old lady to keep her youthful figure (more on that later). Her pleasing curves caught the attention of a young man with a keen eye and an ability to fantasize. It was the dreamy imagination of that teenager that assured Elf’s survival.

The year was 1970, and Elf’s owner, Judston Branning, brought his wooden yawl — with its 17-foot bowsprit and a 38-foot deck that ended in a perfectly mitered transom — up the Sassafras River on Chesapeake Bay’s Eastern Shore to a dock at the Granary Restaurant in Cecilton, Md. The 82-year-old boat, by this time named Flying High, was in sad condition. Much of her original equipment had been replaced over time. Many of her timbers had weakened with age, and her original sail plan as a gaff-rigged topsail sloop had been shortened from an overpowering 2,300 square feet to the yawl rig of much more modest proportions. Branning’s sail up the eight bends of the Sassafras seemed destined to bring the boat born as Elf to her graveyard. Branning docked her and left her to be overseen by that young lad, Rick Carrion, then 18 years old and spending the summer at the Granary’s dock.

“I was dockmaster for Sailing Associates,” Carrion recalls, “icing boats and gassing them and docking them up. During the week I did a lot of rigging for the boats that they [Sailing Associates] were selling.”

Raised on a nearby farm, young Carrion had just finished his freshman year at Salisbury State College. He saw the old yawl come in and fell in love. “I kind of watched it that year and kept making sure the bilge pumps were operating,” he says.

By the following July 4 weekend, Carrion, now halfway through college and fully certain of his ability to judge boats, decided he would make an offer. He had about $900 in the bank. He told his boss at Sailing Associates of his plan.

“My mother was friends with the people who ran the yard,” he says. “They insisted that my mother approve of this. They didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Mrs. Carrion, however, did not object, and her son — as yet unaware that the boat’s owner now planned its death by chainsaw — agreed to increase his offer to $1,500. The deal was completed; the boy’s dream was a reality. He moved aboard, and when he got up in the middle of that first night, he stepped into water a foot above the floorboards. He made some repairs and in the fall sailed his new pride down the Chesapeake to the Wicomico River. Flying High had no engine, so he sailed upstream to Salisbury, where he docked her for the school year. The boat became his dormitory room, and when he graduated two years later he sailed back to the Sassafras, visions before him of taking the next year off to sail … wherever.

“And then I was visiting my mom in July and she said, ‘Oh, by the way, the board of education called and said they want to interview you,’ ” he recalls. Carrion was nothing if not a dutiful son. “Mom put her foot down,” he says. The successful interview ended his dream of cruising, replacing it with a 30-year career as a high school science teacher.

Two years later, older and wiser, Carrion placed an ad in Soundings, offering his boat for sale. By this time, he had burrowed into her belly and knew something of her heritage.

“I was scraping paint in the forward cabin in 1972 and found the documentation numbers,” he says. “I sent them off and didn’t hear anything back until 1973.” What he learned then was Elf’s name and year of construction. “I didn’t think of the historical nature until 1975, when I advertised in Soundings,” Carrion says. “Donald Street Jr. [a venerated cruising sailor] called me and told me I should consider not selling the boat.” Carrion says Street told him Elf was the oldest existing small yacht in the nation, perhaps the world.

(Halsey C. Herreshoff, president of the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I., says that Clara, a 37-foot Herreshoff cat yawl named for Nat Herreshoff’s wife, was built in 1886 and resides at his museum.)

Carrion accepted Street’s claim, however. “I took her off the market,” he says. “When I saw my first photographs [of Elf] … it gave me an incentive to restore her. I saw the incredible rig that she carries and was just bowled over, so to speak.”

Elf’s beauty was the product of her breeding, according to Howland and other historians. “Lawley’s the second-most-important yacht builder in American history,” says Curt Hasselback, curator of the Hart Nautical Collection at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “All the great designers in America had boats built there.”

“None of the builders today that we know of … are in that league,” says Fred Hecklinger, an Annapolis, Md., marine surveyor and authority on historical yachts. Hinckley makes boats of a quality equal to Lawley and Herreshoff, he says, “But to me, it’s different in that they are stock builders, whereas every Lawley boat was custom.”

“Everyone says Herreshoff was a great yacht builder,” says Howland, “and their boats have lasted pretty well.” But the historian says that while Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. built their yachts “very lightly,” Lawley just built a stronger boat. Another difference between the two premier yards was that Herreshoff designed all of its boats, while Lawley built for many designers.

An example of Lawley’s rugged construction standards is found above Elf’s keel. Those steel plates spanned the keel and held the ribs at a precise angle, allowing the yacht to retain her shape for more than 100 years. Lawley built Elf for a yachtsman who raced her for two years. She then was bought by a young chemical engineer and yachtsman named Henry Howard, who moored her in Marblehead, Mass., in 1889.

“My first long cruise in the Elf was an offshore jump from Marblehead to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which we accomplished in 68 hours,” Howard wrote in his memoir, “Charting My Life,” published in 1948. “On this trip, I shanghaied my crew because I was afraid they would not go with me.

“At that time [1893], offshore cruising in small yachts was almost unknown, and this sport was really started in Marblehead by my cruise to Halifax on Elf.”

Howard sold Elf in 1897. Over the next 74 years a number of owners cared enough about her to keep her sound and whole, says Howland. “It’s incredible how fast these [wooden] boats deteriorate,” without that type of attention, he says.

Carrion didn’t bother with a survey when he handed over the cash for the boat he knew as Flying High. “As time went on, I realized more and more the problems,” he says. But he renamed her Elf and sailed her in classic yacht regattas, winning trophies for her appearance as he learned such skills as caulking and carpentry. He had replaced the deck with plywood and fiberglass soon after he bought the boat, and covered the powder blue of the hull with white and painted the bottom red.

But Carrion could see that taking care of this boat was more than a one-man job, let alone one working man. So in 1980 he started the Classic Yacht Restoration Guild, an organization that received federal tax-exempt status in 1982. The purpose of the guild was “to teach people to sail and [to] be a network of people, materials, tools and skills to not only sail the boat but to maintain it.” Carrion was the guild’s president. He donated the boat to the group but says he didn’t take a tax write-off so that he could place restrictions on the project.

Fund-raising began. Guild memberships were sold. The state of Maryland gave a $25,000 grant, Cecil County $8,500. By 1991, Carrion says, he had accrued $40,000. The boat was hauled and taken about a mile inland from the Sassafras to his family’s farm in Earlville, where in time he built a pole shed to cover her.

It was about this time that Carrion was introduced to Graham Ero, a master shipwright and Eastern Shore native who had returned to Maryland after many years of wooden boat restoration in New England. Carrion hired Ero as the only paid worker on the project, and together they analyzed the work ahead.

“I don’t think either of us knew the extent to which it was going to go,” recalls Ero, who is 55. “I should have known because I had quite a few years under my belt by then. Everything we took apart, there was something else next to it [that needed to be replaced]. And we were putting such nice stuff back that the things that weren’t so rotten weren’t good enough. At some point, it became clear that we were going to replace everything.”

Ero was the carpenter. Carrion became the procurer of wood. His family farm had a ready supply of black locust, a wood they had learned was equal in strength to Elf’s original oak framing, with the added advantage of being rot resistant. Carrion worked for two years with a sawyer in Georgia to get a supply of rare longleaf yellow pine for the hull planking. And then the work began.

What made it possible for Ero to restore Elf, rather than build a replica, was the Lawley yard’s use of those pieces of bent steel. The metal had held all of the frames, no matter how rotten they had become, in Elf’s original shape. One by one Ero removed the old frames, duplicated their curves, and replaced them with locust before moving on to the next. In a few seasons he did the work that owners might well have done throughout the boat’s life span. And since Elf never lost her original shape, the work qualified, Ero says, as restoration.

“The directive to me has been, whatever it takes to do it correctly,” Ero says. “Other than that, the whole thing was to keep it as original as possible, and that’s what I love to do. I was delighted.”

Using ancient photographs collected from former owners and museum archives, and original equipment kept by some of those owners, Carrion and Ero were able to replace or re-create every feature of the original Elf but one: her rudder. They still are looking for some evidence that will guarantee an accurate re-creation of that piece.

By this spring much of the carpentry on Elf had been completed. Her hull was planked with the yellow pine, faired to near-perfect smoothness with a buttery glow, even in the shadows of the pole shed. The yacht’s interior had been built, then removed for varnishing.

“I like to build an interior that is completely dismantleable,” Ero explains. “You can go down there with a power screwdriver and get it out, so you don’t wreck thousands of dollars of carpentry.”

When the interior is varnished and reinstalled, all that will remain to do inside the shed will be installing the deck and hanging a new rudder. “We have seen other Lawley rudders,” Ero says. “Beyond that, it’s a calculation of sail area, displacement of the boat, and how much rudder it takes to move the boat. Basically, a guess.”

Next spring, when the deck is in place, Elf will be taken to Philadelphia, where the Independence Seaport Museum will install her rigging, thanks, according to Carrion, to a wealthy benefactor who is underwriting that six-figure expense.

Then Carrion, through his guild, will begin using Elf for the educational purpose that justified her restoration. “That’s when I want to really campaign her and shake her down and work all the bugs out to be able to go offshore and come home again,” says Carrion, who retired from his teaching career last year.

The ultimate goal: Participating in the 2007 Marblehead to Halifax Race, the biennial contest that replicates that long-ago offshore cruise when Elf first staked her claim to history.