Little legends, and from Russia with Love
It’s been a while since I last wrote to you. Yes, we’ve continued with our restoration work, just smaller yachts.
My long-time client from Florida, John Hough, has a beautiful 1961 Cruisers Sea Camper, “True Love II,” an 18-foot outboard. We applied two-part varnish and worked on some other little projects when I got a call. “Jim, I have another boat coming to you.” The next day, a stranger from Minnesota drives in with an electric car, towing a little boat. He proceeded to unwrap this contraption and I was thinking to myself what has John gotten me into this time?
When he finally laid out all the parts all over the lawn, there sat a little international distress signal orange colored cat boat. The boat looked well worn. So what’s the story? It is a BB Swan centerboard sailboat. The boat was built in 1947, at a time when fiberglass construction just began. She was built in a mold. The hull, deck and centerboard are all in one. Just 12.6’ long, it has a 6’ beam and is a very stable little boat. It cost $499 and an additional $48 for the sail. It wasn’t until he told me the story that I understood what drew him to the boat.
The boat was built by GE’s engineering development lab in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was the 1940s and a new age that introduced fiberglass. After reading the boat brochure I learned BB stood for Beetle Boat Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The bow had a bolted plywood deck and the story got stranger. I just want to repeat here, I am not in the fiberglass business so don’t even think about it.
Back when the boat was first constructed, they did not have chemical catalysts for resins. To cure the boat, they had to bake it in an oven. This was pre-gelcoat so they had a ceramic type coating that was applied, which was now chipping off in cubes.
So we pulled her apart, stripped all the wood. The fasteners were Monel and in good shape. We simply cleaned and polished those and reinstalled them.
We re-faired the deck. All the colors were matched to the original, stained and varnished. She came out beautiful. Anna and Oleg Zuev, a husband and wife team, did a wonderful job. We’ve trained Anna for seven years and each year, she gets even better. Her brush work looks sprayed. Let’s say Mr. Hough was absolutely blown away.
In the process of removing her original builder’s plate and more than half a century of varnish, we found more information on the boat. This was Hull No. 6. Her predecessor, Hull 5, is at Mystic Seaport. Well, this old girl is the second oldest fiberglass production boat still around. But she was not going to be put on a pedestal and merely admired. John is a member of the Palm Beach Sailing Club and another member has one too. We just spoke to him and he takes the BB Swan out two or three times a week. It was a very cool, rewarding project.
We’ve also been restoring a 25-foot Chris Craft Cruiser of the same era, 1940. This one was built when the great war was in full swing and Chris Craft was concentrating on building for the war effort. The boat had little varnish, just a bit in the cabin.
The previous owner had built a contraption for the back, flushing the engine. Turn this valve and that, spin around and pat yourself on the head and all is good. Unless you didn’t turn on the other valves under the floorboards. It was a tricky process.
On her maiden voyage, the engine seized up because there was no water. We pulled the engine and gave it to Jim Hartman who specializes in antique motors to straighten out.
Oleg started the foredeck repairs, all the wood projects were done such as the rails, seams, rot removal. Then it was time for re-painting. Anna has mastered brushing Awlgrip that it looks absolutely sprayed. We are in the final stages of painting so she will be ready for a great season.
As far as the multi-valve system, it is being replaced with a Perko Flushpro, a kind of all-in-one, making the process simpler and easier to flush out.
Since we’ve moved to working on smaller boats in the last couple of years. I have found it very rewarding and we’ve worked on many great projects. The little Herreshoff launch built in 1923 was used for J.P. Morgan’s yacht Corsair III and IV. This little yacht had beautiful restoration work done many years ago. Then there was work done by others in between that did not match the same caliber, such as epoxy resin poured on the deck that was a quarter inch thick, for one. And broken screws bent over to her topsides.
Other projects include the steel life car built in the mid 1800s that was rescued from life as a water cistern, restored and now lives in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Cape Hatteras.
I’ve had one heck of a career. To come from an old boat shop in a small town Maine to working on some of the greatest historic yachts on the Eastern Seaboard was beyond anything I could have imagined. I just wanted to make a living doing something I loved. I am creeping up on 70 and my days of laying on my back in a bilge or climbing into a narrow hatch to figure out the best way to address a problem are pretty much over.
For the last few years, I’ve tried to simplify the work we do. Smaller was more manageable and better.
Oleg Zuev has played a critical role in this transformation and transition. He brought a lot of talent to the table. He comes from an engineering background and is naturally mechanically inclined. He is able to read a diagram and understand specifications, whether it’s electric or plumbing, and do it all to A.B.Y.C. standards.
He’s also shown an innate talent for woodworking. Anna, his wife, has worked on these projects for as long as Oleg, seven years. Her attention to detail and diligence, she was an accountant and ran a large corporate accounting department in her past life, was perfect for finish work.
She has become proficient in the art of varnish, Awlgrip and oil-based paints. They are both from Russia and won the immigration lottery. They left behind the security of their successful professions for the freedom to create their own future, for themselves and their child. And this was way before the current situation in Russia.
In Russia, even with money in the bank, they would have had to wait 10 to 15 years to buy the house or car they wanted. They worked so hard, the Zuevs became homeowners within three years of their arrival in the U.S., and they gave their son their beloved Mercedes as a graduation present when he completed his engineering degree on scholarships.
The Zuevs are both diligent, sincere and genuinely good people. I’ve never had to say “Can we get back to work?” to either of them. And that’s saying a lot.
I didn’t build Moores Marine to let the kind of work we do slip into oblivion. Oleg and Anna will take what they have learned with us over the past seven years and create their own future with their own company, Classic Yacht Works, 252-646-7581, with my blessings, encouragement and any help they want from me.They have my trust enough for me to lease my boat shop to them.
I’m not ready for full-fledged retirement but I am ready for change. I have been helping in a consultant capacity to safely move old yachts by targeting and calculating proper lifting strategies and procedures because so many of these boats end up damaged by haul outs as much as time.
I’ve repaired too many boats damaged from improper lifting, been called as an expert witness in lawsuits, etc. And each time, it’s a familiar refrain. You have a yard crew with a lot of experience, usually in modern fiberglass boats, who rely on their gut rather than training and calculations.
Since they have so much experience, I ask a couple of questions using a 60-ton boat as an example:
1, What is the compression strength of the planking, minus the age of the boat?
2. How much deflection is in the keel?
3. What is the shear point load on the forward strap where the bow hangs out?
If your gut can answer these questions, I have the utmost respect for your talented gut.
Otherwise, you are going to need a bit of math and science. Having supervised the haul out of many large, fragile, antique and classic wooden boats, some held together only by water pressure against the planking, I had to come up with a process to do this safely without breaking the boat in the slings. This knowledge didn’t come overnight. It came with experience and learning the properties of the wood, understanding the design of these boats and how to spread the load to more evenly distribute the stress.
This is not me showboating, it was out of necessity since I worked on antique and vintage wooden boats, some of them historic. I didn’t want to do more damage to get them out of the water than the existing damage I was hired to repair.
Recently, I was at Lauderdale Marine Center to guide the lifting of the wooden paddlewheel boat, the “River Queen.” It all went smoothly, not even a crack in the paint. I also went to the Palm Beach Boat Show and there sitting gleaming in the water was the “Honey Fitz.” We had put a new hull and keel on her in 2010. For the latest work in South Florida, I served as an advisor to the current contractor Brad London with Total Refit and the boat’s captain to outline a refit strategy as well as detailed the proper lifting and blocking of the boat. Together, we came up with a 32-page restoration book that was the blueprint for the project.
This kind of work is my idea of retirement.
Brad is an accomplished craftsman who had trained at Rybovich in the old days. Stepping aboard, it made me proud to see the work that was just words on a page not only executed but to a quality that befits the eighth Presidential “Honey Fitz.”
I want to change gears for a second. For every great success, I’ve seen more failures in restorations.
I am not going to name names but I will tell you a story.
I got a call about a 1930s yacht taken into rough seas that loosened the planking. It was determined that she needed the center ribs and frames replaced. The owner hired a shop school teacher. He uncovers the boat, hacks the bottom off, leaving the yacht barely supported. Well, gravity has taken hold.
Anyone can tear a boat apart. But it takes knowledge, skills and perseverance to put it back together and complete the project.
The problem is trying to find people who want to learn true craftsmanship. They are fewer every year. But it’s my time to pass the torch to those few and take up my role as an advisor when asked, assess, write specs and guides and in that capacity I can still help restore, repair and maintain our remaining maritime history and floating treasures.
I am not a man comfortable sitting on my hands. I’ve been asked to write for Professional Boatbuilder and will continue to help wooden boats live on, but as a consultant.
I haven’t talked about my own boat but will save that story for the next time. I have come up with a name, “Patience,” and that’s a story of its own.