New life for a life car, getting Corsair III ready for her 100th birthday
Getting ready Corsair III, J.P. Morgan's launch for his larger yachts, for her 100th birthday.
I have been writing, just haven’t liked what I wrote because it was too technical and boring. Even to me. But it is a new year so here I go again, 2.2 reboot. I have always liked a challenge. Nothing is impossible, just something I haven’t tried before. That’s the way I go into any new project. So when we started the life car restoration, I thought it should be pretty simple. It was just a 12-foot, steel riveted boat so it should be a walk in the park. I’ve taken on much larger projects and I thought I already knew everything there was in boat restorations. This little boat would humble me and prove me wrong. The life car was constructed in the mid 1800s. From looking at the dents and dings, she got a lot of use saving lives. Just a little larger than a coffin, they would stuff three to six men in, then lock the top hatch and send it off into high winds and seas. The hatch was so badly bent it was like someone had been kicking and trying to get out from the inside. With a small nail hole pattern like a pie safe you were pulled through the surf. In the dark, with little fresh air, I could envision men praying that if they ever got out alive they would never go to sea in that tin can again. The courage of these men is unimaginable to me today. The high iron content of the steel made it brittle after all these years. After she was retired from service, the little boat had been used as a cistern to collect water shedding off the roof of a house in Ocracoke, NC. The salty air and sand collected in the boat had taken its toll. So, when it showed up there was barely a keel and fragile, lacy and brittle edges. These boats were pressed out of steel then bent to shape. They riveted each panel together and dipped the whole boat in galvanize. That was its saving grace.
Someone had started on the repairs of this boat cutting big chunks out of it, so much was removed that the shape of the bottom was undetectable. Our local Maritime Museum in Beaufort had one on loan from the New Jersey Coast on display. That one has no dents or wear marks or even rust so it was so it was perfect to get measurements. How do you ask a museum if it minds if we turn your exhibit upside down so we can scan it? We have a good relationship with the museum and Dave Bennett, the curator, and other friends who work with the museum. I asked my friend Broadus Rose if he could scan it for me so with five men, we lifted her up, rolled her over and scanned the bottom. This would give us the shape and shape of the plates and the curves of the bottom. After putting the other life car back in place, Broadus showed up a few days later with a roll of Mylar and said, “Here you go.” We built a special cradle to hold our fragile steel boat and started working on the dents. The metal was so thin in places and the boat was so damaged, we had to be particularly careful in tapping out the many small dents. In addition, the boat was peppered with rust holes. We tried brazing them and soldering but the metal crumbled. This was not going to work. It was time to come up with plan B. We decided on composites, small Fiberglas patches were applied then fairing and we took patterns of the sheer from one side then carried it to the other, made a frame like in a wooden boat, and cut a sheer, clamped out of wood then then the boat started to take shape. Next, we cut galvanized sheet metal and installed hundreds of rivets. Afterwards, we needed to match the roughness of the old galvanize through the years. We used Primacon and Interlux metal primer paint, using a ceiling stipple roller, we painted and rolled the special roller over then sanding down to match the original. After applying antiquing paint, it was hard to tell our new work and the original. There were a lot of little tricks that we developed for this project. We had to pattern and fit just as we do on a wooden boat, but metal is a lot sharper so let’s just say we left a little of our blood on this project. Tape on fingertips help a lot.
Once completed and sitting in the special cradle we built, someone asked “would it float?” I gave a look, “Are you crazy?” “Well, would it?” I said “Yes!” But I am not putting her in the water after all this work. In the summer of 2023 she will hang as a permanent display at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Ocracoke, N.C.
Our team; Anna and Oleg Zuev, Teresa Brown, Andrew Parker and myself; all have something to be very proud of that will be on display for generations to come, we hope.
This spring, we are restoring J. P. Morgan’s Corsair III launch built by none other than Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. We are undoing a lot of previous work like poured epoxy on deck and things like that. The launch is double-planked with two layers of ⅜” mahogany planking. There were 5,000 little copper clench nails in the topside that had served their purpose from 1923 but didn’t age well. They are pin thin now and no longer hold the planking together. So we are replacing them. The Corsair III launch served Mr. Morgan on his two yachts No. 3 and No. 4. Both the largest and most magnificent yachts of their days.
Next year the little launch turns 100 and our goal is to put her back to her original as much as possible. We have pulled her diesel engine out and are now in search of a period motor. The only frustrating thing is so many research personnel are working remotely that research has been limited to what is posted on the internet. Even so we have found photos and blueprints with some specs that have really helped.
Sometimes, life takes you in a new direction. In my youth, the more I learned, the more I yearned to take on larger and larger projects. The same knowledge I accumulated over the years applies to smaller projects in our new shop, which can fit a 35’ boat at the most. With the size of the boats getting smaller, so has the level of stress. And stress is a killer. When I started in the business, at 22 years old, it was for the love of wooden boats and craftsmanship. When I look at stacks of photos of previous projects over the years, it stresses me out to just look at them. Those projects were rewarding, both as a sense of accomplishment and financially, but they weren’t about joy for the craft and wooden boats. I am going back to my original dream. The only difference is 40 plus years of experience.
The wooden boat show in Beaufort has been in hiatus for the last two years. We are hoping the state will let us have it this year. Last fall, we threw a party at my house with antique boats peppering the yard and a band playing in my boat shop and some of the best North Carolina barbecue. It was fun, I mean really fun! So, we are talking about doing it again for a pre-boat show party if there’s a boat show this year. So now there’s another reason to come.
That’s an invitation.
Until next time,
The late Broadus Rose, center, scanned the intact life car at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort for us and was a critical part of the restoration project. More importantly, he was a good and kind man and friend.
P.S. Since I started my first couple of drafts of this letter, Broadus Rose has passed away. Broadus was a kind and generous man. He was one of the first people to be friendly to us when we first came to North Carolina and built a boatyard. Others weren’t so sure what to make of us. We will always be grateful to Broadus for his warm welcome and friendship. We will all miss him.