Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The First Vessel in the Fleet, The Last Vessel to Receive Her Dues

By Jeff

The year was 1999.  Chris and I just had a baby (Juliet) and were living in a rental house in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle.  All the kids were still with us, making for a very packed space.  As I am still sometimes guilty of now, I had a bad habit of trolling the waterfront looking at old wooden boats.  One afternoon I noticed a small sloop sitting in a back corner of a (no longer existant)yard with a for sale sign on it.  For about a week I would drive by whenever the opportunity presented itself and look, just to see if it was still there.  Honestly, I was just looking.

It sat stern to the fence, showing off a beautifully shaped transom with just the right amount of tumblehome.  It was small, only twenty-six feet with a short boomkin projecting astern, but no name was present.  Finally unable to resist the urge, I called the number on the sign.  After a talk with the owner I learned a small bit about the circumstances.  This was his first boat, fulfilling a long term dream.  Unfortunately, he lived a fair distance away and was unable to get over to check on or use it.  He hauled it out for a stem repair, learned it needed more work and as he tried to decide what to do, it became apparent the boat needed recaulked.  At this point he was done with old wooden boats.  I secured permission to go aboard and look around.

I discovered a vessel that at one time had been a real looker, but was showing it's age.  A cursory examination showed most of the frames had cracked, some had been sistered, and all were due for replacement. There was additional rot in the transom framing, an engine needing to be rebuilt and a long list of cosmetic details calling for attention.  The price was way too high but I continued to drive by for a week or so and check on it.

One afternoon on a walk with Chris and Juliet, I took us by the yard and showed her the boat.  She thought it was a pretty little boat and we started to talk about possibilities.  My father had recently passed away and I had inherited a small bit of money from him.  With Chris' go ahead, I called the owner and we started to negotiate.  Eventually he came down to a price where I knew in a worst case scenario I could buy the boat and if it was unsalvageable, sell the bronze hardware and recoup the cost.  We met, signed paperwork, traded cash and suddenly "it " became a "she".  Chris and I now owned our first old wooden boat.

A friend gave us an old trailer which I modified to hold the boat.  We scheduled pulling the mast to load it on the trailer and cleaned her out.  The yard's crane was mounted on the dock, which meant she had to go back in the water, pull the stick and lift her out again.  Pumps were lined up against the inevitable and all was ready.  On the day the travel lift placed her in the water with me standing on the house top, I listened to the water POUR inside and I knew all the pumps we had could not keep up.  The yard lifted her out, placed her right back where she'd been and we called in a mobile crane.

Chris had arrived at the yard to watch the process and left when she saw my hands on my head, wondering what to do as the yard crew muttered something about "suckers born every day".  Unbeknownst to me she had just named our new vessel.  It had become obvious to Chris that in my mind I was seeing Don Quixote's Dulcinea whereas the rest of the world saw Aldonza for what she was.  Before she arrived home, our little boat was now Aldonza.

Finally loaded on the trailer, we hauled her home, parked her on the street in front of our house and began working on her.  Parts were removed, organized and labeled.  Hardware went into bins and I would sit at night watching a movie with the family, polishing away.  Old varnish was scrapped away, wood sanded and new brightwork started to appear.  The interior was removed in preparation to reframe and all was continuing apace.  In my idealism and naiveté I was sure we were making good progress.  Then winter set in.  Winter slowed us down, but more importantly made us painfully aware of how cramped we were for space with our large family in a small house.

On an evening walk with the dog I passed by an old craftsman farmhouse for sale, life took a turn and we were now homeowners.  This house needed a lot of work, and by a lot I mean a HUGE AMOUNT.  We spent the next two months remodeling before we moved in, working evenings and weekends to beat the deadline.  Aldonza was moved down the street to the new house, parked and blocked into place and a new cover was built around her. 

For the first year in the house we still found time to work on her, reefing seams, scraping paint and starting to rebuild the transom.  Unfortunately, as has happened to so many boats, she slowly became less of a focus in our lives and languished in the driveway as the shrubbery started to grow around her.  A storm took the cover and a tarp replaced it.  As the years went by a family of raccoons took up residence for a while and she became the butt of many a joke and comment.  She was still my Dulcinea though, and I was not giving up on her.  Every once in a while the tarp would be removed, friends lured with food and beer, and a work party would occur.

When we made the decision to sell the house (which I was still remodeling after ten years), many thought it was the end for Aldonza.  I had other plans though.  The shrubs were cut back, the interior cleaned out, the trailer pulled onto the street and she was readied for a trip to Bellingham.  With additional bracing built around her she was towed north and pulled into the covered shop space I share and postioned once again for restoration.

Of course we had Kwaietek to prepare to live aboard as well as Sugaree by this time, followed last year by Zeta.  All the while Aldonza sat patiently as I promised her "someday soon".  That "someday" arrived about a month ago.  Chris and Tim (whom I have the shop space through) were both making grumbly noises.  It was evidently time to fix her or burn her, but she had to be on a schedule to leave the shop.

The first project was to reassess the frames and figure out a replacement schedule.  Then I began the process of patterning exterior forms to jack the stern back into shape in order to finsh the transom framing and planking.  Parts are still coming out, but more importantly, parts are starting to in.  I know she's a big project, but at twenty-six feet she's not overwhelming.  I've even got a few friends who are starting to drop by and lend a hand every once in a while.

When Tim once asked me why I wanted to restore her I could only say I owed it to her.  Thinking more, I've realized that her fate in my mind is intertwined with Juliet.  We bought Aldonza when Juliet was six months old and my father had just died.  There was a lot of personal history and emotion wrapped up inside this old hull.  I've realized that this is a boat for Juliet to own and sail, one that I will watch her truly grow into her own aboard.  As we start back in, the daughter who was wrapped in her baby blanket on the day Aldoza arrived is now pulling tools out of her own toolbox to assist with the work.

Shortly after buying her I had spent some time researching her history.  She was built in southern California in 1927 at the Ashbridge Boat Works.  I have found little documentation but was told by one previous owner that there had been six sister ships, Aldonza being the last to survive.  She was worked up the coast, San Francisco, Oregon and then to Seattle, having changed names a few times.  I've got paperwork with Katharine E. and the fellow we bought her from called her Wood Duck, but there was no trace of a name onboard when she became ours.  She was powered by a Universal Motors Utility Four gasoline engine, I believe the original propulsion.  I would like the engine restored as a separate showpiece, but a new diesel will be the power that goes in.  As a father doing this for my daughter, I cannot put a gasoline engine back in Aldonza.

For fifteen years crates of polished bronze hardware have been carefully stored and moved.  Stacks of parts, forty-five feet of mast, sails and rig all await the day for the dust to be blown off and to take their place once again.  As new wood is finally starting to replace old, her "someday" is finally "today".  I've learned so much about carpentry and boat construction since we bought her and I know the road ahead will not be quick and smooth, but I feel it is achievable. I'm glad she waited for us to get to her and look forward to launching day, with blue skies and sun on the water and Juliet at the tiller.

"Rozinante was the name of Don Quixote's steed. She was a long, thin animal but every time the Don mounted her he had remarkable adventures.  Perhaps seven-eighths, of the romance of these adventures took place in Quixote's mind, for he was a great reader of romance who rather looked down on the times in which he lived.  Like Don Quixote, every time I venture out on this Rozinante I meet with great adventure and romance.  Perhaps, also, seven-eighths of it takes place in my mind, but each point opens up new vistas with all sorts of new possibilities."

                     ~ L. Francis Herreshoff

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