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Hosting boats from high-tech to discarded relics, boatyards are both playground and graveyard

2022 April 1

Vesper’s giant carbon fiber rig towered over the rest of the boats in the yard like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visiting a kindergarten classroom at nap time. The TP52 glistened in perfect glossy shades of green and blue with no bottom paint. It seemed as if she had never touched water, lacking even the faintest of waterline residue, though you’d need binoculars to see up close. In between races and balanced on jackstands in the yard, Vesper’s perfect underbelly is two stories up. To prepare her to be launched and sailed, crewmembers brave a ladder so tall and skinny as to seem uninsurable. I cringe just thinking about the climb. With her rig up, Vesper’s masthead reaches 90 feet into the sky, taller than all the buildings in Muskegon, Michigan, where she was hanging out. The TP52 fleet was gathering on the Great Lakes for one-design freshwater sailing and then to compete in the summer’s storied distance events.

We were in town having finished our own offshore race, relaxing on the waterfront before heading home in calm weather. One of our favorite cruising activities is to spend a few hours milling about in the local boatyard, thus our Vesper-gawking.

But the picture-perfect speedster was not the only attraction in this yard. There was the modified trawler painted in Chicago Bears orange and blue and sporting a permanent tiki-bar with stadium seats as her top deck. There was the inevitable partially-disassembled all-wood Chris Craft surrounded by derelict scaffolding, an engine block, and a faded “For Sale” sign, reading “My loss, your gain.” There was the home-built steel-hulled Bruce Roberts design, called Wanderlust that, despite hauling a few years ago, is still wearing her fenders as if plotting her escape to blue water. There was a new tarp tent being built to shade the young optimistic couple turning an IOR dinosaur into a tiny house with only hand tools and hope. And of course, there was the row of indistinguishable Clorox bottle production cruisers, all “For sale by broker.”

In an age of gentrification and cruise-ship homogeneity, a good boatyard puts our dreams—and our nightmares—into stark relief.

On one hand, the bustling parts of a boatyard are places where anyone can ask anyone else a question. The Vesper crew might lend a tool to the couple retrofitting the old racer. A shout means “come here” and folks go to the voice from all around in case help is needed. Dust and grime get into your lunchbox and add to the flavor of your sandwich. Folks in boatyards may be Uber-rich or living paycheck-to-paycheck, but the privilege of time to play plows common ground. They are there because there is work to do in order for joy to be had.

On the other hand, the lesser-traveled parts of a boatyard are like an empty cemetery at dusk. Here we happened upon Gertrude, a seven-meter all-wood full-keel folkboat with a sagging fractional rig with jackstays. In her time, Gertrude was sporty, stout, fun and capable. Today, she languishes behind a row of mooring weights, unused floating docks and a camper-trailer. Dry-rot is overtaking. Her trailer tires haven’t held air in decades. Gertrude asks you to wonder about her owner’s life and times. Who loved her and for how long? What did glory look like for them? Time has run out on both work and play.

Vesper and Gertrude are but 500 steps from each other and while they look like different species, they have identical DNA. They’re both wind-powered boats. They were both designed to deliver safety and joy to their sailors. The main difference is that one is still doing her duty and the other has no one to do it for.

I love boatyards. These places are as much a reflection of the cultural century as the best museums of science, art or history, because they are both playgrounds and graveyards at the same time. They make play possible in the present while also holding the evidence of how the folks before us spent their best energies and time. They are about love and loss and adventure and friendship. I hope you have the time to mill about in one soon.