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Love a wood boat at your peril; they're heartbreakers

2009 August 1
When I started sailing, most of the boats in the world were made of wood. As a young boy, I sailed a small fiberglass boat that must have been one of the first of its kind.

The boat was a Dyer sailing dinghy, a novelty that was impressive as an example of the emerging science and art of making boats of plastic reinforced with glass fibers, with a white hull painted blue inside, mahogany seats, varnished spruce spars and a dark blue sail. Alas, it wasn't so impressive in terms of performance. In the pick-up races organized by us kids who hung around the yacht club, which usually included a Penguin, a Moth, a wooden Dyer dinghy and my fiberglass model, I almost always finished last. I suppose some operator error could have been involved, but mainly the problem was that the fiberglass dinghy was so much heavier than the other boats. The Dyer's obviously more nimble wooden sistership won most of the races.
Plastic boats have, of course, come a long way since then. Fiberglass is the gift to sailors that has never stopped giving. The gifts include mass produced, and thus more affordable, sailboats; an ever-growing stock of sound used boats that give more people the opportunity to own a sailboat (except in fires, fiberglass boats never go away-that old dinghy of mine probably still exists, if not still sailing, then in a landfill); super-high-performance sailboats built of composites, the modern iteration of fiberglass, that can routinely travel at more than 30 miles per hour. The best of all of its gifts, though, is that fiberglass saved us from wood boats.

You wood boat lovers now firing up your computers to e-mail me a piece of your minds can relax; I appreciate the beauty of wood boats. Much as I loved my boat, I thought my friend's wooden Dyer dinghy, which was clinker-built, with lapstrake planking finished bright, was utterly gorgeous, and secretly envied it. I know too that wood boats have something fiberglass boats can never have: a sense when you sail them that, like the sea, they are alive. I am a big admirer of folks who restore old wood boats and preserve for us these living reminders of sailing's heritage. Still, affinity for wood boats is a matter of the heart, and perishable as they are, they've broken many a heart.

Including my father's. In 1951 he took delivery of his dream, one of the most beautiful wood boats you can imagine. It was a Dragon class sloop, a "cruising" version of the 29-foot Norwegian racing design with a tiny cuddy cabin and two berths suited for petite contortionists, built by the famed W. H. R. Van Dam shipyard in Holland. The boat, the first of its kind on the Great Lakes, was quite a sensation when it came in on a truck after having crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian freighter.

The metropolitan daily newspaper circulated in our area described the boat as "a sailboat with Viking tradition in her lines and Dutch craftsmanship in her body." A photo caption reported that "yachtsmen who have inspected the craft describe it as built like a Steinway piano."

Better it really had been a piano, a beautiful object crafted of wood that would never get wet.

I discovered a thick, tattered file folder recently, identified on the tab as "Suki." In it were plans, photos, newspaper clippings and letters that tell the sad story of the Dragon named Suki.

The photos leave no doubt about her beauty. The bright-finished African mahogany hull, lustrous in its many coats of varnish, flaunted dark streaks of grain that looked like horizontal tiger stripes and contrasted stunningly with the white bottom and pale blue deck. In the photos of the boat on its cradle on the dock, the hull looks perfect, not a seam to be seen, as smooth as though it had been fiberglass.

I found a copy of a letter written by my father to the Norwegian agent who arranged the sale that began: "An incredible thing occurred. Most of the frames in Suki are breaking. This boat is little more than one year and two months old. Unbelievable as it is, this almost complete disintegration of her framework means that her planking is now opening up and it will be impossible in the interest of safety at sea to launch her next spring in her present condition."

The letter concluded that the builder made "a serious error in the choice of lumber," using green oak for the frames that contracted as it dried.

Van Dam denied that poorly seasoned wood caused the problem, but advised my father that if he would "send the boat to us (in Holland!) Mr. Schanen gets her back as good as new or he receives an entirely new vessel instead."

Nothing in the file explains what happened next, but I assume my father couldn't afford to send the boat back to the builder. As a story in the daily paper had pointed out, one of the things about the boat that appealed to my father, who was a weekly newspaper publisher, was that it "didn't cost a year's supply of newsprint." (According to a contract I found, he paid $4,740.)
I have a memory of watching, as a small boy, in the barn where the boat was stored, my father and a friend taking big sheets of what I now think was fine-mesh woven roving, soaking them in a liquid that must have been resin and applying them to the hull. Oh, the irony-the beautiful wooden Suki was saved by being made into, in effect, a fiberglass boat.

As I recall, the boat, grossly overweight and with a perennially rough bottom, never sailed well again and was sold for, I assume, a song, or maybe a month's worth of newsprint.

Look at it this way: Boats were built of wood because fiberglass didn't exist. If fiberglass had grown on trees, the fiberglass would have been harvested, and the wood left to rot, which it does quite readily.

Don't get me wrong. I love wood boats-just as long as they are someone else's wood boats.