It's a time honored custom to set down a few words to take stock as the new year begins, so here goes. 2018 marks 50 years since I began my sailing career on Lake Ontario. For a half century I have sailed for pleasure ( and modest profit too through writing and teaching about sailing) on freshwater and salt. There have been quite a few changes in the recreational boating scene since I first stepped aboard Lightning number 878 with my Mom and Dad on a July morning in 1968.
Back in 1974 I attended a boat show of sorts in Rhode Island and picked up a copy of a newly launched magazine called WoodenBoat. I was attracted by the cover photo of a small launch I remembered seeing up at the Clayton Wooden Boat show in the Thousand Islands a year or two before. This was the first time I realized biodegradable boats (some of them anyway) were now 'collectable'.
By the time I began boating, the recreational fleet had already largely converted over to fiberglass. There were still some tired but somewhat serviceable canal crawlers and other wooden motor boats around upstate's lakes and bays that were suitable for the budget minded. The aged Buffalo built Richardson cruisers, along with various Matthews and Chris Craft Connies found refuge on the NY state barge canalfor a good decade or two after they mostly disappeared from Lake Ontario.
In 1968 there were also still a fair number of smaller plywood lapstrake runabouts by Penn Yan, Thompson and and the popular Lake Erie built Lyman skiffs along with various wooden one design dinghies for beginning sailors to launch their sailing careers with. At the working man's yacht club we joined in 1968 (annual dues 60 dollars a year plus a modest docking fee) we had a fleet of a half dozen biodegradable Lightning daysailors plus a handful of larger wooden sailboats that included a boat built to Chapelle's design for a 24 foot plywood sharpie ketch that I thought was the most magnificent yacht I'd ever seen.
A decade later, though, when I decided to upgrade from my Lightning to something bigger and more seaworthy for cruising Lake Ontario, the supply of woodies had pretty much literally dried up (or rotted away). I looked at a very mushy plywood Thunderbird, a scary 27 fin keeled footer with a deep bilge filled with concrete, and at a fairly sound Yugoslavian built double ender that was way out of my price range. She was too big in my opinion for easy single handing, anyway. It was pretty slim pickings by then on the south shore of Lake Ontario as far as wooden cruising boats went. But prices of even smaller fiberglass cruising boats were hopelessly beyond the reach of my uncertain and meager income.
Even on saltwater the woodie was becoming an oddity in many harbors despite the greater cultural diversity of boats compared to Lake Ontario. I recall just two biodegradable cruising sailboats in the Newburyport mooring field in 1974- a very hogged Friendship sloop and a nice little Atkins cutter.
I did eventually get my hands on a 23 foot home built William Crosby Osprey. She was launched in the late 1940s and had narrowly escaped a July 4 bonfire before her previous owner bought her for back storage fees. “Ariel” was a simple boat with a hull form that I fancied resembled an overweight Snipe. She was lightly ballasted and relied largely on hull form to stay atop the steeper larger waves we encountered which she did. Much like a big fat puddle duck she kept me dry and safe for seventeen years of lake cruising. I pushed her and myself pretty hard a few times and did a few dumb moves with her, but she never let me down.
In 1998 I finally caught up with the rest of the world by going in on a three way partnership on a fiberglass boat. The 32 foot Chris Craft Cherokee, built the same year I began boating, proved a highly satisfactory cruiser for ten years. With her classic design and lavish amounts of teak trim she could almost pass for a wooden boat except for that noisy aluminum stove pipe of a mast. We even ventured off to salt water for a short trip with her and nobody missed the annual spring caulking and or rot repair jobs each spring.
By 2004 there was just one wooden sailboat on the waters of Little Sodus Bay, a well made little gaffer designed by Thomas Gillmer and built by her owner in his backyard. Everyone else was pretty much sailing a white fiberglass sloop with about four plastic boats of color mixed in among them. In a multicultural world our little bay was a homogeneous backwater. My spouse decided to fix that with a foray on e Bay.
Here on a late October day he found a little cedar and oak two master that was down on her luck and in need of a new home. We had been fantasizing about building a steel schooner (Colvin's Gazelle was a leading candidate) but here was one all rigged, afloat and more or less ready to go. We put in a bid, the only bid, and have been sailing and working on her ever since.
Soon after we began sailing her on the bay, we declared our second boat, Sara B, a Nova Scotia built Tancook schooner, to be Fair Haven's unofficial small tall ship, because she attracted so much attention and comments. Many of the comments were expressions of bemusement or wonder in the nature of “is that whole thing made of wood?” a remark overhead from a passing motorboat crew as I worked on her at the mooring. Going down the Fair Haven channel on a day when the jetty walkers were out in force was a bit like running a gauntlet of eyeballs.
Some jetty walkers raised cell phone cameras in salute. Some smiled and waved. Many simply stared with what we came to know as the WTF look. Sara B where her gaff rig two masts and long bowsprit did not compute. A frequent comment probably inspired in part by her black hull and the belaying pins, oil powered running lights, dead eyes and wooden spars of her rig was 'there goes the pirate boat' . My favorite was the overheard remark of one viewer to his companion as she chugged by under power with furled sails “Is that thing a Sail Boat?!”
Sara B is a marketing maven's dream. I often thought we should put the url of the website for her winter home boatyard on her stern quarter under her name and see if we could get a discount on off season storage in exchange for advertising .
Sara B has had her picture painted at least three times by three different artists that I know of. As I write this, I hear a fourth painting is in the works. One of the more interesting portraits shows Sara B with her distinctive long trunk cabin row of round ports and stern mounted wooden arch sailing across Sydney Harbor! Thanks to my computer savvy spouse, we have also immortalized her on Wikipedia in two photos under the entry “Tancook Schooner”.
We spent many hours and contributed to the local economy of the village by eating and drinking there as we worked on Sara B's wooden hull each spring. It was an endless battle against entropy and after a few years it was brutally apparent that entropy was getting the upper hand. Now we knew why there were so few large old wooden boats afloat on Lake Ontario at the beginning of the 21st century. Many people had stories about the woodies that had once sailed these waters. On our little bay there had been Hank Spang's Alden yawl, “High Heels” Ray Sant's big Chris Craft power cruiser, various one design Stars, Thistles, Snipes and Lightnings, and a veritable fleet of varnished speedboats- nearly all are gone now. The few woodies remaining are mostly small enough to reside in waterfront boat houses or can be taken home and parked inside for the winter. Even old Lotus, the Sodus Bay Sea Scout schooner with National Historic object status failed to get afloat last year. I only knew of one other active schooner besides Sara B sailing on the south shore last year.
Sara B inspired at least a half dozen articles by myself for various boating magazines on such subjects as buying large old wooden boats on E bay, ( not the best idea for most mere mortals), sailing without an engine, (definitely not such a good idea for us it turned out), the joys of co operative boat ownership, and various anti rot measures including the massive two year cover up using techniques pioneered by an east coast boat builder named Allan Vaitses some thirty years before when there were still a lot of wooden boats around.
Rot stories are a staple of wooden boat ownership and I sold several shorts on the topic. And in honor of her sixty year anniversary a few years ago (shameless self promo) I published a memoir of sailing with her called “Living On The Edge With Sara B”.
Boating has changed in a half century since I first sailed. There are fewer sailing day trip and bare boat charter operations now along New York's Lake Ontario shore. The ubiquitous brightly colored plastic kayak has replaced all those home made lumberyard pine plywood and canvas kayaks like the Percy Blandford boat I built in 1974 with four hand tools and some borrowed bandsaw time. Stand Up Paddle boards are now a common sight on the bay where I sail, and there seem to be a lot fewer water skiers.
he tube set has evolved too. Lately, I've noticed inflatable tow toys like “Big Martha” that closely resemble living room sofas and easy chairs. One different boat type I do see now and then is an honest rowboat, often a Whitehall or Adirondack guideboat type with a plastic hull. I never saw a “real” rowboat in the 1960's on the south shore of the lake. The St. Lawrence skiffs of the 1920s and 30s were long gone then in my neighborhood.
A lot of the boaters on my home waters are of the aging baby boomer demographic, and in my humble and highly subjective opinion, the newer boats both power and sail are a whole lot uglier than the pleasure craft built in the 40s and 50s that were still afloat during my youth. Our bay's current pleasure craft fleet of white hulled power boats and sloops is less varied and interesting than those of coastal saltwater towns. But people still venture forth with modest craft for a day of fishing and the popular pontoon boat fleet seems to keep growing. Recreational boating has been around for about as long as the village of Fair Haven where I now live has existed. I hope for at least another generation or two it will continue in some form here. And I suspect if it does there will still be a few non conformists sailing homebuilts, odd ball boats and old boats, too.