A Special Boat Comes Home
Before the restoration comes the road trip
THERE’S A TEMPLATE for the classic adventure tale—the hero ventures out on a quest, leaving all he knows and loves, to bring home a coveted object. It’s an object often imbued with mystical powers, one that will restore the world to its harmonious self upon its return. Think Jason and the Golden Fleece, Bilbo and the precious Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This is one such story, with a hero—my husband, Stanley Pendleton— and a boat he had to have—a Dark Harbor 17—and his quest to retrieve it from... a garage in Ohio.
I know some about boats, but not a lot. I know a lot about living with a man who knows a lot about boats. I did not join him on this trip. Did Penelope join Odysseus? Un-uh. She probably said, “You go do what you have to do. I’ll be right here.” Same as me, minus the suitors and the weaving, unless unraveling my knitting to fix mistakes counts.
B.B. Crowninshield designed the boat known as the Dark Harbor 17 in 1908. The design has been described as “a pure sailing machine of great beauty.” Slender with long overhangs, a deep draft, and large gaff rig, Dark Harbor 17s are fast and responsive. The cabin is just big enough for two narrow berths, although headroom is minimal. “There are larger boats of similar character, but a 17 is probably the smallest design that offers such a fine and elegant sailing experience,” according to Yacht World. In other words, the denizens of Islesboro’s Dark Harbor, past and present, have exquisite taste. If the boat hadn’t met Stanley’s aesthetic requirements, he wouldn’t have considered fetching it home.
The beginning of this story is sad: a man in Ohio, named Harold Thompson, died unexpectedly. His widow, Betsy, needed to sell the house and, yes, the boat her husband had bought more than 20 years before to restore. She wanted to find a new owner who would honor and finish the work Thompson had begun.
He had hoped to build his own DH17 from scratch. When he found Bumblepuppy at West Cove Boatyard in Sorrento, Maine, he thought he’d salvage her for hardware. But Mainer Sturgis Haskins, a boat enthusiast and historian, happened to be on the dock the day the boat was hauled. He recognized the boat and told Thompson that Bumblepuppy was a living, if slightly decrepit, piece of sailing history.
At one point she had belonged to Richard Sears, who built a grand summer cottage in Dark Harbor in 1907. When Sears bought her, he had already made his name by winning seven consecutive singles tennis titles, his first in 1881, while still a student at Harvard College, and he was part of the first wave of Americans to play at Wimbledon, in 1884.
By 1917, Bumblepuppy was listed as his in Lloyd’s Register of American Yachts. Bumblepuppy, a weird but apt name, means “a game of whist played carelessly or contrary to rules and conventions.” I know enough about sailing to know that running “contrary to rules and conventions” runs in many a sailor’s salty veins. Renamed Sorrento Moon by Thompson (in honor of a song he and his wife Betsy loved), she had also been named Taeping and Vosetta over the years.
When Thompson died, Betsy called the man in Maine who had sold her husband the boat. He then called Stanley, knowing as he did that Stanley and Pendleton Yacht Yard, located in Dark Harbor, maintained the majority of the DH20 fleet and many Herreshoff 12.5’s.
So the net was cast, from Columbus, Ohio, to Dark Harbor, Maine. The right man for the right job had been found. Stanley is a proud hometown island boy; the thought of bringing this beauty home to her namesake harbor thrilled him no end. He loves adventure, he loves boats, he loves road trips. He Google-mapped the distance from Lincolnville, Maine, where the ferry to Islesboro docks, to Columbus, Ohio—960 miles, just under 15 hours driving time.
He offered a modest amount for the boat in return for relieving Betsy of what she saw as an obvious boondoggle to the house sale. Stanley looked up crane operators near Columbus, as the boat would have to be lifted onto a trailer, then Googled trailer dealers in Ohio, as he would need a 20-foot trailer to bring the boat home. Hero’s luck: Betsy just happened to have the name of a local crane operator from a friend of a friend. Hero’s woe: There were no trailers of the right specification in all of Ohio. Stanley found one in Turner, Maine, to rattle emptily all 960 miles behind him to his goal.
From the first phone call—the siren’s call—to the time he left, was maybe six days. Six days of misery, if you were the hero’s wife. He could not rest. He made piles to load in the truck—of wedges, boards, and blocking to rebuild the cradle. Pipe rollers and come-alongs, chain and ratchet straps. He tucked things in the truck that he might or might not need, not knowing what he’d find when he got to the Holy Grail... Bumblepuppy. That was her Maine name, and we’ve called her that ever since.
For the truck, he bought a “headache rack,” a thing I’d never heard of, “to fasten long things to,” and a giant locking toolbox from Tractor Supply. He filled the latter with a gazillion tools, and a chainsaw and a circular saw—every sailor’s go-to tools. He washed the truck’s windows with a meticulousness I had never witnessed in his attempts at house-cleaning. Finally, the truck was packed and stacked with every conceivably needed thing. Finally, I was sending my Odysseus off to war and getting back to my knitting. Finally, he was gone on the first ferry, looking like the cat who’d swallowed the canary... gleeful.
He picked up his trailer in Turner, Maine, and made it to Utica, New York, where he stopped for the night. The next day, Tuesday, found him shake-rattle-and-rolling all the way to Columbus, where he pulled into Betsy’s driveway around 4 p.m. His first impression was that the boat was in reasonably good shape. His second impression was that there might be three inches of headroom between the top of the boat’s cabin and the garage door. A large black walnut tree limb overhanging the driveway might also prove a challenge for maneuvering. Stan was undeterred. He parked his weary bones, his truck, and the trailer at a Fairfield Inn just down the road, and rested up for the daunting task ahead.
On Wednesday morning Betsy was up and ready, eager to watch Stanley pull the boat, by hook or by crook, from the garage. She filled him in on details as he worked: her husband had stripped the boat early on of all fittings, had had them polished and carefully packed away. He’d bought a new set of Nat Wilson sails, a pair of Shaw & Tenney oars, new running and standing rigging, and chainplates. He’d replaced the keel (in which he’d found a significant crack aft of the mast step), as well as the deadwood and rudder post. He had replaced the old canvas deck with teak, but hadn’t found the time to caulk or bung it. He had partially taken apart the cradle in order to get at some planks he wanted to replace. The boat had filled an entire two bays of a large garage for more than 20 years, but not been worked on for the past five, due to Thompson’s failing health.
Stan rebuilt the cradle, using the circular saw and the wood he’d brought, as well as wood found in the garage and bought at the Home Depot down the road. Now to raise her onto rollers. Stanley had brought a bottle jack that was too small for the job, and a handyman jack that was too tall to use without hitting the boat. Luckily, a neighbor had a floor jack to lift the cradle, first at the bow, then the stern, to wedge the two-inch pipe rollers underneath.
Stan attached a come-along to a nearby tree. A lot of whacks with a maul to position and reposition the rollers as she navigated a 45-degree turn and neared the exit were required, one ratchet pull at a time. Muscle-memory assisted our hero, as this was how he’d maneuvered boats around the boatyard when he and the boatyard were just starting out and he was young and broke, sans heavy equipment. By releasing the catch on the garage door and pushing it all the way to the rear, he acquired a much-needed extra inch of clearance, and out she rolled.
Thursday morning brought new challenges, including a heatwave. It was 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity at 9 a.m. The crane guy was coming at 5:30 p.m., and Bumblepuppy needed to be at the bottom of a 500-foot driveway in time to meet him. Time to pack up. Stuffing the cabin with boxes of fittings and parts, sails and rigging, the gaff and boom, and a pair of oars was not a lark; the hatch was small and required some jockeying to get into. Did I mention it was hot? Did I mention Stanley is 72?
Stanley attached the boat cradle to eyes on the front of his truck and began to pull. It took some work, but at last, the boat, cradle and all, slid down the driveway, coming to rest around 3 p.m. The crane guy showed up right on time, just as the Ohio heat began to dissipate. By now, the neighbors had gathered, ready for a show. The one who had loaned the floor jack said it couldn’t be done: there was no way two straps could lift a boat onto a trailer without anything shy of disaster. Stanley stifled his smirk. He said, politely, like a superhero, “I do this all the time.”
With one spreader bar and two straps, the crane operator lifted the boat clear of the trailer. Stan had tied four ropes from the straps on the boat to the cradle, so they came up together but apart. First the cradle was guided onto the trailer, then the boat was lowered into it—the whole thing took 45 minutes or less. The neighbors were agog. There may have been applause. I’d like to think so.
I’m sure it was hard for Betsy to watch that boat leave the next afternoon. The boat that Sturgis Haskins had called a piece of sailing history was also a huge part of her history with her husband. His restoration efforts represented time and genuine dedication to save a gem.
Any sailor worth his salt will recognize the breathless thrill in Thompson’s voice in an email he wrote to Haskins soon after the boat was delivered to Ohio. “The deck and deckhouse are not consistent with Crowninshield’s design and I will reconstruct them based on my Dark Harbor plans,” he wrote, going on to describe in detail other issues that he planned to fix. They were the words of a man itching to get to work, to make the world better by making a boat better.
Lincolnville Beach never looked so good as when Stan pulled into the ferry parking lot Saturday night. He parked his rig in the ferry line and rowed out to his powerboat. Home he sped, to find no suitors, just me. A dram of whiskey to get the road out of his bones, a few hours’ sleep, and then back to the mainland first thing in the morning, to load the bumbling beauty onto the ferry.
The epic quest’s ending was a satisfying one, with the coveted item returned to its rightful place, the hero home unscathed. It felt as if the world righted itself as Bumblepuppy went down the ferry ramp and headed to Dark Harbor. Perhaps Harold Thompson, with Richard Sears at his side, looked down from above, smiled a sailor’s smile, and gave our hero two thumbs up for a quest triumphantly completed.
Bumblepuppy now awaits a new owner and a retrofit, perhaps to swing once again on a mooring in Dark Harbor.
Diana Roberts lives on Islesboro with her husband Stanley Pendleton, proprietor of Pendleton Yacht Yard. She attributes her long and happy marriage to a highly refined sense of humor.