Falcon’s Hope – New Usefulness for an Old Sailboat

October 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

First published in SpinSheet Magazine – October 2011

A few years ago in September an old sailboat wedged its long lead keel upon an uncharted rock about 200 yards off of Bradford Beach in Milwaukee with enough force that it couldn’t be unwedged and was left for salvage by its skipper and crew, who reached shore unharmed. The sailboat stayed there for months. At first, and on calm days, she was serenely pretty, heeled over at about 30 degrees looking like she had a place to go. But when the November Nor’easters arrived she was shoved further inshore, fell over hard and took a terrible beating. I would walk to the beach and stand among a half-dozen others in foulies and with cameras to witness her plight. She’d twist in the breakers, and lash back forcefully. I thought I could hear her protesting as her spine was pounded on the rocks below.

A few months prior I had coincidently met her owner, a strong young man with a thick slavic accent, perhaps in his late 20’s, doing glass work in a boatyard that I was passing through. He grinned proudly while explaining that she was a 1957 Chinook 34, the first fiberglass production sailboat. He had plans to leave in the fall for the east coast and then cross the Atlantic Ocean the next spring to be with his new wife who was waiting for him in Europe. Falcon was tough enough, manageable for him to sail alone, and would be a comfortable home for the young reunited couple. He had worked odd jobs to save enough money to buy the boat in the amount of the due storage bill, and to assemble some used tools and a stash of fittings, resin, varnish and paint. When I met him he had months of sweat to give and work left to do.

His dream came to a blunt, tragic ending when Falcon’s keel hit the big rock. It was rumored that he was so distraught at grounding her after just finishing the refit that he bought a one-way ticket home and was not seen again. When the January ice came, salvagers walked out to Falcon and cut her into three pieces small enough to drag ashore with a chain and a pick-up truck.

A sad story, yes. A closer look, however, finds a bigger lesson; that a sailboat built in 1957 might encircle the powerful love of young newlyweds and reflect a man’s grandest aspirations for life and living. This is the true power of the old boat.

Sailboats, at least the well-constructed ones like Falcon, have about seven lives over many decades. They are sold new and then sold again and again to subsequent sailors, usually at lower relative costs each time. No matter how high or low the price and however old the boat, having one at all is a rare privilege, often a serious and intimate endeavor that is never forgotten.

The existence of a sailboat in a life often influences the course of that life, and determines its legacy. It’s not a worship of a material thing or a symbol of status or prestige. Sailboats are valuable because they are experiential.

Sailboats hold history: the intent of the designer, their purpose and place, their logbooks, charts and diaries. Sailboats hold memories: their homeports and destinations, their top speeds and longest voyages, their dings and dents, their worst and best weather. Sailboats hold secrets: the dreams of the children nestled in a v-berth, the discussions and debates of the crew-mates on deck at night, the wide eyed wonder of a first timer on the lee side, and the fears and hopes of the caretakers, like the dreamy hardworking young man making Falcon ready for life again.

It is not the size, the age or the expense of the boat that matters either.

I like to daydream about owning and racing my own 52-footer in the Mediterranean. Slightly less outlandish daydreams have us cruising the Swedish archipelago in a slick and sleek 40-footer every summer. I come back to reality and am grateful for the used but still fast and family-friendly B-32 that we are lucky to campaign on weekends. If money gets tight (as it will when the kids go to college), it might be time for something smaller and perhaps trailerable, like a used J-22. If that doesn’t work out, we might throw an old Club-420 on the car top and ramp launch. In a real pinch, it would be just as fun to join the local sailing center and contribute a few bucks a month and some sweat equity in a shared fleet of old daysailing keelboats like Ensigns or Etchells.

The point is that sailors generally value the time on the water more than the boat, but the boat is what makes the time on the water possible in the first place.

In any town near water in the US or Canada today there is a boat yard with a row of dusty unused sailboats from 14 to 34 feet, some with for-sale signs, others abandoned and forgotten. At first glance it might look like a pile of trash. But I offer that one of sailing’s greatest assets and its strongest allures is the ample supply of the good old boat. Putting these things back to use means reconnecting them with people who might value the grand times that they promise.

To the aspiring sailor, low cost of entry is one of sailing’s advantages. A dusty but serviceable, trailer-launched fiberglass boat, large enough to sleep and feed a family of four, with a motor, trailer, sails, safety equipment and line will often sell for much less than a modest flat screen TV.

Another option is to make these boats useful on a larger scale.

Some of the better community sailing centers in the country have started to take these boats as tax-deductible donations and volunteers are bringing them back to sailing condition for families to share. It’s an example of real American renewal: modern usefulness for old, unused but still valuable things. When it works well, the benefits spill broadly: to the sailors, the sailor’s neighbors and friends, to the schools and the larger community.

It even worked in a small way in the special case of Falcon.

At first, the stranded sailboat drew us to the shore to reflect on the young man’s ordeal and the end of something. Then Falcon surprised us when she remained in place fighting and floating for most of a winter, buoyantly refusing to give up the impossible dream, finally succumbing only to the chain saw, never to the rocks. So after a while, we were drawn not to her tragedy, but to her hope: that an old sailboat can take us to places we will otherwise never see and to relationships that we would otherwise never know.

I think I’ll take the kids to the yard to try to find Falcon and glue her back together again. It’ll be a great time.

** Images courtesy: Mike Fisk (http://soul-amp.com).

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