The rise and fall of a famous nautical cover girl
by Paul Ring (with both his permission and that of Good Old Boat Magazine, as excerpted from their Issue 66, May/June 2009 publication)
Some consider it absurd to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but those of us who mess about in boats know differently. After all, we give our boats names and call them “she.” Very few other objects are thought of this way, perhaps a few trains, some very special airplanes and, rarely, an automobile. But all boats — some more than others — are eligible for a name and to be called “she.” This derives from ancient custom. Before the steel, aluminum, and fiberglass ages came upon us, boats were made from living things: trees or perhaps reeds.
That’s part of it, but in my view, it’s a long way from all of it, for we give boats names even when they are made from steel, aluminum, or fiberglass. I think the answer is “soul,” passed on to the boat from the designer, the builder, the sailor, the restorer. And the difference between boats and other objets d’art, such as sculptures and paintings, is that we trust in boats to preserve our souls when we venture on the perfidious sea.
When I first saw Magnolia, I felt I saw the “soul” that her designer, G. Taylor Newell, had given her. She had beautiful, graceful lines with moderate overhangs and was just a little more slender than most. Although small, she looked like a go-anywhere boat. She was called AnTeak then, an apparent reference to her age and all the brightwork that glistened in the sunlight that June afternoon.
A willing buyer
I had answered a classified ad in the Mobile Press/Register that offered for sale a 1970 Cheoy Lee Offshore 27, also known as a Newell Cadet. This brought me to the small-craft harbor in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where she lay.
The owner met us at the boat. What a showman. He gave us a tour of the boat, all the while keeping up a distracting patter about how reluctant he was to part with her, how he just might change his mind, someone else was very interested, and so on. For my part, I was the ideal buyer: overeager.
I was familiar with Cheoy Lee sailboats through acquaintance with two owners during my days of sailing out of the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria, Virginia. Both owners extolled the virtues of their boats. All the teak woodwork and dragon carvings below were certainly impressive. A couple of years earlier, I had also taken the opportunity to visit the Cheoy Lee Shipyard while on R&R in Hong Kong. I still have a strong visual memory of what must have been 15 or more Chinese craftsmen all working on board a 35-foot boat at the same time. We also had a Cheoy Lee dealer in town where, from time to time, I drooled over the various models he had on display, all of which were a little out of reach financially.
A fever for boats
I had been “on the beach” for more than four years, ever since selling my Westerly Centaur during my late wife’s illness. Catatonia had brought us to our new home in Fairhope, Alabama, from Long Island, New York, where I had spent the last tour of my Marine Corps career. And now, four years later, I had a 14-year-old stepson with whom to share sailing and help quench my boat fever.
The brightwork and boat lust combined to blind me to some faults that varnish couldn’t fix, and I probably paid too much. But before the afternoon was out, a deal was struck and AnTeak was mine.
A week later, Mark and I returned to sail her home, and sail her home we did — all the way. After motoring out of the Ocean Springs harbor, we raised sail about noon in moderate air. We sailed through the afternoon and into the night. Finally about midnight, near Dauphin Island, the wind dropped to near nothing, prompting even a lad with a new sailboat to turn on the engine. But pressing the starter button brought only a click from the solenoid: the running lights had consumed all the electricity in the only and tired old battery the boat had. Through the night, we coaxed all we could out of the light breeze, tacking back and forth toward the Dauphin Island Bridge, which was tantalizingly close but so unapproachable. However, dawn brought a zephyr from a new direction, which slowly grew into a fair breeze and carried us home to Fairhope.
Unwilling to enter the city marina without an engine, we anchored off and swam ashore. Several telephone calls later, we had my car battery in a borrowed skiff and carried it out to AnTeak. (That name had to go.) After finally tying up in our new slip and returning the battery to my car, Mark and I headed home for a nap.
Getting to know her
During the year that followed, we daysailed and learned more about AnTeak. I liked the way she sailed: not a hare but neither a tortoise. She handled well but with just a little more weather helm than I liked. However, I attributed that flaw to tired, old, bagged-out sails. With reduced sail, she handled heavy weather well but liked to get the crew wet. Maybe offshore, out of the short, steep chop of Mobile Bay, she would be a bit drier . . . Meanwhile, more and more barnacles attached themselves to her bottom.
A year later, I arranged for her to be hauled, put on a scrounged Cape Dory 25 cradle, and carried by trailer to my driveway. While I was guiding the foot of the mast, my foot went through the closed companionway hatch. This was perhaps a portent of what was yet to be revealed.
The first chore was to scrape off all the barnacles, two wheelbarrow loads of them. The removed barnacles revealed hundreds of blisters. Repairing those would be job number one. This was a process I knew nothing about, but before I was done, through research, I became somewhat of an expert.
Teak over fiberglass
The next project was to repair the teak deck. Cheoy Lee sailboats were offered with teak decks as an option, which were laid over perfectly serviceable fiberglass decks that had a molded-in non-skid texture. The 3⁄8-inch-thick teak planks were attached to the fiberglass decks with 5⁄32-inch-diameter brass machine screws which were counter-sunk and covered with 3⁄8-inch-diameter teak plugs. Between the teak planks and the fiberglass was a “black gunk” which squeezed up between the planks to form the traditional black seam. This system had two weaknesses: the planks were too thin to allow for thick enough plugs, which wore and popped out, and the machine screws holding down the planks pierced the top layer of fiberglass. When the teak plugs wore through, water would migrate down the machine screws and into the deck core. Where this occurred, delamination resulted. Fortunately, the core was solid wood of some Asian variety that was highly rot-resistant.
After carefully examining the deck on AnTeak, I decided that repairs were impossible and that I would have to remove the teak completely. I pried out the plugs and laboriously removed the machine screws. When I pulled up the planks, the “black gunk” remained. I scraped and scraped to remove the bulk of it. Several gallons of mineral spirits and many rolls of paper towels removed the rest.
Leak-free teak decks
Fortunately, I had recently purchased a book, The Gougeon Brothers on Boat Construction. While it was devoted to cold-molded wooden-boat construction, one chapter covered laying teak decks over plywood sub-decks. I thought their method would apply just as well to laying teak decks over fiberglass. I contacted Jim Watson at Gougeon Brothers. He agreed and provided valuable advice.
After repairing the deck delamination by injecting epoxy resin into holes drilled almost, but not quite, through the deck and then forcing the layers together with a car jack pushing up from the inside against a piece of plywood, I began to lay the new deck.
I bought the teak I needed already milled to the correct thickness and width, along with some wider pieces from which to make a king plank and other trim pieces. The Gougeon Brothers process avoided the pitfalls inherent in the Cheoy Lee installation: my new deck was to be laid in epoxy resin thickened with colloidal silica and graphite powder. The graphite provided the color for the traditional black seams between the planks. I still screwed down the decking, as the Cheoy Lee people had done. However, I used the screws only to hold the curved planks in place temporarily until the epoxy cured, after which I removed them. I then counter-bored the holes in the planks to 3⁄8-inch diameter, and epoxied teak plugs into them.
The epoxy also filled the screw holes in the underlying fiberglass deck. In this way, the watertight integrity of the fiberglass deck was restored, which would prevent future delamination. Because I had a full-time job, I was left with only those evenings and weekends when the weather was favorable to work on the deck. That, combined with my inexperience, made the job last for more than a year. But the new deck was so beautiful it fueled my desire to create a showboat.
With blisters repaired and a new teak deck, what next? Remember that companionway hatch that I stepped through? When I was removing it from the boat, it fell into its component parts, leaving me with a basketful of patterns. I liked the style of the original, so I copied it, except that I assembled and coated it with epoxy resin, followed by several coats of varnish. When I was fitting the new hatch to the boat, it became obvious that a boarding sea would be able to squirt under the forward edge of the hatch and enter the cabin below. A sea hood became the next project. I did my best to have it look as though it were original to the boat.
Making her ocean-ready
I didn’t know which ocean I was going to cross with this boat, but I was determined to make her seaworthy in keeping with the first rule of sailing: keep the ocean on the outside of the boat. I thought the large “windows” in the doghouse were vulnerable. I could have made shutters for them, as I had done with my previous boat, but as they didn’t open, and ventilation was an issue, I decided that bronze opening ports were the answer.
After some searching, I found what I wanted at New Found Metals in Port Townsend, Washington. I glassed in the old openings, cut new holes, and installed the ports. I was exceptionally pleased with how they looked: their shape and size perfectly complemented the stepped doghouse, adding much to the appearance of the boat.
In keeping with the “world cruising” theme, I wanted better anchor stowage and a deployment system. I thought about a bow-roller system, but discarded it in favor of an anchor locker. It would leave my foredeck clean while keeping the anchors readily available for emergency deployment. The original rope locker was large enough to convert to an anchor locker by making an opening with a lid, reinforcing the bulkhead between the locker and the forward cabin, and building a “floor.”
But I had just laid a new teak deck; now I was going to cut a big hole in it. I thought about a little rum for courage but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to cut straight. Taking that first plunge with my sabre saw was sort of like going off a high dive. But all went well, and I was able to use the cutout for the lid. When finished, the locker held my CQR and Fortress, although one anchor and rode had to be piled on top of the other. The CQR was old reliable, so it stayed on top with the Fortress available below for special situations or when two anchors were needed.
AnTeak’s bow pulpit was a little lopsided, perhaps from careless docking, and she had no stern pulpit so, after very careful measuring, I made drawings. Using those, Tops-in-Quality made both. The company name said it all.
I now had to deal with the hot-beer problem. The original icebox was tucked under the starboard cockpit seat at the foot of the settee. It had a front-opening door on the inside and a top-opening hatch on the outside. The leaking outside hatch had caused the insulation to become saturated and the inside woodwork to rot. After tearing the whole mess out, I decided to build in drawers where the icebox had been and to build a new high-efficiency box where the head was located. The head would be moved to the hanging locker, which was pretty much a superfluous space.
I made the inner box from plywood covered on the inside with fiberglass and epoxy. I then layered the outside with three inches of urethane foam and in turn covered it with fiberglass and epoxy to form a vapor barrier. I built the outer cabinet to match the existing woodwork, and included a small storage cabinet. The thickness of the insulation made the box a little small, but it held ice so well that the beer was always cold.
She finds her name
While these projects were going on, I worked at repairing hull and cabin dings and fairing the hull by filling low spots with low-density epoxy putty and “long boarding” after it cured. The hull, now mottled with fairing putty, attracted the attention of a couple of young entrepreneurs who knocked on the door one day and offered to paint the boat — both hull and cabin — with Awlgrip at a very reasonable price. My plan had been to roll and tip the finish. With all I had in the project, however, I was apprehensive about whether I could achieve the best possible finish using that method. Their portfolio of previous work and glowing references convinced me to employ them.
We had been discussing colors for a long time. I knew white would be most forgiving, but I wanted something uniquely beautiful. The colors and the boat’s new name dawned almost simultaneously: Magnolia. The hull would be the dark-green leaf of the magnolia tree and the cabin the creamy white of the blossom. The colors were perfect and the paint job was magnificent.
When it was too cold or rainy, I had been carving a teak name board to grace Magnolia’s transom (see article, September 2007). It would be the crowning touch just before launching.
A Sunday delivery
When it was time to move the boat to the boatyard, a home-builder friend lent me his truck and the trailer he used to haul a tractor to job sites. He and his father helped me jack up the cradle (which I had essentially rebuilt, as the old one had gradually rotted out from under the boat) and we backed the trailer underneath. We guessed the boat was a little overweight for the trailer, which was why we were doing this early, early, on a Sunday. We figured this would allow us to drive slowly and cautiously without having to worry about the church traffic later in the morning. When it came time to pull out of the driveway, Steve said, “You drive. If this thing falls off the trailer, I don’t want to be behind the wheel.” His full-sized Chevy pickup groaned a little — and braking had to be planned for — but we made it to Eastern Shore Marine, a mile and a half away. There we parked the trailer near the Travelift to await Monday morning.
Launching was uneventful, and we proceeded cautiously across the creek to Fairhope Yacht Club. I entered my slip at dead slow with my hand trembling slightly on the tiller. When it came time to stop, the transmission wouldn’t go into reverse. I called out (screamed?) to my wife, “Fend us off!” This she did as valiantly as she could, although she mashed a finger between boat and dock. But we nevertheless collided lightly with a piling, putting a pretty significant scratch in my new paint job.
I learned later that I had installed the prop-shaft zinc such that fore-and-aft movement in the prop shaft was impossible. A couple of days later, one of my painters touched up the white gash in the paint, making the wound almost invisible. A Band-Aid took care of the injured finger.
And then, the engine
During the following winter a “blue norther” found its way to lower Alabama and caught me by surprise. A freeze plug on Magnolia’s old Volvo MD1 popped. I reinstalled it with high hopes, but after running the engine, I found the crankcase oil had turned a milky gray — a sure indication of water intrusion. I hoped for a leaking head gasket, but feared a cracked block. My fears were well founded. However, I wasn’t terribly disappointed: the engine was the only system on Magnolia that I hadn’t restored or renewed. Besides, the tired old thumper had been putting out only about half of its original seven horsepower.
I decided to replace it with a Yanmar 1GM10, a single-cylinder, 9-hp, raw-water-cooled diesel engine.
Installing the new engine involved removing and replacing the engine beds, a new waterlift exhaust system, a new prop shaft, and a right-handed propeller to replace the Volvo’s left-handed prop. I benefited from the excellent installation instructions provided by the Yanmar owner’s manual and was soon out for a sea trial. The difference was miraculous. The new engine was smoother, quieter and, most important, had the potential to drive the boat at hull speed. Plus, I now had the presumed reliability of a new engine. Magnolia was now truly ready for serious cruising.
Fame finds Magnolia
A funny thing happened during the engine replacement project. One afternoon, the phone rang. The caller identified himself as being with International Marine Publishing. International Marine was in the final stages of releasing a new book to be called This Old Boat, by an author named Don Casey. “This Old Boat,” I thought, wondering if they were aware of a TV show of similar name starring Bob Vila and Norm Abram. Whatever the reason for the name of the book, International Marine was engaged in developing the artwork for the dust jacket and they wondered whether I, by chance, had any before and after pictures of Magnolia. Well, yes, I did . . . before pictures that is. My Minolta and I could certainly produce the after shots.
They liked the pictures, which they expressed by sending money. Soon afterward, the book came out, was a success, and Magnolia became a “sea-lebrity.” I enjoyed flipping through the West Marine catalog and seeing pictures of my boat in the book section. During subsequent cruises, when Magnolia was recognized from time-to-time, I would be accosted as though I were Don Casey — whom I have never met — and would have to explain how my boat was selected to be on the cover of his book. I had to add that, no, I didn’t know Bob Vila either. All of this was great fun and I felt that Magnolia’s beauty contributed greatly to the success of the book. (But I must add that Don Casey’s work between the covers lived up to the promise of the wrapping.)
I was so excited by the prospect of Magnolia becoming a “cover boat” that I failed to ask how they heard of her. I presume it came about because of the articles I wrote describing Magnolia’s resurrection that appeared in Cruising World, Better Boat, and Boatbuilder magazines.
A couple of years later, International Marine again called, asking for more photos of Magnolia. They were coming out with another book, called Sailboat Refinishing, again by Don Casey. They reviewed the photos and again sent money, but this time poor Magnolia was relegated to the back cover. This time, I never heard from sailors, “Oh, I saw your boat on the back cover of Sailboat Refinishing.” I guess having a photo on the back cover is sort of like having your name in the last page of Section D of the newspaper, but at least it didn’t end up in the bottom of the birdcage.
Her refit complete, I felt Magnolia was ready to go cruising. Her new sea hood, companionway hatch, and bronze ports made her as tight as a submarine and with new sails and engine she wasn’t just a pretty face. Her shakedown cruise was confined to Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound as far as Gulfport, via Petit Bois Island, and included a stop in Ocean Springs to show her off to her former owner.
Testing bluewater mettle
The shakedown cruise having revealed no problems in Magnolia, I decided to let her live up to being an Offshore 27 and planned a crossing directly from Mobile Bay to the Dry Tortugas. I intended to make this 424-nautical-mile crossing alone; however, when I talked about it over a couple of beers with my good friend Richard Phillips, he persuaded me to take him along. Richard had limited small-boat sailing experience, but his experience as a merchant seaman made him a reliable watchstander. Besides, he was good company and a fair cook.
The crossing was uneventful and pleasant: two days of sailing in a just-right breeze followed by two days of light-air motorsailing in balmy April weather. The Tillerpilot took care of the steering chores while we lolled about in the cockpit, keeping watch in turn and observing sunset with a ration of grog. Other than inshore fishermen and other small craft, we sighted only four ships.
We put the anchor down at about 1000 on the fifth day. By noon the flag over the fort was standing straight out, flapping and snapping. We had arrived just ahead of a sharp, late-season cold front with enough wind in it to bring a dozen sailboats and eight shrimpers into the shelter of the anchorage. The persistent wind kept us hunkered down for three days, during which time we seemingly examined every brick in Fort Jefferson. Although the wind continued to blow, growing boredom and the depletion of certain essential supplies convinced us to set sail for Key West.
A fast passage
As we motored out Northwest Channel, wind and seas kept our speed below two knots, but we knew when we turned the corner to pick up our course for Key West, the wind would be just aft of the beam, promising fast sailing. We raised the reefed main, followed by the working jib, just as we made the turn, and Magnolia took off. It immediately became evident that we were overpowered. As we rolled off the occasional larger waves, the boom dipped in the water. We rounded up and dropped the main and fell off on jib alone. The effect was to bring the lee rail up but with undiminished speed — hull speed plus.
We had planned our late-afternoon departure from Dry Tortugas to bring us to Key West’s Northwest Channel at first light, so we could safely find our way in. However, our great speed gave us an 0330 arrival at the sea buoy. By this time, the wind had moderated somewhat — down to 12 to 14 knots, making it possible to fry up some breakfast while hove-to waiting for daylight.
This was Magnolia’s first real test at sea, and she behaved beautifully. In following years, while cruising (usually singlehanded) the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Key West and the Dry Tortugas again, and to the Abacos in the Bahamas, Magnolia met the challenge of heavy weather, usually associated with thunderstorms, on several occasions. Each time, my confidence in her grew. She was indeed a go-anywhere boat. We also enjoyed sailing her in Mobile Bay regattas. She wasn’t a thoroughbred, but with a fair PHRF rating of 267, she earned some silver.
Passing on her stewardship
Magnolia did, however, have one drawback: she was small. It was not just that she was only 27 feet long (actually 26 feet 9 inches). With a beam of 7 feet 9 inches and fine ends, she was one of the smallest 27-footers I have ever come across. And now that I had a new first mate and regular cruising partner, Magnolia was downright cramped. With extremely mixed emotions, I offered her for sale.
The “For Sale” sign had not been hanging from the lifelines for long when Al Roth telephoned me. A protracted interview revealed that Al had the qualities I considered necessary to become Magnolia’s new owner and caretaker. He respected the large part of myself that I had put into her; the increments of soul I had added during my stewardship.
Initially, Al moved her to a marina on the other side of Mobile Bay. I would hear from him from time to time. Sometimes it would be a question about some system on the boat. At other times he would tell me about some improvement he had made, such as installing refrigeration, as he added bits of his soul to Magnolia. A year or so later, he moved her to the marina at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. I continued to hear from him as he shared cruising adventures. On one occasion, he invited me for a sail to demonstrate to him how I flew the spinnaker single-handed. Approaching thunderstorms cut short our sail before getting the chute up, but I nevertheless had a great day, enjoying both sailing Magnolia and Al’s company. I looked forward to future sails. It was as though I had retained visitation rights. However, another sail was not to be.
After the storm
A few days after Hurricane Ivan paid a visit on September 16, 2004 (my birthday), a very dejected, long-faced Al knocked on my door. I hadn’t thought that much about Magnolia being jeopardized by the storm, because the Naval Air Station marina was so well protected, but Al related that Magnolia, along with the entire marina — docks, boats, everything — had been washed by the storm surge to the shore north of the marina. As he talked, Al brought out photos he had taken, which, with his permission are included here. As I looked at the pictures, I felt a wrenching. The damage was beyond being reasonably repaired: her rudder had been torn off, her entire bow had been sheared off as though cut away by a madman with a chainsaw, her mast lay across the hull, her hull-to-deck joint was badly damaged. I doubted that Magnolia would sail again.
After Al left, I reflected upon the years she had been part of my life: the three years she was dry-docked in my driveway as I poured sweat, treasure, a little blood, and a lot of soul into her; the pride and joy I’d felt when she was launched, all shipshape and shining; and the more than 11,000 miles of sea that slid under her keel as she carried me safely from port to port along the Gulf Coast and across the Gulf of Mexico, as well as to the Bahamas and back. This Old Boat’s cover girl is gone. She had indeed been a good old boat. She is missed. What happens to the souls of dead boats?