New Lang Syne

For Joseph Lehrer and family, restoring an old sidewheeler bay boat to its former luster has been a real trip.

June 07, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On rain-dappled Duck Creek, the old sidewheeler bay boat Lang Syne rests at an Essex Yacht Club dock like a phantom from the age when bay liners scurried back and forth on the Chesapeake like water bugs on a pond.

Lang Syne is a compact version of such storied steamboats as the Anne Arundel, the City of Norfolk, the Calvert, the Dorchester, the Potomac and the Emma Giles. It's a reminder of an era that ended in 1963 when the City of Richmond docked for the last time at Pratt Street.

The hard-used Lang Syne was derelict about five years ago when the Lehrer family of Essex spotted it tied to a tree on the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace. Now her restoration is a family affair - Joseph Lehrer, his wife Marty, their sons, Mickey and Michael, and a couple of girlfriends, Annie Pratt and Kim Marshall, all work on the boat.

Mickey, 28, is hanging off the side now straightening out the starboard paddle wheel with an acetylene torch and a hammer. Mike, 23, is down in the hold, fitting a drive shaft. The women are talking on the aft deck. They're usually cleaning, scraping and painting.

"We rescued her and we're working on her," says Joseph Lehrer, 60. He's in the wheelhouse, showing off vintage throttle handles and gauges. "None of this was in here. We put all of this in. We're getting ready to hook it up. It had no engines, no nothing. It originally was steam."

The Lehrers think their boat is probably more than 100 years old and the last sidewheeler on the Chesapeake.

"Picture yourself around the turn of the century riding on this thing. Musta been a trip. Heh, heh, heh," Lehrer chortles.

The Lang Syne does look romantic in the rain on Duck Creek, where herons and ducks rise from the water and muskrats slide down the tree-shaded bank. The Lang Syne could be a Joseph Conrad riverboat ready to leave for the heart of darkness.

Mike spotted the boat while he was crossing the U.S. Route 40 bridge at Havre de Grace.

"I happened to be looking down over the side and saw it," Mike says. "Every time we crossed that bridge we looked to see that it was still there."

`Totally gutted'

His dad says: "The guy there had it all stripped out. And he was going to cut it up for scrap. No engines, no lines, nothing. It was totally gutted."

The boat was lying on its side, filling up with rainwater. One of the paddle wheels was lying on top.

"The guys used to fish off of it and they kind of hated to see it go," Lehrer says. "They were kind of teary-eyed."

"One wheel was off it, laying over in the weeds," Mike says.

"Along with the funnel," his dad adds. "Basically we had to go around locating parts."

An old waterman ran the boatyard as if it were a junkyard.

"He collected stuff," Martysays. "He had, like, bulldozers and cranes lying up on the shore. An old tugboat he had, it was pulled up, too. The backbone was broken, or we'd a got that, too."

"We didn't fool with it. Too much trouble, " her husband says.

"They got their eye on one down on Curtis Creek now," Marty says.

"Yeah, well, we're going to look into it," Lehrer says.

"We'll finish this one first," Marty says of the boat they've been working on two years. "Then we'll see. Collecting boats, like you collect china, or something, this is getting ridiculous."

The rescuers

The Lehrers have always been a nautical family and they've been fixing up boats since the boys were teen-agers. The Lang Syne is the sixth they've rescued. "Our great-great grandfather was a steamboat captain on the Rappahanock River in Virginia," Mike says. "I guess it's in our blood."

When they're not repairing boats, Mike and Mickey run the M & M Electric Co.

Their dad, a marine engineer, says, "We got a 50-foot we found in a yard with a tree growing through it. We restored that." A wooden '63 ChrisCraft, it's berthed at another yacht club, which Lehrer doesn't want to name.

"We have a problem whenever they have an event. People line up and want to tour it. It's not on tour. We do take people on her for little tours every now and then. You don't mind a couple of times. But it gets real ridiculous."

Mickey has restored a 35-foot 1967 Owens. At the end of the dock is another Owens cabin cruiser he fixed up and sold before he rescued his current boat. Mike redid a '69 Trojan. He's now restoring a dual cockpit runabout. Marty has a Lyman speedboat.

"That's an antique," she says.

And even though Lang Syne is a steel boat, the Lehrers love wood: "Don't like aluminum hulls, don't like Fiberglas," Lehrer says.

"I like rare boats, " Mike says. "You see them sitting up on land and you see them start dying, suffering and dying. I don't get any thrill out of the newer boats."

Mickey breaks in, "They're too sterile. There's no lines to them. There's nothing beautiful."

Their dad joins their critique of Fiberglas: "You ride on it, it beats you to death in the water, bang, bang, bang, bang. A wooden boat is like a Cadillac or a limousine; a fiber boat is like a Volkswagen: bang, bang, bang, bang."

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