History afloat

After 36 years, 1888 racing yacht will set sail again soon, thanks to meticulous restoration

June 26, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

EARLVILLE -- In its prime, it cut an impressive figure. A racing yacht with a hull of wrist-thick timbers and a half-acre of taut sail overhead. Some sailors called its type "man killers" for their ability to turn on unsuspecting captains and crews and capsize.

Elf was quite striking when it was launched in early 1888 and during regattas along the New England coast.

But it wasn't so striking in 1970, when Rick Carrion, a 19-year-old college student, saw the boat at the Granary docks on the Sassafras River. Nearly a century's worth of owners had remade the boat, bow to stern, to suit their whims. The elements had wreaked havoc on its handsome oak and brass.

The 35-foot boat had been stripped of its lead keel for the war effort - World War I - and given one of lighter and cheaper iron, making the boat as unstable as a Hollywood starlet.

Over the course of a year, Carrion talked the owner down from $8,000 to $1,500 and became proud owner of the floating code violation.

"She was a mess," says Carrion, shaking his head and sounding like the man whose dog has just rolled in a mud pie. "Mildew and mushrooms growing below deck, barely a spot of paint on any wood. And she was taking on water. She was ready to sink the first night."

That's hardly the case now.

In a single-minded quest that would put any weekend do-it-yourselfer's tale to shame, the retired Cecil County schoolteacher is within weeks of returning Elf to its former glory.

The boat is up on blocks now, as volunteers and restoration experts scurry across the deck and under the keel, sanding wooden surfaces to a satin finish, caulking between planks and painting.

By the end of July, Elf will be in territory that has become nearly foreign to it - water - when the boat is relaunched.

"She's only been sitting here for 16 years," says Carrion, grinning. "But it's worth the wait."

Elf will motor from Cecil County to Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum, where experts will fit it out with a keel, mast and sails, all built to replicate those in several 1880s glass plate photos of the boat.

"Basically, we're going to take those images and make them real," says John Brady, the museum's boat shop manager. "It's a pretty big deal. It's like building a 19th-century engine."

The sloop is more than just a pretty face. Donald Street Jr., a noted sailing author, maritime insurer and wooden-boat expert, says Elf is the oldest small yacht in the United States and the third oldest in the world.

Elf also is being used to teach a new generation of sailors to crew, care for and restore wooden boats. When Carrion realized the cost involved in restoration, he founded the nonprofit Classic Yacht Restoration Guild and allowed Elf to be used to teach period skills such as woodworking and ship's carpentry. Once the boat is operational, guild members will learn celestial navigation and piloting.

The guild received a $25,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust and $8,500 from the Cecil County Historic Commission. But the biggest boost came from billionaire financier Peter R. Kellogg, a wooden boat enthusiast from New Jersey, who agreed to pay the estimated $135,000 for everything above deck - sails, rigging and bowsprit.

In an era of fiberglass and carbon fiber, a mystique surrounds old wooden boats.

On his way to winning the America's Cup in 1987, Dennis Conner mused: "Why would anyone sail a plastic boat unless they wanted to cheat?"

Elf seems to take the mystique to a new level. Shipwright Graham Ero first saw Elf as a much younger man when he bunked aboard the boat at the Annapolis Boat Show. Years later, while rowing on the Sassafras River on the Upper Eastern Shore, Ero saw the boat - then called Paz - and recognized the profile.

He joined the guild in 1991 and agreed to work when there was money and find other projects when there wasn't.

"I found a dozen things, any one of which would have sunk another boat," says Ero, who has been building and restoring boats for 34 years. "This could end up being the oldest yacht in the world. That would be a nice legacy."

Ero quickly found that he would have to improvise because there were no blueprints or diagrams. Working from the 1880s glass plates and photos taken by Gus and Vida Van Lennep, who owned the boat from 1932 to 1943 and brought it to Maryland, the shipwright got to work drafting new plans.

"It's a detective story. We just had to put it together like a puzzle," Ero says. "We have turned over every leaf, every rock to get this as accurate as possible."

Ero made a plywood pattern for each of the boat's 29 pairs of ribs before replacing them in alternate pairs, stem to stern, so that the boat would hold its shape. For additional strength, he substituted black locust cut from the Carrion family farm for white oak.

The restoration has drawn wooden boat enthusiasts from the region to watch and work.

"No one has sailed anything like this in 100 years," says Bill Hamilton, who worked on New Jersey's tall ship, A.J. Meerwald, and cheerfully describes himself as a "commandeered" Elf volunteer. "This is an extreme boat. The crew is going to have its hands full. It's like having a tiger by the tail."

Already, Elf is making waves. The National Sailing Hall of Fame and Museum in Annapolis has invited Carrion to tie up at City Dock, where Gen. George C. Patton's When and If was recently displayed.

"We want to be able to showcase them. From our perspective, we want to be able to call attention to America's sailing legacy, and wooden sailing boats like this are a significant part of that mission," said Lee Tawney, spokesman for the museum.

Carrion, who can vividly recall Elf's last voyage on the Chesapeake Bay on July 5, 1971, can hardly wait to see the wind fill its sails again.

"Elf"s got a life of her own," he says. "I can't wait for her next life to start."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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