After his mother died suddenly 21/2 years ago, Craig Federroll, a small-business owner from Pasadena, found himself so heartsick that he couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned. His mind roamed. He decided he needed some kind of project to channel his grief.
The father of two grade-schoolers, he thought of a tree fort. He'd grown up playing in them, after all, and the sawing might be good therapy. Two months later, he'd completed a structure like none his neighbors on the Magothy had ever seen: a four-story replica of a pirate ship, each level connected to the others by hatches and ladders, its crow's nest towering 40 feet above the riverbank.
"What started out as a tribute to my mother became something the kids can't stay away from," he says, referring to his daughter, Abby, 11, son Jake, 7, and the dozens of their friends who have used it.
Happy ending to a family tale? Not yet. Last summer, building inspectors who glimpsed the ship told him it violated county regulations, that he'd have to apply for a variance, and that he might lose it altogether. The tale made a splash in the local news media, casting Federroll as a reluctant Don Quixote taking on his government.
How did things get to such a place? Where will they lead? He's a captain on open water.
"I'm a guy who wanted to build something fun for my kids," says Federroll, 49. "I never imagined you'd need a permit for that. Would you?"
Up with the ship
It doesn't take two minutes, if you're agile, to climb the rails and ladders that get you to the crow's nest. Far below, the river flows quietly one recent morning, a dozen geese wheeling in formation through the sky.
"If it were sunnier, you'd see fish glinting in the water," says Federroll, who grew up in a house a mile or so around the bend. "We're even starting to get bald eagles here."
It's easier for Federroll to talk of nature than of his mother, a longtime social worker who, he says, always saw the best in people and who cared so deeply about her calling that she often opened their home to the troubled kids she counseled.
An outdoorsy sort in seemingly perfect health, Susan Federroll, 68, had just retired when she took a trip to Florida two springs ago to celebrate. The day she was set to return, she died of a heart attack.
"To tell you the truth, I'm still not right," Federroll says, tears coming to his eyes.
Truth be told, the project helped. Federroll chose "the best tree on the property" — a 60-year-old oak whose branches reach over the water — and started out small. Whenever insomnia struck, he'd get up, put on his head-mounted flashlight, lug planks up one at a time and put them in place.
The goal was a single-platform treehouse about 10 feet above his deck. But his son loved the thing so much that Craig started thinking bigger. He took Jake and a cousin, both pirate fanatics, to see the Constellation in Baltimore, and it suddenly hit him: Why not turn the treehouse into a ship? He figured out a way to fashion a plywood hull to wrap around the platform.
The expansion was on. A second level followed, then a third. "The kids kept saying, 'What's next, Dad? What's next?'" says Federroll, who soon found himself scouring local flea markets for items of nautical decor. He found two miniature cannons, a compass, a Jolly Roger, a faux palm tree, two hammock chairs, even the steering wheel of an old tugboat.
Each became part of the ship the Federrolls dubbed the Black-Eyed Susan, partly in honor of Craig's mom.
Federroll is no contractor — his main business is running the deli he owns in Reisterstown — but he knew enough to go sturdy. He used $2,000 worth of pressure-treated lumber, made sure each level rested on a crook of the tree, and encased his ladders in the sort of tubular cage you see on water towers.
Last winter's snowstorms didn't scathe the vessel, and no one has been hurt in the many birthday parties, Scout meetings and sleepovers it has housed (parental permission required).
"Some parents won't go as far as climbing to the crow's nest," he says with a laugh. "I won't lie to you — it can seem a little scary. But none who have seen the ship said no."
The vessel can't be seen from the street, but boaters along this calm stretch of water can't miss it. Some slow down to wave or shout hello. He invites many ashore.
One in particular was impressed. "You should call the [local newspaper]," the man said. "This would make a great story." At the time, Federroll didn't see why.
Maybe, like some swashbuckling Icarus, he should have realized he was sailing too close to the sun. Maybe he did things just right. Either way, when inspectors finally came around, it wasn't the romance they noticed.