No yellow brick road or Emerald City in this tale, but there is a Dorothy, a Toto and companions a’plenty, launched on an epic crusade to keep a family boat afloat after its skipper has passed away.
by Jane Meneely
It’s an albatross!” her family told her. “You’ll have to get rid of it.” But Andy Degen couldn’t bear the thought of parting with Oz, the 1971 Prout Ranger cruising catamaran she and her late husband Carl had sailed since 1984.
Once upon a time, before they came to Oz, Andy and Carl Degen had lived simply enough on their West Virginia farm, taking mountain views in stride and negotiating the winding roads with aplomb. Then came the tornado—a figurative one, but just as life-changing as any twister that ever roared across Kansas: Carl went for a sail, and that was that. He caught the sailing bug. Re-caught it, actually. He’d done a lot of sailing as a kid, and the pesky little virus had lain dormant ever since. Now it reared up with all its might, smacked him hard across the chest, wriggled into his rib cage and nestled there next to his heart. Andy could just see it in his eyes when he came home that day. He just had this look,” she tells me from the narrow living room of her home, a few steps from the Magothy River. “I knew something was up; I didn’t know what.” Andy’s shoulder length ashy-blonde hair glistens with the occasional silver strand. Her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, whose brown eye-patch earned him the name of Popeye, lies nestled at her feet (they’d just been for a walk).
She’s sharing with me the heartwarming story of how Oz came into her life nearly 40 years ago and how it has become a focal point for her, her family and a welter of friends old and new.
“Carl had gone for a sail with friends of ours, Dave and Rose McLean,” she recalls. He’d been out on the Bay aboard a sprightly little catamaran called Oz, which the McLeans owned in partnership with another couple. And, it so happened, the other couple needed to sell out, so the McLeans were looking for a new set of partners. After one sail—maybe two—Carl raised his hand, and Andy figured she’d better get in on the act too, or be left ashore. Thus they became half-owners of Oz, the cruising catamaran that had captured Carl’s heart. Even Andy was smitten. By 1987, the West Virginia farm had become too much for the couple to manage, so they downsized—to a boat. Naturally. It just seemed to be the right thing to do.
But not Oz; she too small to live aboard, for starters, and the McLeans were still active sailing partners. So the Degens took up residence in a 40-foot trawler named Posh, just a few slips up from Oz’s berth at Podickory Point. When Posh burned to the waterline in a freak mid-winter fire, they moved aboard a 42-foot trawler named Nine Lives, and continued sailing Oz whenever they could. In 1996 they assumed full ownership of the sailing cat, which by then was moored in a tiny little harbor called Lake Placid off the Magothy River.
And then Carl fell ill, with emphysema (now called COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Living aboard the trawler grew harder and harder, and he and Andy finally had to move to shore. Luckily a boat-size cottage a few doors away from Oz’s Lake Placid slip came on the market. The Degens bought it and moved in. Oz became their lifeline to the Bay, and they sailed whenever they could—Carl’s oxygen tank fit snugly in the cockpit. Sadly, Carl passed away in 2004, leaving Andy and their beloved boat behind.
And that is when, for a brief time, Oz’s future hung in the balance, because the consensus among Andy’s loved ones was that Oz would be nothing but a burden for her. “You’ve got to get rid of the boat,” the said. “She’s in her prime. She’s been well maintained, and now is the best time to sell!”
“But I couldn’t bring myself to part with her,” Andy tells me. Through the window I can see Oz pulling tenderly at her dock lines, almost as if she’s listening in on our conversation. “All those connections,” Andy says, her bright eyes misting over.
Carl was quite a bit her senior, so Andy had expected to be left alone at some point. And, indeed, she is far from her dotage—hasn’t even hit retirement age (she works for the National Park Service). Her sailing days are far from over, and even though she didn’t feel confident enough to take on the role of captain, she was reluctant to give up such a big part of her life—especially having shared it so long with her husband. A grief counselor encouraged her to hang on. “Wait,” he had told her. “You’ll know what to do later.”
So Andy waited, and Oz sat. Her bright work dulled. Her cabin grew musty.
A year later Andy was in Kinko’s, not exactly the first place you’d think of for a bit of kismet, but kismet it was.
“You know how you can sometimes just strike up a conversation with someone out of the blue?” Andy says. “Well, there I was in Kinko’s, and this nice young man was waiting on me, and we got to talking about boats and sailing—I was in Annapolis, after all. And I was saying, ‘if only I could find someone who would want to partner with me.’ All I needed was elbow grease, really, and someone to captain the boat. And he said, ‘I think I know someone.’ ”
The young man was Miles Lamborne, and he had an uncle, Sam, a died-in-the-wool mariner who used to run tugs out on the West Coast. But Sam had, as they say, swallowed the anchor and moved with his young family far from the sea, to Leesburg, Va. Now that his sons were a bit older, though, he’d been talking about introducing them to the world of boating. Somehow. If only he could afford it on a graphic artist’s salary.
“Sure enough,” Andy continues, “I got a phone call from Miles’s uncle, Sam LaFever. We chatted and agreed to meet. And . . . well, you know how you can see someone for the first time and you just know? That’s how it was.”
Let’s back up a bit.
When Miles called his uncle to pitch the idea, Sam was certainly intrigued. He had missed sailing but just didn’t see a way to get back into it. He agreed to meet Andy, but he had some reservations. “I’m a WoodenBoat Magazine kind of guy,” he tells me later over the phone. “While I appreciated the boat’s design and recognized it as a classic, it was like an old ’57 Chevy—just not my cup of tea.” Still, he went for a test sail—out of curiosity as much as anything else. “There was a light breeze and we just sailed back and forth around the river for two or three hours.”
He nosed down below and saw a boat desperately in need of TLC. “The boat had been maintained, but you could tell that Carl had been running out of steam toward the end and just couldn’t keep up. I found some dry rot, all sorts of stuff had been crammed into the lockers: life jackets, gear. It was all pretty musty by then.”
Then something smacked him across the chest, wriggled its way into his ribcage and nestled there close to his heart: the magic of Oz. “I told Andy I would do the labor, but I had no money to put into the project. My boys were twelve and thirteen then, and I thought it would make a great family project if nothing else. I had nothing to lose but a few weekends.”
Andy sealed the deal with the LaFever family: Sam, his wife Carla, and their sons Alex and Spencer. They agreed to partner for just one year, to see if it would work. Sam oversaw the maintenance, and they all went sailing together. At first Andy was always on the boat with them, but then she started staying at home and letting them have family time.
Before agreeing to a second season, Sam negotiated for a new outboard. “The old one had some nasty habits that Sam wasn’t too happy about,” Andy says. “The request seemed reasonable to me, and I suppose I would
have had to replace the old outboard anyway if I’d wanted to sell the boat.” With the promise of a new outboard, Sam stepped up to the plate again, this time rounding up a team of Boy Scouts to pitch in on the spring haul-out.
“That was the beginning of the ‘group project,’ ” Andy says. “Suddenly all sorts of people were involved. It was so much fun having the young people show up and work on the boat.” Sam even made Oz crew T-shirts for anyone who did “hard time.”
And he watched his sons and their friends learn to use tools and develop carpentry skills as the boat slowly transformed before their eyes. “What a confidence builder! They could see how a coat of varnish could turn a sanded piece of wood into something beautiful,” Sam says. “On our first solo sail they learned even more: the steering cable jammed and we lost the use of the steering wheel. There was a spare tiller on board, so we jury-rigged a new tiller and continued sailing. That was a huge lesson for them on how to solve a problem and move on, not let it spoil their day.”
Pretty soon people who had spent a few hours sanding and scraping one year were calling back to see when work would begin again. Labor turned into sailing time for anyone who participated. “Andy invited people from her church to come help—we had a lot of women pitching in,” says Sam. “My boys invited their friends. I invited mine. It was a great way to introduce people to sailing. I’d say half of the people who got onboard had no other access to the water.”
More than that was the camaraderie. “Everyone just got along so well,” Sam says. “We all had a common goal, and it was always such an interesting mix of people who otherwise would have never met.”
As the years passed (this is the eighth season), old friends reappeared out of the woodwork, or so it seemed. Joe Riley and his family were new to sailing when they had first climbed aboard Oz for an afternoon jaunt years ago with Carl and Andy. They wound up with their own boat, but they’re still on the Oz team. “We think Sam is just great,” says Joe, who visits a few times a year from Georgia to spend time on Oz. “The boat has been such a magnet,” he adds. Even the original partner-owner Dave McLean has come back for the ride.
“We sold Oz to Carl and Andy and took off on a [larger catamaran],” McLean tells me. “But I’m pushing eighty now. I’ve sold my boats, but I try to give Oz one day a week, just to keep my hand in and to help Andy. We have such wonderful memories of our times together.”
Perhaps most magically for Andy, when the boat was hauled out last season, Carl’s stepson and grandson returned for the first time. “They just hadn’t wanted to be part of the boat without Carl,” Andy says. “But Oz has a magic of her own, and when she calls, you come.”
Indeed. Something just smacks you across the chest, wriggles into your ribcage and nestles next to your heart. There’s just no place like Oz.