With seawater in his veins and traditional ships in his heart, C. Peter Boudreau is carving a niche as a designer and builder of modern vintage vessels.
Even sitting still, Pride of Baltimore II seems to fly. Her hull is as lean as a greyhound, her spars thrown back like an ornery thoroughbred tossing its mane. In these days of generic plastic boats, she is the best kind of throwback, a reminder of the best form of beauty-that born of function. Just to look at her makes something in our hearts’ collective maritime past stir and murmur, and we long to feel the wet wild breath of the sea. There is a hopeless romance to her and all that she can do, while we are tied here, clod-footed, to land. How can one beautiful ship evoke so much? Perhaps in part because the man who built her knows both lives well-the sea and the land-and understands the necessity and the lure of each.
On the face of it, C. Peter Boudreau lives an ordinary, contented suburban life in Annapolis, Md. His wife Martha commutes to the D.C. area every day to her job managing a public relations firm, his daughters Louise, 8, and Madeleine, 10, attend school and giggle as girls will. But when Boudreau heads into his office and turns to his singular work, he will draw on his lifetime love of big sailing ships to help him create fleet and beautiful vessels that merge the romance and beauty of the past with the needs and requirements of contemporary ships. In the world of yacht and ship design, his is a niche as narrow as the tip of a marlinspike. And it’s one for which he seemed destined.
While most of us grew up firmly stuck to land and all the trappings of urban life, Boudreau and his four siblings lived in the Caribbean, where their father, Captain Walter Boudreau, ran a series of graceful charter schooners and their mother Terry operated a small hotel [see “Boater’s Bookshelf,” Channel 9, May]. In their remote lagoon on Marigot Bay in St. Lucia, Boudreau’s parents helped launched what is today’s thriving charter boat industry. Along with his brothers and sisters, Boudreau played in the barely tamed jungle and sailed big wooden ships. He was still in diapers when he made his first transatlantic passage on Caribee, ironically a replica of Pride of Baltimore II’s breed of Baltimore clipper. Boudreau became a regular hand on his father’s ships, working aboard almost every summer from the time he was about 11 years old.
“It was an interesting way to grow up,” he says, though not all sparkling spray and dazzling days. The caprail on his father’s ship Janeen was 110 feet long on each side. That’s a lot of sandpaper and varnish. “You felt like you’d be sanding your whole life and never get to the end,” he says. But he also learned the deep satisfaction and quiet thrill of being part of a crew making a big, complex ship sail in any weather. “I learned how streamlined that can get, you basically don’t even talk. I like that when no one says a word, but things just happen flawlessly time after time.”
Boudreau emerged from the experience with an understanding and appreciation of ships and skills that most people had long forgotten or considered utterly archaic. “It’s [what my father] instilled in me, that there’s value in these ships and traditions.”
Value, perhaps, but not a particularly stable life. By the time Boudreau left the Caribbean in the mid-1970s and started crewing and skippering a variety of “school” ships-vessels used in sail training programs like Outward Bound-he realized he was tiring of the vagrant life. On a trip to Baltimore, he saw the first Pride of Baltimore taking shape along the harbor waterfront, and the path suddenly seemed clear. “I took whatever they would give me, which was shoveling wood chips. I never even thought about things like getting to and from work, buying groceries, getting a place to live, needing clothes! I had a pair of shorts, flip-flops and shades. It was an amazing experience. Actually building a boat was a brand new challenge. It was a learning thing for me, because I didn’t have any real skills to bring to it, just brawn and a willingness to work hard. And we did work hard.”
In his book Pride of Baltimore, Thomas C. Gillmer writes of Boudreau: “One day later in the summer, a young man-he could not have been more than 19 years of age-presented himself at the shipyard. . . . He was dressed in a casual but trim outfit bespeaking the sea and much sun. . . . He was most anxious to help build this
vessel-and he did.” Boudreau’s “skill and ingenuity were clearly evident,” Gillmer writes. “He was soon heading the deck assembly, and his upward march had begun.”
When Pride set sail, Boudreau quickly became one of the ship’s masters. But again, he found he did not love the captain’s life quite as passionately as his father had. Eventually he returned to Baltimore, and was at work on the 104-foot pungy schooner Lady Maryland when the Pride sank in a white squall off Puerto Rico on May 14, 1986, taking its captain and three crew. “[Losing] Pride was devastating to everybody,” he says. But almost immediately, the foundation that operated the ship announced plans to build another. This time, Boudreau was the master builder, Gillmer the designer. “In some ways, it was like an affront for anyone else to build it,” he says. “Who else would build it?” On its maiden trip down the Bay, bound for Bermuda, Boudreau remembers the first real puff of wind Pride II felt. “The sun was just coming up over the Eastern Shore,” he says in Greg Pease’s Sailing with Pride, “and I was on dawn watch. She heeled and simply took off. I think we all-builders and crew-woke up to see. We stood on deck and watched the rig and the hull go through its first real test. I will never forget that moment.” Pride II has been a resounding success in its role as worldwide ambassador for the state, and largely that’s because she’s beautiful to watch, and she sails, as Boudreau says, “like a witch”-fast, strong, steady. “I love sailing that boat because she’s remarkable in being able to get up to ten, eleven, twelve knots in almost nothing. It’s the right combination of tonnage, sail area and hull shape.”
A few years after finishing Pride II, Boudreau became a partner in Tri-Coastal Marine, now comprised of himself, naval architect Andy Davis and marine surveyor and nautical historian Don Birkholtz. The company-whose employees include two shipwrights and naval architect Marc Bauer-specializes in the design and construction of traditional ships and the preservation and restoration of historic ships. Among its best-known credits are the Baltimore clipper Amistad (the replica of the slave ship La Amistad), the Spirit of Massachusetts and the unique conservation of the U.S.S. Constellation, launched in 1854 and the last sailing warship built by the U.S. Navy. The company has also designed the 120-foot, steel-hulled topsail schooner Great Circle, a sail-training vessel for the Ocean Classroom Foundation; the Virginia, a replica of a 1917 Virginia pilot schooner that will be built for the Virginia Maritime Heritage Foundation; and the Spirit of Enterprize for the National Maritime Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
With his hands-on construction experience and project management on both Prides, the Lady Maryland and the Constellation, Boudreau is able to make clear and accurate construction estimates and timetables, even if he isn’t the one building the boat. Combined with Tri-Coastal’s design talent, he hopes this breadth of skills will help the company climb to the top of the traditional ship heap. He also believes more people are looking at older, proven designs that sail brilliantly and are seeing their beauty and their merit. “What may be true is that in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, fiberglass boats tended not to be very attractive. There was little concession for looks-it has to be functional volume or it’s chopped off. I think people are looking at traditional designs and hull shapes and saying, ‘Hey, do we really need six feet of headroom?’ Some of the older day-sailing designs are just so much fun to sail.”
Boudreau also wants to focus less on historic restorations and more on designing and building new boats for new uses, modifying generations-old designs to better accommodate the needs of the present. For instance, the Schooner Virginia Project calls for a reproduction of the type of schooner that Virginia pilots sailed to race out to ships waiting to be guided into the Chesapeake. Boudreau and Andy Davis are modifying the design slightly so the vessel will pass Coast Guard passenger requirements and make it easier for it to accomplish its mission, which is similar to Pride of Baltimore II’s. “For example, the original Virginia had a big sunken cockpit,” says Boudreau. “For a pilot that’s a good thing, but for people on a daysail it’s awkward, and for a cocktail reception it’s just plain dangerous. If the boat can’t do its mission, it’s just an expensive nightmare.”
Above all, what counts for Boudreau is a boat’s ability to sail and its beauty. It should be lovely to set eyes upon, and it should sail like a banshee. So it’s not surprising that his own 36-foot wooden ketch Alaria, which he keeps in his neighborhood marina, was designed and built by one of the country’s most renown designers of pretty, fast boats-L. Francis Herreshoff. “I absolutely love it. For me it’s the perfect boat. The kids love it, Martha loves it. She’s just built beautifully.” It’s not unusual for Boudreau to pack up Alaria on a Friday evening, head out with his family and find a nook of a creek for his daughters to dinghy around in, a place where he can hang the oil lamp from the boom and contemplate the peace of the water.
There’s seawater in his veins, no doubt, and he does miss the sailing life sometimes. But the Bay, in all its myriad beauty, is beguiling enough in her own special way for the son of the schooner captain, this builder of beautiful, fleet sailing ships.
This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s forthcoming book A Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, to be published in December by the Mariners’ Museum in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.