happens to a wooden-boat dream when the dreamer dies unexpectedly? In
this case it lives on, in the hands of a husband-and-wife restoration
team in Rock Hall.|
by Cindy Genther
photographs by Michael C. Wootton
Chalmers Yielding, a Florida architect nearing the end of his career, had a dream. He would sell his firm, buy and restore an old wooden boat, and then sail off into the sunset with true love, Elaine. And for about three years, things were unfolding nicely. In 2003 he found the boat of his dream, floating on a mooring ball in Rock Hall, Md. It was a beauty, a 1955 Sparkman & Stephens Gulfstream 36, built by Robert Derecktor's renowned Long Island boatyard. Before long Mr. Yielding had sold the company and begun the restoration process—painstakingly and methodically, with the precision you might expect from a veteran architect, photographing every step of the deconstruction and meticulously labeling the pieces.
By the end of 2005 he had her down to a bare hull, and it was time to buy everything he'd need for the rebuild—wood, hardware, stove, batteries, you name it. All this he stored at his home in Mountain City, Ga., and he'd bring supplies to Rock Hall as needed, sometimes staying with the boat for weeks on end if the task at hand called for it. He'd return to Mountain City occasionally, and briefly, to visit his fiancee, Elaine Aitcheson, and to load up with more supplies. Then,in June of 2006, during one of his stays in Georgia, Edward Chalmers Yielding died unexpectedly, of complications from an ulcer. And his boat, his unfinished dream, was suddenly orphaned there in Rock Hall.
And that's where we came in—several months later, anyway. My husband Dale and I have a boat refinishing and restoration company, Mobile Marine Services, also in Rock Hall. In September of that year we got a call from our friends Lee and Cindy Bair, owners of Swan Creek Marina, where Mr. Yielding had been working on the boat. Was there any chance, they asked, if we'd be interested in taking over the restoration of a nice old wooden sailboat? If so, they said, we might want to come have a look at her, and perhaps talk to the family of the late owner, see if she was for sale. So we went to see her, and were duly impressed with her overall solid condition—mahogany planks over oak frames, no rot and good bronze fasteners.
With a design dating back to the 1930s, she was quite fetching with her low, sleek profile and round foredeck hatches, a Derecktor signature. After a bit of research, we came to believe that she was not only the last Derecktor-built Gulfstream 36, but might have been the boat that the renowned designer had built for himself. So . . . oh yes, we were interested. By November she was ours, as were all the parts and supplies Mr. Yielding had bought for the project.
Back in Rock Hall, we were ready to pick up where the architect had left off. But where exactly would that be? We decided that it would be not only respectful of Mr. Yielding's intentions but also generally the path of least resistance to restore the boat according to his vision—with the help of his own notes and sketches. And, with a goal of launching the boat during the 2007 season, we went to work, beginning with the cockpit.
We had found the pieces of the original cockpit in a pile on the boat shed floor, along with some new mahogany boards that Mr. Yielding had started to fashion for the replacement. Using the old wood as templates, we rebuilt the cockpit structure with new wood. We found the old wheel-steering system that he had removed . . . but here was the first mystery. He'd bought no replacement steering system. Had he intended to put the old wheel back on? Or had he intended to rebuild with a tiller, which had been the boat's original design? There was no way to know for sure, since his notes made no mention of it. But the absence of a replacement wheel-steering system was a pretty strong clue, and we were comfortable erring on the side of design veracity.
By the first of December we had a rough cockpit structure that could withstand the elements, and it was time to focus on the interior. After spending a couple of months reinstalling the boat's fuel and water tanks (which Mr. Yielding had had cleaned and refurbished) and roughing in the fuel, plumbing and electrical systems, our attention turned to the aesthetics. We spent many a winter evening puzzling out what he might have been thinking—indeed so many that we soon dropped the formality of "Mr. Yielding" in favor of simply Chalmers. "What do you suppose Chalmers intended to do with the aft deck?" I'd ask, having found no clues in his notes. "What do you think Chalmers had in mind for the main saloon cabinetry?" Dale would ask.
Sometimes there would be hints in the notes, and sometimes not—in which case we'd rely on the original design drawings, or, if they failed us, our own best guess. We found virtually all of the old wood for the bunks and cabinetry lying on the ground in the boat shed, and we organized it into categories: main saloon, galley, V-berth, etc. Whenever possible we used this wood, first concentrating on the galley and then on the main saloon. Some pieces had been labeled and some had not, so there were times when we were reduced to matching up old paint drips or screw holes to figure out which pieces went where, and with which end up.
By late February we had installed the galley, the main saloon and a head. We tore down the shed surrounding the boat and painted her decks, her bottom and her hull. The work went on and on (and on), well into April. Finally she was ready for another once-over by Fred Hecklinger—the toughest, most experienced wooden-boat surveyor we know, who had also eyeballed her carefully when she was down to a bare hull. It had been a lot of work, so we were thrilled to hear Fred say that she was not just as good as the day she'd been built, but in some ways better!
But what would we name her? A boat this special had to have a special name, and that name would have to be painted on the transom before we launched the boat. We scoured the notebooks again, and even asked Elaine Aitcheson if he'd ever come up with a name for the boat. But he had not, she said. Hoping for inspiration on a name of our own choosing, we looked up the boat's previous monikers and found that for 15 years she had been known as Beowulf. Before that she had been Brigadoon and Savage and others. Interesting names all, but none of them seemed to fit this sleek beauty we'd labored over all winter, this beautiful boat that was now gleaming in the spring sunlight, under eight coats of varnish, positively radiant in the . . . ah, there you go, radiance! We'd call her Radiance.
Finally, in April 2007—five months and 900 work hours after we'd taken possession, we returned Chalmers's now radiant dream to the water. There were tense moments that Friday evening as Radiance sat there, still in the slings, waiting for her long-dried hull planks to absorb water and swell shut. But by Sunday morning the leaks had subsided enough that we felt safe to motor her around Swan Point to Rock Hall and her new home slip in front of the Harbor Shack Restaurant.
Since then we've put some 300 more miles under Radiance's well traveled keel. Although we haven't been far, we've taken her out in some nasty weather and she's come through it all just fine. One day soon we hope to take Elaine and Chalmers's sister Beth out for a sail. Both are happy that the dream sails on.
And, we like to think, so is Chalmers.
Dale and Cindy Genther, owners of Mobile Marine Services, a boat refinishing and restoration company, live and work in Rock Hall, Md. Radiance won best in class for sailboats at last year's Antique & Classic Boat Festival in St. Michaels, Md.