Issue: Online Reading Room
The Sweet Search for Whistler

by Rod Heckman

It was the fall of 2008, and Cathy and I had finally found the boat we wanted.  Her name was Whistler, and she was a sweet little Fortier 26.  Unfortunately, when we called the Annapolis broker who had her listed, we learned she was sold. We were a month too late!

Simply getting to that point had been a challenge of intellect and imagination. We were not novice boaters, but we had been away from it for 15 years. Now, nearing retirement, we were trying to envision what our new life would be. The answer was back in boating and living on the Chesapeake.

Now we needed to decide what type of boat would suit our new lifestyle. We knew we wanted a powerboat.  And we wanted a boat with character.  Not necessarily a head-turner, but one that would earn a nod from knowledgeable boaters. We didn't need a cruiser”a picnic boat/overnighter would do. And since gasoline was more than $4 per gallon at the time, we decided on a single diesel, but not a trawler. We wanted something more lively. 


As a starting point, we had in mind one of the boats from my childhood, a 26-foot JAFCO called Witchcraft.  She had a wooden lapstrake hull (clinker-built), with opening windscreen and canvas top.  Helm and companion seats, engine box, and transom seating. Pretty and fast. She was my favorite of the many boats we grew up on.

With Witchcraft in mind, we started our search at Johnson Brothers in Bay Head, N.J.  In the mid-1960s, Hubert Johnson had built some of the prettiest boats around.  They were called Black Jacks, and you can still buy one through a wooden boat specialist. Ultimately, we decided against it. We decided we had neither the time nor the money to maintain a wooden boat.


We shifted to fiberglass, and, specifically, the downeast sheer lines of New England boats. With that in mind, we looked at Wasque, Dyer, Ellis, Cape Dory, and Crosby, just to name a few. We had gotten this far when we saw Whistler on boat broker Martin Bird's website. We were hooked.  We spoke to the broker, Chet Pawlowicz.  "Sorry, she just sold," he told us  Rats.

So, we set off to find something else that met our criteria.  Even with the tons of listings on the Internet, there weren't many around.  So, we decided to see as many as we could.

If this whole get back into boating thing was going to work, we needed to do it together. Cathy and I had to be partners in the decision, and the process had to be a pleasure not a pain. The genius of my plan was to ensure that the boat shopping jaunts always included a stay at a luxurious inn and time for shopping and dining! 

First stop: The Inn at Perry Cabin.  A pretty good start to the plan, wouldn't you agree?  In early December, we had a wonderful stay, a fabulous dinner, and time to take in the Christmas House Tour in St. Michaels, Md.  Then the next day, we went off to Denton with Chet to visit Black Dog Boat Works.  Black Dog offered several boats to choose from, but nothing that seemed right for us.

The next trip was to Maine over New Years. We booked a room at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and headed for the airport. When we weren't shopping at the more than one hundred outlet shops or dining or lounging around before the fireplace in our room, we were wading through ankle-deep snow in 29 degree weather looking at boats!  We have some very amusing photos of us looking at boats”brushing the snow off the shrink-wrap with a windshield brush from the car, creating a minor avalanche.  Maine was gorgeous.  We fell in love with the icy harbors and the snow-dusted firs.  Unfortunately, the Maine boats were disappointing compared with their photos on the Internet.

Trip number three, in early February, was the great circle route. We drove to Rhode Island to visit Dyer, then took the ferry across the mouth of Long Island Sound to Orient Point, N.Y. From there, we traveled back the length of Long Island, looking at boats along the way.

First stop: The Whaler's Inn at Mystic, with a fireplace in the room and a view of the Mystic River.  We took time for a visit to Mystic Seaport, and we were awed by the restoration work underway on the whaler Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world.  The Morgan is 113 feet long and looks huge out of the water.  The restoration efforts will take three years and cost $5 million. 

The next day, we drove north along the coast, through Newport to Bristol, Rhode Island (Newport and Bristol, aren't they two great nautical names?)  We spent a fascinating day as the guests of Dyer Yachts, touring their factory.  Then a race back to New London to catch the ferry. 

We stood on the ferry's foredeck, buttoned up against the biting wind, and remembered the many times we had sailed Windfall, our O'Day 30, through the Race and Plum Gut.  Those passages can get nasty at times, but our crossing was perfect: bright sun and calm seas.  That evening, we spent a toasty night at the Harborfront Inn, a modern boutique inn in Greenport. We delighted in the complimentary wine, the high-thread-count sheets, and the harbor view from the room. The next day, we saw three more boats, each more disappointing than the last.  Nothing measured up to our expectations or to its presentation on the Internet. 


As Valentine's Day approached, things looked pretty gloomy.  Then two surprising things happened back-to-back. 

I went down to Tom's River one weekend to help my brother measure for new pilothouse windows in his 49' Elco, Liberté.  (Sometimes wood is good.)   Driving through the boatyard, I spotted a green hull shape that looked familiar.  It was a 26-foot Fortier, and she was for sale!  Three days later, we were in negotiations with the buyer and about to close a deal.

Then, on February 17, Chet emailed us that Whistler was back on the market.  She was way down in Mobjack Bay”a 5 hour drive for us. Time for one more road trip. We enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the North River Inn, and had a spectacular meal at Sazeracs in Gloucester, Va.  Our waiter, Jason, wished us luck and created a drink named the Whistler just for us. 

The next morning, we met Chet at Zimmerman Marine, and wrote a check on the spot. When you finally see what you want, you know it.  Fastidiously maintained by her prior owners, she was the first boat we saw that lived up to our expectations. 

We brought Whistler north this May in a spectacular two-day trip.  Bright sun, 75 degrees, and the Bay was like liquid glass.  Whistler cruises at 20 knots, and tops out at 28.  We were flying!  Like many downeast boats, she has a tiller and a second set of controls at the transom, and it was thrilling to steer her from the stern.  Just like Windfall, only four times as fast!  
Whistler is snug in her new berth in Rock Hall, Md., at Haven Harbour marina on Swan Creek.  Her transom still reads Annapolis as the port of call. Maybe we'll change it once we settle down.  For now, we have some great stories to dine out on, a great boat to enjoy the bay on, and we both enjoyed the search.  What a sweet outcome!

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