Stretched out on my side amidst tangled clumps of bittersweet and knotweed, my face nearly kissing the listing hull of the abandoned sailboat, I tugged on an exposed timber half-buried in the sand. My head rested on a rusty axle; my boots curled up against a truck tire. A piece of the rotted cradle came loose and I dragged it to the beach and threw it into the bed of my truck. Holding a thumb in the air like a landscape artist, I sized up the stern of the 26-foot La Vie en Rose. After 4 hours of adjusting the jack stands supporting the hull, it is, perhaps, coming closer to vertical.
I dialed Captain Jim’s Marine Salvage and Nautical Antiquities. Once we have the sailboat semi-upright, maybe he can drag the derelict vessel into Casco Bay with his tugboat and transfer it to his boat yard in Portland where he’ll salvage the mast and boom, stainless steel railing, fold-up stern ladder, cleats, and, well, anything that can be unscrewed and resold. My call went to Captain Jim’s voice mail. His message boomed, “Ahoy ye matey’s! And thanks for calling Captain Jim’s hotline. The good Captain be out robbing and pillaging villages right now and can’t answer the phone. If you be calling about boat hauling, leave a message about your rusted scow, where she be and where she need to be. If you be calling about Captain Jim’s Marine Treasure Warehouse and want to come in and see all my b-o-o-ty, we’re open Saturday from 9 to 3. Due to Covid, you need a facemask to cover your ugly face you filthy swine, but eyepatches are optional. Leave a message and the good captain be calling you back.”
Half-smiling, I thought, this is getting interesting.
John Carroll joined me at the truck and pointed to the keel. “If we can work the jacks another hour or two on the port side, it should be safe enough to board and pump out the water in the hold.” John’s white T-shirt was immaculate. On his feet were a proper pair of work boots. Clean shaven, with a rounded face and pale blue eyes, he raises a hand to shield his eyes against the morning sun peeking over the hillside. John has the reputation of being one of the most meticulous, logical people on the island. Until today, I didn’t know he was a boat jack savant. For years, I’ve stood outside on the 6:15 morning commuter ferry to Portland chatting with John, sharing news. He has two grown sons; I have two married daughters. But off the ferry, our paths rarely cross.
We went back to work adjusting the jacks. A jack stand consists of a metal tripod stand with one short leg giving it the necessary lean into the hull. A heavy threaded screw fits into the stand. On the top of the screw is a wooden rectangular pad. By twisting a metal propeller (like a nut on a screw) with both hands, the pad is advanced. John is certain that we can straighten and lift the La Vie en Rose, block the keel, and once we can safely board, pump out several thousand pounds of water from the hold. “From there, we can figure out the next step. This boat belongs in the water.”
Still, I’m concerned about the risks. With a 2,000-pound lead winged keel, the La Vie en Rose weighs in at 5,000 pounds. Here’s what one boating web site has to say about jack stands. “After a travel lift plucks the boat from the water, your sole involvement is reading a warning in the lease agreement that you will not touch the stands and that you will not attach anything to them.”
That advice, of course, applies to a boat yard. The abandoned La Vie en Rose lies on the edge of my beach atop shifting sand. There is no travel lift or crane to transfer her to the water; no tractor to push her seaward. She lists because after 7 years above the high-tide, her hand-crafted wooden cradle has fractured and the highest tides are licking at her keel. She is an accident in waiting; a widow-maker. John is all about safety. This is not the first boat he’s moved. He’s placed wooden platforms under the stands for stability. He’s linked each pair of jacks by a heavy chain so they don’t “kick out.”
“Kick out?” I asked.
“Suddenly fail. No longer support the boat. That would be bad,” John answers.
Earlier this morning, we gingerly positioned 3 jacks on each side of the boat and linked them together. John is finicky. After wrapping a chain around the base of each jack, he inserted a link in a slot to lock the chain in place. “This is the way John Clay does it,” he explained, bringing up the name of the Peaks Island god of boat hauling and jack placement. As we tighten the screws (which ranges from good solid work to backbreaking labor), I am hyperaware that I may need to scramble if there is a sudden crack or rumble.
I know nothing about moving a boat to the water. In truth, I know almost nothing about sailboats. I am tasked with doing exactly what John tells me to. When I am not turning screw jacks, I am clearing out debris from beneath the sailboat. In truth, debris doesn’t properly capture the image of the half-buried, decayed six-by-six spruce beams, rusted truck-sized wheels connected to a bent axle, all held together by reinforced iron plates. Shoveling into the sand beneath the hull reminds me of a bronze-age archeological site.
The incoming tide flows across the mudflats—perhaps 3 hours from lapping against the tires of my truck. I’ll need to keep an eye on that. Oblivious to us, several great blue herons work the shallows for crabs and small fish while a flock of eider dive for mussels just offshore.
I don’t own the La Vie en Rose, but it is sitting on my property, and it has overstayed its welcome. The long-time owner is a Peaks Island electrician. Each spring, at low tide, he drove his truck onto the beach and pulled the sturdy homemade cradle to the water’s edge and launched the boat, courtesy of Casco Bay’s 10-foot tides. Each fall he reversed the process. And the boat was well-used; he more or less lived aboard in the summer, sailing to the outer reaches of Casco Bay and sleeping aboard for long weekends. Then, seven years ago, the sailboat sat through the summer. One year became two. Bittersweet curled up over the hull and wound around the boom and halyards. The supporting beams of the cradle splintered. I called the owner. Don’t worry, he assured me, he would either rebuild the cradle, or perhaps, and he hated to think about this, sell La Vie en Rose.
When my wife Sandi and I purchased our home on Peaks Island more than 35 years ago, we knew that the flat, hard-packed beach below our house was traditionally used to launch, repair and store boats and floats. And frankly, I enjoyed the sight of a working beach. Despite the absence of a dock or wharf, it was not unusual to see extension cords running from our porch window down to and over the gunnel of a boat needing repairs. At the end of the inshore lobster season in late October, lobster boats dropped off dozens of traps at high tide and loaded them into trucks at low tide to transport them to island side yards. Rowboats and dinghies, and later, sleek ocean kayaks were stored in the bushes. For the most part, the arrangement worked well. I viewed our role as caretakers for the land. The beach was a bridge to the past. I hoped to achieve a balance with traditional uses and good environmental practices and avoid the restrictions of “I’ve got mine” elitism. And for the most part, this has worked; there has been remarkably little litter on the beach and it’s easy to collect the occasional beer can tossed up in the sumac. The beach grass has regrown and sunbathers and fishermen and recreational clammers co-exist in the intertidal zone.
Of course, there have been exceptions; La Vie en Rose is one, a 42-foot wooden fishing boat dragged up on the beach in the early 1990’s was another. The owner dreamed of transforming it into a houseboat. In quick order, the deck, engine, and wheelhouse were disassembled and taken to the dump. Then, the true scope of the project overwhelmed the owner. Purchasing and retrofitting a new engine and building sleeping quarters for the family came to a sudden halt. The boat was abandoned. The family moved off Peaks Island.
The fishing boat sat for a few years as our local deer population exploded, ravaging island gardens. In a moment of lunacy, I wrote a letter to the owners of the abandoned boat explaining that I wanted to cut a hole in the hull and haul in enough soil to grow potatoes and tomatoes. If you want the boat, I advised, you better move it, otherwise it’s mine. When there was no response, I cut a generous hole in the hull and lugged in enough topsoil to create Peaks Island’s first deer-proof garden.
One summer day as I watered plants inside the boat with a garden hose, I heard an ominous crack! The frame was pulling apart. It was time for Boatgarden to go. At a family reunion, my brother Steve took a chainsaw to the stern while the rest of us fed rotted oak into a bonfire and salvaged the intact cedar planks for a walkway. Even the nieces and nephews got into the act, filling two 10-gallon buckets with brass screws.
It’s now been seven years since the La Vie en Rose last sailed on Casco Bay. Complicating any hope of the owner repairing the cradle evaporated when he was in a motorcycle accident and a few weeks later, suddenly went blind. It was a devastating, life-changing tragedy. When the boat listed, I worried that the boat might suddenly keel over and injure or kill someone. To make things more complicated, the owner claimed that the boat was not on my property, which was nonsense. Fast forward through phone calls with a nautical lawyer, our island police, the Coast Guard, and the Harbor Master with no resolution. I built a fence around the sailboat and hung up a For Sale sign with the owner’s phone number. There were no takers.
Last week, when John Carroll, offered to help me jack up the La Vie en Rose, I asked him why. “Two simple reasons, you are a friend in need, and it has to get done.” He made it clear that the abandoned boat wasn’t just my problem, it was an accident waiting to happen for the entire island. Who knows when a curious teenager might be injured climbing into the sailboat? What fifth grader pays attention to a fence or sign?
This morning, after I cleared out as much as I could of the rotted cradle, we jacked up the stern of the sailboat. My forearms and low back ache. I don’t know what’s been harder, lying on my stomach clearing out the old trailer, or twisting the rusty jacks. After lunch, we redouble our efforts until the stern of the sailboat comes to vertical. I climb up into the cockpit and jimmied open the entryway to the hold. A beautiful line of pale green lichen is attached to the wood trim. I climb down the wooden ladder into the sleeping quarters and wretch. The hold is dank with the complex odors of mold, oil, gasoline, standing water, rust, and decayed wood. I reached into my back pocket; no mask. How stupid can you get? I pull out my phone and shine a light in the tomb. The diesel engine is half submerged. A yellow rain slicker, piles of discarded clothes, mildewed magazines, rope, and rusted tools litter the bunks. I place one end of a hose in the water and work a hand pump until a torrent of water flushes out of the other end onto the beach.
“Chuck,” John continued, as we watched the water cascade down the beach, “As long as La Vie en Rose is on your beach, it will never be totally safe. The highest tides will eventually undermine the stands and the boat will fall. It’s another sad example of the old adage, no good deed goes unpunished. Give Captain Jim another call. Once we launch La Vie en Rose and she’s on a mooring, he can tow her to town for salvage.” John went around the hull tapping it with a hammer. “I think she’s basically seaworthy. It’s a shame she’s can’t find a new home.”
I moved the truck. We gathered our tools. The tide met the stern of the boat.
A few months later another friend, Chris Roberts, drove his truck onto the beach, pulling a homemade trailer loaded with 2′ x 10′ planks and tools. Tall and sinewy with a neatly trimmed graying beard and mustache, he brought a cordless circular saw, a Sawzall, several bottle jacks (more on this later), a Grinder with a cut-off blade, drill, and a screw shooter. There was also an assortment of shovels, crowbars, steel pipes for rollers, chains for pulling, boxes of miscellaneous nails and screws and lag bolts, wrenches, and a stack of wooden blocking. It’s moving day.
John Carrol pulled up in his truck with some key components for a temporary cradle, namely, two eleven-foot beams and close to a dozen 2-inch steel rollers. John dumped more wooden blocking beside the sailboat. The two men agreed: You can never have too much blocking. I felt, well, strangely competent with my Thor-sized mallet and crowbar. A few minutes later, Chris parked his Kubota tractor next to the truck. He summed up our chance of success: “With the right tools and a sharp blade, you can move anything.”
We set to work. Imagine this. The six boat jacks safely support the boat, but we need to create a temporary cradle inside the jacks before we can slide the La Vie en Rose to the water. The two long beams John brought will be the foundation of our sledge. We’ll attach a crib to the top of the beams before backing off the screw jacks. Then, we’ll need to raise the sailboat with bottle jacks so we can sandwich metal rollers between the underside of the beams and a series of long planks pointing towards the water. If all works as planned, the sailboat will roll down the plank road and the next tide will float it off the cradle.
But first, we need to clear out more debris. Chris used the Grinder to cut through an axle and freed up the half-buried truck tires. Lines of flashing metal sparks flew in all directions. That was how we spent the morning. It was awkward, backbreaking work. Over lunch, there seemed to be general satisfaction with our progress. John said, “I’ve moved a lot of boats around. The bigger the move, the smaller each step. We have a good team process: stop, think five steps ahead, and work methodically without haste.” I am thinking: I have never moved a boat. Stay alert. Don’t lose a limb.
Back to work, Chris placed the bottle jack on a platform of blocks in the midline of the hull. It is an unimpressive piece of equipment, about the size of a coffeepot, but capable of lifting up the corner of a small house. Chris inserts a small metal rod into the bottle jack and rapidly moves the rod up and down. Each movement raises the boat a fraction of an inch. We loosen the screw jacks slightly on the outer hull so the boat can rise, adjust the chain connecting each screw jack to its partner on the other side of the hull, and listen for creaks or groans indicative of structural failure.
When it’s my turn at the bottle jack, I lay on my side and feel a burning line of pain where red ants crawl under my T-shirt. Chris scrapes his hand trying to stay off a bad knee. We chat. One of John’s son is working on a fishing boat in Alaska, the other is a project engineer in charge of repaving Maine roads. I learn that Chris’s dad was an amateur boxer and that Chris has sailed across the Atlantic. I hear how John survived being swept off a sailboat in a storm which de-masted the boat. While we talk, John is back and forth with the screw jacks, assessing, adjusting, sometimes kicking at the base of a jack to nestle it more firmly against the hull. My two friends make suggestions to each other. I’m vaguely aware they don’t see eye to eye on every aspect of the job.
It is mid-afternoon. We lay down the two parallel beams inside the jacks. After Chris drills pilot holes, I use a ratchet wrench to drive lag bolts into the beams and build out the crib. That takes several hours. Then it’s back to the bottle jacks so that we can place boards and metal rollers under the beam in preparation for the move. We’re getting tired. Between the three of us, we are roughly 200 years old. I’m aware that most mountain climbing accidents occur on the way down the mountain. It makes sense that most boating accidents occur when you relax and let down your guard. The rollers and boards slide under the beam with considerable difficulty. I get to use my mallet, the perfect tool to pound the leading edge of the board in place. We remove the temporary jacks. The sailboat still stands.
The tide is at ebb. By eleven tonight, it will be full. If we can move the sailboat fifty feet down the beach, the incoming tide may, possibly, float it off the cradle. Chris hops on his tractor and positions the bucket against the bow and his wheels spin for traction. John and I crouch with blocks on the downhill side of the beams to use as brakes if the boat moves too fast towards the water. The boat slides shoreward. Six inches. Two feet. Ten feet. I let out a whoop! Chris backs away with the tractor. John and I place new rollers beneath the leading edge of the beam. For another ten feet, all is well, then the beam inexorably slides part-way off the rollers.
Chris changes the angle of his bucket pushing the bow with his tractor. We add more rollers and adjust the planks. The La Vie en Rose moves seaward. Then one beam slips off the rollers and is no longer on a plank. The boat lists ever so slightly. I hold my breath. Chris gets out of his tractor. We’re not nearly far enough for a successful launch. Chris calls his friend Travers who owns an ancient Holmes wrecker. Chris is playing his trump card. A half-hour later, Travers drives onto the beach and turns off the truck a few feet from the incoming tide. Then he plays out cable through an overhead crane and attaches the free end to the sledge. After setting the stabilizers, he flips a switch. The cable tightens; we involuntarily step back. Impossibly, the sailboat moves another few yards. It’s probably not far enough.
Travers moves his truck closer to the sailboat. He resets the stabilizers and repeats the process. When the sledge refuses to budge, he guns the motor and abruptly the front end of the truck pops a wheelie. There is a collective gasp before Travis manages to release the cable pressure and the front tires settle onto the sand. I think he’s had enough but he’s game for one more try. When the cable suddenly breaks, he calls it a day. So far, no one has been killed. Chris and John believe the La Vie en Rose will launch tonight at high tide. I think, no way.
After dinner, I went to bed. Falling asleep was no problem. Getting up was another matter. Shortly before midnight, I limped into the bathroom and cracked my neck to the right and left before pulling on a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and a windbreaker. John and I silently boarded Chris’s skiff at the Trefethen dock and motored towards my beach in a wet, cool fog so impenetrable cottage lights on the shore were like distant fireflies. John Carroll panned a flashlight over the bow, alert for mooring balls and lobster buoys. The gray curtain parted. John gave a shout. Up ahead, off to port, the silhouette of a sailboat is bobbing in the water. It is the La Vie en Rose. On the darkened beach, a figure waved. It’s Craig, a neighbor who, I later learn, concerned about the jack stands and wood getting into the shipping channel, swam out and retrieved them when he saw La Vie en Rose float free. We tow the sailboat to a mooring and go to bed.
The next morning, I receive a text from Chris Roberts: Sailboat taking on water Not sinking. By the time John Carroll and I meet Chris at the dock and row out to the boat, he’s already fashioned a temporary pump in the hold and removed a whale gusher of very raunchy water. In short order, I confirm that Captain Jim’s boat hauling truck is in for repairs; if we can tow the sailboat to town, a marina will pull it and Captain Jim can pick it up in a few days. I call the electrician owner of the La Vie en Rose and tell him I want to officially assume ownership so I can hand it off to Captain Jim. He sells it to me for a dollar. Chris locates the source of the leaks: Thru-hull fittings. Thru-hull fittings are pipes connecting onboard sinks and toilets to the ocean. When they are turned off, the boat stops taking on water. I wish everything was that simple.
On the day we bundle into Chris’s skiff to tow the La Vie en Rose to Portland, John is having second thoughts. He is a romantic at heart. “Chuck, it’s a shame for her to go to salvage. We could form a syndicate with multiple owners, time share…. What do you think?” I am vaguely aware that John recently bought the Grammie Annie, a lobster boat with similarities to a neglected puppy needing a new home. On the other hand, until today, I have never owned a sailboat. What could possibly go wrong?
Chris, who has undoubtedly had a few mishaps of his own on the water, saves us from ourselves. He ignores our chatter and wraps the towline to the bow cleat of the La Vie en Rose and suggests that John get onboard to control the tiller. Thinking back, I think this was to separate us. Underway, the La Vie en Rose rode our wake, pointing towards Portland, her final resting place. A sprig of bittersweet curled around her bow, pulled from the underbrush when the tractor pushed her seaward for one last journey. I look over to my beach. It looks sadly antiseptic. Barren. Unused.
Captain Jim will get a good price for La Vie en Rose’s mast, and make a profit on her stainless-steel railings and stepladder and halyards and cleats. There is a market for the massive lead keel. Even the hull will be sold and ground up and mixed with gravel for resurfacing mainland roads. When we reached Port Harbor Marina, a launch rafted up to the sailboat and John transferred aboard our skiff. We watch as the La Vie en Rose is slow-walked towards a travel lift, much like a prisoner is escorted to the gallows after a last meal. She’s floating out of this world the same way she came in.
Well, not quite.
I’ve already dropped off her sails at Sea Bags on Custom House Wharf where they will be washed and cleaned and transformed “into nautically inspired totes and accessories that bring our customers great happiness.” In exchange for the sails, I’ll receive two free tote bags. I am ready for great happiness. When I visit Captain Jim’s Marine Treasure Warehouse, looking for something more to remember La Vie en Rose by, I’ll be sure to wear a mask; after all, we’re still in the midst of a Covid-19 epidemic. An eye patch? Launching the La Vie en Rose was an effort worthy of a pirate’s crew. Of course, I’ll wear an eye patch. Arr!