Trash to Treasure
OK, I get it, this is a long text. Feel free to read or to click on arrow that appears on the right side to move along to the images. This is basically what I did during the height of the pandemic before it became endemic.
We had just crossed the finish line. As I rounded the boat up for the 5 mile beat home, the elation of saving our time on Z and flat out finishing ahead of all our other fleet members turned to dread. It would be dark in 15 minutes, it was blowing 15 and the Mt. Hope Bridge 4.5 miles to windward was disappearing in the approaching fog bank. Lights on the bridge were just a glow on the horizon. Soon the bridge would disappear. The fog brought cool almost cold temps for a Wednesday night in late August, and Wink was heeling hard with the pull of 135% genoa and the Velocitek reading 6.5 knots. I figured it would be 3 tacks to get under the main span, on the other side lay the real problems. Musselbed Shoals to port on the Portsmouth side and the (Pardee’s nun) Bristol Point Rock buoy to starboard. If we made it by those….
Under my breath I muttered, “You Jackass”. In my haste to get our newly restored sloop in the water before the end of the 2021 season, I had neglected rewiring the running lights. Back in late July I had told myself, “We’re only going to daysail her this year, we’ll take care of that next winter.” It was never my intention to put close friends and crew Chis, Dave and my wife in this type of situation. Not that it would matter that much with the dense fog ahead.
As we approached the bridge just 25 yards away, the glow revealed one of the 2 main stanchions, but on the far side was a complete blackout with much denser fog that had never made its way into Mt. Hope Bay. Struggling to see and sailing by our chart plotter app, I barely had time to think about the past year; about how the pandemic had created an improbable opportunity in our lives. When I had daydreamed about boat ownership and returning to Bristol, this was not the story I had been telling myself.
Back in April 2020, pandemic in full swing, we sequestered from Boston to our summer cottage in Bristol, RI. After performing all the outdoor landscaping that I could stand, I found myself becoming quite bored by the middle of May. As the weather was getting warmer I launched our hard bottom center console inflatable “Jack Rabbit”. I started taking motor boat rides in the mornings while it was still calm. It was a short ride from our house on Poppasquash to the Barrington River, where I decided to do some in-the-water boat shopping. Just feeding my fancy. Well as no surprise in Barrington there was the usual collection of modern plastic fantastics racer/cruisers. Some being quite heinous with loads of freeboard and windows in the topsides, more resembling aircraft carriers than sailboats. To be charitable they were not the most attractive yachts. As for boats I’d like to be seen on or struck my eye, they were few and far between. On my way back down river I did passed a striking 30 foot sloop with a person in the cockpit. With time on my hands I decided to take a closer look. She was a handsome craft with pleasing sheer and not too much freeboard. I complemented the guy telling him he had one of the most attractive boats in the river. As I circled “October” we engaged in conversation and he informed me she was a Graves Constellation. After a few more words it became apparent that this fellow was a beloved family friend, Colby Smith who I hadn't seen in over 30 years. Long story short, a week later wife Julie and I found ourselves sailing with Colby on October over in Mt. Hope Bay where she’s moored. It was classic 10 to 15 knots of breeze, flat water and October was lively and steered like a dream. During our sail Colby referred to the Constellation as a poor man’s Herreshoff S boat. I fell in love.
There were 27 Graves Constellations built by the Graves Yacht Yard in Marblehead between 1964-1971. Selman Graves is credited with her design but, as rumor has it, with help from neighbor and friend, L Francis Herreshoff. They're a fractional rig, 29.5 LOA, 20.25 LWL 8 ft beam with an old school solid 1+ in. fiberglass hull (no pesky core) and mahogany coach roof. In my opinion an object of beauty.
In a corner of Narragansett Bay lies Mount Hope Bay. Bordered by Massachusetts with Fall River at the head, then Rhode Island’s Tiverton and Portsmouth with Warren and Bristol on the opposite shore, and the Mt. Hope Bridge at the entrance. Despite growing up in the 1960’s on Bristol Ferry, the peninsula with the Mt. Hope Bridge, I rarely ventured into Mount Hope Bay unless it was to attend one of the NBYA regattas hosted by the Coles River and Tiverton Yacht Clubs. In my undeserved snobby, elitist youth, I affectionately referred to it as the West Virginia of Narragansett Bay. I had viewed this area as a post industrial wasteland, lined on the Fall River Side with a large oil tank farm, coal fired power plant at the head of the bay using the entire Mt. Hope Bay as it’s cooling pond, more than a little down on its heels, and certainly a bit more provincial than say fashionable Newport.
In 2020 some of that has changed, power plant gone and tank farm 25% of it’s former self. As it turns out, there is a burgeoning fleet of 6 Constellations in West Virginia that actively race in SIRA (Spar Island Racing Association) on Wednesday nights and Saturdays in the spring and fall. (In fact, there are a total of 10 Constellations in the Bay as a whole!)
After further investigation this fleet was quite diverse. Dave Pritchard and wife Andy at its core, they purchased their Constellation, Andromeda hull #22 new back in the 60s. Dave is a renowned MIT professor of physics with a summer house just inside the Sakonnet River. Just the nicest couple you’d ever meet, however after speaking with Dave for awhile you realize what a great intellect he has. He leaves me glassy eyed and wondering what the hell he's talking about. He's all about theory and numbers. Then there is Colby Smith, former boat builder, now sculptor/craftsman. He purchased October as a wreck, solid hull but no deck or cabin house; basically a hull, mast and sundry boat parts stored in the gaping hull. Which he lovingly rebuilt. At the soul of the fleet are Bob Buffinton and son, Pete with Satori hull #27. Bob, a lobsterman, always a smile, wry sense of humor and a laugh that is contagious. Pete is a graduate of IYRS in Newport, specializing in composites, and worked with the American Magic team. Together they have a can-do spirit and are great fun to hang with. If I were to put out to sea, these are the guys I would want to go with. Then there is “Z”, Mike Zani with Vela hull #14. Z is a four time all American collegiate sailor from Brown University. He has brought sailing luminaries Ken Read and Moose McClintock along as crew. This ups everyone’s game. Mike is always available to help and make suggestions when one is in need. He treats all Constellation owners with respect, however make no mistake he lets you know what he wants when it comes to fleet direction and PHRF ratings. He is the driving force for having our own Constellation Class start in the PHRF dominated SIRA. Other fleet members are Ken Yeager with Mira. Poor Ken had back surgery this summer and was absent for most of this season, we’re all looking forward to his return in 2022. Erik Ekwall rounds out the group with Azura. Erik is by far the most handsome, GQ quality and super friendly. He unfortunately installed a sail drive in his yacht, so the fleet has made an allowance for him to remain competitive. In spite of the fleet’s diversity, it appears you can't take the Graves out of the Graves, no matter the alterations one might have made. As shown in the first 3 Wednesday nights of this 2021 season there were 3 different winners. Who doesn’t love that!
I digress. Like hounds on the scent, Julie and I began our search for a Constellation of our own in June, 2020. With so few built it soon became apparent they were hard to come by. In early August I finally found one, where boats go to die, in Hayes, Virginia which is a back water in the lower Chesapeake Bay near Yorktown. Unfortunately being a pushy Yankee, the current owner refused to sell it to me. Can you believe it? So with the help of close and much more diplomatic friend, Henry Filter, who lives on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, he was able to purchase “Pegasus” as she was called then. In a turnaround Henry resold her to yours truly. We had her shipped to Bristol and renamed her Wink, with her dinghy named Nod. So the pair became “a Wink and a Nod”.
Over in West Virginia a.k.a. Mt. Hope Bay, it was apparent that in the Graves Fleet there was a bit of an arms race, so in order to make Wink competitive there was much to be done. In November (2020) we looked to friends PJ Schaffer, Lars Guck and Will Welles to help us. PJ redesigned the rig and deck layout, Lars planned to work on fairing the bottom and stripping the original bronze hardware and winches off the deck and installing modern hardware. While removing all the old fittings off the deck he discovered the new deck installed by the previous owner, had unfortunately used particleboard then covered it with this ugly rubber non-skid Kiwi Grip. This needed to be addressed because we all know what happens to particleboard when exposed to water. Prior to fairing the bottom Lars and I decided to inspect the bilge which had been sealed off under a teak and holly cabin sole. According to the original plans for the boat, the lead was in the front third of the keel sump with the rest of the sump, a 5 ft deep hollow. Again the previous owner must had felt she was a little too tender and to our amazement we discovered that he had filled the balance of the sump with cement. In typical redneck restoration, to that cement he had added hundreds of lead tire weights used in automotive tire balancing. This combination of cement and lead tire weights added over 1200 lbs to her weight. None of this was apparent to the surveyor when we had the boat inspected before purchase. Yikes! After days of working with an electric impact hammer to no avail we ended up hiring a hardscape landscaper with a jackhammer to go below to start breaking up the cement. However the throw on the jackhammer chisel is only about a 18 inches and we needed to go 5 feet, so we ended up drilling holes in the side of the keel to get the jackhammer in to break up the cement we couldn't reach from the top. What a project that was. Only after the giant holes in the side of the keel were patched was Lars able to fair the bottom. Will, who works for North Sails provided our new rags and they’re beautifully efficient. Bristol is a wonderful place to have your boat worked on, pretty much one stop shopping. Finally by mid-July the mighty Wink was ready to splash, a full 8 months of work had gone into her. Julie and I now race her with a combination of crew including P J Schaffer, project manager at New England Boatworks, Chris Hufstader, former senior editor of Sailing World, Dave Franzel founder of the Boston Sailing Center & St Thomas Sailing Center and 26 year old son, Ben.
In the meantime Mike Zani in his zeal to add more Constellations to our fleet, had located and purchased a second Constellation, which is now for sale. The one caveat is that she must race in the 7 boat Graves fleet in Mount Hope Bay. A small price to pay.
As we passed under the Mt Hope Bridge, the fog muffled the sounds of the traffic above. The more dense fog on the far side of the bridge was akin to sailing into the abyss. The challenge of passing safely through the 1/3 mile wide channel peaked an anxiety in all four of us. Just a few degrees off our starboard heading to the south, we strained to hear the Portsmouth side Musselbed Shoal Gong Bouy 6 just 200 ft. on the channel side of the disastrous Musselebed Shoal Light 6A, which is actually a small tower on a rock platform…always exposed. 1/3 mile away to our north lay the Bristol Point nun 2 marking only a few rocks which are rarely exposed. We never heard or glimpsed any of them.
If it weren’t for the Navionics Boating app on our gps enabled phones we would have had to turn back. As we tracked our way on the app we tacked onto port just 10 yards from Musselbed Shoals and our gps phones guided us to the southwest of Bristol Point rocks. With the genoa now furled, we were able to feel our way close enough to the shore to find the mooring and attached hard bottom inflatable. Barely a quarter of a mile to the north of nun 2. Hufstader, who on the bow was looking for the mooring broke the tension by saying, “Wow, that was so cool”. It makes me wonder what our sailing forebearers had to overcome.
Living back on the Narragansett Bay side of Bristol Ferry, where I grew up, is all I ever wanted. But it is in West Virginia a.k.a. Mount Hope Bay where we found our home. Wife Julie and I are now living the dream with our object of beauty, sailing and racing Wink, a Graves Constellation.