May 07, 2021

Octogenarians capture highlights of building own sailing vessel

DOROTHY ELIZABETH, BUILDING A TRADITIONAL WOODEN SCHOONER, by Roger F. Duncan, W.W. Norton @ Company, New York, 2000, 240 pages, $27.95.

Most people, when they enter their eighth decade of living, are ready to slow down and savor life. At this point, even the most avid sailor considers spending more time motoring. Or perhaps they hire a crew or sign on as passengers with younger people.

But 80-year-old author Roger Duncan and his 82-year-old wife, Mary, are not most people.

When Eastward, the 32-foot Friendship sloop the Duncans sailed for 40 years, became too much for the elderly couple to handle, they downsized, but not by much. “Not about to be wrecked on the lee shore of old age,” the Duncans decided to build a small schooner to replace Eastward, which they gave to one of their sons.

“Dorothy Elizabeth” is the story of that project. From the first step of choosing a design and a name, to finding fixtures – including blocks that required a trip to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia – rigging the vessel and finally launching it, Roger Duncan, with occasional commentary from his grandson and from legendary designer and builder Ralph Stanley, describes the process of building and outfitting a schooner.

Duncan’s descriptions of splicing wire, rigging the vessel, bending the wooden frames, planking the hull and caulking the planks, selecting a compass, a bilge pump and an engine are careful, step-by-step lessons, complete with detailed how-to drawings and black and white photographs. His account of buying parts from suppliers up and down the coast provides a road map for others who would follow in his footsteps.

But this book is much more than a technical tome on boat construction. It is a story of the community required to build and celebrate a wooden boat. The people who help the Duncans with Dorothy Elizabeth, include Stanley, who designs and builds the schooner in his Southwest Harbor shop; Nathaniel Wilson, who takes time off from making sails for the USS Constitution to cut canvas for the Dorothy Elizabeth; and neighboring boat yard owner Frank Luke, who helps with various tasks along the way and then provides a place for launching. Friends and family chip in, as well.

Then there are the small suppliers one rarely reads about in most boat-building accounts – people such as Melanie Dumont of Windsor. She provides beeswax to smear into cracks in the Dorothy Elizabeth’s wooden spars to keep out water and keep rot at bay. Dumont collects combs from beekeepers near and far, as Duncan writes, strips out the honey, refines the wax and sells much of it to Bath Iron Works for electronic work.

This book also is the story of the Duncans’ dedication to each other and their determination to see the job through. Midway through the construction, an aneurysm leaves Roger Duncan hospitalized for seven months. Mary Duncan breaks her arm as the couple are preparing the boat for launching. But the two still manage to pull through and finish much of the rigging and outfitting themselves. Mary’s poems, interspersed throughout the book enhance the story’s spiritual feel.

Author of “Coastal Maine: A Maritime History,” “The Practical Sailor” and “Sailing in the Fog,” as well as co-author of the Maine cruising bible, “The Cruising Guide to the New England Coast,” Duncan peppers his story with anecdotes from his decades of sailing the Maine coast from his home base in Boothbay.

During his account of splicing the standing rigging, he describes learning to splice while working as a rigger’s helper at Bath Iron Works during the war. And he weaves in history, telling how Dorothy Elizabeth’s precursors, Gloucester fishing schooners, navigated through tough winter nor’easters off Georges Banks and brought many crews and cargoes home safely thanks to their sturdy design and construction.

By book’s end, Dorothy Elizabeth is in the water but work remains to be done, including outfitting the cabin with such essentials as bunks, a galley and chart table.

That Duncan could finish the book before wrapping up these final details emphasizes a universal truth about sailboats, particularly wooden ones: they all are works in progress and always will be. Roger and Mary Duncan will have fun fine-tuning the Dorothy Elizabeth for years to come as they continue to sail the Maine coast.

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