Adsense for search

Custom Search

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Tale of Stout Hearts and Strong Hands: 1922 schooner MERRIE ELLEN visits Tacoma

If ships believe in reincarnation, the old schooner RFM must have had a lot of good karma to end up as the MERRIE ELLEN in its new life. My husband first spotted the two masts in the glow of Saturday's early evening. We were driving south on Schuster Parkway, past Tacoma's Working Waterfront Museum, so only got a quick glance at the unfamiliar schooner and wondered about it during dinner at a restaurant. On our way home we decided to stop by.

The museum's doors stood open as we pulled into the parking lot, but it seemed surprising that no one crowded around the elegant MERRIE ELLEN moored nearby. Out on the pier, a couple of families with numerous, lively children, took more interest in the crabs they hauled up and dropped into plastic buckets. No one seemed to pay much attention to this noteworthy visitor on Tacoma's waterfront. The word hadn't gotten out yet.

Our footsteps echoed down the metal ramp as we walked over to where the schooner floated on calm water. On deck, a black and white dog picked up a rope toy and ran over to see if we wanted to play, just as Captain John Holbert noticed us and came over to the ladder to say hello. After a few words with him, we knew we wanted to come aboard and tour the boat, for a mere $5.00 each. It was the best value I've ever had from a five spot. Don't miss this brief opportunity to visit, before the MERRIE ELLEN leaves Tacoma about noon on Thursday, July 16, for the Waterland Festival in the city of Des Moines, Washington. Or go on a three hour sail for $50.00. You won't be able to do either when the ship is on view in Des Moines.

John and Jill Holbert, dreamed of buying and restoring a vintage schooner. When they found what would become the MERRIE ELLEN in 2007, in Victoria, B.C. they recognized it as "the one," but probably never imagined how much work awaited them. Accustomed to their 62' fiberglass ketch, just climbing aboard the 107' ship, with a 20' beam and a weight of 320,000 lbs., gave a new and literal meaning to the term "big project." Originally called simply "RFM" the ship had been built in Vancouver B.C. in 1922. She showed her age, inside and out.

"I tapped the hull on that first day," says John in his ship's log, "and it sounded odd, so I pushed the point of my knife against the hull and it sank in with no effort."

As it turned out, a large percentage of the planking and 42 frames had rotted. He hired expert ship surveyor Lee Earhart to examine the hull. Earhart declared it worth restoring, but the estimate for those expenses alone came to six figures. The work seemed endless. It included searching the forest for a Douglas fir long and straight enough for a mast, redoing the mechanical systems, hand forging ships spikes, acquiring specialty woods like Western Larch, Alaskan yellow cedar, and Brazilian Purple Heart, caulking and finishing work, and so much more. It's been a long adventure marked by both discouragement and elation. The Holberts estimate that during five months in 2008, 10,000 man-hours went into the ship's restoration, often during cold, windy, and rainy weather. Friends donated half of those man-hours. The Holberts' gratitude to these folks and the marine trades experts in the Port Townsend area can hardly be expressed, but they themselves worked as hard as anyone, on all kinds of tasks. Among other things, John designed and fabricated new halyard winches to look like vintage ones that would have been made of cast iron, and did exquisitely beautiful woodwork in the interior. Jill shared her talents and efforts in as many ways.

The work continues. If you visit the MERRIE ELLEN in Tacoma this week, you can see enough exposed below decks to appreciate the amount of work represented. At the same time what is finished will take your breath away. A modern cooking surface in the gourmet galley lifts to become part of a tiled wall, revealing the ship's original Lunenburg wood cook stove beneath. Charming light fixtures lend a glow to the Alaskan yellow cedar cabin walls, doors close with a perfect fit, and one table surface is built with an inlaid wood game board. There's even an all-wood shower stall that will be epoxied to make it completely waterproof.

Life aboard this schooner, when it is ready to work as a charter, will offer many comforts and much beauty. Jill came up with the idea of free form sinks of laminated wood in the heads, of which there are several, including a private one for each of the three guest staterooms. Each stateroom will hold a queen-sized bed and receive part of its illumination from from deck prisms installed above. In fact, the schooner's abundance of natural daylight in most areas made it exceptional.

Please visit the ship's website to see many photos of the restoration, read about charter trip costs, amenities, and more. John Holbert can be reached at mobile number 541-740-0053, or email him at

I'm glad my husband spotted those two masts as we drove by. We feel lucky to have met the Holberts and their crew, and to have a chance to see an amazing restoration project. Maybe one of these days soon, when their charter business is underway, we'll even take a trip on the schooner. You can too. But we'd all better get in line.

A proud family models the MERRIE ELLEN merchandise.