Shenandoah, the graceful 108-foot topsail schooner that has long been a landmark in the Vineyard Haven harbor, is laid up at a Fairhaven shipyard, her majestic hull stripped bare and her ribs exposed as she undergoes extensive work to reverse a botched restoration job performed by a shipyard in Maine last year.
Robert Douglas, who is both captain and owner of the Shenandoah, has sued the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard for the apparently shoddy work that left his schooner taking on seawater last summer while she was filled with school children.
Morgan Douglas, the son of Robert Douglas and a part owner of the family business that includes Coastwise Packet Co. and Black Dog Tall Ships, said in an e-mail this week that the Maine shipyard has admitted responsibility in the matter and he is optimistic that the matter can be resolved.
But Captain Douglas said that hasn’t made things any easier.
“It is really enough to make you sit and cry. I still haven’t recovered,” he said this week.
On Tuesday, Shenandoah was high and dry in the Fairhaven Shipyard, a dark silhouette against the bright urban skyline of Fairhaven and New Bedford. Her masts towered over dozens of steel-hulled commercial fishing boats and the Steamship Authority ferry Governor, berthed a few docks away. The air was fragrant from the smell of freshly cut wood. A crew headed by Antonio (Tony) Macedo was busy installing new white oak planking in 20-foot lengths on Shenandoah’s hull. The planks were pulled from a steam box, hot and pliable.
Mr. Macedo runs a boat repair company called Antonio Marques at the shipyard. He has had a long association with wooden boats in the New Bedford area, including wooden fishing boats and the historic schooner Ernestina, the last surviving Essex-built Grand Banks fishing schooner.
Coast Guard marine inspector Carl Moberg was also on hand to inspect the work.
Using a sledge hammer, Mr. Macedo drove the eight-inch-wide planks in tight. Another inspector, Coast Guard Lieut. Cmdr. David Sandahl, snapped pictures with his camera.
On Jan. 23, Coastwise Packet Co. filed a complaint in Dukes County superior court against Boothbay Harbor Shipyard. The complaint charges that shipyard crews were grossly negligent in their restoration work on the Shenandoah from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008. The complaint charges that the work was done in an “unworkmanlike manner using poor materials and craftsmanship, all of which had rendered the vessel dangerous and unseaworthy.”
The job at the Maine shipyard was originally estimated at $900,000.
Mr. Douglas said this week the repair work being done at Fairhaven to correct problems that originated in Maine is estimated at $350,000, and could go higher. Work has not yet begun on the topside of the vessel.
Captain Douglas is an authority on wooden ships and their heritage. He designed the Shenandoah, which was built at the Harvey F. Gamage Ship Building Co. in 1964. She remains the only topsail schooner in the world with no auxiliary power. He also owns the 90-foot pilot schooner Alabama which was overhauled and rebuilt on the Vineyard and in Fairhaven beginning in 1995.
Every summer since she was built, Captain Douglas has sailed Shenandoah in and around Vineyard waters. In recent years he began taking school children out to teach them about sailing; it eventually led to a formal program where fifth grade classes in every Island public school now spend a week sailing on Shenandoah. Shenandoah Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting maritime history aboard a traditionally built wooden vessel.
Most winters, Shenandoah lies tied quietly to her mooring in Vineyard Haven Harbor. But for the last two winters, she has been absent.
In the fall of 2007, the ship went up to the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard for retopping, her first major overhaul in years. Seventy-five per cent of the planking was replaced and refastened from the waterline up. Rainwater is more harmful to a wooden boat than seawater, Mr. Douglas said.
“The boat is so well overbuilt,” he said.
From December of 2007 to May of 2008 the work went on in Maine, and it involved more than Mr. Douglas had initially expected. “We wound up in serious trouble, we had to replace nearly half of the topside framing,” he said. Mr. Douglas said he made visits to the boatyard while the work was going on. He also knew that the Coast Guard was keeping an eye on the project.
Among other things the work involved the installation of 3,000 lineal feet of new oak and refastening with some 3,000 new 8-inch galvanized nails. About 10,000 man hours of labor went into the job.
Shenandoah was relaunched on May 17, 2008, with much fanfare before a large crowd of shipyard workers and friends. It was the most significant rebuild in her 44-year history, and she even got new sails.
Less than a month later she was taking on water.
The court complaint describes the week of June 15, 2008, when it was discovered that her hull was flooding and required constant pumping while she was at anchor in Cow Bay.
With school children on board, Captain Douglas steered the vessel to Fairhaven, where she was hauled out on June 22. That was when the nightmare of discovery began. “We found a four-foot seam, where there was no cotton or oakum at all. It was just putty,” Mr. Douglas said.
Shenandoah was recaulked and put back in the water.
“We ran her for the summer, with no bad leaks,” Mr. Douglas said this week. “What could we do, we had to keep going.” He bought a pump and kept it on board, pumping out the schooner every Monday.
Shenandoah kept leaking; Captain Douglas was pumping more than 100 gallons a week from below decks. “She was leaking more in a week than she did all winter long tied up at her mooring,” he said.
Last September, the schooner was taken back to Fairhaven and hauled again. Mr. Douglas said he thought it would be a quick job.
He was wrong.
Someone pulled a couple of bungs and found no nails. “The Coast Guard came down and asked us to pull the bungs that we had approved. He didn’t like what he saw,” Mr. Douglas said. He continued:
“The aberrations began to show up — you had every kind of possible screw-up you could possibly imagine. A lot of the bung holes were so shallow you couldn’t bung them. They almost wrecked the boat. With no confidence in any nail hole, it was decided to pull all 11,000 bungs.”
Mr. Douglas said the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard wanted to get the Shenandoah back up to Maine, to correct the problems. But the Coast Guard would not allow the vessel back into the water in its present state. Mr. Douglas also learned that until repairs were complete, his insurance policy was null and void.
He said workers in Fairhaven discovered 175 bungs on the starboard side that had no nails, and almost as many on the port side. The caulking was also of poor quality or missing in places. “I don’t know why she didn’t throw a plank. It is so lucky,” Mr. Douglas said.
On the deck of the schooner, he said it was discovered that window glazing was used instead of a marine quality sealant.
“They used Liquid Nails as filling for the bung holes instead of two-part epoxy,” he said.
Mr. Douglas has spent considerable time wondering how such poor work could have been done at a respected shipyard. He has no answer.
“If you told a smart person to go screw up that boat up as much in the fastenings, in the rebuilding as you possibly could imagine, they did it. There were no more goofs that you could possibly have done,” Mr. Douglas said.
Reached by telephone this week, Doane Heselton, vice president of Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, declined comment due to the pending litigation.
Mr. Douglas, who is seeking triple damages from the Boothbay Shipyard in his court complaint, said he was reluctant to go to court but in the end felt he had no choice.
“For quite a while they said don’t talk about it [legal action]. They said what can we do to regain your trust. I said, fix the boat.”