In the Missouri Ozarks, building a ship for the sea

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — High above the clouds, at an altitude of 37,000 feet, airline pilot Scott Clark has a big-picture view of the world below.

But far beyond the horizon lies a vastly different view he hopes to enjoy a few years from now — a world of wind and sun, sand and waves, and the deep blue hues of the Caribbean.

In a large metal building north of Springfield, Clark, a captain with American Eagle airlines, is crafting the dream boat that will take him there.

Now five years into the build, Clark’s cedar-planked wooden schooner is revealing its graceful shape that emerged not from purchased plans but from Clark’s own keen eye for what he thought looked right in a traditional sailing vessel.

“I knew what I was looking for,” Clark says. “I wanted a hull shape that wasn’t too radical. Something seaworthy with a nice motion in the ocean. Building a boat like this takes you back to our sailing roots, of being not so much involved with technology, and of using the resources at hand, of which wind was one of them. This puts you back in touch with your old soul.”

That’s a bit ironic from a guy who speeds through the skies for a living at nearly 600 mph yet looks forward to gliding across the ocean at 6 knots.

“Actually, sailing is very similar to flying an airplane,” Clark says. “Instead of a horizontal wing on a jet, it’s a vertical wing on a sailboat, and a lot of the forces are the same. Look at the America’s Cup boats — they are now sailing faster than 50 knots, going faster than the wind. That’s how far sailing has come.”

Clark’s boat, however, is light-years away from the carbon fiber and Kevlar hydrofoil catamarans that sailed at phenomenal speeds in San Francisco recently. Instead of aiming for speed and efficiency, Clark went the other way. He describes his design as “an old fishing schooner reduced down to practical proportions.”

He designed his schooner to be a comfortable ride for his wife, Rhoda, and perhaps another sailing couple, on long excursions through the warm Caribbean Sea during their retirement years. Thirty-four feet on deck — 43 feet overall with its long bowsprit — with a relatively shallow 4 1/2-foot draft, the boat will be manageable for one person to sail and small enough to easily get into protected shallow anchorages that boats with deeper hulls can’t safely reach.

“Not only will the schooner rig look cool, but each sail is small enough to handle by one person,” he says.

With only a few more cedar hull planks left to attach, Clark steps between the exposed wooden frames and points out a sailing tradition he hopes he won’t have to cash in.

Inlaid into the thick wooden keel are more than a dozen coins from around the world, good-luck gifts from friends and family.

“According to tradition, if the vessel happens to sink, the sailors aboard would have coins to pay the ferryman to take them across the River Styx (separating the world of the living from the world of the dead),” he says. “That’s where this tradition started. Some people would put them under the mast for good luck, but the old sailing tradition was they were inlaid into the keel.”

Although he bought the 3/4-inch cedar planks that cover the hull, about half of the boat is being built with oak and cedar harvested from the land around his workshop and cut to shape with band saws and hand planes.

To make curved beams, Clark built a special box that heats the wood with steam to make it pliable before it’s clamped to a wooden form to give it just the right curved shape. All of the wood in the boat will get a coat of ultra-thin epoxy that soaks into the grain to help reduce the risk of rot and make the wood stronger.

The hull will be covered in fiberglass cloth and epoxy for the same reason.

To help the boat stay upright in strong winds, Clark dug a trench in his yard, packed it with a special kind of sand and then carefully carved the shape of a long lead keel. He poured 2,200 pounds of molten lead into the form, and after it cooled, screwed the massive weight directly into the bottom of the boat’s wooden keel.

He’ll add 1,000 pounds of additional ballast inside the hull before the boat is ready for sea trials — well, make that lake trials — at Stockton Lake.

“We’ll check all the rigging and systems to make sure they work the way we want, and make sure she doesn’t leak, then sail the boat and tune the rig to get a feel for how she moves,” Clark says. “I’ve never sailed a schooner rig before.”

From there, the boat will be trucked to a friend’s place in Florida, the launching point for the Clarks’ extended retirement voyage.

“I hope they open up Cuba someday,” he says. “I would love to sail the southern coast of Cuba, then take the southern passage to Puerto Rico and then take off for the Caribbean.”

A former marine mechanic and licensed boat captain before his career as an airline pilot, Clark says he’s not worried about making such a trip. He and his wife previously rented larger sailboats and sailed them alone from the island of Grenada. They also keep their sailing skills current by plying the waters of Fellows Lake aboard a 16-foot wooden Weekender sailboat that Clark built 11 years ago.

It was during that boat’s build that the idea of a larger, ocean-capable craft emerged.

“That’s the boat that inspired this one,” Clark says, waving a hand toward the salty-looking Weekender that shares a corner in the spacious building. “Rhoda and I enjoyed it so much. We camped on it a few times at Stockton Lake, Pomme de Terre and Table Rock.

“One of my dreams was designing a boat, building it myself and sailing it down to the real Caribbean.”

He figures he has three more years of work before Wolfhound — named for one of the Clarks’ beloved dogs — is ready to splash.

“I started with my first piece of wood in August five years ago,” Clark says, running a hand over Wolfhound’s smooth bow. “It’s not hard work, but it does take a long time. I can say every piece in here, I’ve done myself.”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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