Christopher’s Jeep bounced over the rough, rutted road on the way to Larry Swenson’s shop at the back end of the Island. It was one of those pre-fab, all steel Butler industrial buildings, flat sides and a peaked roof. There was a small office in the front and a large shop behind that.
The door was half open … as though it was expecting him. He walked in, saw Swenson and said, “Hi. I’m Christopher Shaw.” He extended his hand towards the older man sitting in the wooden swivel desk chair. Christopher was 42, brawny and had tousled blond hair and a tanned complexion.
“Larry Swenson,” the other man said rising from his chair and meeting Christopher’s’ hand. Swenson was 67, slim, sinewy and muscular. His gray hair was cut in a military style, no-nonsense buzz cut and his skin was brown and wrinkled from working outdoors all his life. He greeted Christopher cordially, but without a smile.
“I know,” Christopher said. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time. I’ve heard so much about you.
“Umm…” Swenson muttered. Swenson turned towards the door at the rear of his office, leading out to the shop.
“C’mon. I want to show you something.”
They walked through the small, messy office and through the door into a large, clean workshop. Swenson pointed to the boat up on the scaffolding.
“Wow,” Christopher said, hands on hips, looking at what for him was a work of art; a beautiful lap-streak boat. He walked around the craft, smiling and nodding his head. Swenson stood still, arms crossed, watching Christopher.
Lap-streaking is a technique, rarely used today, of building the hull by fitting one long plank of wood atop another, with the top piece overlapping the bottom by an inch or two to create a shingle effect.
Nowadays most hulls are made from fiberglass, molded into shape and then the boat gets built from there on up. Lap-streaking is an arduous, labor intensive technique that produces a beautiful hull, but one that few people want to pay for anymore. Christopher recognized that he was looking at a labor of love.
“How long did it take you to get this far?” The boat, obviously a sailing craft, was finished from the keel up to the deck.
“Well,” Swenson said, “off-and-on about three or four years.”
Christopher nodded as he kept circling the boat. He touched it from time-to-time, caressing the teak and mahogany that had been so carefully hand crafted by an old world artisan. Swenson was the last of a line of Norwegian boat builders that had relocated here in St. Simons about a hundred years ago. Swenson refused to change with the times and build fiberglass hulls so his boat building business took a dive. But his skills at restoring wooden decks, hulls and other parts of boats that had been damaged, were extraordinary. He regularly did reconstruction and restoration work for collectors and insurance companies. He is called in on these projects from all over the country. He typically works three or four days a week, at $200.00 an hour (plus expenses), and has obviously been spending the rest of his time on this project. All two hundred years of Swenson family boat building skill, knowledge, intuition, craftsmanship and attention channeled through Larry Swenson into the construction of this sleek, graceful boat. Every dimension, every ratio, every aspect seemed to be perfect, as if no one else had ever built a boat before. This boat would cut through the water like no other boat before it.
“How did you start?”
“Found a piece of teak that looked like it would make a good keel, laid it and worked my way up from there.”
“How long is it?”
“Dunno, exactly, it’s just what the piece of teak was. Maybe seven or eight meters.”
Christopher took out his tape and measured it; 24 feet, or seven and a half meters. Christopher brushed off his hands and went over to Swenson.
The sunlight was shining in through the windows, filtering through the dust in the air and casting shadows from the boat across the room. Christopher knew that this was not a shop but a temple of the art of boat building and Swenson was the high priest. Swenson stood there, feet apart in a sailor’s stance for balance, arms crossed in front of him and nodded, knowing what Christopher was thinking. Yes, this was the work of man, but inspired by Neptune and Poseidon.
“Well, what is it, exactly? What do you plan to do with it?”
“It’s just my boat.”
“I see. Well, other than bragging rights, what did you ask me here about?”
“Look at it,” he said, pointing to the boat. “No mast yet. I haven’t stepped the mast. You’re a sail maker.”
“Right. That I am.”
“I know. I’ve heard a lot about you. I need sails for this boat. But I think I want the entire rigging to be designed and built as one … one …”
“I got it!” Christopher said, excited at the thought of designing and building an entire sailing system, from the mast on up. “That’s a great idea.”
Usually Shaw Sails made sails for new boats, or replacement sails or did repairs, maintenance and storage of sails. Never had he been asked to actually design the sail in conjunction with the rigging, masts, boom, etc.
“Where are the plans?”
Swenson pointed to his head; Christopher nodded.
“Lead?” Christopher asked, pointing to the fin keel.
“Where did you find one like that to fit your design?”
"Had it cast for me. Over in Jesup,” Swenson said, nodding his head in the general direction of Jesup, northwest of St. Simons Island.
Christopher got out his measuring tools and started to go around the boat again, measuring every possible dimension he could think of. “Larry, this is a great project. I’m fascinated by it.” Even the finish of the boat was remarkable. Swenson was a master at varnishes and stains and produced a finish that looked both new and old at the same time.
“How much?” Swenson asked.
“You know, how much will this cost me?”
“Well,” Christopher drawled out, thinking on his feet, “I need a few of days to come up with an estimate, but I’ll tell you this: I will take the job on two conditions—”
“Nope!” Swenson interrupted him before he could finish, waving his hands from side-to-side. All Christopher wanted to ask was to be at the launching and to sail the boat single handedly after it was launched. “No conditions. A business deal. Tell me how much and I’ll tell you yes or no … no other conditions.
Christopher shrugged his shoulders. “OK. Give me about a week to get back to you with a proposal.” Turning to his clip board, he asked, “Do you have an email address?”
“A fax number?”
“Nope. Just a phone and Tony the mailman. That’s all I need.”
“OK. I’ll … I’ll call you when I’m ready.”
“OK,” Swenson said.
Christopher gathered his things and was ready to leave when Swenson said, “You related to a gal named Chrissy Shaw?”
“Yes. She’s my mother. Why?”
“No,” Swenson said, shaking his head. “I knew somebody named Chrissy Shaw. Cute little thing, but she wouldn’t be old enough to have a boy your age.”
“Oh? When did you know her?” Christopher asked, his interest piqued by Swenson’s description of her as a “cute little thing”.
“Oh, I dunno,” he said, looking up in the air with a smile on his face.” Now that I think about it, I guess it was longer ago than I realized.”
“How long ago?” Christopher insisted.
“Humm,” he said, looking again at Christopher, “Well, I’ll be damned! Yep! I guess it was maybe about 40 years ago.”
“Could be my mother. She is little.”
“Really?” Swenson said, now perky at the thought of his old girlfriend. “How is she? She still live around here?”
“Yeah, she lives on a boat, in the harbor.”
“Well, I’ll be! And I haven’t seen her! How about that! Say, I’d like to see her again…after all these years. Ask her to call me, will you?”
“She lives with her boyfriend on the boat,” Christopher said.
“Oh. I see. What’s his name?”
“Hmmm. Never heard of him.”
“He’s new around here,” Christopher said.
“Oh. And what about your father?” Swenson asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your father’s name?”
“My father was an Australian sailor named Seamus O’Dougal.”
“And is he around here too?”
“No. I never knew my father…listen Larry, I think that’s enough about my personal history. OK? We just met and I feel like you’re interrogating me.”
“Oh. Sorry. But why isn’t your name O’Dougal then?”
“I told you that’s enough,” Christopher said.
Swenson was staring at him with a smile on his face as Christopher picked up his papers and prepared to leave.
“Why are you looking at me that way?”
“Because what?” Christopher asked.
“Well, because I think you might be my son!”