On regret and finding "Elizabeth
I am sitting in the Lisbon airport getting ready to fly to the Azores, then back home. Margaret and I have flown over to send off an old friend, also my brother-in-law, by the name of Bob Campion. This is not an obituary, but rather stories about a good friend and interesting times. I first met Bob in the summer of 1968. It was race week at the Indianapolis 500. This was back in the day when legends such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt were in their prime. Pre-race parties were a big thing back then as well as it is today.
Our family friend, Tom Jewett, was the host. There were kids, as well as pretty ladies, and lots of people talking and running around when an Englishman, driving an Aston Martin, came driving up. All I could think was that he was James Bond. Bob quickly became the life of the party and we kids, I was 13 then, followed him around. He had driven down from Chicago with his business partner. They were buying classic cars – Rolls Royce, Bentley, and Aston Martins in the U.K. Bob would get the work done then they would be shipped to the States. This one was sold to a man in Indy. We followed him around.
Life was pretty simple in 1968. We would ask Bob to speak and then listen to his English accent and that was the most exciting and exotic thing most of us had ever been around. The older girls would try to chase us kids away so they get try to get Bob to themselves. One of those girls was my oldest sister, Sheryl. She was 22 then and a great beauty. Soon, she had all of Bob’s attention. They ended up having a whirlwind weekend. After Bob returned home, all she could talk about was Bob and England.
Sheryl had a plan. She worked at Jewett Clothing Store in town and saved her money – one day she sold her car, bought a plane ticket and flew far away. In the summer of 1971 I flew over to Luxemburg where I then took a train to Calais, France, then across the English Channel to visit my sister – I was 16. Bob and I hit it off. They lived in a little flat in a small village called Foben in Essex.
Bob had served in her majesty’s Royal Navy, and worked for IBM in England. This was when a computer was the size of a five- or six-story building. I went to work with him one day out of curiosity. When they had a problem, he would trace it and he would have to fix something three or four floors away. It was amazing – Bob was a regular MacGyver and he could fix anything. Bob and Sheryl had two children: Bret and Kirsten Lee, Kirstie for short. Even after their love waned, their love for children never wavered. Bob grew tired of the corporate world and working in London. He quit and bought a catamaran. The boat was English built, 38 feet. He invited Kirstie, then 16 years old, to Portugal for the summer.
One day Bob and Kirstie went to the store and bought groceries for three weeks, which was about all the money they had. The next day, they set sail for the Virgin Islands. It was rough at first but after a week the seas calmed down – at some points it was dead calm. With food for about 21 days they finally spotted land on the 28th. Kirsten swore she would never set foot on a sailboat again after that trip with her father. She later worked as a professional yacht steward but on megayachts and only those with power.
What Kirsten didn’t know at the time was that her father was working under the table for a harbor master in a town in Portugal. One day, the harbor master and Bob got into it. The harbor master refused to pay him, and chained Bob’s boat to the dock. Bob snapped off the chains to his boat when Kirstie wasn’t around. Kirstie thought they were going on a day sail.
He got a job in St. Thomas at C.S.Y. fixing boats. The owner of C.S.Y. spotted Bob working on his own boat and asked himself, “What the hell is that Englishman doing with that motor?” Bob had torn the motor completely apart and had laid the pieces on the T-head of the dock. A few days later Bob had it put back together, back in the boat, and running perfectly. They became instant best friends. He crossed the Atlantic many times, both on his own boat as well for deliveries.
When Bob was last in Florida I took him out on “Aurora II,” the Trumpy I owned. As soon as he boarded the boat, he headed to the engine room. When he returned to the pilothouse he remarked “Those motors sound good!” I tried hard to talk him into staying a while, but he just smiled when I did and dismissed the idea.
Bob had lived in Portugal, off and on, for some 20 years. He would often tell me that I needed to visit him there. He would tell me stories about the island of Culatra, his lagoon, the fresh wine right out of the barrel, roasting fresh sardines over a fire, all the other delicious seafood, and all of his friends. The sad part of this was that my first trip to Portugal to see Bob’s paradise was to say a final good bye.
I was able to meet many of his friends who talked about him as if he was about to walk right through the door. After the service we went to Estrella, a small local bar and restaurant. Eduardo, the 4th generation owner of the bar, raised a beer to Bob and then placed it on the table. “That’s for him”, he said.
Then an Irishman, a single-handed sailor named Gary walked up and asked me if my name was Jim. When I told him it was he placed his hand in his pocket and slowly pulled out two post cards that were well worn and told me, “Bob had given these to me.” They were from when we opened our boatyard in North Carolina 10 years ago. He nodded and said, “He was very proud of you.” I choked up a little because I was just a gangly kid when I met Bob and always thought he was the coolest guy ever with his Aston Martin, IBM London life and then as a sailing adventurer. He was a great man, beloved by many and he will be missed by anyone who had a chance to meet him. And the take away from this story is don’t wait to do those things you always planned.
Finally getting on the plane to the Azores to return home, I started thinking about a happier adventure. I turned back to a conversation I had at Ocean Reef with Ron Cleveringa and Jim Ruffolo of Burger Boats of Manitowoc, WI. I was telling them the story of how I met “Nymph,” a 1913 Matthews in Beaufort, NC and Ron said a large Matthews was in Algoma. He then pulled out his cell phone and started showing us photos. Margaret jumped in and said, “My best friend from high school lives and works in Algoma!” We all agreed that around the holidays we will call Ron and go on an adventure.
It turns out Margaret’s father, Vince Zehren, as well as Ron and his wife Lisa, both live in Allouez, which is just outside of Green Bay. Margaret’s family has been having get-togethers, dubbed the Zehren Christmas Party, for 100 years. It happens on December 27th. It is the party of parties with the best food, drinks, chocolates, and aged Wisconsin cheeses. Around 50 to 75 or more family members show up, coming from all over. I wish my family had done something like these parties.
The day after the party in the early morning my youngest son, James, and I started out on making a small movie. Don’t ever trust your son when he says “Yeah, that take was good.” I look like a scared man. If you giggle while watching it I don’t blamed you.
Here’s the link:
Ron and Linda showed up in the cold morning air and we headed off. James and his little camera starts filming on our way out to Algoma. We passed a barn and I saw the bow of a varnished boat. As we were passing it, I yelled “Guys! Guys! There is a barn find!” Unfortunately it fell on deaf ears because everyone was excited and talking about the mission to find the lost Matthews. We pulled into the sleepy town and turned down the road towards the small boatyard. There she sat in the snow – the “Elizabeth.” We paced her off and both Ron and I came up with 65 to 70 feet.
Recently there had been an article in Rudder Magazine of Fall of 2016, Volume 26, Number 2 about the history of Matthews and the largest was 110’ subchasers built for WWI in 1917. Ron had been told this story:
“Many years back, the “Elizabeth” came to the yard where she is now. The owner asked the dockmaster to fill the gas tanks. Just about the time the tanks were almost full the police came down and arrested him for murder. The yard was never paid for the gas, and she was hauled out.”
There she sits to this day, and what happened to the owner is unclear. We found a ladder and crawled up “Elizabeth.” Ron later sent me the information to me that he found. She was 65’ built for Charles Somers as “Dorothy” in 1924. The amazing thing was it was all very original, even the Chrysler flat head straight 8’s. This yacht had so much to work with if she had been undercover. The exquisite woodwork it had! It even had the original upholstery. Unfortunately time and the elements had slowly taken it away. She was doubled every four ribs and riveted together. Her hull lines are perfect, even with the icicles handing from the bottom. The coolest thing on board was in the engine room – it was a tool board they had carved out for each tool. I have never seen anything like that.
As we walked away we all had the same feeling of what a shame that another national treasure was perhaps lost. We stopped at a fish place for lunch, but it was a smoked fish store. They had smoked walleye, trout, and pike. I love smoked fish, but I was quickly overruled. Nobody wanted to sit in the car with the fish all the way back to Green Bay. There will be a next time!
Beaufort, NC is my new home. Actually I have been here now for over a year! We are getting involved with the North Carolina Maritime Museum’s Wooden Boat Show in Beaufort from May 4 to May 7. This year will be the 43rd for this show, the longest running wooden boat shop in the Southeast. The show’s organizers are working to make it one of the best boat shows in the Southeast. There will be a place to store your boat with security, at no charge, after the show so you can really enjoy the event and the after-party. The show’s organizers would like your input. Please email your input to Brent Creelman at Brent@maritimefriends.org.
Also coming in May is the Antique and Classic Boat Show in New Bern, sponsored by The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle Chapter of the Antique & Classic Boat Society. The show is on May 20 to 21. This is an important and a really fun show for classic and antique boats. If you love wooden boats, you need to be at the Beaufort and New Bern wooden boat shows. One of the great things about these shows is while boating aficionados are swapping stories and sharing tips, there are plenty of activities for other family members not quite as enthused about the finer points of epoxies and hardware. We will post updates on events in upcoming newsletters.
Finally, I want to urge you to get a subscription to Bone Yard Boats. This small magazine, since 1996, has dedicated its pages exclusively to saving boats, an issue dear to me. I look forward to every issue I get and I always pass them on to others to read. David Irving, the publisher, has done a great job and wears many hats with this publication. It is important for us to support his efforts, and that’s why I’m asking you to subscribe.
I don’t want to see this little publication disappear one day. And before you ask, no, I don’t get a commission for his subscriptions, my payment comes in the satisfaction of helping a friend and seeing the idea of Bone Yard Boats working. I read it cover to cover. The price for the subscription is $19.95 for a year, $34.95 for two, or $49.95 for three. David prefers to be reached by Email – firstname.lastname@example.org - or you can call him at 617-257-2603.
Until next time,