Restoring a Mackinac Island treasure
By Glen Young 8/3/09
When the boats sailed into Mackinac Islands Haldimand Bay from Port Huron for the annual race last week, the one most folks wanted to see was a 32-foot mahogany-hulled treasure that hasnt raced to Mackinac since 1925.
The tale of the Bernida has seen many twists, the most recent being the restoration of the long abandoned boat. The story began in 1921 in a Boston area shipyard where she was built, christened Ruweida III. The 32-foot sloop is getting all kinds of attention now because of the effort to return her to racing shape. Boatwright Emory Barnwell has been working on the project since late last fall, when the boat was ferried to Mackinac Island from St Ignace, where it sat in dry dock for several years.
Designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology naval architect George Owen, the boat has a convoluted but intriguing history. She won the first ever Bayview Yacht Club Port Huron to Mackinac Island race in 1925, witnessed several name changes, and in 2004 Toby Murray of Vermont and Mackinac Island rediscovered her in a Pentwater area flea market.
THE FIRST RACE
Built at the George Lawley & Sons boatyard where she was christened Ruweida III, an original R class vessel, Bernida has an overall length of 32.2 feet, with a beam of eight feet and a draft of six feet. Owned originally by Russ Pouilott of the Belle Isle Boat and Engine Company, she started her first Mackinac race on July 25, 1925. The race featured just 12 boats. Weather conditions turned sour, and Bernida, out ahead of the storm, sailed into Mackinac Island on July 27 with a corrected time of 48 hours. Only three other boats finished the inaugural race. This year more than 250 boats will start this years race.
Murray, a fourth generation Mackinac Island resident who started sailing only four years ago, remembers the excitement of his discovery.
I was reading one of those freebies, he says. I saw this ad and called the guy. The boat, out of the water for several years was dilapidated, but there was no dry rot, something Murray realized was important.
Along with island business consultant Bart Huthwaite, Murray traveled to Pentwater to examine his find. The guy wanted $10,000 for it, which was a lot of money, Murray says. Huthwaite, however, said the owner wouldnt negotiate. He realized he had someone who wanted to buy it, Huthwaite says. Huthwaite wrote a check and the story continued.
A crew from Irish Boat Shop in Harbor Springs examined her, estimating restoration costs at more than $100,000. Concerned but undeterred, Huthwaite and Murray established the Mackinac Island Boating Heritage Foundation, hoping to secure funds for restoration, as well as to stimulate interest in sailing among Island youth.
Fundraising was tough, and last year Huthwaite, hoping to restart the effort, gave Bernida to Barnwell with the understanding that if he could restore her, she was his. Huthwaite says, People dont contribute to the restoration of wooden boats until they see the completion of it.
Last September, Barnwell began his project on the Arnold Transit Companys Coal Dock. Arnold Transit is sponsoring the project by providing workspace and utilities.
Armed with copies of the original MIT drawings, Barnwell is meticulously recreating the boat as closely as possible to its former glory.
Barnwell, a graduate of the International Boatbuilding Training College in Suffolk, England, started the project part time last fall, but has taken it on full time this summer. Huthwaite says Barnwell is perfect for the job. Emory stepped in at the right time and the guy has a passion for it.
To refit the hull, Barnwell is using a stash of old mahogany he uncovered on Mackinac Island. Its been sitting high and dry in a shed for 50 years, he says of the salvaged rare wood. Barnwell estimates he will use 200 board feet of the mahogany, in addition to white oak and cedar. Ninety percent of the planking is original, he says, explaining how the boat was in rough shape, but not a lost cause. Barnwell is constructing the decking from plywood, providing a more affordable alternative to the original tongue in groove fir, as well as additional torsional stability.
A lot of work we had to do this last winter was reframing, Barnwell says. The boats interior is taking shape, but remains exposed, providing a skeletal view of the oak replacement ribs that had to be steam bent to specification.
Barnwell hopes to have canvas on the decks and paint on the hull by this fall. He says he can use the long winter months to do smaller outfitting, like replacing doors and railings.
Members of the Bayview Yacht Club are also excited about the prospect of the boats return to racing form. Bernida is a huge part of Bayviews Mackinac sailing heritage and wed love to see her back on the starting line, says Ted Everingham, the yacht clubs commodore in 2004 when Murray and Huthwaite discovered the former champion.
Rob Amsler, current commodore, says, Bernida has never been forgotten by the Bayview Yacht Club. A half model of the boat hangs over the mantel in the clubs Mackinac Room at its Detroit River headquarters.
The storys latest twist also includes a fleet of volunteers. With 15-20 locals pitching in last winter Barnwell says, I certainly could not have done this thorough a job in this short a period without volunteers. He also says he greets many curious onlookers most days. Ive definitely had a lot of people who are interested in wooden boats stopping by all the time.
Huthwaite says the project wont be finished when the boat is restored, however. There has to be some way of sustaining the maintenance of the boat, he says. The whole intent of this is that this is an icon. He says his next step is to find a sail maker willing to contribute to the effort.
Barnwell is hopeful the project he can complete over the next year. Huthwaite is anxious to race Bernida again, believing she can beat her original time. As for racing, Barnwell acknowledges, Well have to do several sea trials first.
For more on Bernida, visit the Mackinac Island Boating Heritage Foundations website at