Historic sloop to set sail
A perpetual to-do list is scribbled on a whiteboard at the Carmans River Maritime Center. Recent written tasks included: Finish interior paint, fasten pin rail, paint topsides and varnish. Over the past 12 years, projects have been crossed out, erased and replaced with the next job in order to restore the Elvira, the historic 36-foot P-class sloop built in 1906. This time, they’re being erased for good.
Below the list, a motivator: 20 DAYS TO LAUNCH, written fervently in all caps. That was on Father’s Day. Now, there are hours to go until the Elvira graces the Great South Bay once again.
She will be launched at Weeks Yacht Yard in Patchogue on Saturday, July 7. Her cheerleaders are throwing a party from 1 to 4 p.m. to coincide with Weeks’ 120th anniversary celebration just across the river from where local shipwright Gil Smith launched the sloop 112 years ago.
Late last month, while checking in on their progress, Steve Gould paused to answer a phone call. “I’m at the boatyard, like I am every day,” he said tersely. Countless weekends have been given up to restore the old sloop — over 1,390 hours from July 2015 through the end of May of this year alone.
When former owner Bob Starke donated the vessel to the Post Morrow Foundation in 1999, he hoped to see it return to Great South Bay waters one day. Professional shipwrights Ricardo Vicente and Josh Herman laid out the restoration plans in 2005, one year shy of Elvira’s 100th birthday. To celebrate, the Elvira 100 Club emerged: 100 people pitched in $100 each in honor — crowdfunding before it went viral.
Since then, the group has received funding from both individual donations and grants from the Post Morrow Foundation, Caithness, New York State, the Gardiner, Knapp-Swezey and Agler-Rice foundations, totaling over $150,000. According to Charlie Flagg, the group’s treasurer, the total cost of restoration at launch time is expected to be $183,000.
“Originally, we had hoped to get Elvira in the water for her 100th anniversary,” explained Hank Maust. “But that was 12 years ago. We kept discovering problems [like badly rotted boards].”
With a deadline looming, the team was feeling the pressure to metamorphose the sloop. Tales of her glory fill the workspace in the maritime center, located at the end of Newey Lane in Brookhaven.
Built by renowned Patchogue boatbuilder Gil Smith in June 1906 (originally for Harry A. Walton of Bellport), the Elvira is the oldest-surviving original P-class sloop — one of the largest racing classes to have sailed the Great South Bay. She won the inaugural Bellport Bay Yacht Club race in August 1906. “Maybe she’ll become queen of the bay once again,” said Tom Williams, vice president of the Post Morrow Foundation and longtime Elvira volunteer.
It’s the best hope he has for the sloop, which in 2011 was approved as a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a rare feat for a boat. According to Maust, the group has been trying to track down relatives of either Gil Smith or the Walton family — Elvira’s original owners — to be passengers during the launch.
Her return is much-anticipated. “It’s very satisfying after over a decade,” he said. “Back then, we agreed to restore it without knowing quite what that entailed.”
Why go on?
“It’s about maintaining the wooden boat tradition in Brookhaven,” Williams said. Elvira’s most recent home at the Carmans River Maritime Center has a nautical history of its own. The “Newey boatyard,” located on Newey Lane, was named for shipwright Sam Newey, who, over the winters of 1923-1926, built over 40 sailboats in his shop. “Elvira was an iconic boat in the Great South Bay. Everyone knew her and she sailed in many races,” Williams said. “It’s a way to honor Gil Smith.”
What happens to Elvira after July 7?
The men all smirk. “We’ll all go sailing,” Maust says, grinning.
Gould hopes to see Elvira sail as a living museum that can provide education opportunities in the areas of environmental education, historic preservation and the nautical history of the Great South Bay. While sanding a piece of the centerboard, Gould reflected on why he’s been so committed to this old sloop.
“She’s designed for this bay, for shallow water, for our great winds. It’s got real significance for Patchogue and Bellport families,” adding that he has sailed the bay on Elvira in her heyday.
He isn’t the only maritime center volunteer who has. Most of them know how joyous it is to sail on Elvira, ironically, everyone except Maust. “It’s another reason why we have to get it in the water,” Gould said.
Like what you have read? Click here to subscribe to the Long Island Advance so you can read more stories like this, and find out everything that’s going on in your town!