A Day in the Life of a Boat Restorer

Nick Zachos (photo Nick Hand)

The Hudson River is lined with artisans. When English bicyclist Nick Hand rode through the Hudson Valley in 2012, he documented the stories of the artisans he met on Twitter and on his blog. Princeton Architectural Press published those stories and photographs in Hand’s book Conversations on the Hudson. One such story is that of boat restorer Nick Zachos, which we’ve reproduced for you here:

Well, my name is Nick Zachos, and we’re in Hudson, New York, kind of halfway up the Hudson Valley, in between New York City and Albany.

We’re here with the Eleanor, a historic yacht — a sloop — which sailed for many years on the Hudson River and is now in a warehouse in Hudson. It’s ready to be restored as a not-for-profit venture. We’re trying to turn it into a community project to learn about boatbuilding and boat design. Hopefully, we’ll fix it up and teach people about sailing on the river and being on the river, which is something that’s kind of disconnected from a lot of the towns on the Hudson River in recent years. Even though they’re all right here, a lot of people don’t have access to it and don’t get on the water very much.

There’s a little debate about when this sloop was designed. We think it was designed around the turn of the last century, early 1900s, by Clinton Crane, who was a pretty famous naval architect. The year 1905 was passed around, but some evidence may’ve come to light putting it closer to 1903. It would’ve been a racing boat. It’s an incredibly sleek, long, narrow design, very hydrodynamic and fast. It’s designed to turn very quickly, and to not draw a huge amount of water, because the Hudson River has some deep channels but, for the most part, there are a lot of shallow spots and you need to be able to tack in pretty shallow water. So it was designed for that, and it was owned by fairly wealthy families for the bulk of the century, who would’ve gone out pleasure cruising, or maybe even racing, on the Hudson River. I believe the family who owned it for the last fifty or sixty years used it as a family boat, and they would sail it up and down the river and go down to New York City.

At a certain point, when upkeep became a little too much, they decided that it should go to an organization that could take care of it, a yacht restoration school in New England. The school ended up not being able to take care of it and consequently defaulted. It came back to the family, who then thought of this idea — with a boatbuilder named Casson Kennedy — to try and restore it for the town and make it into a project that could happen here and involve the community in getting it back running again.

It would’ve had a single mast; it would’ve been a sloop, gaff rigged, which means that off the initial mast is another piece of wood that allows the sail area to extend more than it otherwise would, off of a typical single mast. It would also have had a jib on the front that would’ve increased its sail area. When it really wanted to have all sails out, it could have a decent amount of sail area. It’s got a long narrow deck on top — that would’ve probably been a canvas deck — a very small cabin at the back, a little area that you could sit in while cruising. It definitely wasn’t a pleasure cruiser. I mean, I think you could’ve gone and had fun on it and relaxed, but it wasn’t a catboat or a wider boat, where lots of people could come and sit and drink martinis. I think it was designed to go fast in the water.

Right now we’ve got it partially sanded and scraped off. When we did that, we exposed three different kinds of wood used for the planks of the boat. It’s double hulled, so there are the planks that we can see and, inside, there’s another set of planks. The process that we’re going through right now is very slow, but it’s the correct and traditional way to fix a boat like this, which has probably been in the water for most of its summers, springs, and some falls, and then would get hauled out every year. When it would get hauled out, all the wood would dry out and shrink and cause all kinds of deformations in the boat. As the boat got pulled out and supported in different ways—and probably not all properly—the boat would’ve sagged at different points. Especially the long boat that we have here, the long narrow bow and stern have sagged over the years. You can see it if you step back. You can see that the bow and the stern actually sink down a good bit from the midship of the boat. In most boats along the sheer line—which is the line at the very top of the boat where the decking meets the planking—you normally see straight at but often you see a smile in the sheer.

In this boat, you can see a frown. You can see that it’s actually unhappy and it’s sagging.
photo Nick Hand

What we’re trying to do is to get an idea for the shape of the boat, in the traditional way of taking the lines off of the boat. We actually draw out exactly what all the lines of the boat are, like a blueprint for a house, except when you’re doing that for a boat, you actually create what’s called a table of offsets. You collect numbers of calculations of different parts of the boat in relation to one centerline down the middle, which then allows you to chart the entire boat. There are a couple of fun tricks that you can use to get close to what the original boatbuilder designed.

To take a boat that has been moving for a hundred years and changing shape, and try to get it back to that original form—if we can do it, that would be pretty amazing.

Conversations on the Hudson: An Englishman Bicycles Five Hundred Miles Through the Hudson Valley, Meeting Artists and Craftspeople Along the Way by Nick Hand is available from:

Barnes & Noble
Your local bookshop

Nick Zachos is a carpenter and boat builder/restorer in Hudson, New York. He trained at The Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid, Maine. He teaches boat-building classes for the Hudson Sloop Club.

Nick Hand was born and raised in Bristol. He trained as a typographer and now works as a designer and photographer. In 2010 Nick completed 6,324 miles around the coast of the British Isles interviewing artisans and people he met on the road and publishing short photofilms to his Slowcoast website. He continues to cycle and to bring the skills and craft of different artisans to life in his photography and photofilms. Nick regularly contributes to Boneshaker magazine.

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