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Bluebear’s Improbable Boat

When I think back on how we acquired our first cruising sailboat, I realize I must have been out of my mind. I had fallen in love with a classic 24-foot wood yawl I had seen in Wooden Boat Magazine. It was designed by Fenwick Williams in the 1930s. We purchased the plans and sent out requests for bids to six builders, all of whom advertised in WoodenBoat. The most interesting response came from a builder in the Pacific Northwest, a man I will call Henry Bluebear. His letter was hand-printed and mirrored my enthusiasm for the design.

Soon, my work took me to the west coast. It seemed like a good idea, while there, to check out Henry Bluebear and his shop. So, my wife Betty and I took a detour to the north, then followed Bluebear’s detailed directions to his place. He wrote that he lived on an island in a coastal river that could only be reached by boat. We rented a skiff and motored through a wilderness of islands and sloughs, until we came to a narrow channel he had marked through the shallows.

Then we saw Henry Bluebear. He waded into the slough and helped us tie the skiff to an overhanging branch. I remember he was large and lean as he helped us ashore. I imagined he was in his mid 50s. He wore an eagle feather on his hat, and his thick glasses magnified his eyes and made him always seem surprised. He was bearded and his long hair was pulled into a ponytail. He seemed friendly, very shy, uncomfortable with the company, and there was a child-like quality to his conversation.

Bluebear’s place was composed of two structures. The first was his home, a one-room dwelling about 12-foot square, canvas stretched over a frame of saplings.

A few feet from this dwelling was his shop. It, too, was canvas over a wood frame, about 30-foot long and nearly as wide. People have asked why we didn’t end this adventure with this first bizarre encounter with Bluebear. How could we even consider trusting such a wild and strange character with our dream, much less our money. The answer was in the shop. When we stepped through the door we could see the Whitehall Skiff he was finishing. The craftsmanship was magnificent. All around the Whitehall was a wonderful array of beautifully maintained hand tools.

For a few hours, we talked about the various boats he had built and sailed, and the mood was good and sincere and electric with promise.

The first year of our odyssey was a delight. Each month we eagerly awaited a letter from Bluebear. And these were no ordinary letters, but long and detailed reviews of progress, with pictures, and his philosophy about how a proper boat should be built. He asked that the steam-bent white oak of the frames be changed to sawed natural crooks of Pacific Yew. He claimed the indigenous people of the area used Yew for their bows because it was strong and pliant and alive and was rot-resistant. He wrote that the wood fairies had told him where in the forest the best Yew could be found. At first, such comments seemed merely the colorful musings of an eccentric who had lived alone too long.

Then, after a year, the letters stopped coming. Two months went by. I called the moorage where we had rented the skiff. The owner said that, one night, Bluebear had taken the Whitehall Skiff down river to town and had attacked the Elks Lodge with a bow and arrow. He had held the Elks hostage and each time they came to the door they were met with Bluebear’s arrows. He had been wrestled to the ground by the local police and was taken to jail. He was so violent and incoherent that he was taken away to the state mental hospital.

Now, my boat was little more than half finished, in a shop in the forest some 2,000 miles away, and Henry Bluebear was locked away in the loony bin. I had two options. I could abandon the boat. Or I could try to bring it home. At first, I hired a lawyer. I had more than met my contractual obligations. But the law would not take away a boat from a man so obviously incapacitated. I thought about just taking the vessel. Although the hull was complete, I would need help getting it out of the shop and down the river. No one locally would get involved, partially because they were afraid of what Bluebear would do, partially because, even though he was a nut case, they respected his work, and I was an outsider.

I was left with one option. I would trek back to the Pacific Northwest and spring Bluebear from the loony bin. Working through the mental health authorities and the County Correction officer, Bluebear was released in my custody, with the proviso that he would continue working on my boat and report his progress to authorities each month.

Bluebear seemed pleased to see me when I picked him up at the jail. We picked up several months of mail at the post office, loaded the rental van with groceries, and headed back to the moorage. On the way, we picked up his tools at a lumber yard where local fishermen and boat builders who knew Bluebear had taken his fine old tools, oiled them, and put them safely away. He seemed calm and contrite and eager to get back to work. I delivered him to his shop. It was growing dark up there on his island, the shadows pressed down like a shroud. When he left the skiff, he said, “You’ve been very nice about this.” Then he moved up the bank to wrestle with his demons and I said a prayer for ALLEGORY and started the long way home.

For the next few years, Bluebear was in and out of institutions. I was a film writer in those days and often on the west coast and I would make detours up to his slough. There was progress, breathtakingly beautiful, but slow. When we would talk about the boat, he spoke with clarity and logic. But if his thoughts strayed, he would be off again raging about Ronald Reagan and the Scottish boat builders, the cats on the Isle of Man and the vandals and witchdoctors who had been visiting his shop at night. Most of the time he was respectful, but once when I visited him unannounced and uninvited, he rushed at me and accused me of being a spy for the Vatican. He shouted, but kept his distance, like a baseball player shouting and kicking dirt at the umpire, but knowing if he touched him, he would be out of the game. I was terribly afraid, out there in the wilderness with this maniac. But I could only stand there waiting for his fury to pass, hoping against hope that our strange friendship would keep me safe. And as he raged, I was torn by the unreality of the moment and the absolute beauty of what this troubled mind was creating. How could a man cursing the Witch doctor and the vandals and the cats on the Isle of Man create such balance and symmetry.

There came a time when I told Bluebear I was taking the boat home, finished or not. He could help, or not, but I was taking the boat down river at the next high tide. In response, he said, “Queen Victoria made good houses. So did Elizabeth I. I call her Toots.” But he offered no resistance. In the end, I think he was relieved. He no longer had to deal with the intruders, the witches and saboteurs that came in the night.

I went to a bar in town and asked who wanted a good day’s work. Times were hard, and five men stepped forward. They met me the following morning at the moorage. It was quite a task getting the boat out of the shop, build a ramp down to the slough, then lower the boat down the ramp.

I stayed aboard ALLEGORY that last night waiting for the morning high tide. Melancholy shadows filled the cabin where I tended a small fire in the boat’s iron stove. I touched the carved mahogany lockers and could feel the hours his hands must have worked the wood, his mind filled with dialogues, dreams and agonies I could only imagine. Long into the night, I could hear Bluebear talking to himself about the need for truth in human affairs and his hatred of Hitler and Scotsmen. As

I listened, I felt fear and I felt sorrow. But when I thought about what this troubled soul had achieved, and what we had been through together, I also felt something that was very near to love.

At long last, ALLEGORY arrived at our home in St. Augustine where she was completed and would soon sail out the inlet and south to the Bahamas for the first of many times. I wrote Bluebear a letter with a picture, containing two words: “She sails!”

To make a long story even longer, the Annapolis Classic Watercraft newsletter said this of ALLEGORY: “We’ve never seen another boat of any size, from any builder, built with such artistry, attention to detail, and boatwright’s skill, as this little jewel. This boat is a tour-de-force, unlike anything you have ever seen.” Cruising World Magazine selected ALLEGORY to grace its September 1994 cover.

I never saw or heard from Henry Bluebear again.

Marshall Riggan has been writing and telling stories for over a half-century, several of which were turned into movies and television documentaries. He has enjoyed going on sailing adventures for over four decades. His books, Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler, can be found at  https://www.marshallrigganstoryteller.com.

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