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 WoodenBoat 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
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
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 the boat we would call Allegory and
then 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 the boat 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
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 stories for over half a century, many of which
have been turned into movies and television productions. His books Sulu Sea and
The Last Traveler can be found at marshallrigganstoryteller.com