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The Long Voyage of Little Deb

Spoiler alert: This story does not have ahappy ending. I first saw Deb high and dry in a boat yard in Dallas. My firstimpression was of the little yawl’s beautiful lines and the tragedy that she would be here at all, so far from the sea and in such terrible condition. Although she was only 19-ft in length, she had the classic profile of the great racing yachts of old, like Bolero, or Loki, or the other famous Sparkman & Stephens designs.

It was obvious she had been long out of the water. You could see daylight through the open seams in her hull. I went aboard, climbed onto her teak deck, into her tiny cabin, sat in her cockpit, at her helm, tiller in my hand, dreaming of sailing through tropical seas. I was entranced. Deb was a long way from the sea, but, to me, it seemed she had somehow brought the distant sea into the center of my life. Obviously, I did the rational and sensible thing. I bought the vessel and trailered her home.

When I examined her thoroughly, it became apparent that my dream of restoring the vessel had not been as rational as I thought. Although I had built small plywood sailboats and dinghies, and had all the proper woodworking tools, this task was far beyond my skills. The cause of the open seams in her cedar planking proved to be broken frames. I would need to fashion and install sister frames. I sent photographs and sketches of the problem areas to the experts at Mystic Seaport, and they graciously guided me through the repairs. It was during this restoration process that I learned the fascinating history of the little yawl.

Deb had been built in 1950 by a man named Albert Lemos, who once was yard master for the famous designer and builder Nathanael Herreshoff. At the time he built Deb, he was a designer for the firm of Sparkman & Stephens. In Deb, Lemos had created a miniature version of the yacht Bolero, three-time winner of the Newport-Bermuda Race. I learned that Albert Lemos’s father, Rear Admiral W.E. Lemos, had sailed Deb for many years. In response to a letter, he wrote: “Deb was one of my all-time favorites, I remember one particular voyage from New London, Connecticut, to Riverside, Rhode Island.” Admiral Lemos was commanding officer of the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, one of the largest ships in the U.S. Navy. Yet, when in port, he sailed little Deb, one of the smallest vessels to sail the seas of New England. Deb was also sailed by Olin Stephens, designer of several America’s Cup Winners.

The next I learned of Deb was from a high school boy in Connecticut named Vernon Ray. He had found her rotting away in a field. He wrote: “She was asleep in tall grass, as if resting her head, lowered because of her sagging cradle. Some of her fastenings had parted from the wood where the water line meets the bow, causing a plank to sag down, giving her a sad mouth that seemed to say come take me. I’m yours.” Vernon learned the boat had been sitting in the field for six years. The masts and spars had been moved into the woods, half buried under leaves and brush. He bought the wreck for $500 that he had earned cutting grass. In a letter from Vernon’s mother, she wrote: “The boat looked so bad when he brought it home that my husband was embarrassed to have it in the yard.”

But Vernon Ray was able to bring the boat back to something like her former glory. Then, reluctantly, he sold the boat to help finance his college tuition. Of the impact of Deb on her son, his mother wrote: “We all cried when they lifted her out of the water and loaded her onto the truck. While I never set foot on Deb, I had the pleasure of watching a boy become a man.”

Now, years later, I can’t begin to express the joy of sailing the classic vessel Vernon saved from that grassy field. We launched her on a beautiful little lake in downtown Dallas. For the next year, we sailed Deb two or three times a week on White Rock Lake, often sunset sails. She was quite a sight with all sails - jib, mizzen, main and staysail – flying. Under jib and mizzen, I could guide her without touching the tiller. Sitting on the cabin top I merely had to lean in the direction I wanted to go and the boat would respond. Often, one or more of my children would spend the night at anchor in her small cabin and we would imagine we were somewhere in the misty isles of the Southern Seas.

There is one major problem with White Rock Lake. We were never able to find an outlet to the sea. My dream had always been to have a sailboat capable of cruising to the Bahamas or the Keys. Deb was simply too small. Like Vernon Ray, I had never been able to solve the problem of her planks opening up and leaking, especially in high winds. And so, the time came when I sold Deb in order to finance the building of our first cruising sailboat Allegory. The boat was purchased by a man named Bobby Payne. 

I believe he lived in Lake Charles, near the south Texas coast. He wrote that the boat had arrived safely and that he had had the boat surveyed and the surveyor reported that Deb was in great shape for her age.

It was his second letter that arrived like a kick in the gut. Deb had been up on stands after receiving a new paint job when it happened. A huge truck went out of control, veered off the highway, leaped the boat yard fence, and plowed into the little yawl, reducing her to little more than kindling.

In a world overburdened with sorrows, I suppose the death of Deb was of little consequence. After all, she was just a little wood boat. But in a way, she was more than that; certainly, to Albert Lemos who built her, and Admiral Lemos and designer Olin Stevens who sailed her, and to Vernon Ray and his family who gave her new life. And to my four children who grew up sailing the little yawl around White Rock Lake looking for an outlet to the sea. And over the years she gave pleasure to a great many people who recognized in her the beauty of a vanishing age.

Marshall Riggan has been writing stories for more than a half century. Many have been turned into movies and television productions.