The Journey Begins
When we found Fifer languishing in Tom-Mac Shipyard in Vancouver B.C., we were looking for a gentleman's yacht for a friend of ours. We searched through internet listings looking for the perfect vessel. Anyone who is truly passionate about wooden boats knows that half the excitement and fun of finding these old yachts is the hunt for them. The ultimate "treasure hunt."
The listing for Fifer looked interesting, but it surely didn't cover all that was waiting for us. I'm not sure if my memory is accurate, or that over the years the initial viewing turned more into tall boaters tale, but what I remember the most was that it SCARED THE HELL OUT OF ME. She was such a mess it’s hard to remember how horrible she was in the beginning.
We met the boat's owner and decided to ride in his car with him to the shipyard so we wouldn't get lost. He was a chain-smoker (I am using that description kindly, if there is a level of addiction above "chain-smoker"…that is where he was) and I remember him having a *tiny* crack in the driver's side window to let the Steamboat-Willy-style smoke out. By the time we reached Tom-Mac Shipyard on the Fraser River I was sick as a dog and reeked. I wasn't in the best mood, to be sure. Cranky as hell and likely not in the right mindset to see the state Fifer was in the first time we saw her.
Tom-Mac is a unique little spot. I grew to love the place and it's quirky Canadian inhabitants who ranged from Michael Buble's dad to a guy restoring his little wooden tugboat who proclaimed that all he needed to live on his boat was "Kokanee, protein powder and a bucket." (I have now idea the logistics of that life plan) It was the most Canadian place I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. For a ridiculously West Coast kid who learned everything she even knew about Canadians from Bob and Doug McKenzie it was a little slice of paradise.
We walked down the dodgy little dock to where Fifer was tied, it was kind of obvious even walking to her spot that she was kind of a forgotten girl. There wasn't one thing about her that shined, or showed any indication she was once a vessel of pedigree or distinction. She had once hosted Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) for lunch? It was terribly difficult to envision that, I have to be honest. Her owner had covered her with a shitty, white tarp weighed down by old plastic milk jugs filled with water to keep the tarp from blowing off and letting the water pour in. We would come to find that the Fraser River williwaws were like no wind we had ever dealt with, even growing up on the North Oregon Coast. There wasn't a tarp or structure that could withstand those howlings. That was an interesting lesson that was learned through LOTS of trial and error. GOT to keep the water out. Wooden ships rot from the top down. Rainwater (freshwater) kills boats.
The boat was filled with crap. Just crap. All kinds of garbage, supplies and stuff that had purpose in trying to hobble along the bad maintenance. Rolls of twine in all kinds of neon colors—likely use? Tying the milk jugs to the tarp. Old tarps. a weird cobbled together battery system that wasn’t safe (when it came to electrical matters Fifer’s previous owner was decidedly “SAFETY THIRD!”) at all. Then just tons and tons of crap that seemingly had no purpose at all. It was almost if he had no idea what to do, so he just kept buying things he wouldn’t need out of pure frustration. It was hard to see through all of that. The owner seemed to be losing his mind trying to deal with this boat, obviously too much to handle. It felt like he had no idea where to even start....he had ridden the wild ride as far as he was able and this was the end of the line. Anyone who has a wooden boat knows that you are always walking that line, taking on too much, getting ahead of yourself only to fall miserably behind based on bad decisions you were damned sure were GREAT ideas at the time. Once we figured out that the problems the owner was having were well beyond Fifer we realized he had no choice but to sell her. And FAST. He was being indicted by both the American and Canadian SEC. That is a long story I likely have no reason to tell, so I will leave it at that. Suffice to say his life was "complicated."
She was filthy. She had rainwater pouring in, despite his half-assed attempts to keep it out. As I descended the stairs into the dining salon I saw the water falling all around me. The smell of "bad old boat" was everywhere. The owner told me to be careful not to step on the bare electrical wires he had hobbled together to power the lights. My husband and I explored, venturing into every nook and cranny. We had done this before on countless boats, either for ourselves or somebody we knew who was crazy enough with "the sickness" to jump into the scary world of wooden ships on a small or large budget.
When we left that first encounter with Fifer we were strangely not overwhelmed by the scope of the project. Oh, what we didn’t know. We have a saying we often repeat, “Part of doing anything is not realizing the word “can’t.” In Fifer’s case there was never a “can’t”—-just working out the complicated details of her sale. Her previous owner wanted WAY too much money for her. Plenty of people had gone and looked at her only to conclude that it was “too much” of a project to take on. Many of the folks in the wooden boat community we know had looked at her before us. She had been completely gutted. Her engines had been removed, rebuilt (at great expense) and were located at a business in Surrey. They weigh 3 tons each. The gearboxes were removed and rebuilt, they were located in a self-storage unit many miles from the boat, along with many other pieces\parts. There was no diagram or instructions as to how to put her all back together again. The owner knew nothing about how to do it, he had zero mechanical know-how. No running gear. It would be a very challenging refit to say the least.
We were committed and undaunted. After we talked it over in great detail we decided to “go for it.” We then had to work the deal out with the owner. Easier said than done. At first he wanted an absolutely unreasonable amount of money. We managed to talk him down closer to earth. Then he wanted to write up a legal document that stated HE would have decision-making power in how we were going to restore Fifer. That was a large and immediate “NOPE” on our part. He was a shrewd lawyer. We were a united front of passion for wooden yachts. It was a serious WWF match for quite awhile. When we finally came to a mutually satisfying agreement we were happy.
We signed the initial paperwork and agreed on the dates to make the payments. That fun of dealing with her owner and trying to make a smooth transition of ownership is a story in of itself! Let’s just say that the day we truly owned Fifer we ere signing the Final paperwork in the ICU with some urgency getting the deal finished because it looked like he might die.
And I promise I will tell that story entirely at some point…but now? Onward!