Schooner Merrie Ellen prepares for first charter season

PORT TOWNSEND — John Holbert, captain of the 1922 107-foot gaff schooner Merrie Ellen, says he has a serious problem, one the 54-year-old Pleasant Harbor resident admits he’s had since he was 12.

It’s called sailing.

“It’s a passion, and if you get it, there’s no cure, there’s just a treatment,” Holbert said, standing on the deck of the Merrie Ellen, which wastied up last week at the end of the Northwest Maritime Center pier.

There, he was conducting walk-aboard tours in preparation for the Merrie Ellen’s charter season, starting June 1.

Holbert and a group of 12 shipwrights and marine trades workers joined forces last year to replace 80 percent of the Merrie Ellen’s exterior planking, a sorely needed job after Holbert bought the schooner in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she was rotting at her moorage.

“It was a strange collection of people that I have so much respect for now,” Holbert said.

The planking refit required milling and treating lumber from six truckloads of trees, western red cedars found in Brinnon, said Holbert, who lives in Brinnon’s Pleasant Harbor with his wife, Jill.

The Merrie Ellen is moored in the Pleasant Harbor Marina.

Work is ongoing, as is the case with most boats, but the galley and salon have been remodeled and finished with fine woodwork deep within the Merrie Ellen’s bow.

It will be the first charter season for the Merrie Ellen, which received a makeover from stem to stern and keel to truck during the past 2 ½ years.

During her 77 years, she has been transformed from a sailing schooner to a powered halibut tender and back to a schooner once again.

Holbert and his wife are working with the Northwest Maritime Center to complete the array of charter boats available for charters and sailing lessons.

Maritime center

The Maritime Center, which is opening its new headquarters and learning centers over the next seven months near Hudson Point Marina in Port Townsend, has a number of other row and sailboat options, said Rob Sanderson, the center’s programs manager.

They range from the 100-foot schooner Martha once owned by actor James Cagney, who died in 1986 — and available for family and group charters and lessons — to 26-foot Thunderbird sailboats, to gaff rig rowboats, a lobster boat and other sailboat charters.

“I want people visiting Port Townsend to get out on the water and experience the maritime culture,” said Rob Sanderson, Northwest Maritime Center programs manager.

“We are saying, ‘Come to Port Townsend. There’s a boat for you to get out on the water.’ We’ll find a boat for you to get that maritime experience,” he said.

Sanderson said that the Merrie Ellen will be at the center 10 days each month beginning June 1 and through August.

The Merrie Ellen already has been docked at the Northwest Maritime Center pier, with Holbert conducting walk-aboard tours of the 32,000-pound vessel with a wine-glass-shaped stern, wide decks and masts approaching 100 feet tall.

Three-hour evening charter sailings run June 1-12, July 21-28 and Aug. 15-23.

The Merrie Ellen’s extensive refit, which began in the winter of 2007 and led to her launch last summer, took place at the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven work yard.

A new John Deere main engine from Shoreline Marine Diesel and new fuel tanks and plumbing were installed.

Interior work include a five double stateroom layout, featuring queen beds and ensuite heads.

Work is ongoing, said Holbert. “You’re never done with it.”

For more information, phone the Maritime Center at 360-385-3628 or Holbert at 541-740-0053.

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Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]

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