Still Cruising After 80 Years

Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World Magazine

Sailor Profile by James Baldwin

Still Cruising After 80 Years

80-year-old Jim Melcher and wife Diane circle the Atlantic on their hybrid-design leeboarder Alert.

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Jim Melcher, rendered by his artist wife, Diane de Grasse.

Among the diverse stream of cruising boats passing through the port of Luperon in the Caribbeans Dominican Republic lin 2002, one boat and her skipper stood apart from the crowd. Alert is a 33-foot Phil Bolger-designed Manatee leeboarder that stubbornly refuses to fit into any standard yacht category. Alerts 80-year-old master, Jim Melcher, is equally unique among his fellow cruisers, virtually all of which are considerably younger and much less experienced.

Eight decades of messing about in boats has left Jim, now bespectacled, gray-bearded and rail-thin, with remarkably good health and a continuing desire to learn more about boats and the cruising life as he sails into is sunset years.

Jim has sailed since his childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, when he lived at his parents summer sailing camp for children on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Watching local shipwrights at work and listening to stories told by fishermen on the Cape Cod waterfront further nurtured the boys wanderlust and fascination with the sea. In his teens, fresh out of high school, Jim traveled west to Seattle to enroll in a boatbuilding school recommended to him by legendary boat designer Bill Garden.

World War II interrupted his schooling, but he continued his boatbuilding apprenticeship serving as ships carpenter in the U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle and Honolulu. After the war, he operated a salmon fishing boat out of Seattle. Some years later, he returned to Massachusetts, where he married and raised three children while re-establishing the family's Pleasant Bay Sailing Camp on the cape.

During the late 1970s, Jim worked part-time for three years building Alert as a replacement for Triumph, his 45-foot Culler-designed leeboarder ketch. Triumph resembled a Chesapeake Bay skipjack, but Alert is very different and possibly unique since I dont know of any others that were built, Jim says. Alert is a curious and unorthodox amalgamation of distinctive features which, considering her design oddities, have combined into a remarkably attractive and functional boat.

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Alert and her Chinese gaff rig

Based on the 19th century Thames River barges, she is round bilged and flat bottomed, with flat sides amidships to accommodate her outboard hung leeboards. Her present rig is another peculiar hybrid design: a tabernacle-stepped Chinese gaff.

Jim claims the epoxy-sheathed, strip-planked Manatee design is relatively simple to build. Alerts boards up draft of merely 22 inches and beam under eight feet make her easy to trailer and a gunkholers delight. The flat bottom and low profile keel helps her to sit nearly upright when taking the bottom on a falling tide. For auxiliary power, Alert is fitted with a 3-cylinder 25 HP Sole diesel with offset, two-bladed folding propeller.

Fully loaded for cruising, this ultra-shallow-draft passagemaker displaces 13,000 pounds and, surprisingly, obtains sufficient stability from her six-inch square, 19-foot-long lead-ballast keel weighing just 2,800 pounds. Her designer, Phil Bolger, tells in his book Different Boats how the stability of very shallow-draft vessels like the Manatee is quite different from that of a conventional full-bodied yacht. (They) dont have any buoyancy deep under water, the kind that floats up and capsizes a deep-bodied boat if her ballast keel drops off, he writes. Unlike mainstream designers, Bolgers design philosophy is free of the dogma of the racing-yacht form and not restricted to the Marconi rig.

Jim took advantage of Alerts ease of trailering by hauling her cross-country to Seattle in 1983. Sailing with various crew and occasionally solo, he ventured north to British Columbia, then south to Panama, through the Canal, and among the Caribbean Islands. In the mid-1990s, Jim single-handed Alert across the Atlantic via Nova Scotia and the Azores, circumnavigated Britain, and explored Europe's rivers and canals as far inland as Berlin.

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Alert careened on a two-foot tide for bottom cleaning.

As I boarded Alert from steps attached to the transom-hung rudder and commented on the arrangements simple ingenuity, Jim said those steps saved his life when an accidental jibe caused the boom to fling him overboard during a storm in the North Atlantic. His matter-of-fact declaration made it sound as though getting tossed overboard alone in mid-ocean in your 70s is a perfectly normal occurrence.

Speaking after thousands of miles of bluewater sailing, Jim believes, A well-designed shallow draft boat is certainly seaworthy in anything short of a hurricane and even then its easy to seek protection up a shallow creek. She doesn't slog as well to windward as a deep-keeled boat, but she has the obvious advantages of shallow draft. Occasionally a leeboard gets to banging against the hull and I cushion it by jamming in a small fender. All in all she's a very capable cruising boat.

Alert has undergone numerous modifications in her 23 years. The first major change Jim took was to take a chainsaw to the flush deck and add a raised deckhouse. Phil Bolger disapproved of this major surgery, but the appeal of standing headroom outweighed Bolgers aesthetic sensibilities. Jim raised the original cockpit seats to a more comfortable height for sitting. He also cut 14 inches off the trailing edges of the leeboards, which markedly improved visibility around them when stored in their upright position without noticeably harming their performance.

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Jim and Diane aboard Alert in Luperon, Dominican Republic.

Down below, Alert seems cramped compared to modern beamier yachts of her length. Even so, theres ample space for the full double berth forward, a well-appointed galley amidships, and a table with two single bunks in a main salon thats nicely uncluttered by a centerboard trunk.

The original Marconi cat-yawl rig worked well for 14 years, but as Alerts skipper aged, he sought a more easily handled sail plan. In 1997, Bolger designed a new rig for Alert which he called a Chinese gaff. He shortened the mizzen mast and converted it to a sheet staff, giving the junk rigs multi-part mainsheet a better angle to remove excess twist from the full-battened mainsail. Though cut down three feet, the boom is still a lengthy 24 feet, and the shortened, unstayed laminated-Douglas-fir mast is 34 feet overall. A sunken well in the foredeck allows room for the base of the mast to pivot forward as its lowered in its tabernacle. When needed, a small working jib can be set to help balance the helm.

Back in New England four years ago, Alerts recently divorced skipper chanced to meet, and then quickly married, Maine artist Diane de Grasse. At my age I couldn't afford a long courtship, he said with a chuckle. Within months of their meeting, Diane shocked her friends and family when she quit her job as a graphic designer for a newspaper and sailed off with Jim on a honeymoon cruise to the Bahamas. Ive always enjoyed sailing, Diane said. That was my first long sailing trip, and I found I love the cruising life. Diane uses her artists talents to record their travels not in photos, but in dozens of beautiful watercolor paintings.

In May 2000, Jim and Diane departed Maine for a cruise in Europe. Remembering well his previous passage across the storm-plagued North Atlantic, the now older and wiser sailor shipped Alert as deck cargo from Halifax to Liverpool. The shipping costs were under $4,000, and we were also pressed for time to make the Brest 2000 classic-boat festival in early July, Diane said.

From Cornwall, Alert sailed to Brest, France, in company with a group of boats from Ireland celebrating the historic Celtic voyages to Brittany. As Diane recalled, A TV crew met us as we arrived in Brest to join nearly 3,000 other boats. That night, the festival organizers fed 20,000 sailors in tents. A few days later, we sailed with a fleet of over 2,000 boats to Douarnenez in a spectacular scene of uncountable sails from horizon to horizon.

The couple then harbor-hopped down the Bay of Biscay and along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. As they cruised into the Mediterranean, Diane expressed her interest in archeology and architecture through her paintings and sketches of historic sites in the Balearics, Malta, Sardinia and Tunisia.

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Alert's sunken foredeck allows clearance for lowering the mast.

In the autumn of 2001, the Melchers departed the Med to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean via the Canary and Cape Verde Islands. They arrived in Martinique on February 4 after a blustery 19-day passage with winds mostly in the 25-30 knot range. Their Autohelm Tiller Pilot was frequently overwhelmed, and the resulting accidental jibes led to frayed nerves as well as broken battens and chafe on sails.

To handle the strong winds, we reefed and then scandalized the main by lowering the gaffs peak halyard, Jim said. Even using a working jib, we had excessive weather helm. When a lazy jack broke, it dumped the whole works boom, gaff, and sail into the sea. Its turned out a rather poor rig for offshore. Im ready to convert it to traditional full Chinese-junk rig, which I believe will work better.

Despite the rough weather, they managed to mark the halfway point of their crossing with a champagne party. They even put a note and a $5 bill in a bottle and tossed it overboard for some lucky beachcomber to perhaps marvel at one day.

Due to a seized transmission, they made landfall in a cove on the windward coast of Martinique without the aid of their engine. Once repairs were made, they continued island-hopping through the Caribbean, reaching the Dominican Republic in April. Weve enjoyed touring the island, especially the ancient capitol of Santo Domingo, but now its time to push on towards home in Brunswick, Maine, Diane said, adding, And I promised my dad Id be back in time for his 90th birthday.

From Luperon, Alert sailed swiftly through the Bahamas, made landfall at Beaufort, North Carolina, and then "drove" up the Intracoastal Waterway as winds were generally unfavorable for continuing an outside passage. From Cape May, they pressed on outside, ducking into Shinnacock, Long Island, to avoid a gale before heading for the Cape Cod Canal and familiar waters. Two years after beginning their Atlantic circuit, Alert's anchor went down in Merriconeag Sound, Maine, on May 22, 2002. Within a few weeks of settling back into their home ashore, Jim and Diane made plans to get back on the water and cruise the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia through September. Their next goal is to cruise through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast.

At a time of life when most sailors their age are cataloging their excuses for giving up ocean voyaging for a less risky sedentary life ashore, the Melchers leave no time to regret missed opportunities and, by their steadfast adventuring, continue to inspire everyone they meet.

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For more on his unconventional boat designs, read Philip C. Bolgers books, Different Boats and Boats with an Open Mind. Also, check these links: