Collision damages classic 87-year-old yawl

Owner brought classic yacht back to life, was hit while on mooring in Bristol Harbor


Capt. Mike Martel was down in the engine compartment of his classic wooden yawl Privateer last Monday, happily tinkering away, when without any warning he found himself thrown across the cabin. The Bristol resident didn’t know it yet but a 41-foot Salona had just T-boned him as he sat at his mooring just off the Stone Harbour condominiums.

“There wasn’t a horn, a signal, nothing,” he said. “I went down hard on my back. I had no idea what was going on.”

Now his boating season is over, he has lower back pain and the beloved 87-year-old yawl he has spent years restoring faces a large and expensive repair job. He hauled her out Friday for repairs but expects it will be months before Privateer is ready for the water again.

Nearly a week after the accident, investigators from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are going over the case to determine what, if any, charges should be filed against the owner of the Salona that hit him. The owner, who hails from Portland, Maine, but was here visiting, has not been identified by DEM and has not yet been charged. Citing an open investigation, a DEM spokeswoman declined to comment on the collision.

But to Mr. Martel’s thinking, charges should be forthcoming. Most mariners know not to raise their sails until they get out of the mooring field and into open water, but Mr. Martel estimates the Salona was making six knots at least, under full sail, when it hit him along the starboard side. After the collision, the boat sailed off without stopping.

“I think they should be charged for leaving the scene, or attempting to leave the scene,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s a Monday afternoon, Labor Day, one of the biggest boating days in Bristol Harbor just about, and this guy is there trying to beat it out of the harbor. He rammed me and tried to run away.”

The Salona didn’t get far. Several boaters witnessed the collision, a few took photos just after and it didn’t take long for Bristol Harbormaster Greg Marsili to get word. His patrol boat caught up with the Salona a few minutes later, stopped it and ordered the captain back to Bristol. From there, Mr. Marsili turned the investigation over to DEM.

In the days after the collision, Mr. Martel said he is having some back pain but is doing OK. Privateer sustained significant damage above the waterline and also to some braces and frames below deck. He is insured, the other boater is insured, and he is having a surveyor come out to look at Privateer, determine the extent of the damage and estimate the cost of repairs.

“This guy ruined my season (but) they’re going to pay for the haul out and everything, (and) lost time I imagine.”

The other boat sustained just superficial damage.

Labor of love
The accident is a blow given Mr. Martel’s long friendship with Privateer, a John Alden-designed yawl built at the Robert McLean and Sons yard in Thomaston, Maine, in 1930. The original owner, a University of Vermont physics professor named Ralph Holmes, used to spend summers on the boat in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, with his wife and dog. It was later sold to a Warren resident who was living aboard it, and Mr. Martel in turn bought it from him. Then he kept it for a few years before selling it to a new owner in Philadelphia.

After selling, Mr. Martel bought a more modern 41-footer, but the boat was too big, too new and didn’t have the Privateer's soul. When he learned the old yawl had been all but abandoned, he made arrangements to buy it back.

After getting Privateer back to Bristol, Mr. Martel built a shed around it in his yard just up from the Kickemuit River and started a long restoration process that took more than seven years. He went over every inch of the old boat and rebuilt the transom before finally re-launched Privateer in May 2016.

Mr. Martel has a fascination for the history of sailing and loves Privateer’s lines and pedigree. It’s interesting to him that when she was built, one didn’t buy a boat fully built but instead bought plans, then brought them to a builder.

He tracked down the original plans for Privateer in Boston and was surprised to see that though she was designed as a 36-footer, Mr. Holmes had the builders extend the freeboard to allow greater headroom inside. As a result the boat is a one-off and is slightly longer than spec, just under 40 feet.

Friday morning was a beautiful day to sail and Mr. Martel boarded Privateer earlier and set out on his last excursion of the season, to Borden Light. The weather was perfect, he said.

Just before noon, he made it to the marina and Privateer was hauled out for her extended off-season. He is anxious to get Privateer repaired but said he’s sad to end his season early and sad that she was damaged.

Two weeks before the accident, he wrote the following tribute to Privateer:

“She is such a sweet boat, stable yet buoyant, and slips so easily through the water; she nudges gracefully through the choppiest seas, flowing along like oil with a soft and gentle rhythm. I cannot imagine a man or woman, who is a seasoned sailor who, knowing the behavior of a sea-kindly and well-found, well-balanced vessel, would not delight in sailing her, or passing many sea-miles in her across blue water. Such is her demeanor that she will cruise along like a bird on the wing, hour after hour after sea-mile, eager for the distant horizon.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.