July / August 2020

Journey to Perfection

Restoring a 1926 racing schooner
Schooner-yacht LA VOLPE

When this photograph of the 53’ schooner-yacht LA VOLPE was taken at the 2012 Yesteryear Regatta off San Diego, she had already undergone extensive work, but hull reframing and replanking were still to come.

My fatal flaw?” asks Tim O’Brien. It’s a rhetorical question. He has a twinkle in his eye and a bemused and striking self-awareness as he answers himself. “I’ve never been able to settle for ‘good enough.’”

He’s a man in his early 70s, sturdy-looking like Capt. Irving Johnson in his later life. At the moment, O’Brien’s in a woodshop with a rubber mallet in his hand. He’s talking about achieving a machine-fit for dovetails and squaring up corners of a drawer he’s building for his schooner, LA VOLPE. But he might just as well be alluding to any of his other discrete boat projects, such as sewing leather chafing covers on masthead halyard blocks or collaborating with a seasoned shipwright and foundry to design, pattern, and cast a swiveling bronze mainsheet traveler. Then again, in a broader context, he could be describing what has become his nearly two-decade effort to take what could have been a straightforward vessel restoration into the realm of refined elegance of the first magnitude.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he continues. “When I retired at age 55, I never expected to be spending nearly every day of the next 17 years in a boatyard.” Probably he dreamed of being off in the South Seas on a schooner, like Gardner McKay in the classic James Michener TV series Adventures in Paradise...or campaigning a two-master in California’s classic yacht events. But, of course, wooden boats are never just about seafaring.

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