Friday, January 25, 2013

Update on the Ship's Wheel – and a Journey to New Bedford

Catherine and her father, Dave Collins

By Catherine Collins, Executive Director

Tens of thousands of hands have held Adventuress’ wheel, steering her with a level of concentration generally reserved for surgeons, fighter pilots and the like. It is rare moments that imprint on our lives. Standing in the stern at Adventuress' wheel, we are fully present in our role; we are keenly aware that the ship's well-being, and indeed, the safety of all aboard, is in our hands.  

The loss of Adventuress’ wheel last October hit us hard.  In the grand scheme of things - where injustices such as poverty and disease threaten human lives every day - well…it is just a wheel. But it was our wheel – and its theft in Olympia left, in popular vernacular, “a wheel-shaped hole in our hearts.” 
Stolen wheel and historic hub

The community’s care and concern has been overwhelming. Everywhere we go our staff, captains, crew and board members are asked what we plan to do.  So I’m pleased at this time to share an update, as well as a brief story about a journey I took to New Bedford over the holidays.

Adventuress' wheel, last “built out” a decade ago by Portland craftsman Pat Vineyard, was special.  It was likely only the second or third time that the wood in the wheel had been replaced. However, it was the hub that was the greatest loss. We believe it was the original – at the center of the wheel on board when her original owner John Borden steered Adventuress north toward the Arctic in 1913. 

Owner John Borden in 1913

That original wheel came from the Edson Manufacturing Company, an entrepreneurial then Boston-based business that made top-of-the-line ships wheels.  Adventuress’ designer B.B. Crowninshield’s office would have been down the road from Edson. One can easily imagine that he visited the company himself, perhaps ensuring that the wheel would be the perfect visual (as well as functional) accessory for the exquisite new yacht he was designing.

Remarkably, Edson still operates (now called Edson International – and even more so remains a premier go-to company for custom wheels.  Like Edson back in the day, the company is entrepreneurial, finding solutions to vexing problems facing boaters and marine operators.  Most impressive to me, and reflecting our environmental mission at Sound Experience, Edson also manufactures a piece of equipment designed to free marine mammals that are tangled in fishing gear and other marine debris.

Hank Keene and Rick Cowen with a custom Edson Wheel
Edson International is now owned by the Keene brothers, Hank and Will, the second generation of Keenes to own the company. I went back east over the holidays this winter, and journeyed to New Bedford where Hank Keene and Rick Cowen, who oversees sales, graciously hosted my father and me.  In one of those “small waterfront” things, it turns out that my father knew Rick from his yacht racing circles in Buzzards Bay, so my dad made for the ideal research assistant.

My hope was that we might fittingly replace Adventuress’ lost wheel with another Edson wheel.  Why?  It just made sense to me as the ship enters her second century of service. It would be a full-circle story that Edson could tell too, given that that Adventuress is possibly the oldest ship in the world still sailing with original Edson steering gear. Cool, right?

We had an incredible visit.  Hank and Rick could not have been more gracious hosts.  We saw the catalogue of wheels that 100 years ago Borden must have looked at. Except for not being in color, you’d swear the custom wheels today are exactly the same as a century ago.  Just gorgeous.

Early 20th Century Catalogue on file at Edson

So what did we decide? Well, they say that timing is everything. And I believe that.  We had a budget and the 42” custom wheel was about 3 times the cost of what we could afford right now. Edson was exceedingly generous in offering a significant discount, offering too to machine our shaft at no cost to bring the fitting up to industry standard.  They went out of their way to try to make it work.  Ultimately though, it would cost about $5,000 for a new Edson custom wheel. It would also take about 10 weeks, and including needing to adapt our current wheel shaft, we would not have it in time for the launch of Adventuress' centennial season in March, admittedly a motivator.  The bottom line is that while we’d love to have the “icing on the cake” for Adventuress’ 100th this year, other financial priorities come into play – such as the unexpected need for a new mast and completion of a suite of new sails.

We've not given up the idea, however.  It is our hope that when the last plank on the final phase of the Centennial Restoration Project is complete - estimated for March 2014 - we might consider raising the funds for a beautiful and historically relevant new Edson wheel. For now though, we have some $400,000 in capital funds to raise between now and November 2013 to complete the rebuild of the starboard lower frames - and finish Adventuress' centennial restoration.  

If we're successful, when the "whisky plank" is put on the starboard side next year, we may revisit an Edson wheel.  It could be our gift to the future for the generations of young hands to come who will take the wheel, steer the ship and sail as they did hundreds of years ago. That would be sweet.

Winter crew volunteer Alea prepping new wheel
In the meantime, the wheel you will find on Adventuress in the coming year is a beautiful antique wheel made available to us for $850 by a local maritime antiques dealer.  A coalition of community members in Olympia is working to raise the funds to purchase it.  This is the same wheel loaned to us the day after our wheel was stolen in Olympia last fall.  The dealer found the wheel last year on a buying trip back east.  Fittingly, it was built in Maine – close to where our beloved ship was launched a century ago.  And he allowed us to machine the hole at that time to an unusual 1 ½ inches to fit our wheel shaft.  We’re exceedingly grateful to him for making it easy for us to have a lovely antique ship's wheel for Adventuress’ centennial sailing season. 

Will we give up the search for Adventuress’ historic wheel?  Never. If it's one thing we believe in, it's the goodness of people to do the right thing.  We'll remain hopeful and vigilant - and we'll never stop looking.  We're grateful too for all of your incredible calls and emails.  Like us, we know you will keep looking in the hope that one day our beloved historic wheel will be returned.

In this extraordinary year for our century old National Historic Landmark ship, we hope you’ll join us aboard for a program, a public sail, or one of our many events in the coming year to celebrate a Adventuress' 100 years as a working vessel.  Tell us your story, and why she matters to you.  We can't wait to sail with you!