Editor’s note: This story is by Andrew Nemethy, a veteran journalist and editor who lives in Calais. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at maplecornermedia.com.
Jan Rozendaal has a clear passion for old wooden boats. Or perhaps we should call it an addiction, maybe even an affliction.
“I’ve got a definite problem,” he jokes, talking about his penchant for rescuing and restoring significant lodestones of maritime history. Ask him how many boats he has, and a wry smile creases his weathered face.
“Four or five,” he says.
We are cruising Lake Champlain’s Malletts Bay on his newest old wooden boat, the Maddy Sue, as he explains his motivations for wading deep into the boatyard world of beams and bowsprits, sheer lines and strakes, stringers and transoms, not to mention nautical woodworking – think oak, cedar and mahogany. Think also dollar signs, lots of them.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says, responding to an inquiry into the costs.
It turns out heart is something Rozendaal has a lot of. His passion through the years has led to restoration of some significant wooden beauties: He has a historic 1957 Concordia yawl named Moonfleet, and a 1902 Buzzard’s Bay Thirty named Mashnee, designed by the legendary Nathanael Herreshoff, a nautical innovator whose yachts defended the America’s Cup for nearly 30 years.
But his latest wooden rescue trumps even those lovely craft as a head-turner and conversation piece, which is not surprising when you consider she’s a lobster boat on a freshwater lake not exactly known for saltwater crustaceans.
Maddy Sue is a 36-foot-long Down East beauty with a serious pedigree, fine lines and distinctive flared bow, and a well-researched history. She was built by Chester Clement, a boatbuilder from Southwest Harbor, Maine, who is credited with inspiring the eye-pleasing designs of the so-called “lobster yachts” that were later popularized as elegant picnic boats for the Maine wealthy by a boatbuilder named Bunker and Ellis.
Maddy Sue may well be the only vessel built by Clement still on the water, which is partly what snagged Rozendaal’s interest. More resonant, though, are the years Rozendaal spent sailing the Maine Coast with his father when he was young, which have flooded his memories with images of the graceful lobster boats cruising the bay waters or bobbing in gentle swells. So when the Maddy Sue was profiled in the “Save A Classic” feature in the September 2011 issue of WoodenBoat magazine, he felt the strong nautical pull of her shape and history, even far away in Burlington.
She was christened Trail Away when she was built in 1932 for Capt. Francis Spurling, who used her to fish for tuna and chartered the boat for excursions, according to Vermont boat builder and restorer Douglas Brooks, who worked on Maddy Sue. When Rozendaal found her, she’d been sitting under cover for 15 years at the Cranberry Island Boatyard, waiting for someone who would not only take an interest but have the financial resources to undertake restoration. That pretty much sums up Jan Rozendaal, whose resume counts more than a few eclectic and unlikely turns in a highly accomplished business career, revealing an inquisitive mind and adventurous spirit that lies behind a low-key, modest demeanor.
Speaking over the clattering roar of Maddy Sue’s marine engine, Rozendaal, 74, relates how he was raised in Schenectady, educated at Williams College and Harvard Law School, and then came to Vermont to ski in 1964. He settled in the Burlington area to practice law, but found law “boring.” A friend from a local firm who flew with the Air Guard in Vermont suggested he try something a little more exciting – actually a lot more exciting: piloting F-102 Air Force fighter jets out of South Burlington.
“He flew for the Guard and I was telling him that I didn’t really enjoy law that much, and he said, ‘Why don’t you try flying’,” he relates. “I took a test as sort of a whim,” Rozendaal says, but he passed and went to flight school and flew the jets from 1967-1971, practicing law on the side.
In 1970, Rozendaal’s career took another turn into real estate and business ventures; he built and ran Nordic Ford, a dealership on Shelburne Road, and then bought a rundown farm in Charlotte, turning it into a “showpiece” as Nordic Farms.
“It was a shambles when I took it over. That was a big preservation project,” he says.
Of his penchant for changing ventures, he quips, “I’m not very good at anything.” Which of course is the opposite of the truth, as he and his wife Mary Jane (Corley), who hails from a well-known Burlington family, are well known for a wide swath of philanthropic endeavors enabled by his business acumen and ventures. Among his interests has been the Catamount Ski Trail, which runs the length of Vermont, and the Community Sailing Center in Burlington.
Not surprisingly, his extensive community connections and the novelty of a lobster boat launch brought a big crowd to see Maddy Sue kiss the waters of Lake Champlain despite miserable rain on a Saturday last month at Point Bay Marina in Charlotte.
“It was the worst day weather-wise, and we said no one will show up and over 125 people showed up. They were enthusiastic – there’s something people love about old wooden boats,” says Mary Jane Rozendaal, who shares Jan’s passion for old boats though not for sailing (“We’re extreme opposites,” she says).
Watching the launch with a sense of accomplishment was George Darling of Darling Boatworks in Charlotte, whose experienced crew restored Maddy Sue, along with Brooks. But Darling, who has long been Rozendaal’s partner in his wood boat whimsy, also admits the work can be a slog.
“It’s always a relief when it’s done. Maddy Sue was a good solid year. You look at the boat day-in and day-out and you wonder if it’s ever going to leave the shop,” he notes. At the launch, though, the rewards become obvious.
“Maddy Sue is a really spectacular looking boat – she’s got such handsome lines,” he says.
Her gleaming white hull required extensive refitting and is enhanced by a beautiful mahogany wheelhouse, deck, toerails and handrails and benches that received – count ’em – 10 coats of varnish. The shiny chrome instrument gauges are all original and restored, and her bronze portholes and deck fittings sparkle in the light. A restored Chris-Craft engine provides her power below deck.
Rozendaal is humorously aware that he’s on a sort of quixotic aquatic adventure with his boats, showing his visitor a red, stuffed cloth mascot. “Larry the lobster,” he says, smiling. Considering his age, he also ponders the future of his boats. He and Mary Jane have two sons and a daughter, but maintaining the boats is a costly affair for anyone to undertake.
Still, he has no regrets.
“I do have this feeling that things that are worth preserving are a worthwhile thing to do,” he says. “So many of the things that are old are more beautiful than what we have got today.” Equally important to him, he explains, is preserving the craftsmanship and shipbuilding skills of folks like Darling’s crew, which are at risk of being lost in our modern age of fiberglass and plastic.
“I’m going to lose money on all these boats,” he says. “I look at it as a charitable endeavor, but one that I get more pleasure out of than writing a check to somebody.”