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31 Years before the mast

Roy Jackson sits aboard the Dolores M. Jackson, a two-masted schooner,  built over the past three decades outside his Crystal Springs home. The boat was recently launched, and is tied up in Eagle Harbor awaiting completion.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Roy Jackson sits aboard the Dolores M. Jackson, a two-masted schooner, built over the past three decades outside his Crystal Springs home. The boat was recently launched, and is tied up in Eagle Harbor awaiting completion.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

After three decades, Roy Jackson puts the final touches on his wooden schooner.

The writer E.B. White once said that if a man is to have an obsession, a sailboat is as good as any, probably better than most.

A sailboat, White wrote, is like a woman – “not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.”

Roy Jackson’s obsession began in the mid-1960s in the Bahamas, when he already had one Dolores in his life but started dreaming of another. The former, he hoped to sail with; the latter, aboard.

An improbable half-life later, he’s still got the first Dolores M. Jackson at his side. And he’s putting the finishing touches on the second, a lovingly crafted schooner finally caressed by the waters of Eagle Harbor some 31 years after Roy Jackson laid her keel in a Crystal Springs barn.

Not that it started out as an obsession, just a way to get into yachting without actually buying a boat.

“In kind of a convoluted, romantic way, I thought instead of going to sea with all these debts, I’d build it and own it outright,” Jackson says. Then he laughs.

“Pretty silly.”

Bringing an inner vision to tangible form comes naturally to Roy Jackson. As a youth in Detroit during World War II, he built models of German and Japanese aircraft that American pilots used to identify their foes aloft.

He was drawn to design as a young man, but found the post-war workplace glutted with architects. So he went into advertising, for better opportunities and a better paycheck.

He worked in Detroit, Toronto and New York City during the heyday of Madison Avenue.

“We used to sit in board rooms and say, ‘what are they going to think about this out there in America?’ – looking across the Hudson at New Jersey,” he recalls. “It was quite a time to be there.”

Although he’d grown up on the Great Lakes, Jackson didn’t get a real taste of sailing until the mid-1960s, when a friend asked if he’d help sail a boat from Nassau back to Fort Lauderdale.

It was on that voyage that the idea of building a sailboat of his own struck Jackson as “rather fun.”

In 1971, a trade paper called “National Fisherman” ran an article on great sailboat designs from the past; among those featured was a two-masted schooner by the noted East Coast naval architect Murray Peterson.

Drawn up in 1931, the plans were based on a turn of the century vessel Peterson recalled from his own past.

The boats were called “packet schooners,” the maritime equivalents of today’s short-haul trucks. With automobiles in their infancy and roadways rudimentary at best, the compact vessels were the quickest way to move goods and supplies up and down the Maine coast.

Jackson was struck by the schooner’s aesthetics, its “lines,” recalling vessels he’d seen on the Great Lakes in his own youth.

The boat’s measurements would be formidable: forty-three feet stem to stern – 60 if you account for the sail spars – 35 feet at the waterline, 12-foot-3 at the beam and a draft of 6-foot-3. Displacement: 37,000 pounds.

But Jackson was seduced by the idea, and while other shipwrights pirated Peterson’s plans, he took an honest tack and put up the $1,000 fee. The architect rewarded him with 10 percent off, because it was a do-it-yourself project.

He was glad to pay for the plans and build the boat with a clear conscience. When Peterson died a few years later in 1974, Jackson stayed close with his son.

At the naval architect’s passing, “Wooden Boat” magazine honored him by putting his schooner on the cover of its debut issue.

That left Jackson to follow through and build one of his own.

“I’m sure he thought, ‘this guy will never get it done,’” he said. “He was close to being right.”

Roy Jackson laid the schooner’s keel in 1976, two years after moving to Bainbridge Island for a job as creative director with the McCann-Erickson advertising agency.

Seattle, a friend had once told him, was also a good place to go if you planned to build your own boat.

First came the loft, a three-dimensional layout of the vessel fashioned inside a barn at Jackson’s Crystal Springs home. The hull was constructed in 19 distinct sections, called station molds.

And slowly, over course of years – make that decades – the Dolores M. Jackson took shape.

“Once one gets into it,” Jackson said, “you’re kind of committed.”

It was never dull; each phase forced him to master a new skill among many that make up the boat-builder’s ancient art, from planking the hull to doing the finish work in the cabin.

He even cast the 10,000-pound keel ballast himself. Over a three-year period, Jackson and his wife made the rounds of local tire stores and collected 86 five-gallon buckets of tire weights. They melted it all down in a pair of fire-heated bathtubs and poured the molten lead into a mold.

If he put 16 hours a week into the project, Jackson was happy. Trudging home from work in Seattle on cold winter evenings, going out to work in the barn was the last thing on his mind.

But more free time came his way as he eased into retirement, taking on fewer advertising accounts each year until finally his career was over.

The Peterson schooner is considered a 30,000 man-hour boat, meaning a single shipwright working 40 hours a week would spend 12 years putting it in the water. It took Jackson three decades, and that was with help.

Indeed, many hands have contributed over the years. Island woodworker Garnie Quitslund helped frame the hull, while Dave Ullin caulked the deck.

The “frustrated architect,” Jackson laid out the interior himself. A forward cabin offers a modest double berth and head. A salon amidships has two more berths, while the galley, navigation station and a small library sit aft before the diesel engine.

The schooner was planked with Port Orford cedar over Oregon white oak. The cedar – technically a cyprus, Jackson notes – is favored for its stability. Teak and Honduras mahogany round out the complement of woods.

When it came time to find cloth for sails, island fisherman Paul Svornich recommended a Maine sailmaker named Nat Wilson.

Jackson got on the phone to Wilson and explained the project; he was greeted with a favorable bid, so he offered to mail out the schooner’s plans for the sailmaker to reference.

“He said, Don’t bother, I’ll just go across the street and get them,” Jackson said.

Wilson the sailmaker, it turned out, lived across the road from Bill Peterson, the son of the man who’d designed the boat. They’d been roommates in college.

The Dolores M. Jackson was finally ready for launch in June of this year.

A professional boat mover hauled the schooner from Crystal Springs to a yard in Port Townsend, where, on the summer solstice, it was lifted for the first time into the waiting arms of the sea.

Jackson then motored the vessel down to Bainbridge, and it’s tied up at a private dock at the foot of Lower Madison.

“It’s fun to be walk around on the decks and not be looking at the back yard,” he said.

Dolores M. Jackson – the first Dolores M. Jackson – is well pleased with her namesake.

“Thirty-one years ago, I thought it was a fantastic, romantic idea,” said Mrs. Jackson, who put in countless hours of her own crafting the schooner.

“I’ve questioned myself that, had I known, would I go ahead with it?...I probably would have said, ‘let’s go ahead and see where it goes.’”

And, she enthuses of the finished work, “She is beautiful.”

All that remains is to raise the twin masts. This week, Roy Jackson traded phone calls with someone who may or may not own a suitable crane.

And then? Strange promise, and perhaps a hint of trouble.

Roy Jackson began his schooner with the notion of sailing great oceans, perhaps even crossing the Pacific.

Of English and Scottish extraction, he also has a fondness for the British Isles.

And there’s also the Baltic. Much of the ship’s hardware came from Toplicht, a legendary chandlery in Hamburg, Germany, and Jackson would like to visit the store.

At age 77 and a bit “long in the tooth,” he’s not sure he’ll get there.

“Whether I ever get out of the sound or not,” he says – and his voice trails off, across the water.

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Magnificent obsession

Roy Jackson’s daughter is documenting construction of the schooner Dolores M. Jackson in photographs at www.doloresmjackson.com.

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