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“This boat has an honesty to it, and a strength, and to me, that’s what being out on the water is all about,” says Grayling owner Michael Glasfeld of Mystic. | Courtesy of Ben Mendlowitz
Grayling, a 65-foot sardine carrier, photographed in Center Harbor, Maine, is owned by Michael Glasfeld  | Courtesy of Michael Glasfeld

Long-retired sardine carrier is still good for a getaway

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories about local craft that are in a different class than the average boat. The series will continue on Mondays through the summer.

MYSTIC — At first glance, Michael Glasfeld of Mystic might be mistaken for your classic yachting yuppie: the button-down Oxford shirt, the child in prep school, the racing sloop lazily bobbing on her mooring in the Mystic River.

But upon closer inspection, the weathered lines of this workingman’s face, not to mention his attitude towards yacht clubs in general, reveal a fellow with a deeper fondness for call of the sea than the cocktail flag.

“I don’t want to disparage people who join yacht clubs, but I think a lot of them join clubs for the social life. I can do that anywhere. Boats, for me, are about getting out on the water, as far away as possible,” he says.

And when Glasfeld, owner of a Massachusetts ferry company, wants to put significant distance between himself and shore (enough to obliterate the reception bars on his cellphone, per his benchmark), his vessel of choice is not his sailboat but Grayling, a lumbering yet lovely sardine carrier.

The focus of a slew of articles, at the time of her restoration, in WoodenBoat magazine — sacred text among classic boat fanatics — Grayling was built in 1915 in the East Boothbay, Maine, shipyard of Frank Rice for his fisherman brother, George. A detail-oriented, tightfisted Yankee boat builder (traits that practically spell out the job description) Frank used the most economical yet reliable materials available to construct Grayling, from her white oak ribbing, to her longleaf yellow pine planking, to her cypress pilothouse. As a 64-foot, ketch-rigged double-ender, she has a mainmast, and a shorter mizzen mast, with a bow and stern that taper to equally aquiline points. Powered originally by a gas engine — since replaced by a 160 horsepower diesel — her rear mast mainly provided stability, while the main supported the rigging required for net-hauling.

For the first five years of her life, she landed record loads of mackerel and herring, paying for herself in just “two trips,” as the otherwise tight-lipped Frank used to boast. In 1920, she ceased fishing and “essentially became a pickup truck,” as Glasfeld put it, tranporting loads of sardines from smaller boats to an Eastport cannery. As dedicated as she was to her new, less prestigious job, Grayling, and the canned sardine business in general, were nearly scuttled, were it not for the second world war with its demand for portable preserved food for soldiers serving overseas.

“Sardines were among the first packaged foods, so she was part of a cutting-edge industry,” said Glasfeld.

But by the mid-1990s, Grayling was long past her cutting-edge prime and lay rotting in a North Haven, Maine, dry dock. That was when maritime engineer and historian Maynard Bray — godfather of the Mystic Seaport’s wooden boat preservation program — looked within Grayling’s weary soul and declared: “Wouldn’t she make a great boat to fix up and convert to a yacht?”

Sharing Bray’s mad vision, fellow wooden boat enthusiast Ted Ockie accepted the challenge. Many months, dollars, and man-hours later, Grayling was relaunched in Brooklin, Maine, in 1997, eventually ending up in Glasfeld’s admiring hands a decade later.

“There was a great deal of effort to make her look as original as possible,” he said. The fo’c’sle, the forward area below deck where the crew slept, retains much of its original simplicity; deck prisms diffuse light below; a simple hatch in the engine room provides access for greasing the shaft. One major concession to comfort was the conversion of the hold — designed to accommodate up to 60,000 pounds of sardines — into a saloon with a galley, several bunks, and the original drop-leaf eating table from the fo’c’sle.

The physics of her ballast were also recalculated. Though she now sleeps 11, not even that many guests could replace the weight of all those sardines coupled with the original 22,000 pounds of concrete ballast in hull that kept Grayling from rolling, owing to her narrow build and top-heavy rigging. Today, 20,000 pounds of lead along her keel and in her hull now help make up for the lack of fishy weight displacement that once sluggishly dragged her side rails at near water-level when fully loaded, inviting the occasional bow-breaking wave.

But crashing waves, especially along the coast of Maine, where Glasfeld like to cruise most, are just fine with Grayling, says his adoring owner.

“She is still a good, working boat, and isn’t all prettied up,” he says. “This boat has an honesty to it, and a strength, and to me, that’s what being out on the water is all about.”

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