The last time “06880” checked in with Jean Paul Vellotti — in May — the Westporter was trying to turn an old oyster boat into a floating oyster bar. And, by doing so, saving it from the scrap heap.
Since then, he’s offered the Laurel — the last powered oyster dredge built in the 1800s that’s still sailing — to Mystic Seaport. They wanted it, and would pay up to $1 million for restoration. But Mystic had no space.
Bridgeport loved the boat, and would keep her on exhibit if restored. But the city lacks money, facilities and know-how.
What do to?
“I have the skill, time and resources to restore the Laurel,” Vellotti says. “What I don’t have is extra cash.”
He does, however, have plenty of creativity.
How about selling oyster knives? Vellotti wondered.
He made a test run. They’re beautiful, with heavy weight, fine feel, and very high quality. “Strong blades open the toughest oysters,” he says.
To make the knives, Vellotti removes sections of Laurel’s rare, 150-year-old mahogany deck. He cuts each side, works the wood in strips, and sends them to Boston’s famed R. Murphy Knife Company. They attach a stainless handle with brass rivets, then do final shaping and apply food-safe mineral oil.
Vellotti set up a web page for sales (click here). He’s making 1,500 knives. He anticipates shipping them by December 1, for holiday delivery. They’re $42 each, plus $3 shipping. Orders of 100 or more can have a name or logo laser-etched on the blade for free.
Meanwhile, Vellotti has begun restoring the deck and beams. Proceeds from the knife sales will purchase wood for repairs, and pay for the ship’s carpentry labor. He and his helper are not being paid.
If all goes well this winter, the Laurel will sail this spring as a floating oyster bar. Money earned from the bar will pay for the remaining repairs, below the waterline.
How sound is Vellotti’s idea? Last weekend, he attended the Gathering of Fisheries at New York’s New Amsterdam Market. Armed only with his concept, he pre-sold 75 knives.
“Laurel is a boat worth fighting for,” he says. “She needs to keep sailing. But this is my last effort. If I can’t sell at least 500 knives by November 15, then it’s too little, too late.”
He’s already made arrangements to sink the Laurel in December, at the last remaining ship graveyard.
In that scenario, Vellotti would sail her down Long Island Sound, into the East River, past the Statue of Liberty, and into the Kill Van Kull. He’d stop to say goodbye in front of the remains of the railway that launched her in 1891, on Staten Island.
He’d bring Laurel up to the graveyard, open up the seacocks — and watch her disappear into history, after sailing for 123 years.
Then again, the oyster knives Jean Paul Vellotti is making — and making to save the Laurel — sound like they’ll last at least that long.