Buy Oyster Knives; Save A Boat

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.

The Laurel

The Laurel

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.

One of Jean Paul  Vellotti's oyster knives.

One of Jean Paul Vellotti’s oyster knives.

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.

Jean Paul Vellotti, taking knife orders at the New Amsterdam Market.

Jean Paul Vellotti, taking knife orders at the New Amsterdam Market.

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.

10 responses to “Buy Oyster Knives; Save A Boat

  1. Dewey Loselle

    Dan – This is a great story and a worthy cause. You should tell Jean Paul to submit his effort to Kickstarter.com the world’s largest fundraising platform for creative causes. I am sure it will get a good response and help him reach his goal. Now if we can get the Saugatuck River dredged and a new Downtown dock restored/built he can sail to Town and we can all enjoy oysters on Jessup Green in the summer!

  2. Please keep us posted on the fate of this endeavor . FYI. At 5:15 I did order a knife. What a great idea. Thanks Dan

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    You can buy a knife online at 5:15AM with no hassle???? Holy Cow!!! If they would add commuter coffee and health insurance to the website this would not only save the boat it would save the world and eliminate every injustice!!!!!!

  4. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    The only downside I see is that those knives could be used as a suicide device by a wacko surfing the web and then the lawyers would end up owning the boat. That is a scary thought.

  5. Dan, thanks for this remarkable story. JP, you are the man! Mystic Seaport – you don’t have the space? Really?

  6. Wendy Crowther

    Though I don’t eat oysters, I just bought one of these knives to help Jean save the Laurel. This preservation project is so special. Let’s keep the Laurel afloat – she’s so worth it.

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I don’t get it. The knives are beautiful and appear to be instant classic heirlooms that will be treasured by their new owners. But if they’re made out of the Laurel’s deck and everybody buys them to “save” the Laurel, then what is left to save? The beautiful old original deck will have to be replaced with something that is not original and then what’s the point? Also, the cost and difficulty of finding deckbuilders with the same skills that were available 130 years ago in CT just ain’t gonna happen. So the beautiful old deck gets replaced with a mediocre new one. I just don’t get it. I do think selling the knives at the Mansion Clam house would be a great idea, but again, the more they sell, the less is going to be left of the Laurel to save. Maybe jewelry made out of clam shells harvested by the Laurel and restaurants like the Mansion selling clams from LI Sound with a deposit charge for the shells credited back when you finish dinner would be a better idea. Kind of like a Newman’s Own for old boats. Where there’s a will there’s a lawyer making money. It can be done.

  8. Thanks Dan and thanks to everyone who has supported Laurel (and especially those that have purchased the oyster knives).

    To answer a few questions: Decks on these boats are routinely replaced every 25-30 years. The fact that Laurel’s deck has been in place for 110 years is only because it was made from mahogany (most were long-leaf yellow pine, and most today are Douglas Fir). The inherent value of a historic boat is not only it’s deck; it’s mostly the hull. However, Laurel and other boats are working boats that adapt to change. The fact that she was built at 57-feet then cut and lengthened to 72-feet is part of her historic importance. She is also the only oyster dredge boat that was built in the 19th century that is still sailing.

    Mystic Seaport, after meetings with their directors, said there just isn’t a culture to support boats anymore. They themselves are moving away from preserving vessels aside from what is already in their collection, and in fact are crushing boats they don’t deem valuable (which is a shame since they were accepted as donations at some point). The restoration of the Charles Morgan at $7 million and counting has tapped their funds.

    I had also tried every seaport or museum from the Chesapeake to Maine to find a home for Laurel. Only one, the Greenport Maritime Museum, had an interest, but not a dollar for funding. Getting back to the deck, when these boats sit and leak from the topsides, they rot. So stopping that leak is paramount, even if it means the loss of a 100-plus year old deck. Given that the deck beams underneath need to be replaced as well, and you can’t do one job without the other, then why not reclaim the wood instead of put it into the landfill (the deck beams are also going to be reclaimed).

    Lastly, as far as finding deck-builders with the same skills, that isn’t an issue as I and a close group of professional shipwrights from CT to ME are more than qualified. And as far as replacing the deck with some “mediocre” wood, sometimes you have to think outside the box; the plan is to purchase 40-foot long-leaf yellow pine beams that are being pulled out of factories which are being torn down to make way for new development. These beams are also 100-plus years old, and when resawn, have the same tight grain and accept pine tar just as if they were installed in 1904.

    Thanks again, JP

    ps — With regards to the Mansion, that was the original spot where the Laurel was to be docked. I had offered to rebuild the docks, clean up that overgrown area near the water’s edge and add picnic tables and umbrellas for additional seating. The plan was nixed and the docks were removed. Now, instead of just getting a permit to rebuild the docks, an entirely new application must be submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers, plus state and local officials which will take years and has no guarantee of approval.

  9. I ordered and paid for one of the knifes is a date for delivery known ? I wanted this for a Christmas gift. Please let me know. Thanks

    • Hello everybody,

      The oyster knives will be going out on Monday. We changed how they were made which added some time but created an even better product. They will be shipped ASAP from the Westport Post Office.

      Thanks again, JP