Alert “06880” reader Jean Paul Vellotti fills in the back story from yesterday’s post on the sunken vessel spotted in the mud at low tide, just south of the Bridge Street Bridge:
The hulk below the blue bridge is the Mary E., which was an onion schooner and the last ship built in Westport. You can tell it’s a ship and not a barge because the centerboard housing is visible. It would be possible to see who owned/built this vessel with some research; a fairly easy task since it would have been involved in the “coasting trade” and therefore taxed yearly on revenue. Point being, it would have been given a number and records would have been kept. Generally, a hulk is a floating ship that is unable to sail but still has some function. During the wars in the days of sail, captured vessels were often referred to as hulks and used for prison ships.
The best story I heard about how it came to rest in the mud is that an local old oyster pirate named Ford “40” Macheskie (might have that last name a little botched), brought it up-river and tied it ashore. The owner of the property kept saying move it, move it, and Ford never would. Eventually, he threw three sticks of dynamite in the hold and it sank. Then he told the owner it’s stuck in the mud and walked away.
Ford is long gone, but that story was told by him to someone I know.
PS: Re the Black Duck, what irony to list it on Westport’s historic register. You know, if that happened, there could be no changes to the exterior without the Historic District Commission’s approval. Putting it on the register could actually preserve its un-preserved condition.
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.
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.
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.
Two months ago, “06880” reported that America’s oldest oyster boat might become an oyster bar in the Saugatuck River.
Now, there’s a very real chance it might turn into scrap wood.
Jean Paul Vellotti — a Westporter trying to save the Laurel — just sent this email:
I’ll get right to the point: We have 48 hours to save the Laurel or she will be crushed.
I’ve lost my docking spot. There are few docks available. One is at Captain’s Cove in Bridgeport. The summer dock fee there might be about $5,000. That’s money I don’t have.
I had just found a great space for the Laurel Oyster Bar in Sono, complete with a dock and parking. We had contacted the owners this morning before the bad news, and they are getting back to us.
Maybe someone who wants to invest in the business can come forward. It’s pretty hard to have an oyster bar on an oyster boat without the oyster boat.
I really hate to see her crushed, which is a real possibility. Aside from getting a huge bill that will take me years to pay, we would lose the oldest oyster boat in America. We have to try to keep her floating. Even if we can save her for the summer and donate her to Mystic, our job will be done.
If you have any ideas — or can help — email email@example.com.
If Jean Paul Vellotti has his way, the Black Duck won’t be the only Westport restaurant literally on the water.
The local resident has his eyes on the Laurel. He calls it “America’s oldest and most historic oyster boat.” It recently retired from active oystering, and Jean Paul hopes to turn it into a floating oyster bar.
Unlike the Duck barge, though, Jean Paul’s 72-foot restaurant will actually move.
“Believe it or not, there are spots in the Saugatuck deep enough for the Laurel,” he says. “A cocktail hour and farm-to-table dinner on deck by a talented local chef is entirely possible.”
Jean Paul discovered the Laurel 2 years ago. Working in East Norwalk as a photographer on a Whole Foods ad campaign, he climbed aboard a derelict boat to get a great shot of his subject.
Back at the office, Jean Paul — who spent 20 years as a photojournalist and editor, with the likes of the New York Times and Ziff Davis — decided to research the old boat.
Laurel builder A.C. Brown
He learned the Laurel was built in 1891. For over a century it harvested and transported bivalves, roaming as far as Providence and the Delaware Bay.
Yet, Jean Paul learned to his dismay, the Laurel would soon be demolished.
He vowed to save her.
Jean Paul — whose maritime skills, woodworking talents and love of oystering were all fostered as a youth in East Norwalk — came up with an idea. He would keep the Laurel’s legacy alive, by serving the oysters it once harvested.
That’s even more audacious than it sounds.
The century-old deck is structurally sound. But it leaks badly, and the wood underneath is seriously damaged.
“If we can replace the deck, we’ll give her a whole new life,” Jean Paul says. “We’ll make her the queen of the fleet once more.”
Jean Paul Vellotti, at the helm and with oysters.
The Laurel will offer a raw bar, soups and more. It will be fun; the prices, reasonable. “We can get oysters cheap,” Jean Paul notes.
It will float up the Saugatuck as far as the Bridge Street Bridge. It will head to Southport, Norwalk, Port Jefferson, Northport, and Great Peconic Bay. It’s even been invited to Pier 19, site of South Street Seaport.
But Jean Paul hopes that Westport will be the Laurel’s home.
He’ contacted Larry Bradley. The Planning and Zoning director said his authority extends only to the mean high water line.
Jean Paul also talked to the health department, fire marshal, even the Coast Guard. All said “go ahead!”
The next logical step: head to the bank.
“It’s tough for even a regular restaurant to get a loan,” Jean Paul says. “And this is a floating restaurant.”
So to kickstart his project, Jean Paul turned to Kickstarter. The funding website offers a variety of rewards, in return for pledges.
The Laurel, at Cove Marina.
Donate $5, and you’ll receive an oyster and clams on the house.
$35 gets you a 5×7 picture frame made from reclaimed deck planks. For $250, your name will be engraved on a new plank.
There are plenty of other options, including $10,000 or more. The goal is $65,000. The deadline: April 21.
If Jean Paul gets his money by May, the decks can be repaired by the end of June.
The Laurel could float up the Saugatuck in July and August.
In September, it would head to a very cool event, one town away.
That one’s a natural: the Norwalk Oyster Festival.
(Click here for more information, or to make a pledge on Kickstarter.)
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