How “THAT” Came About

Part II


There was no question in my mind about who was going to design my big work-boat. I’d built Jim Brown’s off soundings, and Talofiafaoe had been a 37-foot Searunner.

Jim Brown was definitely the man to put my dream on paper. So, in the summer of 1981, on my way from Guatemala to New York (I had agreed to sail with a fellow on his 29-foot trimaran from New York to Guatemala that summer, just for the hell of it – and hell it was), I stopped in North, Virginia to talk to Jim. We hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, and I could hardly wait to lay my dreams before him and let the big man work his magic.

I flew into Richmond late one July night. Jim was there to meet me. It was a long drive to North, and we covered a lot of ground in those hours: news about families and friends, trimarans we’d known and loved, the future and the past. I told him about my plans to build a big tri, the masterpiece of my building career. I told him I wanted it to have a complete wood-working shop on board, and I wanted it to be comfortable because Bonnie and I were going to live on it for the rest of our lives.

“But Mark,” he said, “do you have any idea what it costs to build a boat like that these days? It isn’t like it used to be back in the 60's; the price of materials has skyrocketed. Even if you do manage to build it, the cost of maintaining a boat that size would keep you a slave forever. You’re talking about a big boat.”

“I know.”

“Have you come into some money, or what?”

“Nope. I’ve got $135 and a few cents. Woulda’ had more, but somebody broke into my motel room in Livingston the night before last, and cleaned out my wallet.”

“And where do you plan to build this boat?” he asked.

“Next to the house.”

“In Guatemala?”

“Sure, why not?”

Neither of us spoke for some moments as the reasons of ‘why not’ ran through his head and out of mine with the night breeze.

“I’m going to build that boat, Jim.”

He chuckled and drew a deep breath. “I know,” he said.

“I’ve already got the rigging,” I smiled at him.

“You do?”

“Yup. Got it from a 39-foot Erickson that sank off the coast of Belize. All you have to do is design a boat to go with it.”

“Let me get this straight: I’m going to put a 62’ trimaran under a 39’ Erickson rig?”

“Sure. Why not?”

He chuckled again.

As it happened, Chris White launched his 52-foot constant camber trimaran, Juniper, the week I was at Jim’s house. Jim and I were invited on her maiden sail. We spent the better part of the day trying to find wind. Late in the afternoon, it found us. The free-standing masts suddenly bent at an alarming angle and then quickly twanged upright again. Juniper shot forward at such an incredible speed that we all grabbed at whatever was handy to keep from falling overboard.

“17 knots!” yelled Chris. “My God, she went from 0 to 17 in a couple of seconds! Have I got a boat or have I got a boat?”

“It’s no boat,” I yelled. “It’s a goddamned slingshot!”

Sleep was a long time coming to me that night. I kept feeling that sudden burst of speed, the stomach-squeezing rush that ripples through your guts when you skim over the awesome power of the ocean like a breath of air. I’d been on land too long. However, one thing I now knew for certain: my boat would be constant camber, too. Both Chris and Jim believed it was the strongest construction method available to a builder, and neither of them saw any real problems with building a constant camber boat in the tropics, other than the obvious nuisance of having to import the resin and the fiberglass, cut down the trees, make my own plywood, my own sawmill, my own power plant, and scrounge the rest of the materials to out fit a 62-foot boat. It wasn’t going to be easy. But, it was not impossible.

Sleep came to me, finally, and all night long I dreamed I sailed my big boat. She surfed over great cresting waves with breathtaking speed and grace. Her double masts pointed to infinity against the moon’s pale light, and beneath my feet she rode strong and steady – a magic carpet upon which I could live out my days.

My bed was in Jim’s study, and as I awakened the next morning, I gradually became aware of Jim sitting hunched over his drafting table, in deep concentration. The early morning light reddened his hair to a bright henna, and the high-intensity lamp revealed lines in his face which I’d never noticed before. He is my age, but it came as a sudden shock to think of Jim as fifty. Somehow, twenty years had gone by since the day I first met him on the dock at Monterey, California; and here we were – a couple of middle-aged boys still “playing boat.”

I got out of bed, tip-toed to his desk and peeked over his shoulder.

“Your new vessel,” he said without looking around. “I’ve been at it for three hours. How’s she look?”

“Great, wow God, she’s gonna be something.”

“What are you going to name her, anyway?”



“Not What, That.”


“Yeah. What’s wrong with That?”

“Let me get this straight. You’re going to name this boat That?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s the worst name I ever heard.” He shook his head. “Whatever made you decide on that...I mean That?”

“Well, way back in `72, Bonnie and I sailed into Capetown, South Africa. We’d just tied up to the pier at the yacht club when some starched white fellow comes marching up to the boat with a big sneer on his face, and says, ‘Where’d you come from in that?”

“Southern California,” I say, strutting my stuff.

“You’re a goddamn liar,” he says, turns on his heel, marches back to the clubhouse and slams the door.

“I promised myself then that the next boat I would build, I was gonna name it That in honor the sonofabitch.”

When I returned to the Rio Dulce, after my visit with Jim and the delivery sail from New York, I was faced with the fact that I needed money if That was ever going to be more than a joke. I needed to buy one hell of a lot of wood and resin. I broadcast the word among family and friends in the States that I wanted work up there, and then let circumstances take care of themselves.

The Mitchell Brothers came to my rescue. They said they had a 36-foot fiberglass trawler that needed a cabin, and I was hired if I wanted the job. Boy, did I want the job! I flew to the States as fast as I could. It was October 1981.

Art and Jim Mitchell own and operate the O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco, one of the world’s most famous erotic theaters. Art was also my son-in law. He and my daughter, Karen, met me at the airport in their mouse-grey Mercedes Benz limo.

It was a rare autumn day in the Bay area; the air was clear and crisp, and Art opened the sun roof. I stood up through the hole, and waved to everybody. Hello, America, how are you? Who’s in the White House, and who won the Oscar, or isn’t there any difference any more? How’s your cholesterol level, and your GNP? Are your teeth flossed and your hands soft? What’s on TV tonight? Is your seat belt fastened and the phone bill paid? Are you winning? Are you losing? Or isn’t there any difference any more?

I had my own parade through downtown San Francisco. The prodigal son returns. People stared. People waved. People smiled. And, they all wondered who the devil I was, carrying on like I just won the World Series or walked on the moon.

Art had made arrangements for me to work on the fishing boat in the O’Farrell Theater parking lot across the street from the theater itself. First, he took me around and introduced me to the staff. In the office there was Vince, the accountant; and Barbara, the secretary; and Jack, the maintenance man. In the dressing rooms there were naked girls. Art flung each door open and announced, “Girls, like you to meet my father-in-law, Mark Hassall. He’s gonna be working on our boat across the street in the parking lot.” They smiled, shook my hand, welcomed me to the ‘family’ and said that if I needed anything, to be sure to let them know. I said I would and, then, thank God, somebody shut the door. Don’t get me wrong; I like naked girls. I mean, I don’t mind if they’re naked. I take a liberal view of most things. Naked girls are people. Fine people. It takes a minute to get used to fine people sometimes, that’s all.

It took me two months to finish the Brothers’ fishing boat. The day I was done, they loaded a briefcase with three hundred and fifty 20 dollar bills; then the three of us (Art, Jim and I) drove to System Three (then in Richmond). I handed the money (which was more than I’d ever seen in one place in my life) to Tom Freeman, and Tom shipped six 65-gallon drums of resin to Miami, Florida by truck. From there, it would be taken on board a container ship to Puerto Santo Tomas, Guatemala. I figured in a month – or maybe two – the barrels would be sitting in my shed at the Rio Dulce.

Back in Guatemala, I turned my attention to the other major component of my boat: wood. A friend of mine by the name of Guillermo Pira owned a sawmill not too far from the Rio Dulce, at a place called Rio Hondo on the Atlantic Highway. Guillermo was a tall, handsome fellow about 40 years old. He was upper class Guatemala; well-educated and articulate. His family owned an even larger sawmill on the south coast. Guillermo and his girlfriend, Vicki, came to the River often. We were old Catamaran Bar buddies from way back. Guillermo led a commuter’s life, constantly on the move between his apartment in the city, his business in Rio Hondo, and the mountain southwest of Lake Izabal where is trees grew. He was an intense man, driven by family expectations and his own need to succeed; he was also a good man, and I liked him very much.

He thought my boat project was pretty exciting stuff. He liked a good challenge himself, and he enjoyed watching somebody’s fire burn bright, too. Anyway, when I returned to the River and seriously started considering where and how I was going to get wood for the boat, it was only natural to turn to Guillermo for help.

“Tell you what,” he said over drinks at the Catamaran Bar. “I’m going up to the lumber camp this afternoon. If you want to come along, you can take a look at the standing wood, and I can tell you what I know about different varieties.”

The lumber camp was some 2,000 feet up Guillermo’s mountain, and we arrived there by skidder, an amazing articulated machine with eight-foot diameter wheels that rolled easily over fallen trees, streams, boulders, whatever. Guillermo acted as though he was driving a tricycle down a sidewalk, but it made me plenty nervous. The incline became so steep, I didn’t see how any machine could stay upright.

“My God, man,” I wailed. “Take it easy!”

He laughed.

I never saw anything like it; that silly machine seemed to defy the law of gravity, and no matter how precipitous the angle, we stayed upright. Finally, we reached the area where the men were felling trees. It was noon and they were sitting on a log in a cleared area, eating their tortillas and beans.

From up there the view was spectacular. Off to the north, Lake Izabal glittered like a chunk of aquamarine, and to the south lay, the Motagua River Valley. The Motagua Valley was once part of the rain forest but had long since been turned to cacti and barren rock by man’s insatiable appetite for wood. I only wanted a few trees’ worth, but it made me feel guilty just the same to contribute to the deforestation.

Guillermo and I left the skidder at the camp and continued on foot. I told him I was looking for a wood which was lightweight, strong yet flexible, and capable of being impregnated with resin.

We walked the mountainside all afternoon, taking samples of wood to test and weigh. I would decide which wood was the best on the basis of those samples. We agreed that I could use his sawmill to cut the wood, and that Chung and I would do the work ourselves, thereby saving a great deal of money. I agreed to supply the carbide blades to fit the gangsaw. Guillermo gave me a quote of $7,000 for 14,000 board feet of lumber. We shook hands on the deal, and went back to the Catamaran Hotel to seal it with a few drinks.

The only problem with the arrangement was that I didn’t have $7,000. Fact is, I didn’t have much of anything when it came right down to it. The rigging was stowed in Belize; the resin was somewhere between San Francisco, Miami and Guatemala, and the wood wouldn’t materialize until more money did. It was now the spring of 1982 – I’d been working on the boat for two full years and, so far, had absolutely nothing to show for it. It was enough to discourage a man.

Bonnie and I talked it over, and it seemed clear that I was going to have to earn some more money in the States. Once more I put the word out that I needed work and, then, waited to see what fell out of the bushes.

Again, Art and Karen came to my rescue. Karen wanted a greenhouse built onto their large country farmhouse. I agreed. Two months later I was back in the Rio Dulce with the title to a piece of land in my bay that I had talked Karen into buying a couple of years ago. She gave it to me in payment for the greenhouse. In turn, I sold it for exactly the price of the wood - $7,000.

I had expected to find the resin shipment waiting when I returned. After all, it was over six months ago that Tom had shipped it out, but nobody at the port of Santo Tomas had seen such a shipment. There was no phone system in the Rio Dulce, so I made a special trip to Bananera, 30 miles away, to call Tom Freeman in Richmond, California. He assured me the resin had been shipped to Miami, but where it had gone from there, if not to Guatemala, he had no idea.

“I haven’t even received a bill of lading yet, Tom,” I said. “Even if the resin turns up, I can’t claim it without the bill of lading.”

“I sent it months ago!” he informed me.

“Well, it never got here, either. Send me another one, would you?”

“Sure”, he said. “No problem. I’ll put it in the mail tomorrow.”

I had no choice but to keep waiting.

In the meantime, I went to Rio Hondo to see Guillermo, and to tell him that Chung and I could start cutting wood any time.

I hopped on a chicken bus (for those of you who don’t know, a chicken bus is a beat-up old school bus from some place like Peoria, Illinois, which hauls the vast majority of Guatemala’s population and their chickens, pigs, goats, and produce from one place to another) and jumped off at the dusty little village of Rio Hondo. I walked to the sawmill.

However, the strangest sight met me there. The place was deserted. There wasn’t a soul anywhere, and a chain and padlock prevented me from going inside. Was this Sunday? No, it was the middle of the afternoon and Wednesday. Maybe it was a holiday of some sort. I couldn’t imagine what holiday, but I never paid much attention to some of the lesser known Church and State holidays anyway. If it was a government holiday, that would account for the mill being closed. Damn, that meant Guillermo was in the city, and I made the three-hour trip here for nothing.

I walked back to the village, and stopped in a bar for a drink.

“Is this a holiday?” I asked the old man sitting on a three-legged stool over in the corner. He was listening to a battered radio and drinking Gallo (Guatemala beer). He owned the place.

“No, señor, no holiday.”

“Hmmm – you don’t, by any chance, happen to know why the sawmill is closed, do you?”

“Si, señor,” he said. He had two teeth in his mouth and a couple of missing fingers. Bar business must be kind of rough in this town.

“Why?” I asked with all due patience.

“Señor Pira is dead.”

“What? Guillermo?”

“Si, señor. Guillermo Pira.”

“What happened?”

He took a long gulp of beer and lit a cigarette with shaky hands, enjoying the drama on this otherwise dull, hot, boring day.

Finally he spoke. “Señor Pira was riding that machine of his up the mountainside, and the thing fell over on him. Crushed him to death. They had to...”

I held up my hand. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll just pay for my drink here, and be on my way.”

I stepped into the street feeling like I’d been hit between the eyes with a sledgehammer.

I was a bit sorrier for Guillermo than I was for myself, but not much. It was a major setback and, furthermore, I was going to miss Guillermo. I had no idea where I was going to get wood for my new boat. I headed back home, depressed and thoroughly discouraged. Maybe my big boat just wasn’t meant to be. Perhaps it was all there was to it. A whole string of days went by – long, black days, and I did nothing but wait while I piddled at odd jobs and mourned the loss of my friend.

But my boat dream would not die, and it wasn’t long before I found myself asking around about wood and sawmills. Two things I learned, the more I talked to people: Spanish cedar is an excellent wood for boat building, and there was a mill in San Andreas, near Flores, where I could get Spanish cedar. But San Andreas was far away, and there was certainly no guarantee they’d give me a deal I could afford on 14,000 board feet of lumber.

Then, one day, a large brown envelope arrived in the mail and turned my world right-side-up and shiny. It was from Jim Brown.

I tore open the envelope, and pulled out six pieces of blueprint. Two sheets for the boat itself, three sheets for the sail plan, and one for the mold and resin-applicator tray. She was 62 feet long and 40 feet wide. Her mid-section was a full wood-working shop (16’x19’); her cockpit was aft with a spacious sterncastle under the doghouse; and forward of the shop was a cabin with two bunks and two closets. She had a mini keel, and she was rigged as a staysail schooner.

I ran screaming and hollering to Bonnie, lifted her off her feet, kissed her, hugged the dog and danced all over the house, before I grabbed a bucket and a shovel. I walked to the end of our property where the oil pipeline ran. I knew a spot back there where the clay was green and good for making things; my mother had told me so. She was a potter and knew things like that. I scraped a huge wad of the stuff and took it back to the house. I filled a small box with clay, cut out a piece of cardboard to the curve that the plans specified, and skreeted the clay out with it. I laid in a couple layers of fiberglass matr and resined it.

Fifteen minutes later, after it had hardened, I lifted out the mold I needed to build the model. It was necessary to build a model, for the constant camber concept isn’t based on a table of offsets but rather on a uniform curvature which is tortured slightly into the proper shape.

In other words, unlike traditional methods of boat-building that begin with full-size drawings from which the dimensions are taken (known as a table of offsets), I would be projecting the drawings on a compound curved panel. So, I took one of my new constant camber fiberglass panels (3/8”-1’), laid it on the blueprint as though it were the side of the boat and projected Jim’s lines onto it. A pair of scissors, a 1/32” shaved here and there, a strip of Scotch tape down the keel, and I had my main hull. Two floats, a couple of sticks for crossarms, the decking, and I had the boat in miniature. Now it was just a matter of making it 32 times bigger.

By the time the parrots were heading home to roost that night, I had the model of my big boat built and sitting on the table. My, but she was a looker. I had to see what she looked like in the water, so I plopped her into the River and snapped a picture. Jim always said that I was the fastest boat builder he had ever met. In the morning, I’d mail the picture to him with a note that said, “received the plans this morning, built the boat this afternoon, and launched it before dinner. Thanks. Mark.”

I retired to my chair that night with an extra large olivo in my glass. The sun was going down in a glorious splash of orange and purple, and life seemed so full of promise, it was almost more than I could bear.

I leaned back into the richness of it all, cradled Bonnie’s hand in my own, and promised my wife the world again.

“Wouldn’t that be something honey? Think what it could be like to go around the world again and visit some of the places we did thirteen years ago!”

She smiled, squeezed my hand and got up to stir the rice while I watched a fluttering white line of cattle egrets skim the river’s surface on their way home to roost, and wondered what the hell had happened to my six barrels of epoxy resin.

Back to Part I

Forward to Part III

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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier