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New Life for a Legend

A cruising couple takes on the significant task of bringing Beebe's original "Passagemaker" back to form.
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The historic Robert Beebe-designed Passagemaker was the culmination of a gallant quest for an ocean-crossing cruising powerboat. Built in Singapore in 1963 of 1¾-inch Burmese teak planking and chengal frames, Passagemaker, for many cruising enthusiasts, stood as a beacon of revolutionary boat design and workmanship. She logged countless crossings under her hull in the decades that followed—not to mention inspiring the name of our magazine.

Since the death of her most recent owner, Peter Quentrall-Thomas, in December 2019, the boat had been slowly sinking on her mooring in Trinidad. Enter long-range cruising couple and refit connoisseurs Laura and Chris Remacle, who purchased her for $2,000 with the help of Chris’ brother, Didier, a longtime resident of Trinidad.

They have since begun the significant task of bringing Passagemaker back to form. Editor-in-Chief Andrew Parkinson recently spoke with them in Trinidad to see how the project was coming along. 

Passagemaker sits on the hard in Trinidad—a shell of her former self perhaps, but inching toward a full recovery.

Passagemaker sits on the hard in Trinidad—a shell of her former self perhaps, but inching toward a full recovery.

AP: When it comes to all-time leaps of faith, this would be pretty high on anyone’s list. What types of boats have you owned? And how has your experience in yachting prepared you for such a bold undertaking?

CR: I started in boatbuilding when my father came home with plans for a small dive boat. After that, I was hooked. I became a Mercedes diesel technician specializing in marinized engines before branching off on my own to start a marine repair shop. During that time, I built five Dudley Dix-designed 50-foot steel sailboats. I’d always wanted to go sailing and finally got my chance in 2002 when my brother invited me to Trinidad. I met my wife, Laura, when I was a dive instructor working in Tobago, and not long after, we headed back to South Africa and found a half-completed 37 Fortuna. We went to work on her and sailed back to the Caribbean.

After hurricane Ivan hit Grenada, we went there to help with salvage. We found a Hartley Fijian ferro-cement boat that had been written off by the insurance company with a large hole in her hull. After receiving a patch, she was towed back to Trinidad, where we did a complete refit. She was a lovely boat, but I’d always wanted a trawler, and we finally bought one in Charleston, South Carolina—a steel Bristol trawler, which we named Steel Dreaming and set off back to Trinidad. After putting my fist through her hull on a subsequent haul out, we found ourselves living in a boatyard again, completing another full refit.

We sold Steel Dreaming and bought a catamaran to run sail-and-dive charters in Belize for a while before finding ourselves back in South Africa buying yet another sailboat, this time a Sparkman & Stephens 45. Sailing back across the Atlantic to Trinidad, we realized the boat just didn’t suit us, so we traded up to a Soverel 48 that we found on the hard and in need of a little TLC. We cruised the Eastern Caribbean for a while before selling her and moving to Canada.

But the sea still beckoned, so I asked my brother to find us another project boat in Trinidad, which he did.

Ceiling panels fitted prior to being taken down for painting.

Ceiling panels fitted prior to being taken down for painting.

AP: He found you quite a special one. Did you have any knowledge about Passagemaker’s history going into it?

LR: No, not at first. When we found her, we didn’t know anything about Robert Beebe or his book Voyaging Under Power, but we quickly learned a lot about how she was conceived and all the adventures that she took her previous owners on. It would have been a shame to let this fine, historic vessel disappear beneath the sea. We felt she was a project well worth taking on—like finding a diamond in the raw.

Being a motorsailer, Passagemaker was the ultimate vessel for us; sails suited me, and her big engine was Chris’ delight. We had already worked with fiberglass, steel and cement boats. Now, here was this wooden boat waiting to be rescued.

AP: What was the boat’s condition when you first laid eyes on her?

CR: She was literally sinking. She had been on anchor in Chaguaramas looking rather lonely, and she was taking on water through several leaks on deck and on the swim platform. Mike, the caretaker, was getting tired of having to tender out and pump out the bilges every day. We had her hauled out at Power Boats marina in Trinidad, and the work began.

This is our seventh refit project together, so my wife and I have a wee bit of experience with old boats, but so far Passagemaker easily stands out from the rest with regard to the pride of craftsmanship that went into her build. She really is an extinct species, truly one of a kind. Even today, her hull is as solid as the day she was launched.

But her decks were in sad need of repair, along with much of her rigging and engine. Her bilges had seawater up to the starter engine and gearbox. At some point, the engine must have overheated, and the number one piston was scored. The mahogany plywood decks were rotten in many places—mostly where the bronze screws holding deck-ware had worn over time and let rainwater in.

Most of her teak window frames also had leaks. The main mast step was badly rusted, and when we took it down for repair, we found the compression post that supported it was rusted as well. Prepping her coachroof for a new paint job, we found rot there, too.

In the epoxy era, we can fix all those areas without having to do a total rebuild, thanks to the quality of the mahogany plywood that was used in those days. Now she’ll be stronger than ever.

Removing old caulking from her original hull planking in preparation for a complete bottom job.

Removing old caulking from her original hull planking in preparation for a complete bottom job.

AP: How did you begin to tackle this? What were your first priorities?

CR: There’s only one approach to this kind of job. Every day I come to work and I tackle something. I enjoy working on the boat. It’s not always pleasant—it’s very hot in Trinidad—but we come to work with a smile on our face, and we go on. There’s not a moment where we give up. Today, I might do a bit of electrical work; tomorrow I’ll do the mast; the next day, electronics. We just keep going.

LR: Our first priority was to make her watertight. Early on, we did a lot of work to make sure all those leaks were plugged. Chris’ main priority was the engine, which we soon realized needed to come out. We actually had to cut a hole in the cockpit to get the engine out, which was kind of sad. She has such a big engine room that it wasn’t impossible, just a bit tricky. And that hole now is becoming a new doorway, so if it ever has to be done again, it will be easier.

CR: I understand it’s Passagemaker’s second engine, but I couldn’t see how they got the engine out the first time. We had to cut the hole. But she’s got a sturdy Ford Lehman engine, and I’m still able to get parts and do a rebuild.

Chris Remacle working on Passagemaker

Chris Remacle working on Passagemaker

AP: What’s still left to do, and how long do you see it taking to complete?

LR: The work list is so extensive and keeps getting longer—but we are getting through it. Luckily, she has good bones. She’s solidly built, like a tank. Some of her planks are one complete timber running the full length of the hull. And her Burmese teak, you just don’t find that kind of material anymore. Not knowing a lot about wood, we’ve taken on some help. An amazing woodworker named Anthony Wellington is redoing all the teak work, and another specialist, Adrian, is helping with the fiberglass. Trinidad has excellent facilities for boat work. There are plenty of boatyards to choose from, skilled labor is affordable, and the access to teak is a big plus.

We’re also finding a lot of ingenious features that Robert Beebe thought of, like the windows, for example. They’re half-inch thick, bulletproof glass, and you can open them all up, and they have a wedge to stay open—they’re amazing. We’ve redesigned the aft cabin, so now she has a desk and an office space in the corner with a nice, big bed. She’s really turning into a beautiful boat again.

My job is mostly painting and varnishing, and general gofer tasks, while Chris attends to the engine, electrical, refrigeration and pretty much everything else. At this point, we don’t know exactly long it will take to get back in the water. It may take another four or five months, perhaps a year. A lot depends on funding at this point.

Passagemaker was contracted with the Thornycroft boatyard in Singapore, known for building high-performance patrol boats at the time

Passagemaker was contracted with the Thornycroft boatyard in Singapore, known for building high-performance patrol boats at the time

AP: You’ve started a GoFundMe page, called “Passagemaker Refit,” to help offset some of the cost.

LR: We have. We were stuck in Grenada for eight months waiting for the Trinidad border to open after the Covid closure, and that consumed most of the funds we had set aside for the refit. In the meantime, yard bills continued to climb. So, we thought to start the GoFundMe page. If anyone would like to contribute to the cause of restoring this historic little ship, we would be grateful. Every little contribution helps. We’ve also launched the Facebook page “Passagemaker Refit” for anyone who wants to keep tabs on the process.

Laura Remacle working on Passagemaker

Laura Remacle working on Passagemaker

AP: Is your vision for the refit to restore Passagemaker more to her original form, or closer to your own preferences, like a modern trawler?

CR: A little of both, actually. I would say the pilothouse, the galley and the forward cabin will remain the way Robert Beebe designed it. We’ve modernized the aft cabin for our own living purposes—and all done out of teak, nothing is veneer or cheap wood. The rest of the boat will look just like Robert Beebe’s version.

AP: What are your cruising plans for Passagemaker once she’s restored?

LR: We are considering running charters once she floats again, so perhaps some of your readers will join us on an adventure.

We have not yet been to Cuba, so that may be one of our first stops. We also hope to bring Passagemaker back to the United States for a Trawlerfest. We’ll come and catch you for a sundowner. 

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