A Ketch Named Destiny

For nine years, Rick Haslet of Chappaquiddick has been building a boat he’s dreamed of since 1978. There’s one little detail that might keep her from being launched this summer as planned: she’s got to be perfect.

I first met Rick Haslet on a cold November morning in 2004. I found him pushing a long, curved board – a cockpit coaming – to see how it fit with the deck of his forty-two-foot ketch Destiny. It was cold in the shed at Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven, so Rick’s speech came out in puffs of gossamer white.

“I am very particular,” he told me. “This boat is a one-time thing and I want everything to be right.”

Rick began building Destiny in West Tisbury on land owned by Ben Reeves and Cappy Sterling. (Rick once sailed with Ben in a Newport-to-Bermuda race, which they won, and Ben has crewed for Rick on several yacht deliveries.) Rick built a temporary boatshed and a workshop that he would give to them in exchange for being allowed to work there for five years. He wasn’t finished at the end of the fifth year, so they gave him one extra year. That was nine years ago.

“I hope to have Destiny launched in the summer of 2006,” he told me, but I could see there was a lot to do, and if he continued to take the kind of care he was taking with the cockpit coaming, there was no way in hell he would finish in time. He tried to show me the problem by pushing the board in and out a half-inch or so.

“That is how it should look. That looks right to me,” he said. I couldn’t see the difference, but Rick tore out a week’s work and started again.

Over the next eighteen months, I visited Rick to monitor his progress. Rick always answered my questions in detail, complimenting me by assuming I knew things I didn’t know. In the way he carries himself, in his gestures, Rick always looks elegant, even in paint-stained work clothes. He is soft-spoken. A man of balance, he listens both to National Public Radio and to right-wing talk shows so he can understand an issue from both sides.   

Rick is quality-control manager for Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, which stands on both sides of Beach Road as you approach Vineyard Haven from the Lagoon drawbridge. He checks each of the 400 boats launched every spring to see that everything is ready for each owner. It’s a perfect fit for a finicky boatbuilder.

Rick’s first boat was a twenty-two-foot Alberg Sea Sprite. He bought a bare hull, finished the vessel himself, then sailed her to the Bahamas. He was twenty-two years old. “I was constantly redesigning it to make it better,” he said. His next boat was a Herreshoff 28, a ketch he sailed from 1978 to 1990. “The whole time I was sailing that boat I was designing Destiny.”

Rick grew up in Wayne, New Jersey, and spent his high school summers in St. Croix working for Dick Newick, the famous designer of multi-hull sailboats. Rick lived on a thirty-two-foot Native sloop, crewed on a forty-foot catamaran, and came to the Vineyard to help Newick build trimarans such as Moxie, which won the OSTAR race across the Atlantic in 1980. In Newick, Rick found a mentor, and among Vineyard boatbuilders he found a community.  
Among his friends are Laura and Randy Hacker-Durbin, who built their own forty-foot ketch in a field in West Tisbury; Duane and Myrtle Case, who launched their hand-built sloop in 2004 and are fitting her out for extended cruising; and Dennis White and Julie Robinson, who took ten years to sail their own Herreshoff 28 around the world, having two children on the way. “There are people in the woods building boats that I don’t even know of,” Rick said. Particularly important to building Destiny is Rick’s friend and employer Philip P. Hale, president of the shipyard. Phil was best man at Rick’s wedding and gave Rick space at the yard to finish the boat.

“Vineyard Haven is the wooden boatbuilding–capital of the East Coast,” Rick told me. “If I have a problem, I can talk to a dozen or so shipwrights who know how to solve it. Every now and then I’ll ask Nat Benjamin for advice” – Nat Benjamin, with his business partner Ross Gannon, runs the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, a traditional boatyard in Vineyard Haven – “and he always finds his way over here. This is the perfect place to build a wooden boat.”

Destiny is not all wood – there’s about 200 gallons of epoxy in her. The hull is “strip planked” with inch-and-a-quarter strips of western red cedar, each glued to the other. This technique allows Rick to build the boat himself, because it doesn’t need massive timbers to provide strength. “I could do it all with small tools,” he said. For additional strength, Rick nailed bronze ring nails in a staggered pattern every eight inches throughout the vessel’s length. He laid two layers of fiberglass by hand on the inside, two outside, and six on the keel and stem.

Laminated wood is extremely strong. If you tap Destiny’s hull, she rings like a bell. “In traditional wooden boats the whole thing works and moves because every piece is separate,” Rick said. “Here nothing should move. It’s almost like welding steel.” Inside Destiny, strength is revealed even in the mundane things, such as the bookshelves, which are fashioned like box beams to be an integral part of the ship’s hull. Rick is mainly self-taught, but you wouldn’t know it from the work on display in Destiny’s main saloon – maple paneling and cherry trim and cabin sides of silver bali from Surinam. Everything looks and feels lovely.

“The basic design is mine. I knew what I wanted her to look like, the sheer line, the bow, the stern, but I didn’t want to spend all this time and not have her be right, so I asked Nat to draw the ship’s sections.” Sections are slices of the boat through the hull perpendicular to her length; they define her basic shape, where she will be concave and convex, full and narrow – and hence how she will sail. “I had sailed Nat’s boats before and like the way they handle – his designs are very seaworthy,” Rick said.

Destiny’s mission is to carry Rick and his wife Chrissie across many oceans in the next decade or so. To symbolize a shared dream to sail the world, Rick and Chrissie were married in Destiny’s unfinished hull by John Alley, West Tisbury’s top hat–wearing justice of the peace, in the middle of February 1997. At the wedding, Chrissie’s father said in his toast: “I am so happy that Chrissie finally found someone who likes to travel as much as she does.”  

“Chrissie is a real adventurer,” Rick said. “She shipped aboard a shrimp boat out of north Australia for six months as a deckhand. That is really rough water. She was born in New Zealand and Kiwis are always on the water.”

Like many Kiwis, Chrissie went on a walkabout to see the world. She cooked for a cattle crew that was so far out in the Australian outback that the nearest store was 600 miles away. She went sightseeing in southeast Asia and moved on to Colorado, where she ski bummed at Breckenridge. There she met Lisa Smith, who became a friend and invited her to the Vineyard for a visit. “I got off the ferry and went up to Le Grenier to meet her,” Chrissie said, referring to the French restaurant on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. “I put down my backpack and Robin Salisbury [then the co-owner of Le Grenier] came over and offered me a job.” Chrissie stayed on for the summer, living with Lisa and eight other people in a house in Oak Bluffs. After traveling some more in Europe, she eventually returned to the Island to settle.

Chrissie started an interior-decorating business called Destiny Interiors. She sewed all the cushions for Rebecca and Juno, the two large schooners designed by Gannon and Benjamin and launched in 2001 and 2003. In her Chappy studio she sells shutters and shades and creates almost anything out of fabric for the best homes on the Vineyard. A perfectionist too, she does all the work herself, which leads to a steady seventy-hour workweek. “She goes to work before I leave in the morning and she works until I come home every day,” said Rick. “She is very dependable. If she says it will be done on February 13 at eight o’clock, it will be done even if she has to work all night.”

“We’re both like that,” said Chrissie. “We couldn’t be together if we weren’t.”

They live off Pip’n Lane – a dirt road off the main road on Chappaquiddick – on three acres of rolling scrub pine. Rick built most of the house and the small studio nearby where Chrissie does her sewing. “Chappy is wonderful,” Rick said. “We love it here, the people and the land. I get a feeling of peace every night when I come home on the Chappy ferry. Chrissie and I could live anywhere. We have been all over the world and we both chose the Vineyard.”
Once Destiny is launched, Rick will work on the spars, sails, booms, and running rigging. In the summer of 2007, the couple plans to sail her on Vineyard waters, weekends and evenings, and voyage to Maine on a shakedown cruise. That winter they will journey into the Caribbean, returning to the Vineyard for one more summer to “fill the till,” as Rick puts it. In 2008, they will sail over the horizon, bound for the South Pacific.

After that, they will spend six months under sail and six back on the Vineyard every year. It’s partly out of necessity – they need to earn money – and partly out of fondness for the Island. It’s also because Chrissie loves her small business and doesn’t want to give it up.

Ultimately Rick and Chrissie will reach New Zealand, where Chrissie was born and where they have found a place that might equal their home on Chappy. “Great Barrier Island is about twice the size of Martha’s Vineyard,” Rick said. “There’s no power there. Everyone is self-sufficient. It’s a beautiful place. There are miles and miles of deserted beaches. And it’s not far from Chrissie’s family, so I think that’s where we will settle down. But not for a while. I think Destiny will carry us a long ways before we finally tie her up and go ashore.”

The launch date for Destiny has slipped so many times, Rick and Chrissie are leery of saying just when she will be finished. I asked Chrissie if she ever got upset with Rick for being such a perfectionist. “No,” she said, “because I’m the same way. I’m proud of him. I only get frustrated when he doesn’t give himself credit. He comes home and says, ‘I think it’s going to be strong enough.’ And anyone who has looked at the boat knows that it is way, way overbuilt.”

Rick sometimes points out features of Destiny that I can’t really see. He sees curves blending into other curves, for example – repetitions of shapes in the coach roof, hatches, bulwarks, coamings. He sees them because he has to see them. I had imagined a set of blueprints for every piece of the boat, but the details of how Destiny is to be fitted out exist only in Rick’s mind. In some ways he has no real idea of what each part will look like until he has created patterns on his workbench and pressed them into place to conform to the boat itself, seeking shapes that have lingered in his imagination from all those miles of sailing imperfect boats.

Destiny is like a piece of music – a symphony of curves composed to a dominant key – and all the notes must repeat, or make counterpoint, or terminate in harmony. One day he said to me, “Look at the curves that are just here,” pointing to the area around the stern on the port side. “You have the sheer [the curve fore and aft] of the cap rail, and the sheer of the rub rail, and the tumble home of the hull [the curve athwartship at the stern], and they all are different and yet they all look good together.”

When I first met Rick, I thought his pursuit of perfection was slightly mad. But eventually I realized that I had been tone deaf to the song he was composing. Sitting near Destiny’s stern, looking forward, he said, “It is pretty emotional looking at this boat. When you start you have an idea of what you want, you try to keep the idea in front of you all along. It’s coming out even better than I thought it would.”

Rick often told me that it took so long to build Destiny because he was doing everything for the first time – but he could have said that it was because he was doing it for the last time. Any professional shipwright wants everything to be perfect – but there will always be other boats, so the few imperfections in the one he is building now will be corrected in the next. At some point he must say to himself, “Good enough, I’ve got to move on.” But for Rick, Destiny is the only boat he will build, so “good enough” is not part of his vocabulary.

“The last couple of years he’s been ready for it to be done,” said Chrissie, “because he has noticed aches and pains that he didn’t used to have, but he has to finish her to the design he has in his head. He wouldn’t be happy with it otherwise.”

Building Destiny is much more than a preparation for something to come – it’s an essential part of the experience. “Think how many hours went into her,” Rick said. “The enjoyment of the boat will be magnified a hundred times by the fact that I built and designed her.” When Rick talks this way, his eyes rove over glistening wood and his hand unconsciously brushes away a smudge on the varnish. “Destiny – it means freedom to me,” he said. “I think that maybe in a former life I died at sea. I don’t know why, I just think that. I have a tremendous respect for the sea. It was my destiny to come back and live on the sea.”