A sad ending for a glorious yacht

A demolition crew used heavy equipment to break Petrel apart, after a few parts were salvaged. — Photo by Ted Okie

Petrel, a familiar sight in Martha’s Vineyard waters, as well as in the East River and Caribbean, came to an ignominious end this week in Vineyard Haven, when the 70-foot wooden yawl was ripped apart with heavy equipment and hauled away in dumpster loads.

The lead keel was salvaged, along with a few brass parts, which will go into a new vessel to be built from the original plans.

“There’s a lot of good boat left, but by the time you finished a restoration, it would exceed the cost of building a new one,” Tom George said. Mr. George is project manager for owner Olaf Kunkut of Germany. Mr. George will oversee construction of the new boat in Port Townsend, Washington.

“The boat has been in the family for a long time,” said Nick Van Nes, a West Tisbury resident who sold the boat to Mr. Kunkut recently. Mr. Van Nes said he had repaired large sections of the vessel, but could no longer keep up with the expensive maintenance needed.

“It’s the way of wooden boats. It was out of my hands, but not out of my heart,” Mr. Van Nes said. “I sold it to somebody with the understanding that it would be renovated. But we talked about all the options.”

The boat sat on the Vineyard Haven waterfront for three years, at the top of the R.M. Packer Company railway, as various options were evaluated. On Monday, a demolition crew tipped the boat over on her side and began salvaging a few parts.

Mr. George was not eager for publicity about the demolition. He told a Times reporter the boat would be broken up on Tuesday, the next day. But by 3 pm Monday afternoon, there was barely a splinter left in the Packer yard. It took only about two hours with heavy equipment to break up the 73-year-old vessel.

“It’s an emotional thing,” Ross Gannon, of Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway said. “The shape is still there, though the boat was shot.” Mr. Gannon’s company negotiated with Mr. Kunkut, but was unable to reach an agreement to restore Petrel. Mr. Gannon estimated the cost of restoration and the cost of building a new boat as “a toss-up.”

Floating history

Launched in 1938 from the Jakobson & Peterson boatyard in Brooklyn, New York, the vessel was an innovative design from the drawing boards of Sparkman & Stephens. Then named Wakiva, the boat would soon gain fame along the East Coast, and competed in many Newport to Bermuda races, including one, legend has it, with John F. Kennedy at the helm.

Petrel has seen a lot of adventure, including a harrowing few days adrift in the Atlantic. Gordon Van Nes, Nick’s brother, was leading a cruise with their sister and eight other friends, when a storm struck.

A December 1966 wire service report published in many newspapers tells the story of the rescue.

“Fighting high winds and heavy seas, two merchant ships plowed through the North Atlantic today to the rescue of 10 persons aboard a crippled 70-foot yawl,” according to the report. “The Petrel, shipping water, her masts carried away, and her radio dead after getting off a distress signal, was 360 miles southeast of New York.” Petral was eventually towed to port, with all hands safe.

“I teased my brother, if I had been there, it never would have happened,” Nick Van Nes said.

On Monday, Mr. Van Nes said he was saddened and confused by the demolition, but was compelled to go down and watch as it began. “It was like morbid curiosity,” Mr. Van Nes said. “What it brings back are the memories. It’s all about the people, the fun people had aboard. People have been married on the boat. A baby was born on the boat.”

Mr. Van Ness said he did not begrudge the owner’s decision to demolish Petrel, but wishes things had worked out differently. “To see her fall over, watching it happen, you think there’s got to be another way.”