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Reviving a Laurent Giles classic

Feb 28, 2017
The refloated Susanna before the rig was re-installed.

The refloated Susanna before the rig was re-installed.

Charles Chiara

After a four-year, $400,000 restoration, the classic Laurent Giles yawl Susanna is once again afloat in home waters, fitting out for the summer cruising season along the California coast between Ventura and Catalina Island.

The 48-foot yacht is the unapologetic pride of a 57-year-old California filmmaker, Charles Chiara, whose family has owned and sailed the sleek spoon-bowed vessel for most of its 60-year history. It’s a story that began for the Chiara clan in 1967 with the boat based in Italy — a saga of voyaging that, in time, would extend its reach from the Mediterranean to New York, Connecticut, Maine and Nova Scotia before finally coming to anchor along the Pacific shore not far from Los Angeles.

Susanna’s restoration was a celebration of the traditional, a job carried out by a master of the boatbuilder’s trade, Doug Shumpert. At 71, Shumpert is a big, white-haired shipwright who works exclusively in wood. I met him last spring in his Ventura, Calif., boatyard, where we talked about what I called an old technology, but which he — stating the obvious — termed “ancient,” for wooden boatbuilding goes back to time immemorial.

“It is of course extremely labor intensive and not very practicable in this day and age,” Shumpert said. At the same time, he added, “you get a really good, strong boat, which will outlive a boat made of most any other material — provided, of course, if one is willing to put in maintenance time.”

The major component of Susanna’s overhaul was a complete replanking with 1.25-inch sapele, the hardest of the African mahoganies. According to Shumpert, the original planking had been ground or sanded down for so many years — in some places to a thickness of only three-quarters of an inch — that it had become far too thin to sustain a vessel of Susanna’s length and 7-foot draft.

 “The actual board footage [we used] is still a mystery,” Shumpert told me. “There is about a 50 percent waste factor when sawing and milling planks from wide, thick stock. But we ordered what amounted to the entire trunk of a single large tree, which measured about 4 feet in diameter by 18 feet long.

“As the job progressed, we picked up an additional number of single slabs of up to 26 in order to facilitate a proper butt schedule,” he said, referring to the edge-to-edge joints between lengths of planking.

With planking well underway, Shumpert turned his attention to the skeleton of frames that in many instances were badly cracked or simply too old to be left in place. “We repaired or replaced about 24 of the original small frames,” the shipwright said, “with an additional 20 or so sister frames” fixed to existing frames as strengthening members.

Fresh paint on the transom.

Charles Chiara

The refit also included the removal and replacement of all fasteners, a new deck and new underdecking, bulkhead repairs, new batteries and electronics, and a complete rewiring of the yawl’s electrical system. The auxiliary, a four-cylinder Yanmar diesel producing about 48 horsepower, was not replaced.

According to owner Chiara, Susanna was built to a Giles design in 1957, in Venice, Italy. Ten years later, Chiara’s parents, then living in Rome, purchased the boat from a retired shipmaster for extensive Mediterranean cruising, particularly in Greek waters. In 1973, the family shipped Susanna back to the U.S.

For the first few years, based in City Island, N.Y., the yacht cruised Long Island Sound, ultimately home-porting in Old Lyme, a popular summer resort in southeastern Connecticut. “After that,” Chiara told me, “we worked our way [north] with short stays in Massachusetts and New Hampshire before finally settling in Camden, Maine, for 20 years of sailing up and down the Maine coast and even to Nova Scotia.”

As part of a 2010 move to California, Chiara had Susanna trucked cross-country from Camden’s Wayfarer Marine (now Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding), where the yacht had been maintained. After arrival and a stem-to-stern inspection, Chiara said, it became immediately apparent that some replanking and reframing would have to be done.

“But as we kept peeling back the old planking,” he noted, “we also kept revealing more parts that needed to be fixed, and we ultimately decided on an entire restoration.”

Chiara said he stumbled on Shumpert following an Internet search and boatyard tour. “I quickly learned that the best woodworker in Southern California was Mr. Doug Shumpert, in Ventura,” Chiara told me. “I met him and saw his amazing shop, and I knew almost instantly that he would be the right person for the job.”

Chiara was not disappointed. He described Shumpert as “a true craftsman who cared more about details than I ever would have.”

As for Susanna’s future? “My plans are for cruising Santa Monica Bay for the first couple of years,” Chiara said. “Then I’ll truck the boat to the Pacific Northwest to sail Puget Sound for a few seasons. Eventually, I’ll probably sail her back south to Ventura.”

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