Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Ripon man bids farewell to custom boat building

Paul Lagier of Ripon shows off the refrigerator in the galley of the last boat he’ll ever build, and this one is his – unlike the 43 that preceded it. He spent more than five decades building boats in the pole barn at his home near Ripon.
Paul Lagier of Ripon shows off the refrigerator in the galley of the last boat he’ll ever build, and this one is his – unlike the 43 that preceded it. He spent more than five decades building boats in the pole barn at his home near Ripon. jjardine@modbee.com

Paul Lagier built a 19-foot-long wood-plank sailboat for himself in 1954, when he was only 13 years old.

Sixty years later, he’s putting the finishing touches on another boat, this one a 44-footer that represents his 44th – and final – creation.

Lagier is 73, long retired from the construction industry, and is the son of a boat builder. In his spare time and waking hours, he built three boats using steel, six of so-called ferro cement and 35 of wood. Other than the last and the first, he’s built all of them for other people to enjoy, and the first one ended up that way as well.

“I sold it when we built this house,” he said, pointing toward the home north of Ripon bordered on three sides by an almond orchard and a pole barn, which serves as his personal dry dock.

In about three weeks, a house mover will haul his recent effort – he’s named it the Lodestone – to a facility in the Delta, where Lagier will launch the boat, install the masts and other remaining fittings, and do the final detail cleaning. Then it’s on to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico for the shakedown cruise and, if all goes according to plan, he and wife Earlene will sail it to Hawaii.

Good for them. But not so good for American ingenuity. You see, Lagier is among the last – if not the last – of his kind in the region: an individual who builds boats. There are companies that design and build them, but not private craftsmen like Lagier who custom manufacture everything from the hull to the cabinets. Not unlike woodworker Randy Schmidt of Escalon, Lagier has skills that aren’t being passed down to the generations. To the contrary, it frustrates him that fewer and fewer young folks are learning crafts.

“We don’t build things anymore,” he said. Not boats, anyway. It’s a highly specialized, incredibly detailed craft that requires someone with an inventive nature, who is great with math and engineering, who is a perfectionist and who doesn’t spend all day on Facebook.

Some of that is the economy, with few people able to afford such a dream that can cost more than a house. In fact, Lagier said, in the time it will have taken him to complete the Lodestone, he could have built three to four custom homes.

“And I am not a homebuilder,” said Lagier, who worked mainly in commercial construction. “But I’ve built about 150 homes, and there’s a lot of so-called homebuilders who haven’t done that.”

And some good custom homebuilders might struggle to build a custom sailboat like the ones he’s built.

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“There used to be several of us individual boat builders around,” Lagier said. “There might be somebody else still doing it besides me, but I don’t know of any.”

The difference in building boats, he said, comes in the detail work. Boats aren’t square. They are contoured on both sides, all the way down to the keel. That means you don’t simply drop by Home Depot to buy prefab cabinetry. Every bit of it must be built to follow the curves of the boat. Precision is everything.

To build the final boat, Lagier sold a 44-foot, steel-hull sailboat to a couple from the Napa area. They put it into dry dock to repaint it and took the opportunity to test the cabin area before taking it out to open sea.

“They were sleeping in it when the earthquake hit,” Lagier said, who spoke to them within a few days of the magnitude-6.0 quake that struck Aug. 24. “They said it beat them up pretty good – tossed them back and forth quite a bit.”

The poles supporting the boat all fell down, Lagier said. But the boat somehow remained upright, as did a ladder the new owner had secured to it. The owners, husband and wife, carefully made their way to safety and then began restoring the supports, Lagier said.

“The keel is about this wide,” he said, holding his hands about 16 inches apart.

Only a perfectly balanced structure could survive that kind of shaking, and even then Lagier couldn’t believe the boat didn’t tip over.

The Lodestone, his final craft, has a much narrower keel. It is made of ferro cement construction and is a Colin Archer-stye boat, a style demanded by the king of Norway after a North Sea disaster cost scores of fishermen their lives in the early 1900s. The king, Lagier said, commissioned and funded the construction of 37 sailing lifeboats.

“They’re still considered the most seaworthy of the small boats,” he said. By the late ’20s, they were replaced by motorized boats. The others were converted into yachts. The style fascinated Lagier.

“I always wanted to build a Colin Archer,” he said. “A few years ago, Earlene told me, ‘If you’re going to build one, you’d better get after it. You’re not getting any younger.”

It had to be suitable for sailing to Hawaii and back, which they’ve done many times along with other Pacific destinations. And it must be attractive to a buyer someday.

“You never know,” he said. In their 70s, they might have only so many years to sail what amounts to a floating 401(k).

“It’s got to be marketable,” Lagier said.

Because even though Lagier plans to keep the last boat he’ll ever build, he also planned to keep the very first one, too.

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