Owner of loved but leaky Dame hopes for an angel


Being invited to find "epic, tragedy, or farce" in a boating experience was too good an offer to pass up.

So I made my way to Baltimore Yacht Basin, a somewhat run-down facility beneath the Hanover Street bridge, to the Dame Quickly, an equally stressed, wooden boat built in 1956, and her owner, Christopher Chase-Dunn.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he had the cabin sole up and was renewing the wiring to the bilge pumps that keep the 27-foot Pennant-class sloop afloat.

"The pumps must be kept working, or she will go down," he confided in his original e-mail message, which attracted me to his Pier C berth.

And there he was, once more trying to keep the pumps pumping and his boat from sinking in its $110-a-month mooring.

Any wooden boat, of course, will take on some water. The critical issues are how much, how fast. By any standard, Dame Quickly is a leaky vessel.

Chase-Dunn is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins. When his mind isn't on what's going on below deck, it's on much loftier things. He specializes in macro-sociology, defining and divining forces that shaped ancient societies and drive modern ones.

Rather than clairvoyant, his opinions are considered, and they attract international attention. A Korean television station had just interviewed him about what the new millenium holds in store.

So good is he at what he does, that he has been recruited to be distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, Riverside, which is 50 miles each of Los Angeles and the sea.

Thus he must leave Baltimore and his labor of love for most of his years here. Trucking her cross-country would cost too much, and even if it were feasible, sailing her would be too time-consuming.

Dame Quickly was built in Long Island as a racer-cruiser with a one-ton steel fin keel. You can recognize the sleekness of her white cedar planks laid on oak frames, and, in her prime, she was a hard-chine, high-tech speedster.

She is powered by the original Graymarine Light Lugger 4 gasoline engine, which starts at the first turn of the key during my visit.

"If you know anything about engines, it's easy to fix when something goes wrong," says Chase-Dunn. "It's pretty reliable. I have done a lot of motoring, and it really moves the boat right along."

Her spruce mast is 36 feet tall with a complex Marconi rig atop involving two ordinary spreaders and a pair of unusual forward spreaders for extra stiffening.

Despite the support, it has broken twice.

The first time a violent thunderstorm ripped out the temporary nails holding down the shrouds while Chase-Dunn worked on the timbers to which the permanent chain-plates were bolted. The mast toppled.

The second time occurred during his initial shake-down cruise, 10 years after he started working on his boat.

With Dame Quickly finally living up to her name, streaming along, her toe rail almost in the water, he went forward to tighten the inner forestay. His shoelace caught a clevis pin through the turnbuckle, releasing one of the shrouds. The mast twisted and broke just above the cabin top.

You can still see the neat "V" formation of the epoxied repair.

Quite significantly, Dame Quickly is equipped with an autohelm, testimony to Chase-Dunn's hours of solo sailing.

This, in turn, is a reflection of his wife's hesitation to leave the dock in such an aging, creaking craft. Once, when he did prevail on her to venture out with him, the rudder disintegrated, doing little for her confidence and less for her enthusiasm. The boat now has a new rudder.

With something bordering on maritime braggadacio, Chase-Dunn has equipped her with a Plastimo racing compass. But he is the first to acknowledge that on the rare occasions he has entered a race, he has followed a clear trail of wakes to the finish line.

He has renewed most of the underwater timbers. Holding her together today are new fasteners, new ribs, and some new keel boats. The renovation, he says, is thorough - but not complete.

It enabled him, in 1996, to complete a 600-mile counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula. He undertook that venture for reasons he gave in a subsequent account as having a good time, avoiding drowning, avoiding major damage to the boat or its loss at sea, toying with mortality and reason, and being able to say "'We did it."

"What it is, is it's a classic," he says. "If I were going to stay here, I would keep it forever. I love this boat. I have spent so much time on her. I enjoy working on the boat, and I enjoy working with wood.

"If there's somebody around who appreciates that, it would be a great thing for them. It would have to be somebody who likes old things. There are a lot of that sort in New England, but there are not too many around here."

He has offered Dame Quickly to the Living Classrooms Foundation and is thinking of approaching the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's, but no takers yet.

"It's an antique in the sense that there are very few like it around," he says, adding that he has searched the Web without finding a sister boat. "At one time, there were lots of them."

Certainly, in Chase-Dunn's relationship with Dame Quickly you can find all the elements of the promised mixture of "epic, tragedy, or farce."

What would please him most would be finding someone to continue his labor of love.

"Most of the heavy lifting already has been done. There are no guarantees, because it's an old boat," he says. "The bottom line for me is someone who will guarantee it won't sink in a year. It has to be a plausible promise."

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