Old Dream on Course
Bill Nelson stands on the deck of the Merri Sue, the sailboat he spent six years building, in Cape May.
Bill Nelson was 69 years old when he decided to pursue his dream. Six years later, 25 feet long and made of wood, it's complete.
The Press of Atlantic City
Tuesday, April 11, 2000
by Richard Degener
CAPE MAY - It's hard to figure out exactly when the dream first crystallized in Bill Nelson's head, but the first glimmer may have come almost seven decades ago. In the 1930s, Nelson summered in New England and learned how to sail. Those carefree childhood days sailing with his cousins in Buzzard's Bay kicked in more than a half-century later when he bought plans to build a two-masted 19th century sailboat known as a "sharpie."
Yet Nelson did not act right away. He was busy running the guest house, called "Springside," he and his wife Meryl own here on Jackson Street and serving on the Board of Education at the Lower Cape May Regional School District. "I looked at the plans for 10 years," recalled Nelson.
He wanted to build it, but he needed a little push. Bill Noe, a retired teacher at Lower Cape May Regional High School, provided the push Nelson needed. Noe took Nelson sailing.
Nelson realized he wanted to sail again. He was only 69 years old, why not? A short time later he set up shop in his basement and started building components such as the bulkheads, transom and cabin roof.
That was six years ago. Now, 25 sheets of Douglas fir plywood and 25 gallons of epoxy glue later, the dream has finally taken sail. A boat used as far back as the 1850s to catch fist and oysters in Long Island Sound is now tied to the pier here at Roseman's Marina. It was launched on Saturday but still needs some rigging work and lead in the keel before the maiden voyage.
"I look at it even now and I think, "My God, did I do that?" It helped that Nelson's wife was, in his words, "mast-tolerant." That's politically correct terminology for a wife who allows a 35 foot wooden pole to take up several rooms of the house for 10 straight days.
"We had to duck under it to go to the bathroom or watch TV. I have a mast-tolerant wife," joked Nelson. Actually, Nelson said that his wife supported him every step of the way and is looking forward to sailing the Merri Sue, a boat named after her. Meryl will get plenty of practice in May when they take a sailing vacation in Greece.
The Merri Sue is a modern version of a small workboat that could carry big loads - as much as 100 bushels of oysters.
The flat bottom boat can sail in rough weather and yet only draws two feet of water. She can be sailed right up to a beach. Leeboards, which stabilize the boat like a centerboard, are on either side. The main and mizzen masts are made of spruce and hold triangular sails.
"This is a descended from a row boat and is the same shape. When they get big, over 20 feet to 65 feet, they're called sharpies," said Nelson.
The boat has generated a lot of interest in an area that once had a strong boat-building industry. In fact, they used to build boats right here at Roseman's, a boat yard that dates to 1876.
People have seen the boat since it left Nelson's basement in parts, since it was assembled at Chuck and Hilary Pritchard's garage in West Cape May and received the finishing touches at Richard Samuelson's house in the Cold Spring section of Lower Township.
"Utter strangers have come up to me and said, "How's the boat coming? Saturday night I was at CVS in West Cape May and this woman I'd never seen
before said, "Hey, did you launch your boat today?"
In a week or so, the Merri Sue will finally take sail, Bill Nelson, age 75, will be at the helm. "I might cross over the Delaware," said Nelson.
Bill Nelson kept a scrapbook during construction of the Merri Sue. The photo above shows Bill and his son, Miles, in the summer of 1998, along with the diary entry on the progress of the project.
A 1930s photo shows Bill Nelson, his brother, Jerry, and friends in an early seafaring adventure.