Man Builds Boat, Can’t Get It To Water

The absolutely, completely and utterly insane saga of Philly boatmaker Jonah Eaton.

What have you been doing for the last eight years? Whatever it is, it’s probably not as impressive as what Swarthmore alumnus Jonah Eaton has been doing with his time. He’s been building a boat. By hand. But now that the boat is done, he’s having problems actually getting it, you know, into the water.

It’s not just any boat. No, Eaton, with help from his father Bob Eaton and a host of volunteers, has built a 42-foot Malabar II Schooner in a former dairy bottling plant on Worth Street in Frankford. In boat-making parlance, the vessel is a “two-masted gaff-rigged schooner,” based on a 1922 design from naval architect John Alden.

In November 2012, Eaton made news when bronze fittings worth $8,500 were stolen from the construction site. To offset that financial setback, he launched a Kickstarter online crowd-funding campaign to raise $2,100. He raised more than $5,000.

Over the summer, Eaton was a guest on WHYY’s Radio Times, where he and his dad talked about their fascinating family hobby with host Marty Moss-Coane. (You can listen to the full interview below.)

The BBC even paid Eaton a visit for its Big Dreams series:

Well, after eight years of labor, Eaton is ready to put Aramingo, as he has named the boat, on the water. The launch is scheduled for this weekend, and there are scores of supporters–including some flying in from as far away as California–planning to witness the maiden voyage. (Boat people get really excited about things like this.)

But there may be nothing to see.

Eaton had hired a contractor to (literally) pick up the boat, put it on a truck, bring it to the Delaware River and place it in the water. But when the contractor showed up recently to survey the situation, he realized that he couldn’t get his truck into the warehouse, and he bailed on the project altogether, says Eaton.

When I spoke with Eaton on Tuesday, he was out purchasing lumber and hardware, intent on constructing a mechanism to get the boat out of the shop and onto the street. “But it’s a complicated proposition,” Eaton tells me. “It’s not without its technical challenges.”

I bet.

If that process works–and there are no guarantees that it will–and Eaton manages to get the 20,000-pound vessel to the street, he “knows a guy who knows a guy” with a 20-ton forklift and a flatbed.

“He could theoretically just pick up the entire boat and drop it on the truck,” Eaton explains, not-at-all optimistically. “But then getting it down the ramp and onto the water in a safe way is a little bit dicier. This whole transport odyssey has been occupying a shit-ton of our time.”

Assuming all goes well and the launch happens this weekend (tick tock, tick tock), Eaton plans to have the Aramingo take part in the Independence Seaport Museum’s Old City Seaport Festival, scheduled for October 11th to 13th, and then motor it up to his family’s property in Maine, where he’ll put some “finishing touches” on the boat, including, presumably, the masts, which aren’t done yet. Hence the motoring.

And after that? “I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life,” Eaton laments. “After all, I did go to law school. I’ll have to find a real lawyer job at some point. But I’m not even thinking about that until after next week.”