Backyard Builder 32 Years Into Boat Project

By Charles Fort

On one side, there are those who are all about the sailing; on the other are those who are all about the beauty of sailboats. Most of us fit in the middle somewhere, loving the sailing as much as the boat.

Bill HablePhoto: Jenessa Freidhof

For example, hardcore racers tend to be on one extreme, where the boat is an instrument of speed under sail. Far on the other end of the spectrum is Bill Hable, of Bloomer, Wisconsin. Hable started building his 42-foot schooner when Ronald Reagan was President, and gas was a dollar a gallon. Now, 32 years later, the 78-year old Hable is almost finished.

Finishing the boat isn't the point, he quips; it's in the doing and in the doing right. It's making beauty out of wood, and lead, and bronze. Even a diehard racer shares a little headspace with someone like Hable, whose vision of art is a beautiful wooden boat that happens to sail.

Hable currently owns a wood 29-foot Alden and sails when he can. In college, he worked at a boat-repair yard in Madison, Wisconsin. That and his profession as an engineer are what have enabled him to tackle such a big project, he says.

The schooner he's building is modeled after the famous Alden-designed Malabar II and is equipped with a Yanmar diesel and a cherry-wood interior. And it's all been done his way. Hable cut down the trees for the boat, built the shed to house it, built the furnace to melt the lead for the keel, and even built his own sweatbox to bend the oak ribs to his will. When finished, the boat's LOA will be nearly 55 feet.

Hable, like many sailors, has a passion, but his is not about blue water and fresh winds. It's about creating something by hand, about using a life to craft something beautiful, fulfilling, and lasting. It's about crafting contentment.

His philosophy is pragmatic: The problem people have with exercise, he says as an example, is they go walking and all they get is their shoes worn out — they have nothing to show for the effort. In Hable's mind, those same people should be going for a walk in a field, picking up some stones, and then building a stone house. "That way when you exercise, you have something to show for it," he explains his logic. His "exercise" is found in building his boat and it has served his health well. "The medical profession would go broke if they had to take care of me," says Hable.

People regularly ask Hable how he was able to build such an exquisite boat by himself with just a few plans. His answer is also pure Hable.

"I subscribe to Howard Chapelle's advice to have a 'moaning chair' in a boatbuilding shop," he told us. "It's a place to simply sit, ponder, and visualize. Some of the things I do have to be planned five years ahead to make everything fit."

Hable says he hopes to launch his boat on Lake Superior in a couple of years, but by then says he'll already have found a lifetime of joy in the building of his dream, launch or not.

Some people find contentment in sailing, while a few find it in building a sailboat. Hable started 32 years with the intention of finding contentment on both ends of the spectrum. 

— Published: April 2017

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