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Steve Lobb: Unusual Boat Design Starts a Conversation

After a lifetime spent on the water, and traveling the world by boat, Steve Lobb decided to build a very unique boat at age 72.

A man stands atop his home-built boat

Lobb on his home-built Sled. (Photo: Emily Greenberg)

Steve Lobb seemed predestined to boating and sailing. From helping to build a small fishing boat in Florida at age 8, to being a curious and frequent visitor at the wooden boatyard he lived next to in the Netherlands, to owning vessels from Hawaii to Vermont, Lobb has always found himself in close proximity to boats. It wasn't until he was married, with little money and a baby on the way in the mid-1960s, that he began a lifetime of building, sailing, and living aboard boats.

"We showed up in Hawaii with a backpack and bought the hull of a wooden double-ender, which was actually a lifeboat from a World War II U.S. Navy ship. When manufacturers switched to fiberglass, the wooden boats were sold off. I put a keel on it, a rudder, rigging, and cabin," explains Lobb, now 72. Within a few months, he moved aboard the refitted lifeboat with his then-wife and new baby in Honolulu Harbor. From the family mothership, he set to building a 52-foot, plywood catamaran on which he and his growing family would eventually sail the world's oceans for three decades, getting remarried and fathering six children along the way.

Lobb built the cat alongside friends, craftsmen, and engineers who were working on Hōkūle'a, a renowned 62-foot replica of a traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. Launched in 1975 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Hōkūle'a still sails the world today, spreading the message of environmental awareness. Lobb's boat, which he named Melekei, was his modern take on Hōkūle'a and carried his young family initially through the South Pacific Ocean. After that, they just kept going.

"It's always been one step at a time," he says. "I never intended to sail around the world. When we ran out of money in Samoa, we lived frugally and did all the work ourselves."

A man with a beard smiling with his mouth closed

Steve Lobb. (Photo: Emily Greenberg)

Eventually, Lobb found ways to refill the cruising kitty. He found construction jobs in Australia, finish carpentry in New Zealand, chartering in Southeast Asia. Back then, he used only traditional navigation techniques — stars, winds, and seas — while his first wife kept a separate log using modern instruments.

Through his meandering voyaging days, he recounts journeying to Tarawa Atoll, site of an historic World War II battle. But this was during a 1984 reunion of American and Japanese troops, and a military escort out of Bali, where he became good friends with the officer ordered to remove crew from the country.

When one of his sons reached high-school age, Melekei was in Thailand. The family traversed the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Suez Canal to get the boat to Europe in time for his son to start at a new school. Melekei spent the next handful of years being sailed and chartered through the French Riviera and Mediterranean before Lobb crossed the Atlantic aboard her to the Caribbean.

The 52-foot plywood cat was sold in 2006 when health issues led Lobb to Montpelier, Vermont, where his grown son lives. Thousands of miles from the tropics, he found himself essentially landlocked for the first time in 40 years. It took 10 more years on dry land before Lobb decided to build another boat at age 72.

"In the time I've been in Vermont, the oceans of the world have completely changed," he says. "I'd been on the water my entire life, and it wasn't always easy. After learning to love that environment I almost feel obligated to do something meaningful in the face of changing oceans."

That's why Lobb built his current boat (in 6 months, solo!), a prototype he named Sled, as a model for a workboat in changing climates. With Northern Atlantic subsistence cultures in mind, it has a flat bottom, the ability to be pulled onto land or ice for anything from fishing and hunting to transporting goods, and a mast that can be easily dropped while under way. He hopes to get the design and evidence of its effectiveness to fisheries and government agencies in Greenland and Iceland. Thoughts of bringing Sled to the North Atlantic or perhaps the Caribbean have crossed the captain's mind. But at his age, and with thousands of sea miles under his belt, Lobb will be happy if his unusual prototype just strikes up conversation about environmental issues.

Sled was built on a shoestring budget, to test its limits. Laid-up with plywood sheathing and common spruce for framework, fastened using stainless-steel bolts and screws, and hundreds of feet of nylon lashings throughout the boat, instead of modern fittings.

"It's meant to be beat up," Lobb says.

This old salt could say the same about himself, yet he's still standing, still sailing.

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Emily Greenberg

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Emily Greenberg is an American freelance writer with experience as an award-winning community journalist, daily news correspondent, and magazine contributor. Her writing niches include food, farms, and all things nautical.