Building a wooden sailboat: A husband’s testament to love.
by Caroline Luzzatto
photography by Keith Lanpher
Hunter Gall’s baby is upside down, a shimmering blue with a slightly bumpy surface where it still needs sanding and scribble marks where it’s a bit too thin. It’s an object of love, frustration and fascination. When he lies on his back on the workroom floor and looks up into the bow, where the wooden ribs come together, he has trouble finding the words for what he sees. “For me,” he says, “it’s almost like a church steeple.”
It’s an early June day, and he is working to finish the hull of Scallywag, the 15-foot wooden sailboat he’s been building in his spare time for more than a year. Soon he’ll flip it over and begin the next stage of work.
For Gall, 43, who has found his way from Australia to Virginia Beach and from race-car engineering to computer-modeling medical equipment, this project has been an experiment and an adventure. “You grow a relationship with the boat – you become at one with it,” he says. Once the boat is done and he can actually step aboard, it will be a pivotal moment – and the end of the process. “That’s bittersweet. Because (then) it’s just a boat.”
Scallywag was born out of a romance not so much with the sea but with a woman – his wife, Katherine GronesGall, “Chic” to everyone but her husband and mother. On a vacation, Gall realized that his bride-to-be loved boats, and the water, and the beauty of carefully worked wood. That love inspired him to design and build a wooden boat that they could
“You look for connective tissue as a couple,” he says. A boat was something they could both love, and he would make it himself so it would be just right. “I’ve built everything that meant anything to me with my hands,” he says. “… I wanted a boat I built myself. I wanted it to be my baby.”
Scallywag – scamp or scoundrel – was Gall’s nickname from his grandfather, and then his own nickname for his wife. It was only natural the term of endearment would end up veneered on the side of the boat, too. But naming that boat has been the only easy part of this plan.
Gall started off ambitious – and a little scattered. He wanted to do it all himself, to learn enough to become a naval architect, but he couldn’t navigate the ocean of possibilities that presented. “I was lost for five years, floundering.” Then a friend called to offer him a 50-year-old, 20-foot spruce mast that needed a new home because its owner was moving into a retirement community. Gall decided to use it – and the limits the mast set on the size and design of the boat gave him new focus. “Being given that mast kind of tempered my hysteria,” he says.
Instead of creating his own design, he decided to use one by Dudley Dix – a 15-foot wooden sailboat, the Didi Sport 15 – and he’d be building the prototype, the first amateur build-out of the new design. “It’s nice to be building the prototype; it’s a real privilege,” Gall says. He admits, though, that he won’t be able to resist doing a little customizing.
“I’d like to interject here that Hunter never follows directions,” his wife says, laughing.
“I’ve learned to think for myself,” Gall replies, grinning.
That doesn’t mean he’s going it alone. Gall gives credit first to his wife, who has been his cheerleader and partner.
She calls herself a “boat widow” but shows off photos of the work in progress. She jokes about the time he bought her a portable boat toilet as a gift; she dons a pirate’s eye patch as a joke when she’s talking about the boat-building process. “Beautiful,” she sighs, talking about the delicately aligned wooden panels and the dye that gives the wood a stained-glass glow without hiding its swirling grain.
“Katherine called it my mistress,” Gall says. “It’s a funny relationship – she’s so involved in the boat, but it takes a lot of time. She does miss me.”
Then there’s Terry Moore, the co-worker and friend in whose workshop near Elizabeth City Gall is building his boat. Gall, who calls Moore his big brother, says, “Terry has a way of keeping me sorted when I’m in a quandary.” Like Gall, Moore is perpetually making things – right now he’s working on the second floor of his house and building the furniture to go in it – and is in and out of the workshop. He offers Gall tools, advice and – when needed – his eyes.
Gall is red-green colorblind, and when he needed help gauging how well the blue dye he used was penetrating the wooden hull of his boat, Moore was there. Side by side, Gall and Moore sprayed dye and looked for light and dark patches. The job done, Moore returned to his house.
When he did, his wife noticed a smudge of blue on his nose. Moore wiped it off. Then she looked more closely, and sent him to the mirror. Moore’s entire beard had taken on a blue tinge. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. Also blue.
He returned to the workshop and took a closer look at Gall, still working on the boat, his nostrils and beard a surreal blue. “You’ve gotta go look in the mirror,” he told him. They still laugh about it.
There’s also the boat’s designer. “I would say Dudley is my mentor and Terry is my foreman,” Gall says.
Dix, originally from South Africa and now based in Virginia Beach, built his first boat in 1975 using plans from a Dutch designer. The 36-footer took him nearly three years to finish and eventually launched him into a career as a boat designer. Now he creates plans and kits for amateurs in addition to creating designs for professionals. He has boats being built in 87 countries, he says, even one in Siberia, to sail on Lake Baikal. He rarely gets to see the results in person: “They buy the plans over the Internet and I never meet them.”
Gall is one of the exceptions, though, since he’s working right here. “He is a first-time builder and he’s doing a very nice job of it,” Dix says. “At the end, he’ll have a boat he can be proud of.” But, he adds, “I would have built it in probably half the time.”
Gall can’t argue with that. By early June, more than 13 months into the project, he’d put in 500 hours of work on the boat itself – not including the computer renderings he had worked on just for fun. “We’ve had several deadlines, but they’ve kind of melted away,” he says. “I like to take my time. There’s a lot of contemplation for me.” He has labored over the details – making sure the wood grain lined up in the panels of the hull, keeping the alignment of the double-curved pieces true, tearing apart anything he’s done wrong so he can go back and do it right. Computer-assisted design doesn’t begin to capture the real sweat and tears of the project. Computer modeling “is what I do for a living. It’s a walk in the park. Building it is another thing.”
One way or another, Gall has been building since he was a teenager.
He grew up on a farm in New South Wales, Australia, part of a family he calls “very free-spirited,” and left home at 15. “Times were tough,” he says. “There was a drought on.”
He began an apprenticeship in metal machining, welding and fabrication and studied mechanical engineering in night school. One thing led to another. He detoured into racecar engineering, building and tuning specialty cars, dreaming of building the best car he could and racing it at LeMans. But the dream faded. After 10 years, frustrated and feeling adrift, he switched gears, turning to industrial design, model-making and prototyping. In the interim he began volunteering at a hospital with children who had HIV/AIDS. He even ended up studying clowning, which helped him reconnect with something buried during his years of work. “That reminded me of being a child,” he says. “I found a part of me that I’d forgotten. I loved being a clown.”
It wasn’t something he could see himself doing for a living – it’s emotionally taxing, he says – but he held on to that playful spirit and looked for other ways to express it. He also continued his work in industrial design, becoming a university instructor, but took another turn into building phantoms – materials that mimic human tissue in great detail. They are often used for determining what radiation dose a tumor would get or for training medical professionals to use imaging machines. That led him to the U.S., first to the West Coast, then to Norfolk, where he works for CIRS Incorporated. Among his projects: a phantom of a human head, complete with sinus cavities, trachea, an “average brain,” teeth with dentin and enamel, spinal cord and vertebral discs.
It also led him to his future wife. When he came to Hampton Roads to work for CIRS, he found a home in Virginia Beach, and met Katherine when Hurricane Isabel knocked out the lights in their neighborhood. They began fashioning a life together as a couple, marrying four years ago. Even the name the two plan to share is carefully crafted: She uses the last name GronesGall, a conjunction of their last names, and he plans to adopt it once his citizenship paperwork is done, in a little over two years.
That, like his boat, can’t be rushed. He’s enjoying all these experiences – work, marriage, the boat – and trying to make all the details right. As Dix puts it, when you build something like this, “you are creating something that wouldn’t have existed without you. You become part of the boat’s character and it becomes part of you.”
Gall dreams that one day there will be an entire fleet of the lively little sailboats, a sailing club for young people, a chance to mentor other boat enthusiasts – but first, there’s work to do on Scallywag. Thin spots will be reinforced, a skid plate will be added at the bottom, a veneer pinstripe will be fashioned and it will be sanded, sanded, sanded. Once the deck goes on – dyed red and then clear-coated, so the wood grain will still show – much of his interior work will be hidden, and no one will be able to see whether he’s gotten it right. Still, he’s careful and methodical. “I’ll know the difference,” he says.
“People at work call me a perfectionist,” Gall adds. He hates the term. “It’s almost an insult. That doesn’t sit well with me. The best I can do – that’s all it is.”
Then he takes one more look around the workshop, where pop music is playing on the radio, tools line the walls, faint blue dogprints wander around the edge of the floor, “redneck wind chimes” made from beer cans hang in a corner – and returns to patiently sanding the hull. He grinds the latest layer of finish down another fraction of a millimeter closer to – well, maybe not perfection, but something in the neighborhood.