Sweet Liberty sailing once again

Len Wassmer describes himself as a cynic.

Kevin Valleskey, left, unties the Sweet Liberty while Captain George Koch sounds the conch shell as they push off from Naples City Dock for a boat tour on Monday afternoon.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Naples Daily News

Kevin Valleskey, left, unties the Sweet Liberty while Captain George Koch sounds the conch shell as they push off from Naples City Dock for a boat tour on Monday afternoon.

But he didn’t sound like one as he sat near his Naples City Dock boat slip one recent afternoon.

He explained how everyone helped to get his commercial catamaran, Sweet Liberty, back in the water after near devastation by Hurricane Wilma. His list included everyone from his own crew to U.S. Coast Guard officers.

The damage could have taken six months to repair but took barely eight weeks, and he was able to resume business two days before Christmas, Wassmer said.

Workers at Bob & Annie’s Boatyard in Saint James City on Pine Island in Lee County were still varnishing the Sweet Liberty as Wassmer pulled the repaired vessel out of the slip, he said, laughing at the memory.

Wassmer refers to Sweet Liberty’s damage as “wounds.” He uses the word “injuries.”

He does this while praising U.S. Coast Guard officer Mike Hammond, who Wassmer said visited Bob & Annie’s each step of the way to certify the repairs were done properly.

Hammond “came by when the injury had been cleaned,” Wassmer said.

Then, Hammond came back when the new wood was applied.

“He came in on Sunday, on his own time. He came back on Monday night on his own time,” Wassmer said of Hammond’s visits to Bob & Annie’s.

Sweet Liberty boat tours are back in business after closing two months for repairs from Hurricane Wilma, which damaged both sides of the vessel. Wilma did about $100,000 damage to the boat, which was repaired by a fourth-generation boat builder and other boat yard staff members who helped get the vessel back into shape more quickly than expected.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Naples Daily News

Sweet Liberty boat tours are back in business after closing two months for repairs from Hurricane Wilma, which damaged both sides of the vessel. Wilma did about $100,000 damage to the boat, which was repaired by a fourth-generation boat builder and other boat yard staff members who helped get the vessel back into shape more quickly than expected.

Built by Gold Coast in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Sweet Liberty is a 53-foot double-hulled catamaran that can easily accommodate 49, but Wassmer never takes out more than about 40 customers on the cruises he operates up to three times a day.

On the morning of Oct. 24, the boat’s mooring lines broke, and Wilma’s strong winds blew the Sweet Liberty onto the rocks. Then the wind pulled the boat off of the rocks, and slammed it back into the docks.

“She was impaled on the dock ... at 17th Avenue South,” said Wassmer, 58, a New England transplant who relocated to Naples 15 years ago.

That resulted in gashes eight to nine feet on either side of the 15-year-old catamaran. Wounds that ate right through the five to seven layers of wood.

Between salvage fees, boat yard work and payment to his own crew, Wassmer said the original rescue and repair estimate was $100,000.

In order to afford the necessary work, he took out a second mortgage on his Gail Boulevard home.

Wassmer chose Bob & Annie’s to do the repairs because they’ve cared for Sweet Liberty since her first launch.

“They’re ‘multi-hull freaks,’” he said of Bob & Annie’s, specifically Bob Conover.

Conover said Wassmer has been a longtime customer. When asked how he repaired the catamaran so quickly, Conover was humble and matter-of-fact.

“We threw all of our people into it and got it done,” he said simply. “We bust our hump to get commercial boats back into the water so those guys can make a living.”

Wassmer is undeniably grateful to Bob & Annie’s, but speaks of one craftsman with something close to reverence.

“If it weren’t for one man, (the job) would have taken four months,” Wassmer said.

That man is Ray Corriveau, a fourth-generation boat builder, whom Wassmer met last year.

“He’s a master craftsman. The other guys know boats, but not like him,” he said, describing the two-week process just to lay open the hole, hand-chiseling through each layer.

When the job was done, the guys at Bob & Annie’s said they were amazed at the quality of work in Gold Coast vessels, Wassmer said.

“They said, ‘We have a whole new respect for Gold Coast boats,’” Wassmer said.

Gold Coast spokesman Rich Difede was modest about company-constructed vessels that recovered from hurricane damage.

“There are many stories and many boats which have been damaged and repaired,” Difede wrote in an e-mail. “One boat was brand new and punctured by another boat and partially sunk during Hurricane Hugo (in 1989). She was repaired and two weeks later sailed from St. Croix to Maui.”

Wassmer was also pleased by how quickly his Ace Insurance agent sprang into action, as well as his bank, a local AmSouth branch — one to get his insurance claim filed and refunded; the other to negotiate a gap loan.

Wassmer was more inclined to credit human nature than supernatural intervention.

“I don’t believe in miracles,” Wassmer said, reiterating how everyone worked hard and fast.

“I got my baby back the Thursday before Christmas, because on the last day (at Bob & Annie’s), there were 10 to 12 people working on this boat,” he said.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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