Launching Fearless
by Shawn Payment

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… but at even at its worst, it was still pretty darn good!

On Saturday, May 15, I awoke to a crystal blue sky and barely the slightest hint of movement in the air here in San Diego, California. I said a silent prayer to the gods of wind and asked them for a brief exhalation—a 10-15 knot breeze if you please. By noon, my wish had been granted. The flag at Mission Bay’s De Anza cove was fluttering smooth and steady. It would be a good day for Fearless the Blue Jay to return to sea.

This was to be our shakedown cruise. A test sail to make sure that everything was working right before we hold an official coming out party. For over two years, my pal Buddy Hammond and I had spent our Saturday mornings repairing, restoring and refinishing this old hull and it was finally time to put it to the test. It was finally time to spend a Saturday sailing instead of working!

Free Boat
(click images to enlarge)

This adventure had begun in February 2002, when I received an e-mail from our local messabout group which offered a “Free Boat”. I called the phone number out of curiosity and learned that the boat in question was located only a couple miles from my office. I made an appointment during the lunch hour to drop by and check it out.

When I first saw Fearless, she was sitting under a dirty tarp in the side yard of Peter Jensen’s Del Mar home. Peter explained that he had obtained the boat from it’s original owner and then sailed it for many years with his wife and children. His kids were now grown and gone however and the boat had sat untouched for several years. Peter removed a tattered, threadbare tarp to reveal the faded red hull covered with bubbled paint, flaking varnish and patchy white globs of thick spackle that had been inexpertly smeared into the ever-widening cracks between the deck and hull. The hull had been sitting bow down on a wooden trailer and it didn’t take long to discover the fist-sized hole where water had pooled and then rotted right through the bottom. It was a disaster.

But I also saw some things that I liked. On the deck was a small but classic brass winch and several severely tarnished brass cleats. The centerboard and interior frames were solid mahogany. The rig was battered but complete and Peter still had the original main sail, jib and spinnaker all in good condition.

My first thought was that I could strip every bit of this hardware to use on some future boat project. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any room at home to store or work on such a project. It was then that I remembered a recent conversation with my friend Buddy Hammond. I had mentioned my desire to build a larger boat but was thwarted by a lack of adequate work space. Buddy had jokingly pointed out that his garage was too small for his large van but more than big enough for a boat. At the time, we responded to his suggestion with a good-natured laugh before the conversation moved on to other things. It all came flooding back to me now. I dialed the phone and told Buddy that I had “a crazy idea”. I didn’t even have to convince him. He was onboard from the start.

Buddy Sanding

The weekend came and we towed the boat down to Buddy’s house and immediately began stripping off all the hardware.

“Do you think we can fix it?” Buddy asked.

“Let’s just get all the hardware off and then we’ll see where we stand,” I replied.

By the next weekend, we were looking at a bare hull—faded, peeling and with a big, rotten hole in the nose.

“Do you think we can fix it?” Buddy asked.

“Let’s just strip the paint off and then we’ll see where we stand,” I replied.

Over the next few months, this process repeated itself many more times.

“Do you think we can fix it?” Buddy asked.

“Let’s just get the (varnish, centerboard case/deck/hull panels) off and then we’ll see where we stand,” I replied.


The more things we took off, the more things we found to fix. But we soldiered on. Over time, we had also learned the history about our little boat which only made it all the more endearing. The boat had been built in San Diego in 1962 by a fellow named Richard Shoemaker. Shortly after we obtained the boat, I had tracked down Richard’s wife, Beatrice, who informed me that Richard had passed away in 1984.

Richard had been an architect. This Blue Jay was the only boat he had ever built. Their neighbor, Al Cohall, a former commodore at Mission Bay Yacht Club (MBYC) had encouraged her husband to build the boat and join the club. Cohall had also convinced another mutual friend, Mort Sherman, to build a Blue Jay and even lent Sherman his garage to build it in. Shoemaker and Sherman built the two Blue Jay's side-by-side in neighboring garages. Once complete, they and their families had sailed and raced the boats as part of MBYC’s Blue Jay Fleet 82.

We also learned that the Blue Jay had originally been designed by Sparkman & Stephens in 1947. The goal was to provide a smaller version of their popular Lightning design which would be more suitable for junior skippers. The Blue Jay (also nicknamed "Baby Lightning") was designed to include all the thrills of its big sister, including a spinnaker, and was available in kit form for home construction. The design turned out to be a success with older folk as well; in fact, the first Blue Jay fleet in San Francisco Bay was helmed entirely by adults.

We were committed

Buddy and I were committed. Or rather, we should have been. No obstacle was too great. No spot of rot was too big. We epoxied parts where we could and replaced parts that were beyond repair. We dreamed of having the boat back in the water by the Fourth of July 2002. We didn’t even come close.

Admittedly, we we’re always diligent in our work. We both have jobs. We both have families. Occasionally, it would rain. Other commitments would fill up our schedules and whole months would go by without picking up a tool. But it was always there, waiting for the next step. An hour here, two hours there, always just enough progress to fuel the hope that Fearless would sail again.

And then there was the name. For the first forty years of its existence, the boat had apparently remained nameless. Neither the previous owner nor the builder’s wife had any recollection of a name. At first, we simply referred to her by the hull number that we had found inscribed on the centerboard case: “2718”. I felt certain that she'd tell us her name at some point during the restoration.

Hull number 2718

It was a late summer afternoon at a messabout on San Diego Bay when it came to me. I was staring across the bay at the Navy base and remembering my old Navy minesweeper, MSO-442, the USS Fearless, a little wooden ship. Fearless was decommissioned in 1990 and scrapped in 1993.

The following weekend, I asked Buddy what he thought of the name: "Fearless". He informed me that "Fearless" was the name of his first cat. He liked that cat. We asked the boat what it thought of the name. I think I heard it purr.

But now it’s two years later and I’m backing the trailer down the launch ramp toward Mission Bay. My trusty Mercedes sedan is no SUV so I’m a bit timid about plunging down the launch ramp with complete abandon. The trailer tires barely touch the water before Buddy and I decide to lift the boat off the trailer and drop it in the water. We’re shocked by the weight of the hull with complete rig. Still, we manage to lift the hull and slide her into the water in sloppy, uncoordinated fashion.

It floats.


Buddy tends the boat over to the beach while I park the car. We begin to set sails. The halyards are all tangled. How did that happen? We raise the main. Damn, forgot the battens. We lower the main, insert battens, raise it again. Up goes the jib. Why did I put the halyard cleats so far under the foredeck? Buddy grabs the rudder. We discover that the rudder draws a surprising amount of water. I walk the hull deeper. Deeper. My shorts are soaked but Buddy finally aligns the pintles and the rudder drops into place. Time to sail.

Buddy scrambles aboard. I give one big shove and heave myself over the port quarter and into the cockpit. The sails sheet home and we’re off. Fearless is back at sea!

Buddy yells at an idiot on a jet ski who’s speeding through the No Wake zone. I tell him to let it go and look around. We’re sailing! An easy broad reach on starboard tack. I give the tiller a push to see how high she’ll point. Very nice. Buddy and I are grinning like fools.

idiot on a jet ski

I am immediately impressed by how balanced the boat is. There’s almost no pressure on the tiller. As we lower the centerboard to it’s full depth, you can feel the hull grab and lift toward the wind. Then I notice we’ve got a twist in the jib tack where I shackled it down backwards. Buddy takes the tiller and I scoot myself out onto the foredeck to make the change. Fearless sails on through it all, smooth and steady.

We tack back toward our starting point as my wife Susan takes pictures. I’ll find out later that she can’t figure out how to work the zoom so all the shots are tiny and far away. Oh well, there will be other days for glamour shots.

Another tack and we’re heading back out across the bay. We’re still grinning. We sail along for another ten minutes before I decide that the jib halyard needs adjustment. I duck my head down to the cleat under the foredeck. Suddenly, I feel the hull turning up sharply into the wind.

“What are you doing?” I shout to Bud.

Buddy is craning his neck to look over the transom.

“Rudder broke” he says in response.

“What do you mean ‘the rudder broke’?” I say.

“I mean ‘the rudder broke’” he responds.

"the rudder broke"

With this exercise in eloquence behind us, I scramble aft and see a large crack bisecting the rudder blade. The bottom portion of the blade is flapping independently of the tiller. I look up and sight our launching point about a quarter mile away downwind and search my memory for childhood sailing lessons when I learned to sail without a rudder. I simultaneously discover that I can reach down and grab the aft edge of what remains of our rudder.

We fall off, loosen the sails and the bow neatly sets itself on a course for home. Once again, I note with pleasure the natural balance of the rig. Although I can’t make any dramatic course changes, there’s so little pressure on the rudder that I have little difficult simply holding it dead astern to maintain a steady course. Minutes later, we pull ashore at our original launching point. As we enter shallow water, the broken rudder touches bottom, pops out of its mounts and floats toward the beach on its own.

“Is that supposed to happen?” Susan calls from shore.

We scramble out of the boat, gather in the wayward rudder and begin to unrig. I look at Buddy. He’s still smiling.

“What do you mean ‘the rudder broke’?” he parrots at me with a mocking grin.

I can’t help but laugh. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I spent the rest of the weekend telling anyone who would listen:

“She was sailing sooooo nice… until the rudder broke.” And even then she still sailed nice, I think to myself.

And she’ll sail again. Soon.