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The last I saw of Lorelei

Robert Stanger

Our family, in general, and myself have owned a good many small boats throughout the years, ranging in size and speed from a lapstrake Lyman runabout powered by a 25-horsepower Johnson outboard down to a 10-foot wood and canvas kayak.

Except for the boat which is the subject of this article, we kept our “fleet” — which also included a couple of canoes — at the cottage we had for some years on the beach west of Erie.

The most notable of these various crafts our family had was the 18-foot sloop I sailed on the bay at Erie in my late teens and early 20s. I bought it with the proceeds of a summer job I had helping to put colored cement siding on houses for the Erie Perma Stone Company.

I moored the boat at Presque Isle State Park where the Presque Isle Boat Association had facilities on the bay shore opposite what was the park’s police station and is now the Stull Interpretive Center, which offers nature displays.

The sailboat, which my sister christened the “Lorelei” (a Rhine River siren said to lure sailors onto rocks by singing) had certain definite problems when I purchased it and took so much work to make it sail well. So much so that it remains rather regretfully in my mind (as I pile on the years) as a tribute to the ambitions and energy of youth to say nothing of the risks incurred once the sloop’s sails were hoisted.

Photo submitted to Times Observer The “Lorelei” cuts through the waters off Presque Isle State Park.

(I should have had an experienced small boat sailor check the boat out before I purchased it.)

When I told my father (a non-sailor) that I wanted to buy the boat which had been advertised for sale in the Erie paper, and which we inspected at its berth along the Presque Isle shore, he told the owner “We’ll buy it if you teach him how to sail.”

The seller did just that in a couple of short sessions, and I was then on my own with the “Lorelei,” which was actually boat of a single class (all made in Erie) called “18 footers.”

The “18-footers” had oak keels weighted down with 300 pounds of lead, carried about 160 square feet of sail, and had rather thick cedar planking.

I sailed either alone or with a couple of friends. (But I was soon down to just one friend, Bill, as the other initial sailing companion bowed out after telling his father about an outing on the “Lorelei.”)

“You’re not to sail on that boat again,” he was told.

Family members didn’t sail with me very often.

On Sunday mornings, owners of sailboats based at the club would hold racing regattas down the bay to specific buoys and back. Bill and I on the “Lorelei” occasionally joined in.

Wags at the Erie Yacht Club on the other side of the bay called our tiny fleet of varied craft the “Spanish Armada,” after the fleet Spain sent north in 1588 in an abortive attempt to conquer Great Britain.

One of the boats that took part in these Sunday sails was one we called “the flying Dutchman,” although that may not have been its actual name. The gray-and-white craft (which was said to have been of Dutch design) had billowing sails, a couple of which were flown off a large bowsprit, a flat bottom and lee boards (which could be raised or lowered) to keep it on course when tacking into the wind. Other boats in that fleet that I recall were the “Kestrel,” a beautiful sloop built in Norway, and the “Lotus,” yawl with very smart lines. A tall ketch on which the owner lived full time occasionally joined us. He wintered on the boat on ice-fee water near the Erie Public Dock

But I soon discovered that the “Lorelei,” although quite fast, was a problem to sail when the wind picked up.

The previous owner told me that he had hit a log while sailing which knocked the boat’s keel off.

He then installed a centerboard box into which a heavy steel plate was hinged and put a steel rudder on the boat’s stern attached to a long tiller to replace the rudder which had been attached to the keel.

However, the wooden centerboard box had warped, and the steel plate was locked in place most of the way down, and could not be raised or lowed.

The lack of the keel with its heavy chunk of lead made the boat what sailors call “tender,” or prone to heel over rather easily. So, I decided to remove the centerboard box and the steel plate, and replace it with a keel I cut off a wrecked 18-footer I found in a vacant lot near downtown Erie.

Bolting on the oak keel on with its heavy lead weight when the boat was drydocked in our garage was no small job. A friend assisted me.

But when the “Lorelei,” with its “new” keel, was launched and I took it out for a sail, I discovered that I had made a grievous error due to a mathematical miscalculation and had placed the keel too far forward. The centers of effort on the keel and the mainsail where too far out of line. This miscalculation made the sloop difficult to steer as a “weather helm” kept pushing the bow into the wind when tacking.

I sailed the boat as it was for a summer, but at the end of the season, I decided the keel had to be moved a few inches to the rear. At this point, my father took pity on me and had a new keel made at Griswold where he was the comptroller. He had the shop personnel fuse the lead from the keel onto what had been the steel centerboard, and then had that attached to a steel template curved to fit the sailboat’s rounded hull at the right place.

With its new keel attached, the “Lorelei” sailed quite well. But my father sold the boat a summer or two later when I was away. He doubted that I would use it much in the future and it did clutter up our backyard.

The last I saw of the “Lorelei” was a couple of years later. It was lying on its side on the shore of Presque Isle. It had broken free of its nearby mooring in a storm.

Perhaps the aged sailboat was scrapped after that.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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