What happens when you rescue a wood boat?

and does the story have a happy ending...?

a story of a wooden boat sailing the

Credit: Tom Kiley

This story is told by Tom and Ry Kiley, wood boat enthusiasts (that's putting it mildly!) and life long sailors, Tom works for Rockport Marine, thus knows a thing or two when it comes to wood boats.  Some people have a rescue hound or cat, these two went out and came back with a rescue boat (to add to their menagerie of other- yes you guessed it - wood boats!)...


Kiss the Foredeck

In the fall of 2008, my husband, Tom Kiley, mentioned to me that there was a Nielsen boat he wanted to buy and “fix up.”

It was the fall of ’08 for Pete’s sake, and we were all watching the economy tank. There wasn’t a soul anywhere who thought that buying a boat was a smart idea.

“Buy a boat?!?” many asked. “In what kind of shape?!? ...... Are you nuts, Kiley?”

And then there were my thoughts: “We already have a Nielsen boat.” I stated rather bluntly, referring to Snow Star, our much-loved 37’ Nielsen/Walsted sloop. “Why do we need another one?”

“We’re not going to keep her,” Tom answered. “It’s just a rescue mission.” His plan was to put this boat, called Star Song, back into working condition and then sell her. He couldn’t sit back and watch a Nielsen boat disappear. “If she doesn’t get back in the water soon, she’ll never get back in the water,” he stated.

That was the first hook. I’m a sucker for beautiful wood boats. In fact, I’ve fallen deeply in love with a few of them. So the thought of a wood beauty disintegrating due to lack of use was… well… not an option. This particular Nielsen boat happened to be in a shed just down the road from us, in the neighboring town of Rockland, Maine. So off we went to have a look, with Tom fully anticipating my blessing for his winter project.


Star Song, the 43’ near sister ship to our Snow Star, sat in the dark at the back of a fairly large, oven-hot, dirt-floor Quonset hut. We flipped on some dim lights to expose a blotchy looking hull, partially stripped of paint. She looked sad and left-behind…. dirty, lonely, unkempt, deserted. And yet she radiated an absolutely stunning silhouette.

Uh oh. Stunning.

“How long has she been like this?” I asked.

“12 years,” Tom replied.

Ouch, I thought, my gut starting to churn some compassion.

We leaned a ladder against the toe rail and climbed into a grimy cockpit, its condition reinforcing the left-in-the-dust theme. Walking forward with a flashlight in hand, I found a smattering of initiated projects in a long-ago neglected restoration attempt. It was apparent that he owner had the very best of intentions but perhaps no time to finish anything.

Climbing below meant crawling over the oil-covered engine that had been pulled off its mounts and left at the foot of the ladder. I navigated over it and into a cold, dark main saloon, stepping from beam to beam, as the floorboards were nowhere to be seen. And then, whoosh, I was struck by the second hook into an affinity for Star Song. The SMELL…. the Walsted wood boat smell! It was so THERE, behind all the dust and grime and randomly strewn parts. She smelled like Snow Star! I was grinning, and Tom could already see that his winter project was a “go.”

I wandered forward running my hand over beautifully crafted combing. I checked out the chest of hand-dovetailed drawers, the small soapstone wood stove, the leaded glass liquor cabinet with its all-wood locking key, still in place and working. I leaned into the head. The impeccably made stainless steel sink & counter were identical to Snow Star’s but a bit larger and facing forward rather than aft.

“When was she built?” I asked.


Same vintage, I realized, though Snow Star is a spritely 3 years younger. Under the dust and dirt, I noticed parts of Star Song that were actually in better condition than Snow Star. Simply from a lack of use, the interior cosmetics were free of dings and dents. The hull ceiling was in perfect shape and, other than being riskily dry, her structure was sound and strong.

I continued into the forward cabin. The similarities to Snow Star were striking, though just a bit bigger, including a port forward bunk built wider than the starboard forward bunk.

“She’s stunning, Tom,” I said as I walked aft. “She just needs some TLC. And, by the way, if we ever go cruising on this beauty, I get the port bunk.”


The next chapter is a multifaceted ten months, and is all about Tom, and Patrick Jones, his trusty partner in this fixer-upper caper. Patrick was excited about becoming half-owner of Star Song, and therefore, half-owner of all of her much needed improvements as well. I heard, however, that a few of his family members thought otherwise. Patrick showed his new project to his oldest daughter and, that night, overheard her telling her grandmother, “Daddy bought a hulk!” That winter, Star Song was dubbed “The Hulk.”

As any wood boat owner knows, every improvement takes a long time to complete and often leads to the discovery of one or two more new jobs for the To-Do list. Some might call that the dominoes effect, or a lesson in exponents, or perhaps a thru-hull left open in one’s checking account. No matter the number or depth of the tasks, Patrick’s help and humor were invaluable in the success of the restoration.

To summarize the work done:

  • New cosmetics on every surface inside and out (The list of paint & varnish used is comical, as it was all cast-offs or leftovers from various Rockport Marine projects)

  • A new plywood/glass/epoxy deck put on with Rockport Marine’s help

  • A few new planks

  • A new forward hatch (beautifully built by Ray Dodge)

  • A new/used mast (That was a project in itself. It is an old mast donated by a friend and Nielsen sister ship owner. The rig just happened to fit Star Song’s mast opening. It was shortened by 3 inches, cleaned, resurfaced, fared, primed, awl-gripped, and refitted.)

  • New rigging

  • A “new” head (another gift off another boat, and yes, it got cleaned)

  • A new Yanmar diesel engine

  • New sails

  • New bunk cushions & upholstery.

Mountaintop Boatworks, as our barn came to be known, burned lots of late-night candles that winter. My own assistance in the whole project was occasional and minimal. Tom, however, did his usual eight hours at work (Rockport Marine) followed by eight hours on Star Song. I started calling her “the other woman” even though I fully supported the affair.


Spring arrived and Tom & Patrick’s work of art was ready to go down the hill to the harbor. It was a rainy day but that didn’t slow Alan Drinkwater and his truck & trailer. He zoomed down Rt. 90 with 25,000 pounds of Star Song flashing her shiny topsides despite the raindrops, a parade of slicker-clad fans in cars following close behind.

For the launching there was no champagne and there were no flowers on the stem. But the Rockport Marine pumps were ready for action. Star Song was smiling when her bottom finally felt the ocean again. She lapped up the water like a thirsty and excited puppy, swelling her belly until she could hold no more. It took only four hours before the pumps ran dry. After twelve years of being on the hard, a dry bilge in four hours is testament to her designer and builder, and to Tom, Patrick, Rockport Marine, and the numerous extra helping hands.


star song Nielsen racing in the eggemoggin
            race sailing the atlantic

Credit: Tom Kiley

Our goal that summer of 2009 was to race Star Song in the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta (ERR) and then sell her, hopefully to someone worthy of such an amazing boat. By late spring Patrick’s Star Song bank account had reached its pre-set limit (smart man), and he was ready to get back to his own boat (and family). Fortuitously, my sister, Liz O’Leary could also see Star Song’s quality and was not deterred by the depth of the project. The timing worked for her to buy out Patrick’s half of the consortium. Having grown up in a sailing family with 210’s, 110’s, and a 40’ Crocker cutter, Liz and I are wood boat sailors to the core. Thankfully, she did not hesitate at the opportunity to buy in.

In the meantime, my two avid sailing daughters, Brydon and Lizzie Mitchell, hatched a plan that Star Song would have an all-female crew for the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, and Snow Star’s crew would be all male. Indeed, their plan may have had a bit of encouragement from Liz and me. But regardless of who was going to race her at the ERR, Star Song had a few “kinks” still to work out: The renovation of the donated mast took longer than anticipated, the centerboard was giving us trouble (as in, it stuck in the up position), and the electronics couldn’t be completed until the mast was stepped. As a result, the brand new Pope sails weren’t bent on until the day before the ERR. We were definitely going into this race a bit blind, but that did nothing to quell enthusiasm.


Star Song’s crew for the sail from Rockport to Brooklin was Liz and myself, Brydon and Lizzie, and Lily & Eleanor Conover (Brydon & Lizzie’s great friends); all female, all great sailors and all veterans of the ERR. And, we were three sets of sisters onboard Snow Star’s sister ship! Our departure from the Rockport Marine dock included lots of hooting and hollering of the female variety. It was indeed a launching of a different sort, and I think if Star Song had been able to make any noise, her hooting would have been the loudest of all.

snow star and star
                song Nielsens racing eggemoggin race sailing the
Credit: Tom Kiley
Star Song and Snow Star.  At the end of the 16 mile race there was a 2 second difference between the boats. (Star Song to the right of the picture)

That sail from Rockport to Brooklin was beautiful, though it was minimally enough practice for sailing the boat, let alone racing her. We sorted out which strings went to which cleats, tried to get the centerboard to cooperate, and did a few sets and gybes with a too-small, borrowed MPS which would have to suffice for a spinnaker since Star Song did not yet have a spinnaker pole. We were heading into the ERR totally green, but as ready as possible. Tom had told me that morning, “In 50 years of sailing, I have never felt so ill-prepared for a race as I do for this one.” He didn’t feel that either boat (Star Song or Snow Star) was ready for a race. But…. the jovial spirit flowing between our two boats that night was nothing short of ebullient. Lily and Eleanor broke out their violins and serenaded us and the whole ERR fleet in Naskeag Harbor. Friday night violins have long been a tradition for the Snow Star crew - and now the “SnowStarSong” crew.

Race day was wonderful, but turned out to be a hard one to swallow for this competitive skipper. In short, our start was lousy, our centerboard was stuck in the up position, the resulting weather helm felt like a bucket tied to the rudder, we got hung up on a pot buoy and actually stopped for a decent chunk of time, we lost the boathook in the releasing of that buoy, and we just never got Star Song going like we knew she could. Tom, however, sailed Snow Star brilliantly and came home with the Joel White Trophy, winner of all plank on frame boats. Maybe he should go into more races ill-prepared!

Our bottom line coming out of that 2009 ERR was that we had no choice (!) but to hang onto Star Song for one more year, until after the 2010 Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. Enough said.


Twenty-ten brought an early spring and incredible summer weather. After all the rain of ’09, we regained our faith in why we live here in Maine! The Kiley/Hills/O’Leary “fleet” of Nielsen boats (including Primrose, a 15’ Nielsen day sailor) was launched once again. Supper sails, practice sails, a restored and usable spinnaker pole, an extra-heavy-duty original issue 45 yr. old spinnaker, and a repaired centerboard brought Star Song ever closer to racing trim. Tom was wonderfully supportive and totally selfless of our continued wish to show Star Song’s potential with an all-female crew. It grew to include 11 women – 9 under age 26, and two of us over 50.

Race day was, in my opinion, one of the best ever for ERR sailing conditions: clear skies, a steady southwest breeze, the usual Eggemoggin Reach and Jericho Bay tides, and a competitive fleet. Our crew prepped for the day with French braids all around and SnowStarSong t-shirts hand-printed with “Same Sass, Different Ass.” (Snow Star is a double ender, Star Song has a square stern.) Our 3-woman foredeck crew held a quiet huddle on the bow, which ended with the three of them kneeling down and kissing the foredeck. I confessed to them later that when I had woken up that morning I had actually leaned over in my bunk and kissed the hull ceiling in a blessing of my own. Star Song had to have been feeling the love!

We sailed a good race, maybe 90% perfect. That 10 percent: After hearing and seeing a block get sucked into the spinnaker pole jaws, we erred on the side of caution and doused our spinnaker very early on the approach to Egg Rock. Our take-down ended up being problem-free, but its timing cost us precious seconds (maybe a minute or two) in the fleet.

But, on the beat from Egg Rock to Halibut Rock, Star Song gave me a gift that is hard to put into words, and one that I will remember forever. We rounded up around Egg Rock, called the trim, made a few adjustments, and settled in for the ride. Three of us were in the cockpit – one on the main sheet, one on the jib sheet, and myself on the wheel. The rest of the crew was sitting on the windward rail, watching our competition, the tide, and calling wind shifts. We all felt a mixture of calm, power, thrill, and joy. Star Song felt it too, and she simply took over under my hands. She felt suddenly set free – a race horse out of the gates, charging forward on her own, wanting to show us her stuff after a long 12 year wait. I was just barely touching the reins – her wheel. Her telltales were flying straight, there was no weather helm, she was balanced and in her groove - showing us her potential. Perhaps I’m a sucker for sails, wind, and water, and particularly for this boat, but Star Song knew what to do. Her pedigree came shining forth and she was free to fly. She was alive. It was a total honor and somewhat humbling to be at the helm of this beauty that, 18 months previously, had looked so forgotten.

We sailed the remainder of the race with competitive spirit, loving every second. Our crew of awesome women showed talent, humor, strength, concentration, and a passion to race well. There was never a shouted command. All voices were welcomed and heard and respected, decisions and tactics were unanimous and timely. It was, in short, a full-on blast.

On corrected time, we finished second behind Fidelio, a 38’ S&S yawl which was beautifully sailed and deserving of the victory. Admittedly I will always wonder about the outcome had we not doused our spinnaker too soon on that first leg. But that’s what every skipper does. “If only……”


Star Song is a phenomenal vessel. It goes without saying that she sails beautifully, but she is also incredibly comfortable and roomy below. Ten of our eleven crew members slept onboard: six in bunks, one on the chart table (it can be removed and the space converted into a seventh bunk), two on the cabin sole, and two in the cockpit. And everyone was comfortable. We raced with full water tanks (girls need their water and Star Song can carry 120 gallons), a jam-packed ice box (girls need their sandwiches, seltzers, munchies, and beer), an almost jammed freezer (girls need their frozen veggies for quick dinners), a liquor cabinet with a variety of wine (girls need to be ready to entertain properly), and eleven duffel bags all easily stowed. The only weight we removed for racing was the anchor, primarily to just get it out of the way.

Those two summers with Star Song were enough to seal the deal – I was undeniably and totally in love with another Nielsen/Walsted boat. Liz and my two daughters were equally smitten. We all recognized that Tom, with his incredible knowledge of wood boats, had rescued a treasure. And his utter selflessness and trust had allowed us women to be the recipients of Star Song’s awe-inspiring opening days. I will be forever grateful.


And.… we knew we could not own two boats. Tom had a new owner waiting in the wings, and “delivery” was scheduled for shortly after the ERR weekend. The only redeeming factor to selling Star Song was the fact that she was going to an absolutely wonderful family who would love her and care for her with the highest of standards.

star song back in the
                water sailing the atlantic
Credit: Tom Kiley

After that 2010 ERR and our sail home to Rockport we gave Star Song the full-team spit & polish. Then Liz and I left the rest of our crew at the dock and quietly motored Star Song out to her mooring. We deliberately took our time tidying up the last few lines, straightening any wrinkles in the sail cover, looking for reasons to stay onboard. Then we climbed into the dinghy and rowed a slow circle around the boat in silence, tears in both of our eyes, giving her a “hug” and saying goodbye. Sounds sappy, but all you wood boat lovers out there know exactly how we felt. Kiss the foredeck indeed!


Tom & Ry Kiley

Rockport Marine

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