St John’s Most Famous Wooden Boat

St. John’s Most Famous Wooden Boat

Deep in the forbidding interior of Burma, a young British army officer went shopping for teak. The year was 1938 and the soldier was Walter Leslie  Runciman. The massive tree trunks were dragged by elephants with chain harnesses to the edge of a deep pit dug in the pithy soil of the steaming jungle. One by one they were rolled into the pit and wrapped in a protective layer of mud. When all the logs were thus interred, the pit was filled in, the site was surveyed and the workmen left.

As the precious wood slowly cured in an age-old process practiced only by Burmese royalty, several events took place. One was World War II. Leslie Runciman proved himself in that bloody conflict and went home to England to join his family. And, the teak, in its cocoon of jungle mud, took on a rich color, a rock hardness and an imperviousness to worms and insects.

The Runciman’s were shipping magnates in the grand style of the British Empire and young Leslie eventually became Lord Runciman, Second Viscount of Doxford, which meant that henceforth he’d be responsible for the salaries and wellbeing of scores of people with bad teeth.

At this same time, a marine architect named Uffa Fox was gaining note in Naval and maritime circles for his innovative boat designs and construction techniques. Fox had built lifeboats for the Royal Air Force in the shape of “punkin seeds”that could be dropped from aircraft to downed pilots in the North Sea. Double-ended and water-tight, it mattered not which end hit the surface first. They were also incredibly strong little craft, having been constructed by gluing together thin layers of wood while alternating the direction of the grain. Fox felt that the canoe stern shape was perfect for the treacherous waters of the English Channel. His construction method became known as “plywood”.

Lord Runciman knew Uffa Fox and owned one of his sailboats, in fact. So, in 1950, he approached his friend with a novel idea: return with him to the jungles of Burma, there to uncover a cache of the finest hardwood in the world and create a yacht that would become a classic. Fox agreed and an expedition was organized that included native bearers, pack elephants and surveyors. What they found, upon arrival at the exact site where a decade earlier the treasure had been buried, surprised them, for the only paved road in ten thousand square miles had been laid over Runciman’s stash.

Only by a Royal Decree and a large cash bribe to the Kralahome, or King’s righthand man, could the roadbed be disturbed, the teak unearthed and the valuable lumber retrieved. After weeks of back-breaking labor the hardwood was placed aboard a steamer and transported to England. A vicious gale of hurricane strength punished the little freighter as it rounded the Horn of Africa, but eventually it arrived in the Solent where it ended up in the yachtyard of Uffa Fox.

Sailing vessel Sandavore was launched in 1952. She was yawl-rigged and 49 feet overall. The teak, that had taken so long to cure, literally glowed under twenty coats of spar varnish.

Sandavore

The double-ended design made her exceptionally friendly to a following sea. The bronze fittings and deck prisms shone proudly as Lord Runciman hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Bonny Prince Charlie on a weekend outing.

Nobody could have predicted the succession of owners, the notable life of that boat, or her eventual loss off the East End of St. John. Who would have thought that a queen, a fellow who would never be king or a movie actor who portrayed a president would all sail aboard Sandavore. Captain Lance Burgo would buy her in Miami and sail her for many years throughout the Caribbean and East Coast Atlantic. And I would crew for him over two remarkable seasons, living aboard in Cruz Bay and making memorable the vacations of many charter guests.

As I learned the finer points of brightwork maintenance, I would nickname her under my breath “Sand-Some-More”. As I sweated and fretted elbow-deep in the bowels of the antique head, I’d be reminded of whose royal buttocks had graced that porcelain throne. And, as I learned to singlehand a large sailboat, I would come to admire the easy manner that was a result of Uffa Fox’s insightful design.

Through Lance I would learn to entertain passengers with amusing and amazing stories; some true, some embellished, some downright fabrications. One such lucky charter guest was Harry Nessler from Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. In his 80’s and nearly blind, Harry would sail on Sandavore every year. He knew his way around by sense of feel and was comforted by her heaviness and lumbering gait through all sea conditions. I would read aloud to him and Lance would describe the natural beauty that surrounded us. Once we explained the mating ritual of a pair of leatherback turtles, that existed only in our imaginations, so graphically that they came alive in Harry’s mind. Because he was sightless, it didn’t matter where we sailed, so we’d let the Aries self-steering device take over.

Once we saved a pair of obese German tourists from drowning off Caneel Bay. It was a wurst case scenario as the current propelled them toward Henley Cay. Sandavore was featured in Alan Alda’s sappy movie The Four Seasons and Lance acted as technical advisor, as well as captain.

Sandavore was a regular entrant in Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race, as well as the Sweethearts of the Caribbean out of West End, Tortola. She met her demise one dark night on Red Rock Point while tacking (too late, it seems) out of Coral Bay. Many pieces of her remain in the flotsam collections of long-time St. John residents. Some may wonder how and why that hunk of teak is so resilient. Now you know.

– Jeff Smith

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