It was late April, 2010 in a boat yard in Bayville, NJ. I was rolling bottom paint on my newly-purchased Hermann Lazy Jack schooner in preparation for sailing her home to the North Carolina Outer Banks when a car pulled up next to the boat and a friendly, grey-bearded gentleman hopped out and introduced himself with a warm smile.
“Don Launer,” he said. “I live right down the bay and I have a sister ship. I heard this boat had finally been sold and wanted to come meet the new owner.”
Actually, I knew exactly who he was as soon as he stated his name. I’d seen plenty of photographs of his Lazy Jack Delphinus inside and out in the numerous magazine articles he’d published. It was a real honor to meet him. We could easily have talked all day, but he was reluctant to keep me standing there with the paint drying on my roller so after giving me a copy of his latest Cruising Guide to New Jersey Waters, he gave me his card, invited me to email him any time I had questions, and drove away.
Although I never saw him again, I had a number of reasons to seek his advice and opinions by the time I docked up in Ocracoke a week later. Our correspondence continued over the next few years. Every time I’d consult him with a question, I’d get a nearly immediate reply, usually containing photographs and/or an attached article he’d written about the issue at hand. Of all these consultations, one stands out vividly in my memory.
My Lazy Jack, which was built in 1979, has an Edson worm gear steering system. After I’d owned the boat for a couple of years, a strange groaning sound came out from the steering shaft whenever I turned the wheel. I’d always kept the gear well lubricated, but this sounded like friction somewhere in the system. When liberal applications of WD-40 to every part of the system failed resolve the issue, I decided to consult the manufacturer.
I sat down and wrote an email to the customer service department at Edson.
And then it suddenly occurred to me: WWDLD? (What Would Don Launer Do?)
So I sent a copy of my Edson email to Don.
Later that day I received an email from Edson telling me that, being as old as it was, my steering gear was probably in need of a factory rebuild and if I would provide them with the serial number of my unit, they’d tell me how much it would cost to ship it to them for an overhaul. Ouch! Expensive as I knew that would be, it was nothing compared to income loss in the middle of my summer charter season.
But a half-hour later I got the following message from Don:
On the aft side of the steering system just above where the rudder shaft enters it, there’s a square-head screw. If you tighten that up a bit with a 7/16” wrench, I believe it will take care of your problem.
Needless to say, I hurried down to the boat, opened the hatch over the steering gear and reached in. I had to work by feel since only a double-jointed dwarf would be able to see the back of the unit. But sure enough, I immediately located the screw and found that it was loose enough to rotate with my fingers. After tightening it up I’ve had several more years of trouble-free steering.
It’s been over a year now since Captain Don Launer finally “slipped his cable” and sailed on. As a grey-bearded schoonerman myself in this age of “discard and replace” I recognize in his passing the loss of one of the last of a breed of independent sailors who took pleasure and pride in meeting the day to day challenges of boat ownership.
Fair winds, old friend!