Finding Heldena II -  Part 1: A Gray Dort and a girl named Velvet

Matt Fairbrass

 

In speaking to Kathy Rhodes and other members about the Under the Hatches articles I write, the conversation will often turn to Heldena II and how I came to find her and eventually own her for nearly 20 years. I have told myself often that I should tell the true story about finding, owning, researching and restoring Heldena and to fill in the gaps that nobody knows about. Her story is a very personal one and very close to the heart. I will do my best to keep it interesting and factual, but I also don't want to gloss over the wonderful journey this boat took me on as a young man. I hope you will enjoy the true story of finding Heldena II and how I saved her from certain destruction.

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Growing up in Scarborough in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was a wonderful experience. We had a very large lot with a ravine behind us and plenty of room for tree forts and exploration. Our home overlooked the Guildwood area and stories of buried treasure from 1812 were a good enough reason to search for the treasure, explore old bottle dumps, and find old discarded farm machinery in the woods surrounding our home. The story of buried treasure had a ring of truth to it as a pay ship from Britain had apparently put ashore nearby during the War of 1812 while being pursued by the Americans. The legend was that they escaped ashore and buried the pay chest in one of the seven ravines along the Scarborough Bluffs. We were very near one of them; although ours was more of a gully, it was good enough for a 10 year old treasure hunter, and I would spend hours digging holes and dragging back buried relics to show my very patient and always encouraging parents. It seems that early experiences somehow forge our later years, and I can still spend hours by myself in the shop in complete silence totally engrossed in a project or researching something that interests me.

 

Lake Ontario was near our home but was quite inaccessible as the bluffs were very steep and getting down to the water was virtually impossible. In the mid ‘70s Mum would take us kids to the Dairy Queen or just go for car rides on those hot summer days. About this time the Borough of Scarborough had decided that a road should be built extending Brimley Rd down to Lake Ontario to create an access to the lake as well as developing a marina, restaurants, and the like. This was a big thing back then, and we would go and watch the thousands of truckloads of fill being hauled down the very steep hill to create the spit of land that is now known as Bluffers Park. As the spit of land grew so did the need to widen Brimley Road. They were able to expropriate some of the lands from back yards to do this; this widening allowed you to see into everyone’s back yard and it was on one such car ride that I first saw Heldena now exposed to the road... and my curious eyes. I was about 14 years old at the time and became fascinated by this long wooden boat lying there covered with old canvas tarpaulins; the tarps wrapped her like a skin revealing her lines and teasing me to investigate further. I can still see her today as she was on an angle - bow up as if she were a dolphin ready to leap. I was able to stand at the fence and admire her until the owner came out and told me to clear off muttering something about the damn kids, etc under his breath. I knew nothing about old boats other than I loved the look of her and wondered what lay beneath the rotting canvas. I was able once to chat with the owner in the front yard about two years later, but it was very brief. He just said it was an old racing boat and that the police used it. I still did not know the boat’s name, but I would still go past the place every now and then and she would still be sitting there looking more and more forlorn and decrepit. I was now 22 years old and just finishing the restoration of a very rare 1915 Gray Dort automobile I had found in a barn in Campbellford when I was 16 years old. Her discovery is another tale for another day, but my Gray Dort did open the door to acquiring Heldena II.

 

In 1984 I was working at a gas station not far from where Heldena was resting, and I would work on my Gray Dort whenever I had time. Across the street was a restaurant of the greasy spoon variety, and I would frequently dash in for some food or a coffee. A lovely girl named Velvet worked there, and while we never dated we did become friends. By this time the Gray Dort was nearly finished and I would drive it to the shop once in a while, and I think I drove her home in it several times. She loved the car and we did drive around the neighborhood a few times waving at the neighbours and having good fun. It was one such outing that she suggested we drive over to her uncle’s to
show him the car. She said he would love to see it and I happily

agreed.  As we approached the street he lived on the conversation suddenly turned to the old boat in this weird old guy’s backyard. It was a long street and as we got closer it dawned on us both that it was her uncle’s house that I was talking about!                                    

 

Now I figured I was done for, and I said something like he was more like a little weird, not full on crackpot weird or something like that. She laughed as we approached the house and ordered me to pull into the driveway with my precious car. She said, “Do you really want to see that old boat?” I replied, “You bet I do!!” She then popped
 out of the car, leaned over the door and said, “I'm his favourite niece, lets' go!” About the same time her uncle came out of the house and down the junk covered stairs and immediately hugged Velvet and then set his sights on the Gray Dort... and me. I thought, oh boy, he would remember me but he didn't and warmed up quickly. His name was Fred Brough and he was in the junk business; his yard rivaled anything you would see on a reality T.V. show these days. His claim to fortune was collecting scrap metal - and anvils of every size and type. Velvet asked him if I could go and see “the old boat in the backyard” and he happily agreed as long as I put the tarps pack on it when I was done. They stayed on the porch and chatted, and I set off as fast as I could without looking too anxious - all the while negotiating the gauntlet of debris and detritus from a lifetime of collecting. I could not believe my luck as only minutes earlier the old boat had not even been on my mind. I just thought to myself, great I can finally see what this old boat is all about.

 

She was sitting on a makeshift trailer - all 36’ of her; I was able to climb up from the stern and remove the wooden planks that were holding the tarps in place. I rolled the tarp forward and started to uncover the stern and the floor. The aft deck was curled up and the floor was full of leaves and decades of debris. I made my way forward and came to the only seats in the whole boat. Two beautifully shaped mahogany bucket style seats were fastened to a linoleum platform. I quickly uncovered the dashboard and revealed the remaining instruments and switches. A big instrument panel that said Kermath was still attached, but it missing all the gauges and most of the switches. Unable to go any further from the cockpit I slid the rotten canvas off the side and exposed an immense deck with four very large hatches that covered the engine compartment. Her deck was lifted up and curled and was the saddest gray colour you could ever imagine. I was able to lift an engine hatch and see a huge empty cavity that was beyond filthy but still wore its original red lead paint in the bilge. The entire engine room was covered with a diamond patterned aluminum sheeting that I found out later was for fire protection and was held in with thousands of little brass tacks. It was meticulously done so that no wood was exposed. Forward of the engine room was another closed in bulkhead that was also covered in smooth aluminum and only accessible by a small hatch further up the deck. I worked my way forward being ever so careful not to fall through the rotten deck planks. This space revealed a water tight bulkhead that held the fuel and oil tanks.

 

 I climbed down and gazed at her lines that had not seen the light of days for years. Overwhelmed is not a word I use too often, but I will use it here. Here I am standing in front of an enormous 36’, her lines flowing effortlessly from stern to bow. Her up-swept cockpit dash woodwork followed the hatch lines and continued unbroken to the bow. Her gunnel rub rail ran full length and ended at a beautiful cloverleaf design bow cap made of solid brass and nickel plated. There was no other hardware on her, but she looked magnificent to me even though I knew nothing about wooden boats. Heck, I had never even really seen a wooden boat, but I knew enough to know this boat was special - very special.

      

I climbed up once more into the cockpit and stood there looking down her deck and imagined what it would have been like to drive her. What was the engine supposed to be? What was the boat’s name? Who built it? So many questions to find answers to, my head was full of them. I struggled to cover her up and the canvas fell to pieces, but Fred was good about it and we did find a slightly better one in the garage. He was actually chatty about the boat, and he said he would be right back with something. I waited with Velvet and she was happy to see us both having a good time and seeing her uncle so animated. Fred reappeared proudly producing an old apple crate and said this was the hardware from the boat. I was thrilled to see the green port and starboard lamps and a mass of fittings of various types. At the bottom was a magnificent bow lamp with the name Heldena II Toronto boldly engraved on the top. This was her name, and I knew at that moment she would be mine. I needed to save Heldena II.

 

Over the next year I got to know Fred better, and he would come by the shop and use my hoist to fix his cb20 - tarps1decrepit truck and haul away scrap that I saved for him. He always wore the same ball cap, and I can still see the embroidered patch that was only sewn at one side and flapped away like it was trying to take flight. It was so covered in grime that you had no idea what it originally said or even what colour it was. I would visit Fred often and the talk would always turn to the Heldena II; he knew how interested I was in buying her and I think he was actually starting to consider letting her go. Even though he had owned the boat since 1957 and she had sat outdoors in the elements, he insisted that she be put indoors and that was a stipulation should a sale be made. Many times I would visit Fred and I honestly thought he would never sell her. I would patiently listen to his stories of great scrap deals, and I always had to have the tour of his anvil collection that varied from about 2 lbs right up to a monstrous 4’ model that must have weighed at least 2 tons. I learned that many of these were his father’s and that they came over from England as sailing ship ballast in the early 1900s They were like new and all have big foundry letters and codes cast into them. I learned how to season an anvil before you used it and how to care for them so that they would last a lifetime. They shared the garage with vintage Harley Davidson frames and old war surplus crates full of who know what and all sort of good guy stuff.

 

It was a hot summer day, I think about July, when Fred finally agreed to sell the Helena II to me for the sum of $1500.00 - Cash he stated emphatically. My father was away on a business trip overseas, and I could not wait cb20 - tarps2until he came home to tell him the news. I don't recall Dad ever seeing the boat as it just never seemed to come together that way. Now most parents would have a hairy fit but not Mum and Dad. Dad was to see her a few days later, and I eventually got around to telling him that she was 36’long (after my glowing report of her). He took it all in stride and we paid a visit to the yard to see my treasure. Dad was an amazing man; he was an architect and store designer and had a tremendous eye for lines and form. At first glance he was consumed by her shape (and size I am sure). He was speechless for a moment but immediately agreed that this was no ordinary boat. Her screws were all plugged and the intricate plank fastenings could still be seen. Her deck made a compound curve both port to starboard as well as towards the bow. I had gone up earlier and uncovered her and Fred was there and pleased to meet my father who chatted about anvils and England and the like.

 

Some time passed before we finally moved Heldena and I needed to make preparations and a transport dolly
 and all the other bit and bobs required. I had given Fred a down payment on Heldena and made him weekly payments until she was paid off. After the final payment I wanted to get the hardware from him that he had shown me over a year earlier. Well this is where the drama comes in folks - it was missing!! The whole crate the beautiful lamp and the fittings - all gone!  Where were they and how had they gotten lost? I was very upset and had not even shown my father the parts yet. I had to try and convince Fred to find the parts at any cost. He was often away collecting and selling scrap and the negotiations about finding the lamp and parts were delicate to say the least and dragged on for weeks. He was a busy man he told me and had no time to look at the moment and that sort of thing so I devised a plan on the fly; I said I know you’re a business man and you should be paid for your time so I have a proposition for you. I will pay your regular rate in cash to search your house for the basket of parts; I said that's only fair after all. He looked awkward but agreed and I think it was $100 dollar bill I gave him as a down payment and left it at that as I also had to get back to work. It was only about a week later that Fred walked in the door of the shop with the apple crate - and my $100 dollar bill. He said he just remembered where it was and that there was no need to pay him to look after all. This is what happened and we both went over to the greasy spoon and had Velvet serve us lunch. I paid and she got a great tip as she also knew the circumstances. That is how Heldena II became reunited with her cb20 - cranehardware. You can read into this what you will, but Fred was a good man and saw the same thing I saw in Heldena in 1957 when he purchased her for $250.00 from the Toronto Harbor Commission. At that time she was slated for the scrap heap and Fred dragged her home for the same reasons that I did - she was special. Fred died suddenly about a year later and his property was soon sold off, the dumpster bins carted away everything, old cars, motorcycle parts, scrap metal, and his beloved anvils.

 

I will backtrack a bit here and explain how moving day went. I was able to arrange a boat moving company out of Pickering to trailer the boat but we needed a crane to lift her onto the truck. The crane operator was a good sort and was recommended to me by a mutual friend; it was a cash job if I recall. He showed up on time as did the trailer company and immediately asked when Hydro was coming to take the power lines down. Power lines I said - really? Oh boy, I had not counted on that! At this point I was asked if I had all the permits in place and a police car to direct traffic etc., etc. I felt a sense of doom approaching, and the trailer driver felt the boat would probably break in half but he would have a go in any case. The crane operator was sympathetic and did say that he usually visits the site first to clear up any issues.  He felt a bit guilty about the whole thing, and I assured him had I known I would have organized things to the letter. He also was concerned about her breaking in half but I assured him she was still sound with a good strong engine bed and many sound frames. What I failed to realize was that we needed to lift her over the hydro wires and swing her directly over the neighbour’s roof in order to get her onto the trailer. I still can't believe my luck when he suddenly agreed to give her a go and to heck with the rules! I thought there was plenty of room for him in the driveway to lift and avoid the wires entirely, at least that was my plan, but the crane that came was so enormous it would destroy the driveway and would sink under its own weight he said. So much for my buddy’s estimate of what size crane to get! We rigged Heldena ever so carefully, and the lift began. She lifted off her rotten cradle and sagged somewhat at both ends, but she was in the air and he expertly swung her over the neighbour’s roof and over the power lines and with one hand I was able to place her perfectly on the trailer. The neighbours had no idea what just happened and the police were none the wiser - the day was going well. We reversed the whole operation at my home without incident. 

 

 To be continued...