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Anchorage’s own Noah: A boat builder’s 30-year obsession comes together at last

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: August 26, 2017
  • Published August 26, 2017

Deere John sails across the Eklutna overpass and onto the Glenn Highway on June 27, 2017. (Rick Sinnott)

Noah is better known, but Steve Thon took the age-old craft of boat building to a higher level. Literally.

Rather than build a boat in a valley and end up on a mountain, Thon built his ark on a mountain and hauled it down to the sea.

Thon grew up in Minnesota, about as far as one can get from bluewater sailing. But he's long had a hankering for adventure. Minnesota is short on mountains too, but Thon has bagged peaks in the Rocky and Chugach mountains. He even made an attempt on Denali.

It was on an impromptu bid to climb Goat Rock, a precipitous peak near the end of the road in Eklutna Valley, where Thon drifted into his life's work, a sailboat big enough to carry him to any corner of the seven seas.

Finding his dreamboat

On his first night in Anchorage after moving north, Thon met Bob Linville, a commercial fisherman now living in Seward, at a mountaineering club meeting. In May 1980, Linville suggested climbing Goat Rock in Eklutna.

They were hiking up to the base of the mountain, behind where Rochelle's Ice Cream Stop is now, when they spied the large wooden mold of a boat hull outside a cabin. A conversation with the mold's owner, Preston Schultz, fanned a slow-burning fire in Thon.

Before long, Thon and Schultz agreed to work on the boat as partners.

Schultz was a commercial fisherman. Having sunk his boat in Prince William Sound during the winter crab season, he wanted to build a combination seiner/longliner that could fish far offshore for tuna, which would require refrigeration and a fair amount of storage. Fuel was expensive. A motor-sailer — part motorboat, part sailboat — seemed like a unique solution.

Schultz moved back to Anchorage and modified the original plans he had purchased for the hull. His new model was the "Spray," a decrepit sloop estimated to be at least 100 years old and completely rebuilt by Joshua Slocum in Massachusetts in the late 1890s. Slocum, who had been given the rotting hulk when he was down on his luck, subsequently sailed the Spray single-handedly around the world, the first to do so.

An Australian boat builder, Bruce Roberts, had stretched Spray's hull to make it sharper, adding more run in the aft sections. Those were the plans Schultz settled on: 47 feet long and 14 ½ feet across the beam.

The boat was designed to be seaworthy, "to behave herself and not terrify the crew," in Roberts' salty description. At her best sailing downwind on the deep-blue seas, she wouldn't necessarily be a willing partner into a headwind. Rather, she was designed to carry a lot of food and water, hold a steady course for days on end and sail sedately. A boat fit for a retired sailor.  

Thon was a long way from retirement, but he had fallen hard for the boat and wasn't going to be jettisoned overboard.

After Schultz completely disassembled the old mold and put together a new one, Thon in 1984 made dozens of trips from his cabin in Eklutna into Anchorage, helping lay sheets of fiberglass over the mold. His ultimate goal, after helping Schultz get his boat in the water, was to re-use the mold to build its twin.

The wooden hull mold in Anchorage in 1985 prior to fiberglassing. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Buying the unfinished hull

In the meantime, Thon had found another love of his life, Debbie. In several faded wedding photos from 1987, the mold's wooden frame looms in the background.

Steve and Debbie Thon share cake on their wedding day in Eklutna Valley, July 4, 1987. Note the wooden hull mold in the background. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Then Schultz's parents died, leaving him a large inheritance. He decided to forgo the pleasure and pain of building his own boat and bought one outright. When he left Alaska, his abandoned wife sold the unfinished hull to Thon.

The hull was flipped to its upright position, and Thon hauled it back to Debbie's cabin near the base of Goat Rock. By now the hull was heavy enough to require professional assistance. Fortunately, Schultz's former wife was the daughter of Harold Bryant, who moved houses.

After years of beating into a headwind, Thon's sails were filling with good fortune.

Building on a dream

Thon worked on the boat 30 years. Wait. That's not right. Putting it that way diminishes both Thon's dogged perseverance and the forehead-slapping miracle of a boat built from scratch.

Repeat after me: Thon worked on the boat for 30 years. What if every syllable of that sentence took three years? When your lips stopped moving, you'd still have three years of hard labor before the boat was ready to be taken home to the sea.

Steve Thon working on the boat in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Thon worked on the boat after long days working as a carpenter and house-builder. He worked on the boat for a decade while exercising his carpentry skills with the Anchorage School District. He worked on weekends and holidays.

He worked on the boat in his sleep.

Alaska is a tough place to work outdoors, especially in winter. Before he could concentrate on the boat, Thon had to erect a shed over it. The firewood-heated, two-story building, which doubled as a shop and had enough room for Debbie's car on cold nights, was bigger than most houses.

Thinking ahead — well over the horizon, it turns out — Thon designed the front of the shed to be detachable. He cradled the boat's hull on heavy-duty metal frames so that, eventually, a trailer could be backed under it.

Boat parts are expensive. He'd save up several thousand dollars, buy a part, a necessary tool, a few rolls of fiberglass cloth or a barrel of resin, then problem-solve, fabricate and expend sweat equity until he had saved enough money for another round.

That's how, for example, he ended up with three welders, each more expensive than the last. When he brought home the third one, Thon's wife Debbie shook her head and rolled her eyes.

"Who knew there were three different kinds of welders?" she said.

It goes without saying that Debbie was equally invested in the project. Although she didn't often lend a hand with the boat, she picked up the slack wherever she could.

And if Thon needed a new welder, well …

Uprighting the boat hull in Anchorage in 1986, before transport back to Eklutna. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

‘Built around the engine’

Although Thon was already handier than most, building a boat from the ground up teaches one a multitude of skills. After covering the boat with the shed, he installed an engine, an 85-horsepower marine John Deere purchased 23 years ago. "The boat," Thon likes to say, "was built around the engine."

He finished fiberglassing the hull, deck and cabin, inside and out. Then the detail work started. Mechanical, automotive, welding, carpentry, metalworking, plumbing, heating, wiring: The checklists were endless and overlapping.

It was a little like building a house, a house that hopefully wouldn't sink in 25-foot seas.

Sometimes the will to keep going would flag and progress would slow. Thon had asked Debbie at the start for her support and encouragement. About a year ago, only partly in jest, she told Thon: "If you die and leave me on the mountain with that thing, I'm going to kill you."

Last summer the boat was ready for a name.

The soul of a sailboat isn't supposed to emanate from its motor, but Thon had invested a lot of time and effort in the little engine, fuel tanks, brass propeller and other related parts. To honor the engine, he painted the boat John Deere green and John Deere yellow.

Painting the boat was when its name first swam into view: Deere John.

"It wasn't my first pick," Debbie admitted, "but I really didn't want it to be named 'Dear Debbie.' "

A movable dream

The boat was finally ready to move this summer.

"It's paid for," Thon said with satisfaction. "We don't owe a dime."

The masts aren't mounted and the sails haven't been sewn, but the Thons had bubbled to the top of the waiting list for a slip for the second time, this time in Homer.

Before he could set a course down the mountain, Thon had to build a driveway. His was too steep and crooked to accommodate a tractor-trailer rig.

Jubal Bryant works on the boat in the shed. (Rick Sinnott)

Bryant Contractors Inc. came up the mountain a day early to load the boat and pull it out of the shed. Jubal Bryant, the owner, is the son of the man who had moved the hull from Anchorage back to the mountain nearly 30 years earlier. Alaska is a small state.

With the front face of the shed removed, Bryant's crew backed the trailer under the boat. It wasn't as easy as Thon had hoped. The dirt floor was a little uneven, and the stern was canted higher than the bow, which required some shovel work to squeeze the bed of the trailer under the cradles. Even so, the boat, securely fastened to the trailer, slowly inched its way free. Thon's handmade stainless steel railings, the highest point on the vessel, dug furrows into the ceiling.

After an hour or more of careful maneuvering, I looked at Bryant and remarked, "These things probably never go as planned." He grinned and said, "No, but we make 'em work."

Not long after, the bright green-and-yellow boat emerged from the drab brown shed like a butterfly from its cocoon.

The next day, most of the neighbors were there to see the boat off. Bob Linville, the guy Thon was with when he first saw the hull's mold, was there too.

Cringeworthy moments

Thon's new driveway was a tad narrow. Sixty-foot-tall spruce trees groaned and shuddered as the boat's gunwales slowly shouldered them aside. When the boat turned onto Eklutna Lake Road, its railings were festooned with birch leaves. Despite several cringeworthy moments, Deere John remained unfazed.

Deere John rolls down Eklutna Lake Road toward Knik Arm in the distance. (Debbie Thon)

The ride to Anchorage's port was unremarkable, but launching was the maritime equivalent of a breech birth.  

Upper Cook Inlet is shallow, especially at low tide, so everything had to work perfectly to launch at high tide and get underway. At the port, Thon met the crew for Deere John's maiden voyage: Linville and another longtime friend, Chad Stuber.

With the boat — all 21 tons of her — still slung from the crane, the engine started on the first attempt. However, an impeller that was needed to push seawater into a jacket to cool the engine overheated and burst into pieces.

Thon had two spares on board. But replacing the impeller wouldn't be quick because he needed to retrieve all the pieces in the water hose, or else the second one might fail. Time was wasting, and the tide was falling.

Other bad thoughts crowded into Thon's head. He had never switched on the sonar and it needed some operator input. He certainly didn't want to run his boat aground within shouting distance of the port. Come to think of it, he didn't even know if the anchor would work. Not much call for an anchor and depth soundings inside a shed on a mountain.

The crane operator suggested plucking the boat back out of the water, but Linville convinced Thon to cut her loose.

Stuber fastened the Deere John to Thon's Achilles inflatable dinghy and towed her into the channel, where they discovered that the anchor worked just fine. Linville cranked up the sonar. When the second impeller failed, Linville started calling every marine equipment dealer he knew between Anchorage and Seattle. Friends on shore were on standby to ferry parts.

One problem: Thon's receipt for the impeller was 23 years old. But a more pressing problem was that the John Deere dealer in Anchorage only stocked a single impeller for the engine, and it didn't come with a seal.

Fortunately, Thon recalled buying an extra pump assembly decades earlier that might have the same impeller and seal. He had told the dealer, "I want anything and everything I might need sometime when I'm not tied to a dock." Stuber and Debbie found it in the shed.

Meanwhile, the marine forecast promised a gale warning for Cook Inlet. The crew believed the boat could weather the storm and would have pressed on, but the repairs took a couple of days. Finally, the Deere John pulled its anchor and motored south. After all the effort and the heart-pounding excitement of the past several days, she seemed eager to please. At one point she easily exceeded her top-rated speed of 8 knots by motoring at 13.2 knots. Of course, that was going with the tidal current, but still.

Deere John is at anchor in Cook Inlet off the Port of Anchorage. Chad Stuber stands in an inflatable dinghy while talking to Debbie and Steve Thon on the boat. June 28, 2017. (Rick Sinnott)

‘Only in my dreams’

Steve Thon is happy to see his boat loaded on a trailer on June 26, 2017, and ready to haul to the Port of Anchorage. (Rick Sinnott)

Months ago I asked Thon if he'd sailed much. "Only in my dreams," he said.

After Deere John was safely berthed in the Homer boat harbor, I asked Thon a similar question. He grinned and elaborated. After he'd married Debbie, he'd sailed a small lateen-rigged sailboat with one of her brothers on a lake in Minnesota. "We spent more time with the boat upside down than upright," he admitted.

He hopes to take the Deere John on some shakedown cruises in Kachemak Bay, and after that perhaps to Kodiak. Next summer he plans to motor to Washington state for masts and sails.

A boundlessly practical jack-of-all-trades, Thon was downright philosophical after returning from Homer. "I like to think," he told me, "that if I can do this, if I can build a 47-foot sailboat, even if it took 30 years, then that might inspire others to achieve their dreams."

And then, recalling those 30 years and all the time and effort, he asked himself, "Now what am I going to do?"

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.

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