This is a tale of passion; of nostalgia and dedication; of determination, commitment, investment; of wrenching heartbreak and grand pleasures.
It is a tale that many will find completely inexplicable. Why, after all, would anyone invest endless time, considerable effort, and untold dollars in the restoration and maintenance of a classic wooden yacht, when a perfectly good fiberglass yacht could be enjoyed for a fraction of those costs?
There is, of course, no easy answer. For some, it is about owning an irreplaceable piece of history. For others, it is about memories of another time and place, before fiberglass turned much of boating into cookie-cutter sameness. If you’ve ever stopped to watch a classic Corvette drive past, or looked up at the sound of an old Stearman biplane, or paused as an all-mahogany yacht slid into the harbor, then you already understand.
This is also a tale of four grande dames. Born into a kinder and gentler world, they expected—but didn’t always receive—the care they deserved. Some were cast aside for younger challengers and left to fend for themselves, and at least one has been rescued, more than once, from the edge of death.
But each has now flourished under nurturing care and, though all are more than half a century old, they exude a radiance and grace that is timeless.
This is the story of these four beauties and the people in their lives.
“I’m a heretic,” says Ken LeDonne, “and I think of a boat as sculpture.” Though he has a successful business as a contractor and developer in the Pittsburgh area, LeDonne is a sculptor both by training and passion, and he has passed that love along to his triplet 29-yearold sons. The LeDonnes all have “busy hands,” he admits, often carving wood together or learning about ceramics, but boating was not a part of Ken and wife Linda LeDonne’s life until son Ben suggested they build a boat together.
Days later, on September 10, 2001, Ken LeDonne was en route to a kayaking vacation in Maine when he spotted a derelict boat in the woods with a “For Sale” sign on it. He stopped to look at the boat and then continued his trip, but the events of the next day—now known as 9/11—made him want to bond his family with a project. “When the towers went down, I knew we had to be together.”
They bought the weathered and rotting 25-foot launch, which they called the “gray boat” for its color and condition. Over the next four years, they took it apart and rebuilt it, not as a restoration, but to become a gorgeous center console of varnished mahogany and teak.
That launch, named YNOT, whetted their appetite, and they soon found a 25-foot 1947 Chris-Craft Express Cruiser in Mattituck, New York, which was advertised as “sound.” They bought it, but looks were deceiving: The bottom was held together with plywood and roofing tar and every frame was broken. Back to Pittsburgh—the family had a new project.
Three years later, the Chris-Craft, which had been called a Red and White Express in its heyday after World War II, was finished. In the process, they had rebuilt every inch of the yacht: new bottom, new topsides, new deck, new interior, and new engine. They even bought two other Chris Craft Express Cruisers to get all the original parts they needed.
“We have no shortage of ego,” he says, but adds, “Working on this boat made us very humble. At every turn, there was a reminder that human hands had lovingly created this so long ago, and we are the curators of that aesthetic.”
The LeDonnes are now looking for other boat restoration projects, and Ken is clear about the joys. “No one needs a boat but, for us, it’s a connection with art. Being on the water in a vintage boat is like a piece of music.”
He is also equally clear about the pains and the investment. “Wooden boats exist because of people. Fiberglass boats don’t really need us. So if you love this thing, then you’ll take care of it…you’ll invest the time in it.”
“Boating is about the dream,” he notes. “You spend more time dreaming about it than actually doing it. So, the dream has to be really good, and that’s how it is with Eulipion.”
But unlike car restorers who are afraid to drive their creations, the LeDonnes get their pleasure on the water with Eulipion. “She’s beautiful, but she’d never win a concours. And we love every minute aboard!”