Bloomer man has been building massive boat for 37 years

·8 min read

Feb. 4—BLOOMER — Bill Hable was 46 when he embarked on a project intended to fill his retirement with joy.

The Bloomer resident, an engineer by trade, planned to build a 41-foot wooden schooner that he could sail on the ocean after retiring at age 62.

Hable started by grabbing a chainsaw, cutting down several trees and making the first boards for the massive boat. He figured the project would take about 15 years.

That was in January 1985.

Thirty-seven years later, while giving a tour of his boat this week, Hable said, "I'm 83, I'm still not retired and the boat's not done yet."

Surprisingly to many neighbors and onlookers who have followed his effort for decades, Hable, who still works three days a week at American Phoenix in Eau Claire, is unfazed by the project's often-extended timeline.

The finish line remains like a distant port that his ship can never quite reach, but he's OK with that.

"Everybody always asks, 'When's that boat going to be done?' " Hable said. "The answer to that question is, 'Don't ask.' I always say three more years, three more years, three more years."

The smooth, 11-foot-wide white oak hull is all done, and lately he is focused on adding finishing touches to the cherry wood interior that he designed. The cabin includes a dining table, kitchen sink, shower and sleeping quarters for seven people, although Hable has yet to spend a night onboard.

Any pressure to get out on the open water dissipated two decades ago when he bought a 29-foot sailboat that he keeps in the marina on Madeline Island, where he also built a house.

"So I don't need a boat right now," quipped Hable, whose vision for the project remains mostly unchanged.

His new goals, however, are to set sail by the time he's 90, and, as a concession to practicality, to launch the boat on Lake Superior instead of an ocean.

But even his 90th birthday isn't a hard and fast deadline.

"When I get it done, I get it done," Hable said, joking that he should have built the boat to be handicap-accessible because of his advancing age. "I don't dwell on that part of it. I just keep plugging away."

He keeps his spirits from sinking by breaking the project into steps and methodically completing them one at a time.

"If you envision the whole project, you can't get it done because it's too overwhelming," Hable said. "So you break it up into small increments, and then when you get that done, you pat yourself on the back and you come in the house and have yourself a beer."

Hable is buoyed by his supportive wife of 61 years, Judy, who acknowledged such a long-term project would overwhelm her and said she appreciates that it hasn't gotten in the way of the couple's social life or ability to travel.

"I think it's a wonderful thing that he's doing," Judy said. "It literally blows my mind that he could actually think about building something like that, that he cut down the trees, that he even thought about cutting down the trees."

Bill Hable, who took early retirement from Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. in 1991 after working in the Eau Claire plant's engineering department for 22 years, learned enough about boat-building from a job repairing boats while attending UW-Madison from 1958 to 1960 that he decided he had the skills to build his own boat. As a tribute to Carl Bernard, his mentor at the Madison boathouse, Hable intends to name the finished schooner Carl B.

He bought the plans for the boat — originally drawn up for a John Alden schooner named Malabar II that launched in 1922 — from a wooden boat magazine. Hable, who keeps a framed photo of Alden's boat for inspiration, followed the plans for the hull but redesigned the cabin to his liking.

He once was able to board the Malabar II during a visit to Maine.

Healthful pursuit

While some folks might think a seemingly never-ending to-do list would be a source of stress, Hable insists this labor of love has been good for his health.

In his 40s, Hable recalled that he was looking for a way to get more exercise. He tried more traditional options but said he felt best when outside chopping wood in the fall. That's when he settled on the idea of building his dream boat from the ground up — starting with cutting all the wood for the hull and structural pieces.

He considers the project his mental and physical fitness because it keeps his mind working and body moving.

"I always tell people, if they're running, by the time they get done running their shoes will be all worn out and they'll have nothing to show for it," Hable said.

As an alternative, Hable advises fitness seekers that they should walk out in a field, pick up stones and then build a house with them so they have something to show for all the miles they walk. It's the same concept he applied to building a boat.

"I feel good. I may go up and down these steps 20 times a day when I'm working on the interior," he said, referring to the scaffolding he built that surrounds much of the boat.

It's a skill that is necessary when working on a boat that is 10.5 feet high from keel to deck, with the cabin accessible only by a series of stairways and ladders.

A series of ropes suspended from the ceiling of the 24- by 48-foot backyard shed he built to house the project provide a safety net of sorts as he ages. The ropes give him plenty of handholds to ensure he doesn't fall while moving about his craft.

No shortcuts

Hable estimates that he cut about 75% of the lumber used in the boat, making an exception to replace some lumber lost when a barn where he had stored it was destroyed by fire and to buy teak planks for the deck.

As Hable demonstrates how schooners are steered by sitting off to the side and manuevering the wooden captain's wheel, the giant rudder turns smoothly with each rotation of the wheel. He goes on to describe how the boat ultimately will have 1,000 square feet of sails tethered to its two masts — one 45 feet long and the other 39. The masts, made from repurposed telephone poles, lie at the ready in Hable's backyard.

It's important to Hable that each step of the process is done the right way, no matter how long it takes.

"I could have shortened the time it takes to build it by 10 or 15 years if I'd just thrown it together, but I want to do it my way," said Hable, who hasn't tracked how much he has spent on the project.

Each plank in the boat's hull is held in place by about 100 deck screws and coated with epoxy to make it watertight.

He has complete confidence that the 24,000-pound boat — 28,000 pounds when fully loaded — will prove seaworthy.

"When you sail on Lake Superior, you'd better have an ocean-quality boat. That's a dangerous lake," he said.

End in sight?

Looking forward, Hable is undaunted by the work ahead.

"There's nothing left I can't figure out how to do, but it just takes time," he said, noting that he tries to devote about 20 hours a week to the project — a little less in the summer when the building gets too hot and a little more in the winter when he insists he can work bare-handed down to about 20 degrees. Hable figures he will have put in at least 10,000 hours by the time the boat is done.

"This doesn't bother me at all," he said, wiggling his uncovered fingers on a recent 21 degree afternoon when the wind was whipping through the tarps at each end of the structure.

It's clear from his detailed description that he has envisioned the grand day when he removes one end of the building so he can get the boat out. He plans to hire a crane to load the boat onto a lowboy truck and haul it to Lake Superior. He just doesn't know when that day will come.

"I hope he gets to see it in the water, but I kind of think if he doesn't get to see it in the water it's going to be OK," Judy said.

Asked if he can see the light at the end of the boat-building tunnel after 37 years, Hable paused.

"Ahhhh," he said with a sly smile. "It really doesn't make any difference. I like to sail, but I can do that anyway. Really the idea is the building of the boat. That's the fun part."

If he never gets to see his masterpiece gliding across Lake Superior, the sails taut from a stiff wind, Hable insisted he's fine with that.

"If I die before I finish it, I'm not going to be disappointed," he said. "Somebody else will finish it."