I spent a lot of my high school years hanging out in Fran Abbott's boat building shop in Ocean City. I didn't have a father and he helped raise me and teach me more than you can imagine. I had full use of his shop except for the dangerous table saw and jointer. He would use those for me. He taught me three valuable rules about working in someone else's shop. Put tools back where you found them or put them in his had. He knew where he set it down. Give him a hand when he needed it. If you break a tool, get on your bicycle and go the hardware store and replace it. It was usually a drill bit. One summer while in college I was working on a 26 ft. wood sailboat in a nearby town, sanding the paint off. I was using Abbott's very expensive 7 inch sander that cost hundreds of dollars in the early sixties when a few hundred would buy a good car. Well, I drove back to his shop and told him and said that I surely would pay for it, but that it would take about a year.
He was always gruff and he gruffly pointed to a long skinny box high on a shelf covered with wood dust. He said, "get it down and put the new armature in the sander." I did and said how much do I owe you for the armature. He said, "owe me?, why do you think I had the spare, I knew it was going to burn out and you saved me the trouble of putting it in. Now go finish your boat." A huge influence on my life for sure.
Years later when I had airplanes that I really couldn't afford to have most of the work done by aircraft mechanics, his training made me welcome to work alongside of them in their shops, even on trips where I was in a shop that I had never seen before. Abbott was a great man to me.
|A guy comes in looking for a
Doesn't know what it's called, didn't bring the old one, is barely able to describe what it's supposed to do. But he walks out happy.
Another guy wants to know how to run the lines on his 38-foot sailboat so everything can be done from the cockpit. Easy. Nothing to it. If you know what you're doing. Now he does.
A sailor on vacation from Ohio wanders in every day, asking questions, hanging out, hoping to learn a few things, buying small parts for his boat and just ... absorbing. He's in awe.
Welcome to F.L. Abbott Sailboats in Ocean City. Meet the proprietors, Esther and Fran. Their store's been here at Second and West since 1951, right down the street from the Ocean City Yacht Club. They raised two girls partly in that store, Carol and Kay, and back in their shop - anybody who's ever held a hand drill would kill for that shop, it's so ready for serious work - they built boats, made sails, fixed holes in hulls, made parts with their own hands, spliced lines, joined cables and had some fun, too, to hear Fran Abbott tell it.
To this day you know something good is going on in there, something that's seriously about sailing. Abbott, who is 82, knows powerboats but loves sailboats, always has, ever since he was a cabin boy on a schooner in the Delaware River when he was 9.
Look at the place. First off it's big enough to build a 55-foot boat inside. Abbott built most of the shop himself. He even tongued the ceiling joists into the steel beams for extra protection in a hurricane. The building is filled with old stuff, cool stuff, some of which has nothing to do with sailing. Upstairs, near the sail loft, there are wood skis with bear trap bindings, the collected works of Shakespeare in an old bookcase and a 1950 Moth sailboat, the first of about 40 Abbott made. Downstairs there's a machine/wood shop that will make your eyes water, and everything's ready to go. Check out the chisels, just for curiosity, but be careful. You could plane the hair off your arms with one of those things.
There are more boat parts than you'd find in some catalogs, lines of any size, cleats, blocks, beautiful wood tillers and rudders, a ship's wheel, even his first boat - a foot-long mahogany model with the graceful lines of a Chris-Craft, except that company didn't exist when he bought it in Wannamakers in Philly in 1927. It's not for sale. Along one wall stands an ancient 14-foot windsurfing board. Make an offer.
You practically need a handheld GPS to get out of Abbott's store, it's so mesmerizing. It's like God's own hardware store, made just for sailors, and sitting right there is a guy who can answer just about any question you have even if you can't figure out the right way to ask it, from how to build a floating dock to the best way to set up a catboat gaff so it'll peak up just right. He'd best be described as a woodworker/metalworker/sailing consultant, although he also has to be part psychic to figure out what some people are trying to ask him.
He experimented with fiberglass as a boat-building material so early, back in the 1930s, that he may have been one of the first. Fiberglas cloth hadn't even been invented, so he had to cross-string pieces of twine. "I mean, it was crude," he said. But it was the right idea.
"Nobody comes close to Fran," said Jack LeFord, a longtime member of the Ocean City Yacht Club. "You just can't say enough. I don't know if there is anybody in my lifetime who could equal Fran Abbott. He is a fine yachtsman, and he is an outstanding craftsman. If something broke he could always get you back."
True enough, Abbott is good at getting back. He figured out a way to get back from World War II, where he was one of the first ones in when the Allies hit Utah Beach, a fight so ugly that boats bringing out out the dead and wounded pumped straight blood out of their bilges. "It was rough," Abbott said. "But when you're out there like we were, you just went ahead and did your job. You didn't worry about death."
Yet he laughs, hard, remembering some of those days in the service. Like the time they were coming back from Gibraltar and they convinced one of the new guys to go stand on the bow of the ship in a near hurricane so he could hang a mailbag on a buoy, which they told him was the way it was done.
Another thing that makes him smile is the story of how he met Esther. He was recruiting for the Coast Guard after the war, and so was she. So one day he shows up at the movies to give his speech, which was standard procedure back then, and who's there to recruit for the women? They wound up recruiting each other, for a lifetime hitch.That was 53 years ago.
It's not surprising that he wound up in Ocean City. He first started coming here around 1927, when he and his grandmother would ride down from Philly in a railroad car pulled by a steam engine. When they got into town the hotel would send a horse and buggy to pick them up.
That's a lot of years ago. He has slowed down. Ten years ago he suffered a stroke while running a boat through the Erie Barge Canal. Now he walks with a cane but uses an electric cart to get around the shop, running it like a Formula 1 machine. He's on his third cart. "I run the hell out of them," he said.
He can't do much with his left side, but he no doubt knows where every piece of stainless is located, every screw, every washer, every quart of resin, every block and every foot of line. It's all up in his head. That's what brings people to his shop, the parts in his store and the stuff in his head. He's got a lot of water under his hull. He figures he did more than 100 trips to Florida, delivering boats. He built his first sailboat when he was 14, with sails made of bedsheets. The biggest he built was a 68-footer, a schooner made with 2-inch strip planks, which last he heard was in charter service down in the Caribbean.
He doesn't get to go out in boats too much any more.
"It's just the way it goes," he said.
If he can't sail much any more, he can help other people do it, and he can talk about it - which is what most sailors do anyway.
"As a sport it's still good but around here what's killing it is the jet skis," he said. "They're coming past the kids (in sailboats) and scaring the hell out of them. The jet skis are ruining the whole bay, even the fishing. It sounds like a bunch of bumblebees."
But he still remembers why he liked it so much. That hasn't changed.
"It's relaxing and comfortable," he said. "I don't think there's anything more comfortable than sailing along and hearing that ripple of the water on the hull."
As for the store, it's slower now, but the funny thing is, it's worth more than ever, thanks to the real estate boom. Funny how it works. The years have taken some things away from his operation, but they've added some things too. Just like with Fran Abbott.
- The Press of Atlantic City, 1999, On The Water.