As they say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
But even sweeter still, and much rarer than comforting platitudes, is the re-discovery of a love previously …
As they say, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
But even sweeter still, and much rarer than comforting platitudes, is the re-discovery of a love previously thought lost.
The story of Michael Davidson and his 35-foot gaff cutter, “Starlight” is one such romance, recovered from the icy grip of fate after nearly being lost forever.
Looking at Starlight today, one need not stare for long before finding the charm that first drew Davidson to her. She has clean lines and an uncluttered deck with beautiful blonde deck planking that catches the sun, harkening to her namesake.
But Starlight has not always been as she was when Davidson first laid eyes on her in July 1976.
Davidson and the boat’s stars first crossed after he sailed into Port Townsend aboard a Cascade 42 he’d built himself. Soon after coming ashore, Davidson found himself in the employ of Chinook Marine and, later, by the renowned Cecil Lange & Sons boatbuilders.
“When I sailed into Port Townsend, I got a job down here,” he said. “We were all fledgling shipwrights, that’s kind of where it started.”
As luck would have it, Cecil Lange’s son, Brian David Lange, was looking to sell his recently completed boat, Starlight.
“She was for sale, brand-spankin’ new and I fell totally in love,” Davidson recalled.
In 1979, two years after purchasing Starlight from Lange, Davidson left Port Townsend aboard his new boat, bound for Oregon waters.
“I went up the Columbia River where I’d launched my first boat,” he said. “Then up the Willamette and to Oregon City. I came out of there, it was 1980 — I had no water tanks — and I’m sitting in the city of Saint Helens.”
Then the mountain blew.
“She was completely covered with ash, so I took a water hose that was on the dock and I went up to the top of the mast and started spraying her down,” he remembered. After he’d cleared the ash from his boat, Davidson made a point to save a few quarts of ash to remember the event.
A friend of Davidson’s was in the process of constructing a pair of water tanks for Starlight, but instead of waiting for the tanks to be finished, Davidson opted to sail while the getting was good.
“They were going to close the river, my water tanks weren’t finished, so I went out to Newport, Oregon ... and my father flew the tanks down in his Cessna 180 when they were done and we installed them there.”
From there, Davidson moseyed his way up and down the West Coast, to British Columbia and down to Acapulco, Mexico, out to the Pacific and around New Zealand.
“I just headed down the coast. I’ve put-in in a lot of different places, places I probably shouldn’t have, crossed bars that I probably shouldn’t have gone in, but everything went just fine,” Davidson said.
On more than one occasion, Starlight saw Davidson through to safety during a full-blown hurricane — once while at sea and another while anchored in harbor.
“The one at sea was off the South Island of New Zealand,” Davidson said. “I estimated it was about between 100- and 110-knot winds. That was Oct. 2, 1981.”
“The seas were coming out of the Antarctic and they don’t make them any bigger anywhere else than down there,” he recalled. “My mast was 55 feet to the top, and when I was in the fetch [of the storm], spray was going across the top of my mast.”
For most folks, sailing through such a storm would be enough to rattle them up. But as Davidson put it, sailing through such a storm “got boring as the dickens.”
“Everything’s relative; you get used to it,” he said. “There’s nothing more exciting than getting shot at and missed. But after a while it becomes relative.”
It’s probably worth noting that Davidson served with the Army’s 508th Infantry Regiment between 1962 and 1965, during which time he was attached to the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Panama where he taught jungle survival skills to the ranks of Rangers and Special Forces.
For five years Starlight and Davidson sailed together throughout the Pacific, returning occasionally in the winters to earn some cash before venturing out again. Davidson and Starlight’s story continued in similar fashion until the sailor began to yearn for a new endeavor.
Again, Starlight carried Davidson back to Port Townsend, where he outfitted himself with a pair of horses and set out on a different kind of adventure.
“I always wanted to ride long distance on horseback,” Davidson said. “So, I bought two horses, and rode out of here cross country.”
From 1984 to 1985, Davidson journeyed overland across the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, through Oregon’s John Day country, up into Idaho. All told, Davidson estimated he covered some 1,200 miles on horseback.
While traveling, Davidson’s path crossed a ranch in eastern Oregon that called to him. So he bought it and began homesteading on the property.
“It was a helluva deal; 35 grand for 160 acres,” Davidson said. “It was just an amazing place.”
With his time now occupied mostly by the demands of his Eastern Oregon ranch, Davidson realized the time had come to make a difficult decision.
“I had to do something, either continue with the boat or the ranch,” he said. “It was robbing each other to do both, so I decided to sell the boat.”
“I was always sorry about that.”
In the interceding years between 1993 — when he sold Starlight — and 2011, Davidson made the decision to leave his ranch in Oregon and once more found himself in Port Townsend. Shortly after his return, he found that an old friend had been waiting for him.
It had been 18 years since he’d last seen Starlight, and Davidson’s hair had begun to show a little more gray. A few of the wrinkles on his face had become more defined. But it was she who was now showing her years. Protracted neglect at the hands of her subsequent owner prompted Starlight’s early decline into disrepair.
The boat had sank in Jackson Cove, near Dabob Bay, and was re-floated by the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.
Davidson was heartbroken at the sight of his beloved Starlight, but when DNR placed the boat up for auction, there was no question what needed to be done.
“I said, ‘I’m going to get that boat back,’” he recalled.
When an acquaintance approached Davidson sharing his intent to bid on the boat as well, he was met with an assurance that Starlight would be returning to her former owner.
“He was looking at the boat to buy and I told him, ‘There’s no sense in you bidding on this boat, because I’m going to buy it.’ And he knew it, and he didn’t bid on it,” Davidson said.
Thus began a decade of work to breathe life back into Starlight.
Standing in Sea Marine’s gravel boatyard, Davidson looks up to his boat and shakes his head in disbelief at the culmination of his efforts.
“I’m still shocked, because when you’re working on a boat ... you’re just doing little details, you say, ‘Oh well, that’s what I got done today.’ And you go home tired,” he said. “But when this boat pulled out of that shed last week, it was like a birthing.”
Starlight’s restoration included routing away damaged sections of her strip planking and in-laying new planks to re-form her hull shape.
All of her stainless steel fittings were replaced with bronze, sourced through the Port Townsend Foundry.
Davidson also cut and shaped a new mast out of a fir pole. She was re-decked and her cockpit was rebuilt.
For his help in the restoration effort, Davidson thanked Brian Hayes, calling him “The best shipwright here in town, both because we’re friends and also because I see his work.”
For his own part, Davidson said some of the work that was done on Starlight was completely new to him, but somehow each task came together throughout the process.
“That’s the first mast I’d ever built, the first boom I’d ever built. It all just came to me, it’s amazing,” Davidson said. “I still am in awe of everything. It’s like it was supposed to be.”
After 10 years of work — to the month — and with a crowd gathered at the Point Hudson Marina last Friday, Starlight was anointed with splashes of rum and she was lowered down to taste saltwater once again.
It was a baptism of sorts. After being lowered in the slings, it became apparent that a valve was in need of replacement before she could stay in the water.
But, Davidson said, the hard part was over and what remained were only minor tweaks.
As for what he has planned for Starlight, Davidson said he isn’t sure.
“I don’t want a sail cover,” he said simply.
When pondering the question of why he felt so compelled to devote a decade of time and effort into Starlight, Davidson pointed to their history together sailing the open seas and the protection she offered him from the elements along the way.
“I loved her,” he said. “She saved my life. Now I’ve saved hers.”
Davidson’s eyes welled up just a bit. “That’s the way I see it. I owed her.”