On the Ranch, Building Boats

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Out of water, stored in a large barn at Flathead Lake Lodge, it’s hard to imagine the Questa, a 1920s wooden sailing sloop, skimming across Flathead Lake, let alone competing in the America’s Cup.

Peeling paint and rusted screws cover the boat’s 51-foot hull, and without its deck beams in place the overall appearance is skeletal. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the boat is impressive, both in its size – it weighs around 20,000 pounds – and in reputation.

Questa and its sister ship Nor’Easter, both owned by the Lodge, are the only Q Class boats ever designed by renowned naval architect L. Francis Herreshoff. Made to compete in the America’s Cup, the rules were changed shortly after the racing sloops were built. Today there are only around a dozen Q-class boats in restored condition.

This summer, after two years of restoration, the Questa will again rejoin their ranks and aid Nor’Easter shuttling Lodge guests around Flathead Lake.

Martin Feracci shows an area of Questa’s hull where he’s working on replacing her rusted screws. Feracci has replaced more than 1,100 screws on the Q Class racing sloop.

“We renovated when we first purchased the boat around 15 years ago, focusing on more the lower part of the boat,” Doug Averill, owner of the Flathead Lake Lodge, said. “This go around, the restoration is more decking and cabin structure and will put it right back to new condition.”

Armed with blueprints from Herreshoff’s original drawing and the advice of a historic marine architect, restoration has been a slow process for the three men working on the sloop. Shipwright Martin Feracci shows where he has replaced more than 1,000 of the boat’s rusted bronze screws. Each of the deck’s beams are measured and cut individually, curved and layered with 12 to 14 coats of varnish. The boat’s hull will require five coats of paint.

“It’s very labor intensive but it’s never really tedious,” shipwright Jon Derry said. “Every piece is different enough that it keeps your brain constantly engaged. You’re not just placing the same piece in the same spot day after day.”

Despite technological advances, the tools Derry and his two-man crew use are very similar to what the boats first shipwrights would have used to build her, and they approach the job with an artisan mindset.

“It’s kind of like a functional piece of art – pleasant to look at, to design, to build and also to go sailing in,” Derry said.

The deck beams are individually constructed to fit the curvature of the Questa’s body and are varnished a total of seven times.

Questa was the first of the two to arrive in Montana when, in 1983 while in Milwaukee, Averill and a friend made a deal with a man they’d met at a yacht club. The man said he’d bring the boat to Montana if Averill would take him deer hunting.

Averill agreed, never expecting to see him again. But in the spring of the next year, the man arrived at the Lodge – 1920s sailboat in tow – ready to hunt. “We did a little horse trading and ended up with the boat,” Averill said.

Several years later, a lodge guest located the Nor’Easter in Seattle. Averill flew out and found the boat in disrepair, with its stern almost entirely missing and a stovepipe rigged through her deck. He moved the boat to Montana and hired Derry to make repairs. Reunited, the first restoration of the two sister boats took a total of 10 years.

A dude ranch on Flathead Lake seems an unlikely home for the two, rare Q-class sloops that got their start off the coast of Marblehead, Mass., but Deery said it’s a fitting home where the boats can receive necessary care and attention.

“From a cultural standpoint it would be a shame to let it sit and slowly rot,” Deery said. “A lot of people get a lot of enjoyment out of sailing on it or seeing it out on the lake. It’s not just one family or a small group, but hundreds of people that get to enjoy it here.”