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The old men and the sea

On dry land near Newport Bay, they toil for years to finish their boats, dreaming of a life afloat and knowing that it may never be.

January 01, 2008|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Like the other old men at this Costa Mesa boatyard, where the hulls of peeling sloops and half-made cutters rot on their wooden posts, Karl Markvart can't be certain he'll live long enough to reach the water.

Again and again, he's watched the boat builders around him lose their race to the sea, their unfinished vessels hauled off to the junkyard to make room for another boat, another mad dreamer.

At 69, Markvart knows it's dangerous to dwell on the size of the task before him, all the work that remains on the 32-foot Dreadnought cutter that is now his home and that he expects, with luck, will one day be his tomb.

He's one of the few regulars at the Boatyard Storage, which sits two miles from the nearest harbor. Piece by piece, Markvart has been building his cutter since buying the fiberglass shell for $9,000 34 years ago, but the boat has been with him -- shimmering in his imagination -- for nearly twice that long.

As a boy in Prague who'd never seen the sea, he found an adventure book in his tiny neighborhood library. It told of two kids who slip their parents and brave the wild oceans on a sailboat named Little Cloud. The accompanying illustration showed a boat with a single mast, three sails, and a stern nearly identical to the bow. He memorized the picture and the names of the parts.

Long after he forgot the book's name, it scudded through his dreams, that magical boat, begging to be built. "From 10 years old," says Markvart, whose English is broken, "I had a sailboat back of my head."

Since then, he's sailed in the Adriatic and the Mediterranean and the Pacific, but never on his own craft.

Behind the boatyard's barbed wire fence, set back from Placentia Avenue in a nondescript industrial area, Markvart's boat, a single-mast, double-ender modeled after the classic shape in the picture, is inching toward completion.

Every morning, he descends the 12 wooden steps from his boat's deck to his workstation below, where the ground is littered with fine metal scraps and shavings. There, using surplus metal foraged from machine shops, he builds the boat's hundreds of metal fittings, including the complicated stainless-steel blocks that will adjust the sails. He cuts the metal sheets with a hacksaw, drills them in a 25-year-old press, smooths them and stamps them with his initials.

"When you are an old man in rough seas, alone, you have to have everything well-made," says Markvart, a stout, round-faced man with thinning white hair, a slight stoop and an ironworker's thick, strong hands. "You cannot go to the store and buy fittings like I'm making. It's junk, and high price tag."

Markvart, a retired aerospace engineer, makes his $320 rent at the boatyard with Social Security and a little savings. In the boat's galley, he cooks cheap, simple meals of potatoes or pilaf, and a boatyard neighbor lets him visit his nearby house for a shower when he needs one. While others work from blueprints, Markvart's finished boat exists only in his head. He's already completed many of the big jobs, like laying 7,000 pounds of lead and rebar ballast into the keel.

"It's like building Mt. Rushmore," Markvart says. "It takes a lifetime to finish it."

The circulation in his left leg is bad, but if his strength keeps up, Markvart figures he can launch in three years. He'll head to San Francisco Bay, to Oregon, then up to Alaska and British Columbia, and then who knows? He'll make salmon fillets, adjust his sails, listen to the BBC on his shortwave, and try to stay awake through the night, to steer clear of the big boats that can't see him.

Other boat builders nurse visions of "going to Tahiti and chasing girls," he says. "They're between 60 to 70, and they still dream what they will do in the South Pacific, and their boats will never be finished."

Though he has a gregarious manner, his social links are fewer by the year. Most of his friends and relatives are dead. "I had cellphone for two months, and I had to ask someone just to call me to see if it works," he says. "I see these other guys, and they're retired, and they have wives. They can't do what they want. I'm free."

When he was married himself, to a woman 18 years his junior, he was able to devote just two hours to his boat on Sundays. She thought the boat stupid. The marriage lasted seven years.

"Once I leave this yard and get on water, I plan to stay on water. And if something happens on high seas, so what? It's much better than to die in traffic accident, or under surgeon's knife," he says. "If something happens like heart attack and boat is not finished, I don't need it anymore." He laughs. "It's easy to die for a man who has lot of things to do and has to do it on little money."

He knows the solitude of the open water drives some people crazy, but he insists he won't be lonely out there where "you have just the water trembling." Adrift, he figures he'll do fine with the companionship of his movies and his medallion of St. Christopher, the saint of travelers, affixed to his life vest.

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