Matthew Rhys never planned to buy an old wooden boat that would take four years, tens of thousands of dollars, and a good deal of his own manual labor to restore it. But one night he was drinking whiskey and clicking eBay, and, well, one thing led to another.
When asked if there had been a bidding war for his 1930s Wheeler Playmate – Ernest Hemingway owned one – Mr. Rhys laughed so hard he took a real spit.
“No, and I’ll tell you very simply why. Because anyone who knows boats will not approach a wooden boat, ”he said. “And the people I knew who have boats, when I said, ‘I bought a wooden boat,’ they said, ‘What? You idiot. ‘”
But Mr. Rhys and his partner, actress Keri Russell, like to rent wooden boats. They even celebrated Ms Russell’s 40th birthday aboard one. Mr. Rhys is also a big fan of the 1930s – he currently plays the role of the most famous lawyer of the day, Perry Mason, on HBO – as well as Mr. Hemingway. (Mr. Rhys also likes Hemingway’s puns: he named his charter company Moveable Feast, and his website asks, “Who are boat trips for?”)
And then there was the name of the boat: Rarebit. Mr. Rhys, despite his extremely convincing American accent on screen, is Welsh. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a sign. It’s a sign from the sky that I have to buy this boat, ”he said.
So he rescued it from a marina in California for $ 30,000, intending to repair it and charter it. “I had this weird rose-tinted idea that this could be the perfect business,” Mr. Rhys said. “You buy a boat from Brooklyn, you bring it back to Brooklyn, you restore it, you keep it in Brooklyn.”
Reality hit hard when Rarebit arrived. On the one hand, the only shipyard willing to take him was in New Jersey; apparently the industry has a big problem with people throwing away old wooden boats, an inclination Mr. Rhys would soon come to understand. And then there was the changing timeline. Before starting the project, Mr Rhys, 46, believed the renovation would take six months. It finally took four years.
In a way, Mr. Rhys’ timing was perfect. After a year of working with three different entrepreneurs, all of whom were successful in making too many promises and underlining, he found a seasoned expert who needed a fresh start: Kelli Farwell, who had organized the party. Mrs. Russell’s birthday on her wooden boat, the water table.
Unfortunately for Mrs Farwell, but fortunately for Mr Rhys, the water table had been unceremoniously sunk the previous year. A steel tug had crashed into it while it was moored, destroying its keel and submerging its engine, essentially totaling the vessel.
“I was heartbroken,” Ms. Farwell said. “It would almost be like you’ve lost someone you loved forever. I just couldn’t believe it.
She was working on the New York ferries and was thinking about her next move when Mr. Rhys emailed her to tell her the restoration had not gone well. She agreed to meet him at the New Jersey shipyard. She saw the deplorable state Rarebit was in and thought it looked like a bomb had gone off.
“My goal at the beginning was to be the only person honest with him about this and not to hide the hard truths,” Ms. Farwell said.
As it turned out, Ms Farwell, 50, had nothing to say. “That’s when I realized how bad things were, with just the look on Kelli’s face,” Mr. Rhys said.
“It was one of the dark days,” continued Mr. Rhys. “Because I had no experience and the original guy was like, ‘Oh no, it’s okay. Its good. Oh no, it’s supposed to be like that. Its good. Its good.’ And that day, Kelli come in and she said, ‘It’s not right. It is very far from being good.
Ms Farwell said: “It freaked me out and it wasn’t even my boat. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ “
So she started showing up every day just to help out. “Just sand and caulk and skilled labor. And then just, over time … I was always the one coming, and everyone stopped coming.
As Ms Farwell took over the lead catering role, both parties benefited from the arrangement. Mr. Rhys eventually had a partner ready to get up to speed with him and the wood saw, and Mrs. Farwell, just the fourth female ferry captain in New York Harbor, found Mr. Rhys a welcome exception to the toxic atmosphere of the boys’ club. she often met on the quays.
“I mean, not for nothing, but most men, when they come in, will say they’re right about everything. Matt is not like that. That’s why I love it and we work so well together, ”Ms. Farwell said. “He’s really one of the only men I’ve ever worked with in this industry who doesn’t make assumptions about what I know, I don’t know.”
Mr Rhys said watching how Ms Farwell is treated by men in the shipping industry has “opened his eyes”. “It’s like the prehistoric age,” he says. “It’s like, my God, we’re stuck in the 1930s here,” Mr. Rhys said.
So they decided to manage everything in the hull. They stayed with experts for motors and electrical work, but everything else they did themselves, almost entirely by hand. When they had questions, they turned to YouTube. Ms Farwell, for example, built the wooden benches that line the patio and installed the interior plumbing herself after watching tutorials online. She even tiled the bathroom floor.
There were small setbacks, like the time Ms Farwell cut off part of her thumb while cutting the rail with a table saw, shocking Mr Rhys and a guest who had stopped to see how things were going . But soon after, they found themselves in uncharted waters: making real progress.
“Anytime Matt and I kind of took it upon ourselves to clean up the mess that might have been there, we’ve had our best successes,” Ms. Farwell said.
Together they cleaned the joints and did all the caulking and epoxy. They even mastered the art of fluting, a technique of folding wood, although that was not without challenges either. To bend the strip of wood that became the railing of the hull, they had to build a plastic trench and soak the oversized strip of mahogany for days. When it was time to go up, it was cold and they could feel the wood drying out as they transferred it from the water to the hull, threatening to break.
“We weighed it down and kept it in the trench for a long time,” said Mr Rhys. “And then when it was totally saturated, we drilled the holes, and then one day we just mounted it, and we slowly screwed all that arched rail all around the bow of the boat. It was one of the most rewarding days of my life. “
Ms. Farwell described this moment as a turning point. “From that point on, I think we were really like, ‘We’re both capable enough to finish this boat,’” she said.
In November 2020, Rarebit finally returned to the ocean. Considering how many times Mr. Rhys had to re-shell, they chose not to smash a bottle of champagne as a celebration, although they had everything planned. After completing a successful second sea trial in April, they set out to make her official charter launch this summer and even found a marina in Brooklyn to moor her. It’s the only wooden boat out there, and the shiny mahogany stands out among the evenly fiberglass floats while 1930s jazz echoes in the cabin.
Now that the boat is seaworthy, Ms Farwell has resumed her usual duties as captain, with Mr Rhys as the occasional stew chef. When in town, he enjoys running charters, handing out charcuterie platters, and even making the traditional Welsh rarebit on the high seas with a blowtorch. Recently he transported guests to a Loro Piana event and intends to welcome Wes Wheeler, the grandson of the man who built his boat.
Since there is no real agreement on Mr. Hemingway’s favorite drink, Mr. Rhys is happy to serve guests whatever they want. He’s just partnered with Talisker whiskey, and he’s also known to muddle a mojito on demand.
Mr. Rhys’ family had somewhat different priorities. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s okay.’ It’s amazing, “he said.” We went three and a half years and then they said, ‘Did you bring the pirate booty?’ You think to yourself, ‘You’re on a ship next door. of the Statue of Liberty. Shut up. ‘”