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Charter Boat is Captain’s True Luff

ST. MICHAELS — Capt Iris Robertson jokes that she wanted to be an heiress when she grew up.

The former international software company executive didn’t realize that her “dream” would someday come true when she inherited her father’s 41-foot historic New England Catboat, the Selina II. Robertson’s career evolved into a full-time job owning, operating and maintaining Selina II. The boat was built in 1926 and had been Robertson’s family pleasure boat until she began chartering it in 2002 after spending a year doing a full restoration. It is now the largest of the surviving vintage Catboats.

After the original Selina was sold off as being too tippy, Selina II was built as a knock-off boat. When Robertson’s grandfather, Samuel Hird, had the second boat built, he said he wanted one like a Crosby Catboat — but bigger. The boat was passed down from Hird to Robertson’s mother and father, Esther and Bridg Hunt, and now to Capt Iris, who has had the boat since July 21, 2001. Selina II was rebuilt to be used as a charter boat with the help of Tom Howell at the Richardson Boat Yard in Cambridge. It took a year to restore the boat that Robertson grew up with along the east end of Long Island, N.Y.

“When someone first called me an old gaffer, I thought, ‘Hey! I’m not that old!,’” says Capt Iris who was the lone female in a class of 20 males when she took courses to help earn her captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Hird sailed the boat for 36 years before his daughter & son-in-law sailed Selina II for another 39 years. Robertson says with a laugh that she’s not sure about continuing that progression, but she will sail the family’s boat for at least 25 years.

“Then I don’t know what happens because I didn’t have kids,” she says. But the hope is that it will stay in the family, possibly going to her niece Selina Marjorie Truelove. The boat was named in honor of Hirds mother, and the name has been used for 7 generations of women in their family.

Robertson admits that she didn’t know what to expect in taking care of the boat or how to fund such an endeavor.

“It’s a time commitment,” she says. “They (boats) truly epitomize the expression ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’” If even the smallest bit of wood becomes exposed to the elements underneath the varnish, it could get wet and peel off, Robertson says, so she has to constantly check the boat for even the tiniest problems.

Working on Selina II might seem like smooth sailing, but Robertson estimates that she puts in up to 60 hours of work a week on the boat, some days working from 8 a.m. to prepare the boat and finishing up at 10 or 11 p.m. There are five two-hour tours on Selina II every day, seven days a week, with Capt Iris (or a relief captain) and one crew member aboard for each trip. In between tours, Robertson continuously maintains the boat and the cold winter months are spent doing maintenance as well. Already the ship is booked heavily throughout the summer; last year more than 3000 people boarded Selina II.

The old wooden vessel has many of its original parts, including its warning bell inside the cabin, the ship’s bell out on the deck, and the rich wood wainscoting down below, some of which has been painted over during the years. Robertson even has the original wooden toilet seat cover and all of its original hinges. Some of its most interesting features are the things visitors might take for granted, like the ship’s bell and gauges. The bell’s rope was done by a master knotsman. It has five knots for good luck and inside the rope is a tiny piece of paper with a Psalm inscribed on it. Robertson says the tradition of putting a copy of the Psalm ensures that if the ship goes down, the men on board will always be covered by those words from the Bible. The antique gauges near the bell could have been taken from an early Ford vehicle, like a Model T but more likely from an airplane dashboard. That mystery has never been solved. The captain’s chairs on the deck are only the second set of chairs that have been on the boat since it was built and are dated to the 1950s.

The diesel engine that runs Selina II is the same engine that powers the double-decker buses in London. Installed circa 1970 it is a 68hp Westerbeke that drives a 29″ propellor. Cat boats like this used to be used for carrying freight, ferrying passengers or for fishing. Selina II’s top speed is 7 1/2 knots, which is nearly 10 mph.

“It’s like going out with grandma instead of with a 19-year-old Olympic champion,” Robertson says.

Selina II is one of three tour sailboats that sail out of St. Michaels during the spring and summer. Unlike the excitement and action on speedier Catamarans, Selina II’s trips are more about ambiance, elegance and comfort. An assortment of fine wines, and light hors d’oeuvres are served during the evening cruises and Robertson doesn’t book more than six people on a trip at a time. She recently became ordained so that she can marry couples on the ship, which is fitting since Robertson was married to her artist husband, C.D. Clarke, on Selina II. The boat has two particularly romantic trips — the sunset sail and the moonlight sail — and offers engagement cruises, honeymoon getaways and other private charter sailing packages.

While it is now docked outside the St. Michaels Harbor Inn and Marina, Selina II has sailed beyond the waters of the Bay. It has sailed as far north as Boston and was invited to sail in a parade of tall ships during a bicentennial celebration in New York City.

Part-time mate Jeff Barron, like Robertson, gave up a fast-paced corporate job to work on the Selina II. Although he’s retired, he works Mondays on Selina II and three days a week as a bridge tender on the Tilghman Island Bridge. He was previously director of operations for the New York bureau of CNN, but says his jobs now “are the least (he) can do.”

When asked why people love to travel on Selina II, Barron says, “it gives them two hours of mellow that they might not have experienced. It’s so nice and so mellow to be out on this water for two hours, especially to people who aren’t accustomed to that.”

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