|O CAPTAIN! Jim Benge will need to take apart his warehouse to get the Whitmar out. Photography by Kevin Hunter Marple|
She sits in the middle of it all, the Whitmar, a turquoise-hulled sailboat reaching 56 feet from stem to stern and 14 feet, 1 inch at its beam, or widest part. When finished, she’ll weigh in at 20 tons.
Fifty-six feet doesn’t sound all that big until you stand right up next to her and realize you can’t see either end, given the curve of the hull. It’s then that the enormity of the spatial-relations puzzle comes into focus, as you look at the boat and then the warehouse door and try to make sense of what you see. At that point, Jim Benge, builder and owner of the nearly-finished Whitmar, speaks for the first time after saying hello.
“I’m gonna have to take apart the building to get her out,” he says, smiling sheepishly. “I really need to tell the landlord about that one of these days.”
The reality of the situation hits you in a rush: this man with the ruddy complexion and sawdust in his hair has built an ocean-going sailboat in a warehouse in East Dallas.
I’ve known Jim Benge, a lapsed Catholic from the Telephone Road section of Houston, for six years. I met him as he was forming the skin of the Whitmar’s hull over the laminated white oak ribs, about two years into the project. Benge is 50 years old, the eldest of four. His earliest memories are of his paternal grandfather and namesake, Jimmie, and their trips to Galveston Bay. The old man would take his grandson out onto the smooth waters of the Gulf in his hand-made boat, a craft considerably smaller than the Whitmar.
“We used to leave home before daylight in the ’56 Chevy pickup and drag the boat to Galveston Bay,” Benge says. His green eyes shine as he describes the vessel as if it were last week, the way the saltwater gleamed on the polished mahogany as the gulls trilled overhead. “I remember my grandfather really enjoying himself on the water, so much that he would lean back and laugh from his gut.” Family is important to Benge. Even before he pounded the first nail, he named the project after his mother, Margie, and only child, Whitney.
A contractor by trade, Benge was a successful commercial builder in Dallas for a number of years, until the pressure of deadlines and slow-paying clients ate away at his health and the pleasure he took from creating things. Now he takes on the occasional construction project and serves as a consultant to a medical supply company of which he owns a part interest.
We often meet for drinks in the bar at the Park Cities Hilton, one of his last projects. He points out details of the construction as I take in the hardwood grandeur of the lounge. If I pick up a hammer, my thumbnail falls off, but even to my untrained eye, the finish work in the room is exceptional, the stained hardwood appearing to be one seamless piece, dark and rich like a sheet of Belgian chocolate. Benge has been working with wood since his childhood. He takes great pride in describing the methods of attaching two pieces together, the tongue and the groove, the dovetail. The process, to him, is more important than the product, and a boat was just the next logical step.
He has several answers when people ask the inevitable why question. His response seeming to depend on the day of the week. There’s the grandfather thing. And the meaning-of-life thing. “I used to leave the office every day and go to happy hour with friends, drink beer until late in the evening, go home, and then get up in the morning and do it again,” he says. “I felt like I was wasting my life.”
Press him a little about the foolishness of the project, the audacity to think that one man can build a seaworthy sailboat by himself, and you’ll get a blank stare. Not finishing the project is not an option; the concept doesn’t seem to compute with the builder. Instead, you’ll hear about construction techniques. “There are some interesting challenges in boat building,” Benge says, taking a sip from his Shiner Bock. “In construction, everything is based off of a straight line, and curves are the exception. Building a boat, the exact opposite is true. The curve is the rule, and the straight line is the exception.”
Benge started in late 1998. He ordered a set of plans off the Internet, rented a warehouse, and bought a stack of plywood and 3,000 linear feet of white oak. People told him he was crazy, that he would never finish, or it wouldn’t float. He dismissed such talk with a wave of his hand. Boats have been built before using the same plans. They didn’t sink. Why should his?
He rattles off the vital statistics without thinking: three staterooms, cabins really, small but usable. Two heads, bathrooms to landlubbers. Total livingarea will be approximately 600 square feet below deck, another 800 above. The mainmast will stand 63 feet tall, built from 8-inch-diameter aluminum, the mizzenmast 43 feet. He constructed the hull using a process known as cold molding: four layers of quarter-inch plywood epoxied together and covered by 9-ounce fiberglass cloth.
When people visit the warehouse, Benge likes for them to run a hand over the hull. It feels like polished glass, almost greasy it’s so slick, blemish free. Ten coats of marine-grade paint, they’re told.
Near the bow, a few feet below the waterline, is a 10-inch hole where the bow thruster goes. It’s one of the more expensive items of the project, along with the keel and the Westerbeke four-cylinder diesel engine, almost $11,000 for a good one. I nod knowingly, as if I priced bow thrusters only last week. “What exactly does one of those do?” I ask.
Benge explains the concept. Turns out it’s really not that complicated. A bow thruster is a tube with a motor in it, running port-to-starboard, through the hull. Makes maneuvering in tight quarters easier.
Benge is quick to point out that, strictly speaking, he has not built the entire boat by himself. Occasionally, sections of wood too large for one person to handle necessitated an assistant. Then there was the hull, the largest component of the boat, which was constructed upside down. Benge had help when he flipped it over, but things didn’t work out quite as planned.
“I calculated where the widest point, the beam of the boat, needed to be in relation to the highest part of the roof of my shop,” he says. “It was going to clear by less than an inch. Everything went just fine as we rotated the hull, until it got to a point where we could no longer see over or around the widest part of the hull.” The result: unexpected collision between roof and hull. Damage to the latter, fortunately, minimal.
Another problem was the sewer linethe one for the warehouse, not the boat. After flipping the hull, the plan was for work to begin on the interior. In order for that to happen, the water and fuel tanks, and the rudder assembly (though not the rudder itself) would need to be installed before the subflooring was laid. The water and fuel tanks went in as planned. However, when the rudder skeg was built, Benge realized he had a situation. When installed, the rudder assembly would stick below the bottom of the hull at least four feet, a seemingly insurmountable problem, given the warehouse’s concrete floor, which was in the way.
But building things from scratch makes you a problem solver. Benge got a concrete saw and a jackhammer and went to work on the floor. That’s when he found the warehouse’s sewer line. It ran directly through the spot where the rudder assembly would intersect with the floor.
There was only one real solution. Benge rerouted the sewer line, forming a 2-foot U-shape that hugged the rudder assembly.
“Is that another of those things you don’t want the landlord to know about?” I ask.
He grins but doesn’t say anything.
The plan has always been to do as much work as possible here in Dallas and then take the Whitmar to Galveston and finish her there. After completion, who knows? Drop out totally and sail around the world. Or maybe just putter around the Gulf of Mexico, retracing the course taken so many years ago with Grandpa Jimmie. The destination, like the answer to the why question, depends on the day of the week.
Benge mentions he’s been in contact with an independent television producer about a documentary on the building of the vessel. Even though the Whitmar is nearing completion, Benge figures he has at least two more years of work before the trek to Galveston. The idea of a television show intrigues him, and he has made plans to meet with the producer.
We talk about keels, the last and most expensive item. Keels are important. Keels keep the boat upright. The keel for the Whitmar will be solid cast iron and cost nearly $15,000. Without the overhead of a large operation, Benge finds he likes the construction business again. There’s a lot less stress, and the money is good. He says when the time comes the keel won’t be a problem, nor will the navigational equipment.
A final thought pops into my mind, something I’ve never thought to ask in all the years I’ve known Jim Benge: “You do know how to sail a boat, right?”
Harry Hunsicker writes a thriller series about a Dallas private detective named Lee Henry Oswald. His second book, The Next Time You Die, was published in July.