Orange County

Chapel Hill man builds a boat in his backyard ... for 16 years

Cecil Borel of Chapel Hill thought it would take him a decade to build a 32-foot sailboat in his backyard. He was wrong.

“I wanted a certain kind of boat,” Borel said. “The story is how damn long it takes.”

It would take Borel a total of 16 years, which boils down to two inches of boat per month. Grass grows faster.

“I can’t quit now,” Borel said. “This is a summation of small projects.”

On this morning, Borel’s project is to move six tons of boat, named Janetess, safely off of his property and toward the North Carolina coast, 140 miles away.

A small group of friends and neighbors have gathered in his driveway for cookies, coffee and a send-off. Did any of them doubt this day would ever arrive?

“No comment,” said Mark Firley, a woodworker from Hillsborough, who has known Borel for over 20 years. “The day comes when the day comes. I can’t do a project more than six months before my attention span lapses.”

“I was going as fast as I could.” Borel said. “For an amateur, I had to figure out what to do, then figure out how to do it… the amateur building process is convoluted, prolonged… and time-consuming.”

Kayak as a kid

Janettess is not Borel’s first boat-build. He made a canvas kayak as a kid. Borel then turned his creative energies towards painting and playing the flute before deciding a career in medicine was more practical.

“The things I put down were music and art,” Borel said. “Once you’re in medical school, there’s no time to practice any of that.”

After becoming a licensed anesthesiologist and getting married, Borel and his wife took sailing lessons on the Chesapeake, close to his work at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. An opportunity to work at Duke University Medical Center brought the couple down to North Carolina. The only thing missing was finding the time to go sailing.

“So I decided I’ll build the dream boat that I’ve always wanted,” Borel said.

The delicate trick of securing his dream boat, a craft shaped not unlike a giant tuna, aboard a 50-foot hydraulic trailer was tackled the day before by Paul Welles from Triton Yacht Service. Both boat and trailer were now ready for departure, complete with a yellow banner marked OVERSIZE LOAD that Welles had tied across Janetess’ transom.

“You should have a sign on her that says, ‘home-made,’” Borel’s neighbor, Elizabeth Prioli, said.

Welles had made two prior visits to Borel’s property to advise him on where he should widen his drive. The moment had arrived to find out if it was now wide enough.

“Thanks for the cookies,” said Welles, as he closed the door to his cab and started the truck’s engine.

Perfect moment

For Borel, the first years of the 21st century were the perfect moment for him to build his boat: he insists he couldn’t have pulled it off without the internet, the place where he met the boat’s designer, Washington State-based naval architect Mark Smaalders.

“Smaalders was the person that gave me the best, and most significant, advice during the building process,” Borel said.

Although Borel broke with Smaalders’ design on certain aspects of the boat’s cabin, Borel would turn to the designer whenever he found himself in over his head.

“For stuff that is real engineering … you have to pay for that advice,” Borel said.

With Janetess now in the hands of Welles and his trailer, Borel’s job was to watch as his boat began a slow departure down his wooded drive. Janetess looked like a parade float, with trees on both sides of the drive, gravel crackling like applause beneath the wheels of the trailer. Borel held back a sapling that nearly touches Janetess as she passes.

Just three days earlier, Borel was inside his two-story shop with his boat, recalling how other boat-builders advised him not to take on such a large project; that life happens.

“People have health issues … change jobs, get divorced,” Borel said. “(Boatbuilding) is very dependent on having a place to build.”

Borel said his medial career provided more than just financial support for his project.

“I needed to work at Duke to build the boat. I needed work to free my mind,” Borel said. “It was, ‘I can’t solve the problem here (with the boat), so… I’ll go to work,’ or, ‘I’ve had a bad day at work, so I’ll go work on the boat.’ It went back and forth.”

Just enough room

When Welles’ trailer and Janetess reach the end of Borel’s drive, there is just enough room for the ensemble to complete an L-turn onto county blacktop. Welles straightens the trailer out and parks to conduct a final inspection.

Five minutes later, both trailer and Janetess are gone, headed southeast to a boatyard in Bridgeton, NC.

Borel headed back up the drive to his home. He had more work ahead of him in Bridgeton: Janetess still needs her mast and rigging installed. Her engine needs to be tested. Sails need to be sewn.

“I’m thinking two months,” said Borel’s wife, Janet, referring to the boat’s launch date. “Which means it will be four months.”

In the meantime, Borel plans to fill some of the open space in his boat shop with a small sailboat that needs deck work. Borel also has to make time for his weekly music lesson at the Durham Jazz Workshop.

“I’m learning to play the flute after 40 years of not playing,” Borel said.

When asked if giving up on Janetess had ever crossed his mind during the past decade and a half, Borel both grinned and grimaced.

“It crossed,” Borel said. “And walked right out.”

Steve Bydal: