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Shipshape at 60

Wooden boats require constant maintenance, and for the Mary Lois, it’s a family affair

Built in 1946 and ’47, the Mary Lois was looking a little rough in 1963. But after the Egeli family painstakingly refurbished the 53-foot wooden boat, she is shipshape and ready to sail.

Even a landlubber could tell this boat was different. Sitting on the hard at Herrington Harbour North this spring, it turned heads. It was old, it was wood — and something more. The lineage that defined that something more would stump even a sailing expert.
    For more than 60 years, this custom-designed and home-built wooden boat, the Mary Lois by name, has sailed the Bay, owned by the same family who designed and built it. The Egelis are a dynasty of world-famous painters who planted their roots in Maryland almost 100 years ago.

The Dynasty
    Family patriarch Bjorn Peter Egeli came to the United States from Norway at age 15 in 1915. He spent seven years at sea before forging a career in art that would bring him fame and fortune. A portraitist, he painted two presidents — Eisenhower and Nixon — several Supreme Court justices and countless other famous faces. His works hang in the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
    Bjorn’s years at sea never loosened their hold. He expressed his appreciation in art, both in painting and in boatbuilding. In 1936, he called on his early skill in woodworking to build a 30-foot, double-ended ketch from an established design.
    “He had no formal training as a boatbuilder. All his skills were self-taught by observation,” says son BJ. Dad was obviously a fast learner. The Lois — named after Bjorn’s artist wife — served the family for 10 years. She was so seaworthy that her second owner, a French chef, sailed her around the world twice.
    Bjorn and his boat’s namesake, wife and artist Lois Baldwin, had five children: Peter, Cedric, Bjorn James (BJ), Carolyn and Mary. Like their parents, all became artists — as did many of their children.
    “Artistic talent — painting, music, writing and some of the other gentle endeavors — are often passed down from father and mother to sons and daughters,” says the introduction to a 1985 family exhibition of the fine art of 11 Egelis.
    As well as art, the Egeli family was united by a fondness for sailing — and for a second boat that bears the name of the matriarch Lois and youngest daughter Mary.

The Mary Lois
    The Lois was practice. Bjorn intended to design as well as build his second boat. In 1946 and 1947 he designed and built scale models that were tested against each other until a design was finalized. In 1948, he started construction of the winner; it would stretch 53 feet at waterline, 15 feet at beam and draw almost six feet.
    The family’s 200-acre farm in St. Mary’s was half wooded land. Bjorn bought a sawmill and milled his own lumber, a combination of white oak, chestnut oak and Virginia pine. Primary construction took six years. In 1953, the boat was launched and christened the Mary Lois. Finishing and rigging took another three years.
    In 1956, the Mary Lois joined the family. Son BJ remembers his father spending hours on the boat reading Plato and Aristotle. Bjorn would also gather his children on the boat for long discussions of philosophy and politics.    To this day the Mary Lois remains in the family, on the Bay, in sailable condition with son Cedric — a portrait artist with home and studio in Edgewater — the official owner.

On the Hard
    Like everything else involving the Mary Lois, spring maintenance 2014 would be a family affair, with son BJ, an architect and self-taught boatwright, taking the lead.
    Compared to the fiberglass boats that are the standard today, wooden boats require constant maintenance. Every year or two they must come out of the water for a thorough hull inspection plus scheduled and sometimes unexpected maintenance.
    Many components of the Mary Lois have been refurbished and updated over the years, including a new engine, upgraded sails, new rigging and rebuilt interior. This year routine maintenance was scheduled for hull integrity and topside cosmetics. But inspection revealed multiple weak and rotten spots in the wood that needed to be repaired and fasteners that needed reworking.
    BJ oversaw the month-long process, traveling each day from his home on the Eastern Shore to Tracy’s Landing. Wood was repaired, the hull was caulked and first the bottom, then the topside repainted — all by hand. BJ did most of the work with Cedric assisting, along with Lisa, from the third Egeli generation, and handyman Pablo.
    When I saw Mary Lois the second time, afloat, the boat could almost pass for new.
    In two years, the boat will have to be hauled again to sandblast the hull and remove the last of the old iron fasteners, BJ anticipates. In the meantime, the extended family will be carrying on the tradition of sailing Mary Lois.
    You may see her sailing out of the West River. If you do, you’ll know Mary Lois by sight.