“I’m a firm believer that one never stops learning.”

I love Wisconsin. I live in Bloomer and we're in close proximity to so many attractive locations—just under two hours away from the Twin Cities, two hours from Superior and just under three hours from a ferry boat landing in Bayfield. You can’t beat the view and get the beautiful seasons anywhere else.

Photos by Jesse Yang

Bill Hable | Bloomer, WI

I was born on a dairy farm in Bloomer in 1938. My grandparents were Bohemian and immigrated from the southwest side of the Czech Republic to the United States in the 1860s. My parents spoke German. I am a German-speaking Bohemian.

I’ve been living in the same house in Bloomer for over fifty yearsI purchased it for $12,500 on my twenty-seventh birthday. I’m eighty-three years old now. My wife and I have been married for more than sixty years. We have five adult kids, four daughters and one son.

Growing up, I didn’t like milking cows, but I was a good student. At that time there was a demand for engineers, so I decided to go to college and pursue a degree in engineering. I attended UW-Eau Claire for one year, then transferred and graduated from UW-Madison in 1960.

Ever since graduating from college, I’ve worked in the air pollution control industry as a mechanical engineer for major companies, including Catalytic Combustion Corporation, Uniroyal and American Phoenix Incorporated, which is where I’m currently employed three days a week, three hours each day. I help with their environmental and ventilation work. I retired from Uniroyal in Eau Claire, a rubber tire production company that also served as an ammunition factory during World War II, as head of their engineering department after twenty-two years, one year before the plant closed in 1992. Shortly after, I started up my own engineering consulting firm.

I’m a firm believer that one never stops learning. I had to teach myself organic chemistry so that I could understand and work alongside researchers and chemical engineers. I’m a self-taught woodworker, thanks to a good industrial arts class in high school that helped jumpstart my love for building and creating. I’m always reading about sailing and sailboats. I love the water, but I’m not a swimmer. I love boats, particularly schoonersthey’re the most beautiful boat because of their sail rigs. 

I’ve always had a fascination with water and sailing. It’s so tranquil and exhilarating to ride the waves and feel the wind catch the sails. Life feels a bit simpler out on the water. You have so much to see and be grateful for.

As an engineer, I didn’t get enough exercise. I tried running, lifting weights and everything, but I hated working out. I hated all that. I figured if you ran, all you would get were worn-out shoes. Instead, I found a hobby that gave me both exercise and produced something in the end. I am building a boat. By the time it is done, it will stand 42 feet long and 11 feet wide. It’ll sleep about seven people in the under cabin. I started building it in 1987—not with the goal to sail it, but to get myself in shape. That’s my theory on this, and it’s worked. Building this sailboat is my mental and physical therapy project.

My grandfather bought farmland in Bloomer, passed that land to my father, and it is where I cut some of the trees for my sailboat.

Back in 1984, I started thinking about building a sailboat. I got a copy of a wooden boat magazine, read it and studied their drawings. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to build something big enough to live on. It’ll take me fifteen years, and I’ll retire at the age of sixty-two.’ Well, I’m eighty-three now. It’s been more than thirty-five years since I started building this sailboat, I’m still not retired, and the boat’s still not done. I’d like to think it’s keeping me young. 

In the early 1950s, my brother built a 16-foot sailboat, and my mother sewed the sails right in the family living room. It was during my college years working at a boathouse near UW-Madison’s student union that I got my feet wet with sailing and maintaining boats in a marina. 

The sailboat that I’m building is a schooner with two masts, one carrying a jib and three sails. It has a traditional gaff rig, which means its main sail has four corners and looks similar to a square. This is not a very common look anymore. Most sailboats have arcs that come to a peak. Weighing at 24,000 pounds, the sailboat is built to withstand any storm. It stands 42 feet high and eleven feet long. It has 11,000 pounds of ballast and 9,000 pounds of lead that I poured, which provides equal weight distribution to keep the sailboat upright, stable and reduce buoyancy.

Building something to this magnitude requires extensive, diligent planning. During the late 1980s, I spent about three years planning and designing this sailboat. I have a whole library of boat-building books and studied thoroughly on how to do this. 

When it came time to build it, I bought eighteen sheets of particle board, hauled them down to the Bloomer High School and stored them in the industrial art room. One night a week, the high school held an open gym night. I took the pieces out, laid them on the floor of the wrestling room, and I drew one pattern section of the boat each night. It took me a year and a half to make those pattern drawings, which would later be laid inside the boat frame to guide me in the process of cutting and laying the wood. 

Early on in the constructing process, my two brothers and a cousin helped me build this boat. We’d work on it every night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. We would cut trees from our local land and put them in my brother’s barn. One year, a fire broke out in his barn, and all of that wood burned down. We had to restart from scratch with the help of a friend who had cherrywood. 

This sailboat has been thirty-five-plus years in the making. I haven’t logged how many hours or how much money I’ve poured into building itthat’s too much work. I’m about 95% done. The interior is 98% done and made out of cherrywood with sub-parts made out of white pine. The exterior is made out of white oak. I did all the milling myself. I’ve purchased various parts of the boat from around the world, including the anchor, which was custom-built at the Lunenburg Foundry in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I plan to go to Maine this fall to my favorite supply place to pick up a gas stove and hot water heater. There’s a piece of the world right in this boat. 

I don’t have as much stamina as I used to, but I still go up and down the steps twenty to thirty times a day to work on the boat. I have days where I work continuously in streaks, then rest for a while, and pick it back up. I have very good legsno achy joints. My sense of balance is good. If I get done building it and finally sail, great! But, it was always about the exercisegetting myself in shape and keeping me healthy. I always tell people I’m going to live to be 105 years old. That’s my goal.

Bill’s story was produced by Jesse Yang.

Photos of the construction of Bill’s ship.

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