Preview: Diagnosis: Hemofungiosis; a Guest Blog by Gibby Conrad

Why is it that so many people like old things? For those with an interest in history, they are tactile links to the past that allow us to see, feel, and smell history. It can be old houses, books, guns, dishes, or boats; items that other people might refer to as “junk.” Those of us who love them call them antique, or historic, or classic; and we can become quite obsessed.

Our family histories tend to influence the types of old things that interest us. My mother loved plantation houses and antique furniture. My father had an interest in old European cars. Through them, I developed an appreciation for these things, too. The form and functionality of traditional Southern architecture, the beauty and craftsmanship of antique furniture, and the mechanical aesthetics of classic automobiles have all had an effect on my own tastes and interests. While I am fond of all of these things (and lots of other old stuff), my real downfall is old wooden boats.

A friend once diagnosed this obsession as being attributable to “rot in my blood.” He said it jokingly, and we laughed about it at the time, but the idea has stayed with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a profound diagnosis it really was.  I have done a little research and have not been able to find any documented medical cases relating to “rot in the blood,” but I am sure that I am not the only person with this affliction. I think it warrants more study and a proper medical term to describe it. All wood rot is caused by fungi that feed on the wood causing the fibers to decay and eventually crumble. With this in mind, I would like to make a suggested addition to the medical lexicon:

Hemofungiosis– a strong attraction to old wooden boats attributable to wood rot fungi in the circulatory system. This is often the result of experiences early in life that brought the afflicted into contact with that unmistakable smell of enclosed spaces on old wooden boats. It is thought that this musty smell of damp, rotting wood, oil based paint, manila rope, pine tar, and petroleum products is taken in through the olfactory system and then transferred into the circulatory system where it stays with the afflicted for the rest of his life. While the symptoms may go into remission for periods of time, they are sure to return in the presence of certain stimuli. In many cases susceptibility to this disease is hereditary.

In my case the disease is definitely hereditary, passed down from my mother’s side of the family and traceable back to my maternal grandmother.  My grandmother, Edith Udell, was a widow living in Lake Bluff, Illinois, at the end of the Second World War. She had four children, and Nari, the youngest, would grow up to become my mother. In 1947, my grandmother sold her home and bought a 98-foot motor yacht named BLACK WATCH II. She was a beautiful boat, long and narrow, with a rounded stern. Her plans were drawn in 1909 by Cox and Stevens; and when she was launched in 1910, she was named TOPSY and served as a commuter for John C. King of New York.  During the First World War, she had guns mounted fore and aft and went into service as a coastal patrol boat on the East Coast.  At some point she was brought to the Great Lakes where she was owned by a wealthy lumberman in Sturgeon Bay, and was in very good shape for her age when my grandmother bought her. The plan was to take the yacht downriver to the Gulf with the intention of reselling her and settling in Florida. The trip down the Mississippi River began in October with my uncle Sheldon, who was 20 years old at the time, acting as captain. The crew consisted of family and friends, along with the family dog Major and Percy the cat. The cruise stopped in New Orleans to make some repairs in November 1947, and never resumed. They found a mooring at the Municipal Yacht Harbor on Lake Ponchartrain and stayed there for almost 20 years.

98-foot motor yacht BLACK WATCH II, a 1909 Cox and Stevens design

When my mother married, she and my father lived aboard; and when I was brought home from the hospital it was to BLACK WATCH II. She was my home for the first six years of my life. I slept in a dresser drawer in my parent’s stateroom when I was a baby,and then moved into the crews’ quarters when I got older. I played with my blocks in the wheelhouse and rode my tricycle up and down the concrete piers with my lifejacket on. My grandmother, “Mum”, taught me to tell time from the ship’s bells that rang from the old Chelsea clock in the dining salon.  I was told to stay away from the large hatch that led down to the engineroom for fear that I would fall in; but I was drawn to it and that intoxicating old boat smell filled my lungs whenever I got near.

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4 Responses So Far to “Diagnosis: Hemofungiosis; a Guest Blog by Gibby Conrad

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    Christopher Wick says:

    All these years and I finally get to put a name to my problem. Started at the age of two and have been primarily involved with wooden boats since, including owning the same one for just over forty years now. I think I could have been your test case. Thanks.

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    Paul Rybon says:

    Wow! Queen Bee is exactly the one i want. I have a 40 X 13X 3 Deltaville (VA) deadrise hull. Do you think that platform could work for reproducing Q?Paul Rybon /

    • Avatar

      Gibby Conrad says:

      Queen Bee is 39×12 so the dimensions are very close.The key is to get the proportions on the cabin right. The Covacevich yard that built the Queen was very good at this.
      Good luck with your project. Gibby

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    Gregory Phillips says:

    Great read Gibby and I’m glad others will have the chance to enjoy it. The broad appeal of OCH has been widened with the insight you give into the history of boating/yachting along the Gulf Coast. Now, I’m off to Pirate’s Cove for the annual wooden boat festival….I’ll scout around for “that next old boat” for you. Thanks!