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In East Boston, the last voyage of the Mimi

Posted by Your Town  August 11, 2011 09:12 AM

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(Photos by Joe McGonegal)

In early July, Frank Ganter hauled a 72-foot fishing trawler out of the Chelsea Creek in East Boston and took her apart. Ganter, who looks like he’s been through some shipwrecks himself, knows how to scrap a boat better than anyone out there.

“Normally, the keel will hold good when you take her out,” he said. “But with this one, once we stripped some pieces off, the keel just fell apart.”

Some men in Ganter’s crew saved pieces of the old sailing trawler, but the rest of the wooden hull went into seven dumpsters. Those ended up in a recycling plant where wood is turned into mulch for gardens and lawns.

At the end of any boat’s life is that one man: the scrapper. This is the story of one boat’s final chapter and of the men who loved her till the end.

The boat is the Mimi. For over a year, it had been at death’s door in Ganter’s boatyard in East Boston.

Men painted the Mimi pink and green. She had two tall masts and was wide and substantive and solid. When they built her in 1934, men designed her with a sturdy, deep hull for the purpose of being a cargo barge, hauling goods and supplies up and down the Normandy coast. In World War II, German soldiers used the boat to ferry munitions. By the 1970s, someone sailed the Mimi across the Atlantic, 2,800 miles to New England. And in 1984, having changed owners several times, producers for the Bank Street College production studio and PBS thought her a perfect fit for a new children’s show.

“Voyage of the Mimi” starred a young man named Ben Affleck, whose fictional adventures with his grandfather and a crew off the New England coast occupy half of each episode; in the second half, Affleck narrated an informational tour of some environmental topic.

Curricula in middle schools complemented the show, which PBS and Bank Street sold as a set to schools. As the Mimi entered old age, millions of young men and women dreamed of setting off to sea on her weathered decks.

That included two recent University of Vermont grads: Joe Fraker and Dan Koopman. As young men, the two loved watching “Voyage of the Mimi.” On a trip to Boston last summer, one started humming the theme song. The other chimed in, then wondered aloud where the actual Mimi might be.

She was less than a mile away, they found out, on the other side of the harbor. They did a Google image search then used a phone app that matched an image to a satellite map, and they found it within the hour. They were stunned at the Mimi’s proximity to them, but they were even more stunned at its sorry state.

For several months, they did what they could to save the Mimi.

The two started a Facebook campaign to raise awareness of the Mimi’s impending demise. They contacted maritime museums, philanthropic foundations, past owners, potential new owners and surveyors. They befriended Ganter and owner Greg Muzzy and got the boat a stay of execution. But after a few months of research, they learned that saving the Mimi was even beyond their means and anyone else’s.

“After our first trip to Boston, we were trying to figure out ways to save the boat,” Fraker said in an interview this spring. “We were both shocked that it was sitting there and no one was doing anything.”

“The problem with the Mimi” said Koopman, “is that she’s not American, not beautiful, and aside from the show, doesn’t have that much historical significance to America.”

In October 2010, Koopman and Fraker used funds from the Lintilhac Foundation in Vermont, where they work as geographers, to hire a surveyor and assess whether the moribund Mimi could sail again.

Surveyor Norm LeBlanc had known of the Mimi for a quarter-century. But seeing the boat’s condition, he was not surprised. In his business, LeBlanc sees his share of floating wrecks. His survey read more like an autopsy, and the final number shocked Fraker and Koopman: $1.2 million would be needed to overhaul Mimi’s rotting hull and get her adrift again.

“Mimi changed hands so many times, and everyone had their own idea of how they were going to fix her,” said LeBlanc. “They added steel beams, and a stove and insulation. And as soon as you start mixing metals with wood, it’s trouble.”

“After a while, the boat suffocates,” LeBlanc said. “It needs circulation, like a tree. But with so many years of patch and glue, could it be saved? Yes, for a lot of money. But is it worth saving? No.”

Adam Kane, archaeological director for the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, agreed. Koopman and Fraker convinced Kane to consider acquiring the Mimi and moving it to Vermont. LCMM was in need of an historical sailing vessel that could teach museum visitors about both Lake Champlain and sailing, and Kane was attracted to the Mimi after hearing Fraker and Koopman’s enthusiasm. But when the survey estimate came in, Kane knew it wasn’t to be.

“[The Mimi] had a lot of potential to be a great tool in the Burlington area. But unfortunately, because of a variety of restraints that we couldn’t overcome, it wasn’t to be,” Kane said.

“You can’t save every boat,” Kane added. “Funding is always hard to come by, and if it’s not going to be government funding it has to be private grants. I wish it weren’t so. But from an historical preservation point of view, this probably ranks pretty low. Would you list it on the National Register? Probably not.”

Owner Greg Muzzy, who has seen his share of sailboats come and go, didn’t give much thought to the Mimi since paying Ganter to scrap her last fall. “It would’ve been nice if they could have done something for her,” he said, “but it wouldn’t have changed my life much.”

For some reason – perhaps it is that primal attraction to boats in man – Frank Ganter waited months and months to scrap the Mimi. The boat sat listing at the tide line of the Chelsea Creek until July, awaiting the inevitable trip to the dumpsters on Meridian Street.

As a scrapper, Ganter’s as good as they come. Ship-owners the world over fly him in to dismantle their rotting hulks, shipwrecks and foreclosed-on boats.

Naturally, getting too attached to boats he’s paid to destroy is bad for business, and the Mimi’s time finally came this July.

“She wasn’t a bad boat,” Ganter said of the Mimi. “It was an old girl. But she didn’t hit me too hard, like some old schooners might.”

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