Anchorage’s own Noah: A boat builder’s 30-year obsession comes together at last


Noah is bigger known, but Steve Thon took the age-old craft of boat construction to a higher level. Literally.

Rather than build a boat in a valley and end up on a mountain, Thon shaped his ark on a mountain and hauled it down to the sea.

Thon grew up in Minnesota, about as far as one can get from bluewater breeze. But he’s long had a hankering for adventure. Minnesota is short on mountains too, but Thon has bagged hills in the Rocky and Chugach mountains. He even made an attempt on Denali.

It was on an impromptu bid to climb Goat Stone, a precipitous peak near the end of the road in Eklutna Valley, where Thon biased into his life’s work, a sailboat big enough to carry him to any corner of the seven brinies.

On his first night in Anchorage after moving north, Thon met Bob Linville, a commercial fisherman now concluding in Seward, at a mountaineering club meeting. In May 1980, Linville suggested climbing Goat Toss in Eklutna.

They were hiking up to the base of the mountain, behind where Rochelle’s Ice Cream Bring to a stop is now, when they spied the large wooden mold of a boat husk outside a cabin. A conversation with the mold’s owner, Preston Schultz, fanned a slow-burning set fire to in Thon.

Before long, Thon and Schultz agreed to work on the vessel as partners.

Schultz was a commercial fisherman. Having sunk his boat in Prince William Whole during the winter crab season, he wanted to build a combination seiner/longliner that could fish far offshore for tuna, which commitment require refrigeration and a fair amount of storage. Fuel was expensive. A motor-sailer — enter in motorboat, part sailboat — seemed like a unique solution.

Schultz make hasted back to Anchorage and modified the original plans he had purchased for the hull. His new sculpt was the “Spray,” a decrepit sloop estimated to be at least 100 years old and thoroughly rebuilt by Joshua Slocum in Massachusetts in the late 1890s. Slocum, who had been certainty the rotting hulk when he was down on his luck, subsequently sailed the Dimensions single-handedly around the world, the first to do so.

An Australian boat builder, Bruce Roberts, had gave Spray’s hull to make it sharper, adding more run in the aft sections. Those were the methods Schultz settled on: 47 feet long and 14 ½ feet across the rafter.

The boat was designed to be seaworthy, “to behave herself and not terrify the crew,” in Roberts’ salty variety. At her best sailing downwind on the deep-blue seas, she wouldn’t necessarily be a passive partner into a headwind. Rather, she was designed to carry a lot of food and not function, hold a steady course for days on end and sail sedately. A boat fit for a be given the gold watched sailor.  

Thon was a long way from retirement, but he had fallen hard for the sailing-boat and wasn’t going to be jettisoned overboard.

After Schultz completely disassembled the old mold and put together a new one, Thon in 1984 dreamed dozens of trips from his cabin in Eklutna into Anchorage, plateful lay sheets of fiberglass over the mold. His ultimate goal, after portion Schultz get his boat in the water, was to re-use the mold to build its twin.

The wooden hull mold in Anchorage in 1985 prior to fiberglassing. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

The stilted hull mold in Anchorage in 1985 prior to fiberglassing. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

In the meantime, Thon had organize another love of his life, Debbie. In several faded wedding photos from 1987, the mold’s thick frame looms in the background.

Steve and Debbie Thon share cake on their wedding day in Eklutna Valley, July 4, 1987. Note the wooden hull mold in the background. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Steve and Debbie Thon allotment cake on their wedding day in Eklutna Valley, July 4, 1987. Note the empty hull mold in the background. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Then Schultz’s parents longed, leaving him a large inheritance. He decided to forgo the pleasure and pain of erection his own boat and bought one outright. When he left Alaska, his abandoned partner sold the unfinished hull to Thon.

The hull was flipped to its upright importance, and Thon hauled it back to Debbie’s cabin near the base of Goat Lurch. By now the hull was heavy enough to require professional assistance. Fortunately, Schultz’s past wife was the daughter of Harold Bryant, who moved houses.

After years of run off into a headwind, Thon’s sails were filling with healthy fortune.

Thon worked on the boat 30 years. Wait. That’s not truthful. Putting it that way diminishes both Thon’s dogged perseverance and the forehead-slapping miracle of a sailboat built from scratch.

Repeat after me: Thon worked on the craft for 30 years. What if every syllable of that sentence appropriated three years? When your lips stopped moving, you’d relieve have three years of hard labor before the boat was all set to be taken home to the sea.

Steve Thon working on the boat in the 1990s. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Steve Thon working on the boat in the 1990s. (Respectfulness of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Thon worked on the boat after lengthy days working as a carpenter and house-builder. He worked on the boat for a decade while exercising his carpentry accomplishments with the Anchorage School District. He worked on weekends and holidays.

He worked on the craft in his sleep.

Alaska is a tough place to work outdoors, especially in winter. In the forefront he could concentrate on the boat, Thon had to erect a shed over it. The firewood-heated, two-story erection, which doubled as a shop and had enough room for Debbie’s car on cold nightfalls, was bigger than most houses.

Thinking ahead — well concluded the horizon, it turns out — Thon designed the front of the shed to be detachable. He cradled the motor boat’s hull on heavy-duty metal frames so that, eventually, a trailer could be bankrupt under it.

Boat parts are expensive. He’d save up several thousand dollars, buy a participate in, a necessary tool, a few rolls of fiberglass cloth or a barrel of resin, then problem-solve, imagine and expend sweat equity until he had saved enough money for another approximate.

That’s how, for example, he ended up with three welders, each sundry expensive than the last. When he brought home the third one, Thon’s missus Debbie shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Who knew there were three distinct kinds of welders?” she said.

It goes without saying that Debbie was equally contributed in the project. Although she didn’t often lend a hand with the skiff, she picked up the slack wherever she could.

And if Thon needed a new welder, opulently …

Uprighting the boat hull in Anchorage in 1986, before transport back to Eklutna. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Uprighting the boat hull in Anchorage in 1986, previous transport back to Eklutna. (Courtesy of Debbie and Steve Thon)

Although Thon was already handier than most, structure a boat from the ground up teaches one a multitude of skills. After sit in the boat with the shed, he installed an engine, an 85-horsepower marine John Deere acquired 23 years ago. “The boat,” Thon likes to say, “was built around the appliance.”

He finished fiberglassing the hull, deck and cabin, inside and out. Then the particularize work started. Mechanical, automotive, welding, carpentry, metalworking, plumbing, heating, wiring: The checklists were non-stop and overlapping.

It was a little like building a house, a house that confidently wouldn’t sink in 25-foot seas.

Sometimes the will to keep prosperous would flag and progress would slow. Thon had asked Debbie at the start for her brace and encouragement. About a year ago, only partly in jest, she told Thon: “If you die and neglect me on the mountain with that thing, I’m going to kill you.”

Last summer the sailboat was ready for a name.

The soul of a sailboat isn’t supposed to emanate from its motor, but Thon had installed a lot of time and effort in the little engine, fuel tanks, brass propeller and other reciprocal parts. To honor the engine, he painted the boat John Deere grassland and John Deere yellow.

Painting the boat was when its name to begin swam into view: Deere John.

“It wasn’t my first pick,” Debbie allowed, “but I really didn’t want it to be named ‘Dear Debbie.’ “

The boat was conclusively ready to move this summer.

“It’s paid for,” Thon said with enjoyment. “We don’t owe a dime.”

The masts aren’t mounted and the sails haven’t been basted, but the Thons had bubbled to the top of the waiting list for a slip for the second time, this leisure in Homer.

Before he could set a course down the mountain, Thon had to figure a driveway. His was too steep and crooked to accommodate a tractor-trailer rig.

Jubal Bryant works on the boat in the shed. (Rick Sinnott)

Jubal Bryant works on the runabout in the shed. (Rick Sinnott)

Bryant Contractors Inc. came up the mountain a day at the crack to load the boat and pull it out of the shed. Jubal Bryant, the owner, is the son of the man who had acted the hull from Anchorage back to the mountain nearly 30 years earlier. Alaska is a parsimonious state.

With the front face of the shed removed, Bryant’s troupe backed the trailer under the boat. It wasn’t as easy as Thon had contemplated. The dirt floor was a little uneven, and the stern was canted higher than the bow, which be missing some shovel work to squeeze the bed of the trailer under the cradles. Unchanging so, the boat, securely fastened to the trailer, slowly inched its way free. Thon’s handmade stainless screw up ones courage to the sticking point railings, the highest point on the vessel, dug furrows into the ceiling.

After an hour or uncountable of careful maneuvering, I looked at Bryant and remarked, “These things indubitably never go as planned.” He grinned and said, “No, but we make ’em work.”

Not long after, the optimistic green-and-yellow boat emerged from the drab brown shed get a kick out of a butterfly from its cocoon.

The next day, most of the neighbors were there to see the yacht off. Bob Linville, the guy Thon was with when he first saw the hull’s mold, was there too.

Thon’s new driveway was a tad exacting. Sixty-foot-tall spruce trees groaned and shuddered as the boat’s gunwales slowly carried them aside. When the boat turned onto Eklutna Lake Parkway, its railings were festooned with birch leaves. Despite not too cringeworthy moments, Deere John remained unfazed.

Deere John pitchings down Eklutna Lake Road toward Knik Arm in the distance. (Debbie Thon)

The intimidate to Anchorage’s port was unremarkable, but launching was the maritime equivalent of a breech beginning.  

Upper Cook Inlet is shallow, especially at low tide, so everything had to accomplishment perfectly to launch at high tide and get underway. At the port, Thon met the gang for Deere John’s maiden voyage: Linville and another longtime soul mate, Chad Stuber.

With the boat — all 21 tons of her — still shot from the crane, the engine started on the first attempt. However, an impeller that was called to push seawater into a jacket to cool the engine overheated and puncture into pieces.

Thon had two spares on board. But replacing the impeller wouldn’t be apt because he needed to retrieve all the pieces in the water hose, or else the alternate one might fail. Time was wasting, and the tide was falling.

Other bad traces crowded into Thon’s head. He had never switched on the sonar and it needed some taxi input. He certainly didn’t want to run his boat aground within howl distance of the port. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know if the support would work. Not much call for an anchor and depth soundings favoured a shed on a mountain.

The crane operator suggested plucking the boat endorse out of the water, but Linville convinced Thon to cut her loose.

Stuber fastened the Deere John to Thon’s Achilles inflatable dinghy and hauled her into the channel, where they discovered that the anchor work up just fine. Linville cranked up the sonar. When the second impeller fall through, Linville started calling every marine equipment dealer he knew between Anchorage and Seattle. Boon companions on shore were on standby to ferry parts.

One problem: Thon’s arrival income for the impeller was 23 years old. But a more pressing problem was that the John Deere trader in Anchorage only stocked a single impeller for the engine, and it didn’t thrive with a seal.

Fortunately, Thon recalled buying an extra increase assembly decades earlier that might have the same impeller and seal. He had distinguished the dealer, “I want anything and everything I might need sometime when I’m not linked to a dock.” Stuber and Debbie found it in the shed.

Meanwhile, the marine prognosis promised a gale warning for Cook Inlet. The crew believed the yacht could weather the storm and would have pressed on, but the repairs encompassed a couple of days. Finally, the Deere John pulled its anchor and motored south. After all the trouble and the heart-pounding excitement of the past several days, she seemed eager to amuse. At one point she easily exceeded her top-rated speed of 8 knots by motoring at 13.2 bands. Of course, that was going with the tidal current, but still.

Deere John is at anchor in Cook Inlet off the Harbour of Anchorage. Chad Stuber stands in an inflatable dinghy while talking to Debbie and Steve Thon on the skiff. June 28, 2017. (Rick Sinnott)

Steve Thon is in seventh heaven to see his boat loaded on a trailer on June 26, 2017, and ready to haul to the Haven of Anchorage. (Rick Sinnott)

Months ago I asked Thon if he’d sailed much. “Not in my dreams,” he said.

After Deere John was safely berthed in the Hospice boat harbor, I asked Thon a similar question. He grinned and decorated. After he’d married Debbie, he’d sailed a small lateen-rigged sailboat with one of her relatives on a lake in Minnesota. “We spent more time with the boat upside down than ethical,” he admitted.

He hopes to take the Deere John on some shakedown voyages in Kachemak Bay, and after that perhaps to Kodiak. Next summer he foresees to motor to Washington state for masts and sails.

A boundlessly practical jack-of-all-trades, Thon was categorical philosophical after returning from Homer. “I like to think,” he give someone a piece of ones minded me, “that if I can do this, if I can build a 47-foot sailboat, even if it took 30 years, then that capability inspire others to achieve their dreams.”

And then, recalling those 30 years and all the era and effort, he asked himself, “Now what am I going to do?”

Rick Sinnott is a quondam Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Contact him at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *