Luis Proenza couldn’t afford to buy the sailboat he always wanted, so he built one himself — a journey that took 16 years to complete.
At first glance, the Apogee looks like any other lovingly maintained 44-foot ketch anchored in the western Ohio boating community of Vermilion Lagoons. Its owner, Luis Proenza, leads the way onto the sailboat’s deck, through the cockpit and down a companionway into a handsome teak cabin. The University of Akron president emeritus points out the quarter sleeping berth tucked into each corner and the navigation station equipped with the latest electronics. He then steps down into a galley with a stainless-steel double sink and two faucets — one for water tanked onboard, one for “raw” right out of the lake. There’s also a refrigerator-freezer and a gas stove.
“Theresa bakes bread when we’re traveling,” Proenza says, referring to his wife.
The salon is one more step down. It’s flanked by built-in, cream-cushioned seating, an arrangement warmed by a small iron-and-brass fireplace on a black-granite pedestal in one corner. A door opens to a head that also functions as a shower stall; yet another opens to a double berth that serves as the master bedroom. A built-in platform bed topped with throw pillows striped in combinations of blue, taupe and white dominates the tiny room.
“We joke that the boat drinks eight, eats four and sleeps two,” he says as he surveys the space. “But we have had overnight guests on it.”
Proenza’s pride in the craft is obvious — and justified. He spent over 15 years building the Apogee, a name that was taken from the first fiberglass boat to ever sail around the world. The vessel is even more remarkable considering the biggest do-it-yourself project he’d tackled to date was remodeling his kitchen with a friend’s help. “I was somewhat handy with my hands,” he says. “But I’d never built a boat.”
Proenza spent a portion of his childhood near the water in his native Mexico, where his parents owned an Acapulco jewelry store. But he didn’t develop a love of sailing until his early 20s, while he was earning a doctorate in neurobiology at the University of Minnesota. “There were a number of interesting books that I read about how one could sail long distances, even around the world, in a small sailboat,” he explains. “That just intrigued me and then, obviously, the beauty of sail.” The struggling graduate student satisfied his budding passion by taking sailing lessons, then by buying a small draft keelboat suitable for weekend cruises.
“I decided the only way I was going to get a boat of the size and nature that I wanted was to build it,” he says.
After Proenza landed an assistant professorship at the University of Georgia, he visited a Montreal factory making a Reliance 44 fiberglass hull he fancied. “It reminded me very much of other boats that I had wanted, but couldn’t afford,” he remembers. He ordered the hull in early 1976. A large tractor-trailer delivered the purchase to his home that May; a crane lifted the hull from the truck and deposited it on a building cradle in the back yard. Proenza remembers crawling into the hull to contemplate just exactly how to start making his dream a reality.
“I would just sit there, kind of squatting on the edge, and try to imagine where might things go,” he says. “More importantly, I was trying to figure out, where do I start?” The answer quickly became clear: “from the bottom up.”
Proenza began by casting the ballast. He melted 9,800 pounds of scrap lead in a 100-gallon steel drum over a wood-and-charcoal fire. As the metal melted, it flowed down a makeshift channel into a plaster mold he’d made of the keel. A channel iron studded with seven huge stainless-steel bolts rested over the mold during the process. After the casting was stripped of its mold, a crane lifted it by the channel iron and carefully lowered it through the cabin opening into the keel. Proenza removed the channel iron and filled the remaining space between keel and casting with thickened resin, laid five triple-layers of fiberglass laminate over the ballast to fully encapsulate it, and bolted the ballast to them.
Proenza then turned his attention to adding a Ford tractor engine adapted to marine use, along with a trio of diesel-fuel tanks and a 40-gallon water tank, near the middle of the hull. Installing the rudder involved digging a 2-foot-deep hole under the stern so the rudder’s stock could be inserted into a hole Proenza had drilled for it. The deckhouse, which had remained moveable to accommodate ballast and engine installations, was then permanently attached and portholes and hatches carved out. Aluminum masts were measured, cut and assembled with fittings.
At that point, Proenza could finally begin working on the elements he’d longed for since the hull first arrived: Stringers, or joists, for cabin floor, were installed, followed by framing for bulkheads, berths and cabinetry. The floor plan and cabin features were inspired by years of looking at photographs and attending boat shows.
“For example, the shape of these openings came from a boat that was made in Sweden,” Proenza says, indicating a curved bulkhead separating the galley from the salon. “I just liked it.”
Proenza clarifies that most of the aforementioned work wasn’t completed until after he married in 1983. Progress was slowed first in 1977 by a two-year stint in Washington, D.C., then by his courtship of Theresa after he returned to a faculty position at the University of Georgia.
But the bride proved a major asset in finishing the project. Proenza proudly notes that she did everything from measure and cut cabinetry to glue teak battens and trim onto the plywood fronts. She even helped build two 70-gallon water tanks, one installed under each salon seat, and make the mold for the fiberglass shower pan under the head floor.
The couple made surprisingly few mistakes. The biggest error Proenza mentions is installing a salon bulkhead that turned out to be too long and wide. He had to remove it and cut it down so a water tank would fit under it.
“One of the things that we learned over time is that fiberglass, in particular, is forgiving,” he adds. “So, if you make a mistake, you can just grind it away and start all over again.”
By 1987 the couple had completed 70 to 80 percent of the boat — work that once again was interrupted by a career move, this time for Proenza to take a position as vice president of research at the University of Alaska. The couple considered relocating the boat to Seattle or Alaska so they could continue working on it. But Proenza’s regular business travel to Washington, D.C., made trucking it to nearby Annapolis, Maryland, a more logical choice.
“I was going often enough that I could take a weekend and do some work,” he explains. In 1990 the vessel arrived at a Chesapeake Bay-area yard. After professionals completed electrical wiring, plumbing and rigging, it was transferred to another location for a carpenter’s finishing touches.
“I just didn’t have the time,” Proenza says, then he chuckles. “And, in some cases, I didn’t have the skill.”
The couple launched the boat in the summer of 1992. They registered its homeport as Juneau with the U.S. Coast Guard, even though they intended to dock the boat in an Annapolis marina.
“We were living in Alaska when we finally finished her,” Proenza explains.
Their first cruise was a day trip to nearby St. Michael’s for dinner with friends, part of a five-week excursion around the Chesapeake Bay. Up to that point, the largest boat Proenza had sailed was 24 feet long. And Theresa, who had just completed sailing lessons, was no seasoned mariner either.
“We were both kind of nervous wrecks by the time we got to St. Michael’s,” Proenza relates with amusement. “Our friends, over dinner, said that we were so shell-shocked that they were taking bets as to whether we would take the bus back or take the boat back.”
But the Proenzas were sufficiently confident to complete their trip. By the end of 1994, they were sailing to ports as far away as Norfolk, Virginia.
The couple continued docking the Apogee on the Chesapeake, even after a move to Purdue University in Indiana. It wasn’t until 1999 that they arranged to have it trucked to a Catawba Island marina, a change precipitated by Proenza’s new post as University of Akron president. Eight years later, they began docking it at their current Vermilion address, a 1930s Western Reserve-style abode with a hundred feet of waterfront on one of the lagoons that literally puts the boat at their back door. It became their primary residence in 2014, after Proenza stepped down from the presidency to take a two-year leave that ends this summer. Despite the boat’s almost two decades in Lake Erie waters, Proenza hasn’t changed its registered homeport. “Juneau” is still spelled out in big black letters on the stern.
“It’s a good conversation point,” he explains. “And I haven’t felt like I needed to change it.”
Ironically, the Apogee never made it to Juneau. The farthest north the couple has sailed is Lake Huron’s North Channel, a trip taken two years ago. Their longest subsequent excursions have been to the Ontario ports of Leamington and Erieau. Typical destinations are Lorain, Huron and Port Clinton for lunch or the Lake Erie Islands for a night or two. Proenza and his wife have talked about sailing to the Caribbean, a dream that hasn’t been realized because of their busy schedules and the responsibilities of caring for a dog, three cats and pair of parakeets.
“When I started building this boat, I thought I was going to go around the world,” Proenza says somewhat wistfully. There is evidence, however, the Apogee may sail out of local waters again. A suggestion that Proenza cruise the St. Lawrence Seaway elicits a definitive “I would love to do that.” And a mention of Ontario’s Long Point as a prime birding spot sends him to the navigation station to determine the sand spit’s exact location.
Proenza laughs at the idea that he actually saved money by building a sailboat himself. “By the time you count my labor and the time that it took, I probably did not,” he says. But he quickly qualifies the statement. Spreading expenses over time, he points out, made the boat affordable. And the Apogee is a custom craft in every sense of the word.
“I got exactly the boat that I wanted,” he says.
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