This month, a reader wrote in to ask what happened to the mermaid that once adorned the bow of the Moonlight Lady, the Lake Champlain cruise ship that’s moored beside the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. Apparently, the curvaceous carving hasn’t been seen in months.
“All season long she plied by here through the sunlit and moonlit waters of Lake Champlain, a more lovelier adorned bowsprit never was, with rope braided hair and iridescent tail,” wrote Roger Donegan of Hinesburg. “Now, yonder hull has just a bowsprit, empty of her figurine lines and devoid of our shared equanimity over this watery place…”
Donegan’s letter was signed “the Lone Sailor,” a reference to the statue of a Navy seaman who stands watch on Burlington’s waterfront, not far from the Moonlight Lady’s slip.
Gwendy Lauritzen, who works for the Moonlight Lady’s owner, Mike Shea, initially sounded skeptical when I called, on Donegan’s behalf, to inquire about the bosomy brunette’s current whereabouts.
“What, he wants to know the woman’s address?” Lauritzen asked dubiously. But, after I assured her that my interest was nautical and not naughty in nature, Lauritzen gave up the goods on the Moonlight Lady’s forward lass.
The mermaid figurehead, as such carvings on the prows of ships are called, was part of the vessel’s original equipment when Shea bought it in 2007 from its designer, builder and original captain, Merritt Walter, who also made the mermaid by hand. Walter, 74, is now retired and lives on the St. Johns River just south of Jacksonville, Fla.
As Walter explained, the eight-cabin vessel, which sleeps 16 and seats as many as 30, was originally christened the Bonny Blue. Designed and built to resemble a 1920s passenger and freight steamer, it spent five year sailing the Dismal Swamp Canal and Pasquotank River between Chesapeake, Va., and Elizabeth City, N.C. The Bonny Blue was the last commercial vessel to sail the Dismal Swamp Canal when its passenger runs finally ceased in July 2007.
Walter himself is a colorful old seaman with saltwater in his veins. He started his career in the Navy, went on to deep-sea-diving school, then became a salvage diving officer. After leaving the service, Walter was hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he served as the agency’s chief of ship construction. After 20 years of building boats for NOAA, Walter launched his own company building passenger schooners, owning as many as eight at a time.
Though Walter designed and built scores of ships in his long career, the Bonny Blue was clearly a labor of love. He trimmed out her interior with wood paneling made from walnut trees cut on his farm in Kentucky. The ship, which Shea renamed the Midnight Lady, still features all of Walter’s original woodwork. Today, it runs one- to six-night cruises on Lake Champlain, venturing as far north as Montréal.
“That Bonny Blue was the best, most enjoyable operation, with passengers enjoying it more than any other vessel I have ever had anything to do with,” Walter recalls wistfully. “I’d still be doing it today if I weren’t getting so old.”
Why the mermaid? “Dock appeal,” Walter explains. Nothing like a topless woman on the front of a boat to draw the attention of passersby.
The Bonny Blue mermaid wasn’t Walter’s first or only one. He created his first in the early 1960s. One day, he had her on his workbench when his mother stopped in for a visit.
“She says, ‘Merritt! Those breasts are way too big! You have to reduce the size!’” he recalls. “I thought about it, and she was right. I guess I got a bit carried away.”
Walter confesses that not all his mermaids were as eye-catching as the Bonny Blue’s. He practically shudders at the memory of one he made for the American Rover, a 150-passenger schooner.
“That turned out as about the ugliest doggone woman you ever seen,” he says. “Looked like a Neanderthal.”
The Bonny Blue’s mermaid was actually crafted from fiberglas — not wood, as are most figureheads — with her hair made of unbraided nylon line. Each strand was soaked in resin and had to be individually positioned on the mermaid’s body before being painted by hand.
When reached by phone last week, Walter was surprised and saddened to learn that his favorite mermaid was missing. I conveyed the news I’d heard from Lauritzen: Most of the mermaid’s body and tail were “lost at sea” during Tropical Storm Irene. Only her face survived.
Walter sounded almost eager to reconnect with his old flame.
“If you talk to Mike, tell him to send the head on down here, and I’ll remake the body for him,” he offered. Later, Shea agreed to do just that.
Venture down to the waterfront these days, and you can almost hear the Lone Sailor’s bronze heart beating again.