LAST SUMMER, amid the cheers of friends and well-wishers, Capt. Hugh Covert and his wife Julie launched their new boat into the fresh waters of northern Lake Huron just off the eastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The result of a 2½-year labor of love, the 75-foot, two-masted sharpie schooner Huron Jewel was the first boat to be constructed on Drummond Island in more than a century. She was christened with a 12-year-old bottle of rum.
“Rum is a sailor man’s drink,” declared Hugh, a veteran tall-ship captain, boat builder and co-owner of Drummond Island Tall Ship Company with Julie.
The schooner project came to life on New Year’s Eve 2011 when the couple’s conversations turned to “bucket list” items. Julie wanted to go snorkeling in Belize. Hugh’s dream was slightly bigger.
“I want to build a schooner,” he said.
Hugh previously had designed and built seven boats from scratch. His latest, a 40-foot sailboat named Gypsy M, was in use as the Coverts’ “daily driver.” Still, Julie was hesitant.
Accessible only by ferry, plane or pleasure boat, Drummond Island might seem like a challenging place to build a 75-foot wooden boat, but the island’s remote nature did not deter the Coverts. In fact, it contributed to the ship’s design.
First appearing in the 1800s, sharpies often were used as shell fishing boats and tenders on Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes partly due to their inexpensive construction and ease of operation. They were shallow-draft, flat-bottom vessels with a retractable centerboard.
The design meshed with the Coverts’ plan to offer charters around Drummond Island until they retired and sailed south. It allows them to sail close to shore and give passengers a clear view of the northern island wildlife.
Hugh moved to Drummond Island in 2003 while working as captain of the tall ship Manitou in Traverse City. He had been searching for a remote location to build an off-grid home when he purchased land on the island.
Six years later, while moving the tall ship Liberty Clipper to a new port, fate brought Hugh and Julie together when the vessel docked in Baltimore Harbor. She was living and working there. The two met at a dance. Julie also dreamed of living off the grid. When the couple married in 2010, she moved north.
“It was love at first sight,” Julie said, “but when I found out where he lived, I almost said ‘Yes, I’ll marry you’ on the spot.”
In 2015, four years after their first discussion, conversation again turned to the couple’s future. This time, Julie was better prepared.
“Let’s do it,” she said. “We’re not getting any younger.”
The intrepid couple emptied bank accounts and retirement funds and began construction on Schooner House, a 32-by-72-foot shrink-wrap covered frame heated with oil-filled electric radiators so work could continue through the harsh northern Michigan winter.
“Every boat needs a house,” Hugh noted. He and Julie chose to name the project boat Huron Jewel, which incorporated their initials and reflected their love of the Great Lakes waters.
Once construction began, news of the project spread across the island. People came out of the woodwork to help.
“The local community was incredibly supportive,” Julie said. “Everywhere we went, we were met with, ‘How’s it going, when are you going to launch?’ — it was really fun having their support.”
More than 50 volunteers contributed time to the boat’s construction, some by sharing their professional expertise and some by cooking, cleaning or running errands.
Many were people who heard about the boat in passing or stopped by Schooner House hoping for a tour. Some helped with a task or two, while others returned so often they became the Coverts’ close friends.
“The local community was incredibly supportive. Everywhere we went, we were met with, ‘How’s it going, when are you going to launch?’ — it was really fun having their support.”
— Julie Covert
Tom Doerr met Julie at the annual Drummond Island Fall festival where she was selling a book of her photographs. She also had a poster describing the boat and advertising the need for volunteers and donations. A retired electrical engineer from nearby Cedarville, Doerr had a strong interest in sailing and went to see the boat. He agreed to help when Hugh asked if he’d lend a hand.
“You couldn’t help but get drawn in,” Doerr said. “There’s a real pleasure in expressing yourself through the wood.” Doerr helped construct several parts of the Huron Jewel, including the binnacle, which houses the ship’s controls and compass. He also helped build the boat’s rudder and centerboard.
Local judge Michael McDonald took on restoring an authentic, 62-pound ship’s wheel found in a Delaware antique store. The teak wheel sat covered in lacquer paint until it was restored and mounted at the Huron Jewel’s helm.
Other volunteers came and went, too.
Nick Martinez, a lifelong resident of Kent City nearly five hours south, had been visiting Drummond Island for more than 30 years. After hearing people talk about the Huron Jewel in 2017, he visited Schooner House for a tour. Before it was over, Martinez, a professional painter, asked how he could help.
Martinez heard Hugh discuss applying the finish coat of topside paint. When he offered to bring his spray gear up instead, Hugh gladly accepted.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Martinez. “On the way up, I realized I had one chance to get it right, I had five hours in the car to panic.” Despite being chilly in Schooner House, the oil-based paint went on beautifully, and Martinez made the five-hour trip multiple times to help, even carefully painting the name on the hull and transom.
Huron Jewel is every inch a Hugh Covert design. He began by studying New Haven Sharpie plans and then expanded the dimensions to provide more interior space for passenger comfort. The result is a 75-foot long schooner with a 14-foot, 8-inch beam that is capable of 12-knot speeds that can access Huron’s shallow ports.
The sharpie schooner was launched on a blustery day in June 2018 to great fanfare and ceremony. Great Lakes musician and storyteller Lee Murdock provided entertainment while several people gave christening speeches, including Judge McDonald.
It was only fitting that he referenced Lewis Carroll’s time-honored poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” “The time has come the old Judge said to talk of many things. Of sailing ship of love and dreams and the adventures that they bring,” McDonald said.
Following Huron Jewel’s maiden voyage, Hugh and Julie began offering sunset cruises around Drummond Island, as well as day, week and two-week cruises to farther ports on Beaver and Mackinac islands. The Coverts also offer extended cruises to the North Channel — the legendary 115-mile waterway that separates Lake Huron’s northern islands from Ontario, Canada.
Julie said an unrealized dream is sad. For the Coverts, their dream of sailing adventures on the Huron Jewel is just beginning. For more information, visit ditallship.com.
Chuck Warren is a freelance boating writer and licensed captain who lives in Grandville. He’s worked around boats for 40 years.