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​Setting Sail

Bob ’65 and Jonah Eaton ’02’s dreamboat finally sails off into the sunset

Although the construction of The Aramingo relied just as heavily on familial unity as it did wood and wherewithal, the Eaton family—Bob ’65 and wife Wendy Batson, Jonah ’02, and Zach ’11—cannot seem to keep track of one another amid the throng of family and friends and their babies and dogs who gathered to watch the 42-foot schooner launch in early August.

Once the family is located, Jonah, the primary boat builder, makes a brief speech, rushed along in deference to the impending high tide. Behind him hangs his monolithic masterpiece hoisted on an enormous specialized crane ready to lower the 40,000-pound sailboat into the Delaware River.


“It wasn’t just me who built this boat,” Jonah says to the crowd, celebratory lager in hand. “There’s a little bit of a lot of people here who put their blood, sweat, and tears into this thing. … If it doesn’t float, I expect everyone to just walk to the bar and leave us alone.”

Then, tide creeping in, the crowd pushes forward to watch the crane advance along a track jutting off the shore, putting the ship out deep.

As the river’s surface swallows the boat’s barn-red underbelly, the atmosphere is tense, taut like the straps cradling the hulking ship. Operators on either side of the crane holler cues as the boat goes slowly lower and lower and lower. Then, finally … She floats.

When Jonah first envisioned building The Aramingo 10 years ago, he had no idea of the Sisyphean task that awaited him. Setback after setback, such as workshop thefts and roof collapses, mired the ship’s construction, not to mention real-life demands like Jonah’s law school and burgeoning legal career. (Check out The Aramingo during construction). So it didn’t seem to faze the Eatons on launch day when tension caused the lines connecting the boat motor and the steering wheel to snap clean just 20 yards from the landing, disabling the boat’s transmission. The virtually unnavigable vessel struck a dock, splintering the bowsprit, a 6-foot-long wooden extension of the bow. Once the boat was safely tethered, the Eatons still celebrated, all smiles.

Three weeks later, bowsprit expertly reconstructed, Zach and Bob ready the boat for its maiden voyage to Maine, while Wendy gathers last-minute supplies and Jonah puts in one last day before the journey at his job in Philadelphia helping refugees apply for political asylum. The dock next to The Aramingo is littered with tools, half-squeezed tubes of calk, and sticky cans of varnish.

“These plastic tubs, they won’t be around in 20 years,” says Bob, gesturing toward the comparatively garish fiberglass yachts moored along the marina just a few miles from Swarthmore, “This boat will be around for my grandkids to sail.”

Bob says the family never kept track of the overall cost of building the boat, but the job would have been exponentially more—at least $400,000—in the hands of shipyard carpenters. “That’s not to say it didn’t come at a price. After all, Jonah put five straight years of his life into this thing,” Bob says, explaining that Jonah worked odd jobs to fine tune the technical skills necessary to build the boat and spent all of his spare time into constructing it.

Readying the vessel for its maiden voyage to his and Wendy’s home in Maine, Bob says it is  “a shakedown cruise”—a journey anticipated to be full of opportunities to troubleshoot.

He would not be disappointed.


On a 10-day journey from Philadelphia to Maine, Bob, Wendy, Jonah, and Zach encountered rough seas, tough currents, narrow channels, and mechanical glitches, including an ordeal that almost cost the sailboat a propeller. The motor—salvaged and rebuilt by Jonah and Bob—which sailboats rely upon in tumultuous or stagnant weather, was a concern, and while it “never missed a beat,” says Jonah, having to run it almost constantly meant a lot of noise and very little sailing.

At night, the family took two-person shifts on deck every four hours, sleeping when they could in the unfinished berth alongside the roaring, hot motor.

“My mom and I had the 4 to 8 a.m. shift and saw the sun come up as we entered the main shipping lane for New York City,” says Jonah, recalling a memorable moment. During the voyage, the family also saw hundreds of dolphins and a few endangered Atlantic right whales.

A day or two later, the placid waters were but a distant memory. More than 50 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, the Eatons encountered pounding seas, which tossed and pummeled The Aramingo mercilessly, says Jonah.

“It was the kind of thing where the boat pitches way up and then crashes down,” Jonah adds. In what Jonah called an act of God, the most heavy-duty of all the bobstays, a chain weighted for 10,000-pounds, which steads the bowsprit, snapped during the turbulent weather; but Jonah was satisfied that the wooden hull stayed “stable-as-a-rock” through the crashing seas. After securing the stays and cinching the masts down while the deck “jumped all around underneath us,” he says, the family was forced to move inland, away from the tempest, toward New Hampshire instead of pushing through to Maine.

The Aramingo arrived at Gloucester, Mass., as if on cue, as the sun rose to reveal calm seas and … the Massachusetts Schooner Festival.

“We came limping in on no sleep, and everyone kept calling out to us, asking questions about the boat,” Jonah says, recalling the wondrous sight of schooners from across the Eastern Seaboard gathered in one place.

The remaining voyage to Maine was relatively quiet. Of course there is still work to be done before the family makes a much-anticipated 2016 trip across the Atlantic into Norway, namely building sleeping and living quarters below deck. But for Jonah, the sense of completion is close at hand.  

“When we woke up that first morning after the boat was in Maine, I looked down from my parents’ house at it on it’s mooring … It was like ‘wow,’ ” says Jonah, exhaling.