Rob Skelly aboard 'Pauline Claire' on launch day

Local launches sailboat built by hand at Bella Coola Harbour

At first glance the Pauline Claire doesn’t stand out from the other sailboats currently moored in the Bella Coola Harbour.

At first glance the Pauline Claire doesn’t stand out from the other sailboats currently moored in the Bella Coola Harbour. There is, however, a remarkable story behind the vessel and its creation over the past 13 years.

A 40ft steel sailboat, the Pauline Claire was lovingly named and painstakingly crafted by Rob Skelly. He dedicated the boat to his only daughter, who passed away from leukemia at the young age of 19, in July 2002.

A longtime resident of the Valley, Skelly is by trade a helicopter pilot, flying here for over 35 years. He is the first to admit he is not a boat designer, and remains modest about his remarkable creation. But you only have to take one glance the Pauline Claire to see the incredible dedication required to see such a daunting project take shape.

“Someone told me only about 10 percent of people who take on building a boat finish it,” he said. “As my friend Rob Stewart says, nothing beats perseverance.”

Perseverance seems to be an understatement. The first step was finding a design, and Skelly picked his based mainly on layout. He wanted a live-aboard friendly design as he plans to eventually move onto the vessel full-time.

“There are professional boat designers out there and I eventually found what I was looking for online and proceeded to order the plans,” he explains. “It comes with a CD and digital cutting files; the closest thing I would compare it to is a paint-by-numbers type of project.”

Paint-by-numbers might be the simplest way to explain piecing together 20,000 lbs of steel that Skelly had shipped from Vancouver. He was extremely fortunate to find a suitable workshop, and in 2003 he got to work.

“I was very lucky that Troy Gurr had designed a shop for large forestry operations and it was available,” he said. “They also moved a cabin onto the property for me and so the set-up was perfect.”

Working with steel was familiar to Skelly as he welded for two years putting himself through flying training. The shop was equipped with an overhead crane which allowed him to move the giant pieces of steel into place, and the vessel began to take shape. Friends chipped in, bringing in pieces periodically as they came in and out of the Valley on trips.

“There was help from community members along the way,” he said. “There were so many I hesitate to name even one, but over 50 people assisted me in different ways.”

It was not, however, without its difficulties as well. A torn rotator cuff in his shoulder limited him to simply puttering with one arm for almost an entire year, and a fall off the back of the vessel eight years ago resulted in two broken legs. He considers himself fortunate to have fallen on his feet; it could have been worse.

“I managed to drag myself to the phone to call for help,” he recalls. “The surgeon quoted me a six to eight month recovery but I was back flying four months later.”

Skelly persevered and the Pauline Claire continued to take shape. He continued working full-time up until three years ago, and when he wasn’t flying he was building. He said he doesn’t even know how many hours went into the project, but it’s certainly in the thousands.

“The whole thing is a big long experience in problem solving,” he said. “There were days of satisfaction and days of frustration.”

The interior is partially done, and Skelly won’t make any estimation on how long that portion of the project will take. All together the boat is 42 feet, sleeping three to five people, and includes a comfortable living space equipped with everything a person needs.

On May 31 at 9:30 am, Skelly celebrated the launch of the vessel at the Bella Coola Harbour. Champagne was ceremoniously broken on her bow and dozens of people turned out to see the boat enter the water, including Skelly’s three sisters and numerous family members.

Contrary to what one might think, Skelly is not a sailor. He does have some experience to draw from, however, and plans to slowly build his skills before embarking on his first voyage, wherever that may be.

“I have no immediate plans to sail around the world or anything like that,” Skelly explains. “I’m pretty cautious by nature, I’m going to live aboard for a while and get familiar with everything before I go anywhere.”