Benjamin O. Severns built his Tahiti Ketch, Benelly, in a place you would not expect—rural Indiana. In January 2017, we had the pleasure of meeting Ben, then 94, and visiting him at his home where he built our boat decades ago. We drove through cornfields, past silos and round barns, until coming upon a small town with about thirty homes and a handful of streets. Once the town boasted a post office, a church and a school—now just the church survives, and just past it, down a dirt road before more cornfields unravel, is a barn built of wood salvaged from a tornado, with unusually large doors. Inside that barn, Ben toiled for ten years as he built his dream. He timed her completion with his retirement, and an oil trawler lamp that still hangs from the butterfly hatch was a parting gift from his co-workers.
There is a large but not deep lake nearby, on which Ben and his children sailed a smaller boat he built before embarking on this larger project. The Great Lakes are a good distance away, and so once Benelly was completed she was hauled more than ninety miles for her launching. According to Ben, the neighbors who watched as he built his ocean-going yacht alongside a cornfield must have thought he was nuts.
But Ben said he could do it, and he did it—the pride in this accomplishment is everywhere. Every room in Ben’s house has photographs of he and his wife sailing aboard their boat, photo albums detail the build and their adventures, the original ship’s clock and barometer hang in his living room. In his office, he has a file with a detailed log and every receipt incurred during the boat’s build and cruise. In the barn he has the tools that he used to build her, leftover wood, unused blocks, the deck patterns are stacked high on a shelf, and hanging prominently are two deck beams—mistakes, that reminded him to never give up.
As an engineer for Singer Co. and a quality control officer, he often designed the machines to make parts—and so elements of our boat, both large and small, have his touch. He once worked at Indiana Metal Products, and so when it came time to select the screws used for the boat he knew exactly what he wanted:
“Back in the 1950s when I worked at Indiana Metal Products, Colman Howton had been the foreman of the tool room. He now owned Talma Fasteners, so I paid him a visit. He agreed to produce the 7,000 #12 x 2.5” screws and 5,000 2.5” ring nails from #216 stainless steel. But since they had no provisions for producing the ring nails, they would cold head the blanks, then score the shanks and point the ends using wood screw dies.” (Benjamin O Severns, The Life and Adventures of a Country Lad, page 153)
Everything has Ben’s creativity and “do-it-yourself” touch: The linseed oil he used was scooped from a ditch following a train wreck nearby, he customized tools to mill and saw the cedar strips for planking simultaneously, with a 1” convex radius on one edge and a concave one on the other (still working and in his barn, in case we need more planking). He showed us the methods, molds, and tools he made to bend standing rigging, stainless life lines, and other metals. We mentioned we once used the tabernacle to lower the mainmast ourselves—Did it work? He asked. I designed that and fabricated it myself.
On May 31, 1985 neighbors, friends, and family gathered around the barn to watch the boat loaded onto a low-bed trailer for her ninety-mile journey to the water. She was christened by Ben’s wife Elly, with friends, business associates, children and grandchildren present on June 1, 1985. After a month of “shake-down” sailing, Ben and Elly departed on a two-year cruise of the Atlantic Coast and Bahamas. Twenty-eight years later, we would unknowingly visit many of the same harbors and anchorages during our own coastal cruise.
Ben has an exceptionally keen memory, and he realizes that he lived a part of the American story that is fading from our experience. At 92, he decided to put his memories to paper and self-published a book about his childhood on a farm, Navy experience in WWII, and eventual return to Indiana to work in the factories. The book reveals a lot about the history of the area and his community, and is sold at local historical societies. Later chapters also tell of his experience building and then sailing the Benelly—these passages are condensed from an eighty-page manuscript he wrote recording every detail of the build. For Lou and I, who just connected with Ben and his family in early 2017, these have been treasures; we now know more about our beloved little boat than we ever thought possible.
For those interested in a snapshot of history through the eyes and experience of one man, Ben’s book, The Life and Adventures of a Country Lad, can be purchased via Amazon