Restoring a lifetime of memories

Published 4:09 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Story by Phyllis Speidell
Photos by John H. Sheally II

At 103 years old, MAR-SUE has had a number of facelifts, nips, tucks and her share of overhauls, but to Butch Baxter, she is still the dreamboat that has been part of his life since before he can remember. After a life of adventures and re-inventions, the yacht MAR-SUE sits in scaffolding in a boatyard, easily visible from the westbound lanes of the West Norfolk Bridge. Her classic good looks may have faded, but with her blue and white paint, long graceful curves and wraparound covered verandas, she still looks like a boat ready to party.

Ask William L. “Butch” Baxter, almost 10 years retired from the Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic and the newly installed executive officer of the Nansemond River Power Squadron, and he will tell you that restoring the MAR-SUE is becoming his life’s work.

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“I feel like the boat is me — I know her from bow to stern,” he said. “It was supposed to take two to three months but the job has grown.”

Butch Baxter believes he may have been saved from a fire on the Mar-Sue by a supernatural force. (Photo by John H. Sheally II)

Sunlight dappled the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, gulls cried overhead and the pungent smell of paint wafted over the boatyard as Baxter explained some of the MAR-SUE’s unique history.

The 65.5-foot MAR-SUE, then the SEE W SEE, was built in Bay Shore, N.Y., in 1915, for Charles W. Cushman as a bridgedeck cruiser, a popular style in the early 1900s. Two years later, the U.S. government requisitioned her, along with other private sail and power yachts, for duty in World War I. The SEE W SEE, stationed at what is now the West Sayville Boat Basin in New York, patrolled the waters around Fire Island. She towed live German mines from the shipping lanes and was part of a 1918 search-and-rescue mission for sailors of the USS San Diego, an armored cruiser sunk off Fire Island, possibly by a German mine or U-boat.

After the war, Cushman regained the yacht and sold her in 1919 to S. Kent Morris, who restored her to her original build and re-named her the Pequest after the Pequest River in his hometown, Belvedere, N.J. Soon she was sold again and, when the new owner died, she was sold yet again as part of his estate. Her fourth owner, also from New Jersey, transformed her into a cruising houseboat and renamed her the ROSALIE IV.

In 1929, she was sold again, this time to a financier, Henry Butler, part of the Smith and Barney Group. Butler, an avid boater, renamed her again, this time as the JONBOB II, before he sold her to a new owner in Savannah, Ga. in 1935. World War II brought about more government requisitioning of private motor yachts, but this time their owners and duty stations were secret. Baxter believes she served as a receiving ship in the Port of Savannah.

In 1944, Julius T. Herbst, a yacht broker, bought the JONBOB II and used her as his home and office at the Atlantic Yacht Basin along the Inter Coastal Waterway in Great Bridge. Herbst expanded the deckhouse and moved the galley up from below decks. Baxter, who was born in 1948, remembers being on the JONBOB II as a child when his father bought a different boat from Herbst. The senior Baxter kept his new boat in the Lafayette River in Norfolk and the family cruised with the Great Bridge Cruise Club that Herbst started. Baxter remembers that the JONBOB II always led the cruises.

In 1959, Herbst sold the JONBOB II to a restaurateur, J.B. Baydusch, who renamed her the MAR-SUE II and moved her to the Norfolk Yacht Club. In 1960, Hurricane Donna took direct aim at Norfolk, throwing six feet of water over the yacht club’s concrete docks and damaging four large boats, including the MAR-SUE II. Baydusch had the boat repaired in Elizabeth City, N.C., and often took his employees on fishing trips.

“When I moved up from a rowboat, I would go to the yacht club to buy gas and snacks and I would see the MAR-SUE II,” Baxter said. “I really didn’t like the boat and its canoe stern.”

Baxter grew up and served two years in the U.S. Navy. In 1970 he rebuilt the TIF-TER, a 45-foot air-sea rescue boat converted into a yacht and lived on it in Knitting Mill Creek at 48th Street in Norfolk.

“When I was rebuilding the boat, I stopped dating women and saved the money for the boat,” he said. “But then I met Debbie, and she said she would live with me in a tent. So we married, had two boys and raised them aboard boats. When the teacher assigned our oldest boy’s class to draw a picture of their homes, he drew a boat. The teacher called Debbie because she thought our son had refused to do the assignment.”

Baydusch sold the MAR-SUE II to a shipyard in Elizabeth City in 1971 in payment for work done. She was pretty much stripped and her engine was left to freeze, damaged beyond repair. A minister bought and towed her to Chesapeake where, although not a boat builder, Baxter said, he saved her from further damage.

In 1975, after he and Debbie were married, Baxter saw an ad in The Trading Post, offering the MAR-SUE II for $4,500.
“I went aboard, entered the wheelhouse, and I knew she had to be mine — it was all over,” he said. “Nothing on the boat worked except the one bilge pump. She had been stripped of the helm, anything relating to navigation on the bridge was gone, port and starboard navigation lights were missing and engine and generator parts were spread out all over on the shore. I should have walked away.”

But Baxter bought and towed the MAR-SUE II to Knitting Mill Creek. He had her seaworthy again by 1980 and sold the TIF-TER. The family lived aboard the MAR-SUE II until they built a house in Chesapeake along the Inner Coastal Waterway, across the river from where they had bought the MAR-SUE 43 years ago.

They considered changing her name to MISTY ISLE, but one day as Baxter was working on the yacht, another boat came down the river. He was stunned when he saw its name — “MISTY ISLE.” They decided instead to name their boat simply MAR-SUE.
Baxter had heard rumors of ghosts aboard the boat but saw nothing unusual until one day, anchored in the Willoughby Bay to watch an airshow, he smelled smoke. He ran to the engine room and found nothing amiss. But some unknown force made him bend over at the waist — completely involuntarily, he said — and look beneath the deck to discover the alternator, wires and shifter cable were burning. He quickly extinguished the flames and reconsidered the possibility of ghostly intervention.

Not all of the MAR-SUE’s structure is 100 years old, thanks to repairs and rebuilds over the years, Baxter said, but most of her lower hull and keel are. He credits the craftsmanship of the original builders along with the 11 owners before him who helped her survive.

So Baxter works at the boatyard often, lovingly replacing planks and tending to whatever needs to be refurbished.
“The MAR-SUE is like part of my family,” he said. “But at times I feel more like her slave.”