Doctor fulfills 20-year dream

Published 6:00 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dr. John Vardiman does not consider April 16, 2010, among the worst days of his life, even though that was the day he lost a foot.

It was also, however, the day he launched the Bradna Rose, the schooner he spent 21 years building.

“It was a great day,” the 77-year-old doctor and sailor said. “In it was a little discomfort, but it was a great day, a culmination of years of work.”

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Vardiman, a general practitioner in Beaumont, Texas, had the boat out of the water at Olmsted Shipyard in Lake Charles earlier this month for its first hull job. He put the boat back in the water on Tuesday to bring it back to Sabine Pass, where it’s normally docked.

Vardiman wanted to build a wooden boat from a young age, he said, building two small ones as a teenager.

The idea of building a wooden schooner stayed with him into adulthood, long after he had married his wife, Bradna, and had two children, Rose and Arnold.

When he turned 55, he decided he could wait no longer.

“I woke up one day and said, ‘If I’m going to build a boat, I better do this before I run out of life,'” Vardiman said.

An accomplished carpenter, he found a book on wooden boat building and a plan.

For the next 21 years, he worked 30 hours a week building the boat in his shop outside Beaumont, where it survived Hurricanes Rita and Ike.

Over 21 years, 30 hours a week works out to more than 32,000 man-hours.

“It was a great source of pleasure for me to do this, particularly at this time of my life and with so many adverse changes in my profession,” Vardiman said.

He said he did take vacations, going to Italy before the boat was finished.

“I was always anxious to get back to my project,” he said.

How much the boat cost is a closed-book subject, though.

“If I told you, my wife would find out,” Vardiman said.

Bradna “persevered through and was very supportive,” he said.

Vardiman said he did most of the carpentry himself, but had some help along the way, including from electrician Bob Case and Al Vincent, who helped him bring the boat to Lake Charles.

“I’ve talked to other boat makers, and if you’re working like I was, it takes about 20 years,” Vardiman said.

Bradna Rose

The finished project is an all-wood schooner that is 42 feet long and 12 feet wide.

A schooner, for landlubbers, is a sail boat with two or more masts.

Vardiman said the boat is designed after the Malabar II, a boat designed by John Alden. The Malabar II, built in 1921, was featured in the movie “Message in a Bottle.”

Vardiman started by chopping down white oak in Newton County, Texas, for the keel and stem.

He built the keel, then the stem, then steam bent white oak for the frame.

From the water line down, the boat is made of Honduran Mahogany, and from the water line up, it’s Atlantic Cedar.

After that was finished, he built the deck, galley and head, and then installed gas tanks and the engine.

Finally, he built the masts and had the sails tailored in the Northeast.

The schooner is, of course, named after his wife and daughter.

“The two women in my life,” he said before quickly correcting himself. There’s a third, the boat.

April 16

Vardiman launched the boat in Port Arthur.

After a long day’s work, he and those who came to help him were resting.

A barge came by and, fearing that the wake would bang the Bradna Rose into the dock, Vardiman reached out his foot to protect it, he said.

“Just without thinking stuck my foot up there,” he said.

A “little rogue wave” came along and smashed his foot between the boat and dock, he said.

A week later, doctors had to remove the foot.

It wasn’t long before he was getting back to moving.

He started with his grandson pushing him around in a wheelchair so he could see his patients.

Then he got outfitted with a prosthesis and within six months was back on the Bradna Rose.

“You begin to appreciate how good an engineer the good Lord was when you have to get a prosthetic,” Vardiman said.

These days Vardiman walks with a limp, but is up and down ladders as he works on the Bradna Rose.

“I don’t grieve about that. It happened, and I go on,” Vardiman said. “I have a prosthetic, but I climb ladders and do what I have to do. I wouldn’t recommend losing foot for heck of it, but lose it and you move on.”

Vardiman hasn’t made any long voyages on the Bradna Rose.

Prior to losing the foot, he had a dream of taking her around the world.

“She’s boat enough to do it,” Vardiman said.

He’s given up on that dream, but he said he would like to sail her to the Florida Keys and to the New England coast.

“It’s kind of a goal,” Vardiman said. “Eventually to get her to from whence she came.”

Malabar II is 90 years old. With tender care, Vardiman is hoping to get the same number of years out of the Bradna Rose.

“I’m 77, so mine only has to last me about 50 years,” Vardiman said.