KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Ninety-seven-year-old Frank Handlen is an accomplished, well-known and well-respected marine artist. In addition to pen-and-ink drawings, sketches and oil paintings of the sea, coastline and coastal life, Handlen is also a sculptor and the man who created the “Forebears of the Coast” bronze statue on Kennebunkport’s River Green.
This story, however, is about a different work of art Handlen created. In fact, it is about Handlen’s largest work of art: a sailboat he spent four years building back in the 1970s.
Handlen was 55 in 1971 when he set out to build the dream boat he envisioned for years in the back of his house on South Street in Kennebunkport, with the support and blessing of his late wife, Mary.
“Of course I designed it myself and spent years working on it. I built a big building in the backyard to support the hull,” Handlen said.
And work he did. Handlen spent at least two to three full days per week working on the boat in between working on his art to support his living and keep his boat building endeavors afloat. Approximately four years later, in 1975, the 40-foot, 16-ton, cement hulled sailboat was finally finished and hauled through town and over the bridge to the former Reid’s boat yard in Lower Village to be launched in the Kennebunk River.
The boat was christened the Salt Wind.
A crowd of people, estimated to be in the hundreds, showed up for the launching, and the students of Consolidated School were let out of classes to attend the historic event, for it was the first topsail schooner to have been built around and launched in the Kennebunk River since the mid-1800s.
Kate McGrory-Foran of Naples, Florida, was 13 years old and a resident of Goose Rocks Beach at the time. She and her family were present during the launch back in 1975, she said.
“I remember that at the launch a lot of people were afraid it was going to sink because it was a cement hull, but of course it didn’t,” she recalled. “I remember it had steel drains and it had all these wire twists. Mary and Frank twisted them all by hand, and Mary’s hands were all cut up. She kept saying, ‘Why would anyone do this unless it’s love?’”
Mary christened the Salt Wind before it was successfully and gloriously launched that day back in 1975. The boat has been home ported in the Kennebunk River ever since, with Handlen sailing her and tending to her during the boating season each year for the past four decades.
This summer, though, at just a few years shy of 100 years old, Handlen felt the time had come to retire the boat. He approached Dwight Raymond of Performance Marine to see about lifting the mast off the vessel to begin the stages of dismantling the Salt Wind and hauling her out of the water. Raymond, however, had no intention of doing that.
“Dwight said to me, ‘Frank, you can’t do that — it’s a landmark,’” Handlen said.
Raymond had another idea in mind for the Salt Wind, and he made an offer to Handlen.
“I told [Handlen] I’d buy it from him for $1, maintain it and keep in here in the river for a landmark,” Raymond said.
A deal between the two men was struck, and special permission was granted by the town to keep the Salt Wind in the river as a landmark. For the past few weeks, under the watchful eye of Handlen himself, workers at the boatyard have been busy sprucing up the sailboat locals and tourists alike have come to know and love.
“I work on it and check on it because I have a spiritual investment in it, and Dwight allows me to do this,” Handlen said. “And [Raymond] has my permission to put it back on my mooring with a spotlight on it at night when it is time.”
This special arrangement will allow Handlen and the admirers of the Salt Wind to continue to enjoy the boat.
“It will never sail again, but it doesn’t matter,” Handlen said. “It worked out well for all involved, and now [the Salt Wind] will be around for a number of years to come.”
“It’s a piece of history that has been here for over 40 years, and I’m glad we are able to keep it here,” he said. “It belongs here.”