BLOOMER, Wis. – Bill Hable was still in his 40s when he settled on a grand plan for his retirement.
He grabbed a chainsaw, cut down some trees and started building a boat. Hable figured the project would take ten years to complete. He underestimated by more than two decades.
Now 78, Hable stands in the scaffolding, surveying his massive (and still unfinished) 41-foot schooner, and says: “The main question that drives me crazy, 'When’s that boat going to be done?' And my pat answer is this: Don’t ask.”
Hable has every reason to be testy.
After 32 years of building, he estimates his twin-masted schooner is now 97 percent complete. He hopes to sail it on Lake Superior by the time he’s 80, but concedes it might take a little longer.
And he doesn’t much care what anyone thinks.
“If I really wanted to get this thing in the water I could have it by the end of this year, but that isn’t the goal,” Hable says forcefully, “I want to build it the way I want to do it.”
Hable approached his project like a career engineer he is. Before starting construction, he built a shed in his backyard to house the boat.
The structure was supposed to be temporary. “I hope to get the boat done before the building collapses,” he now laughs.
Hable has touched every component of the massive wooden boat. Early on, he built a furnace to melt tons of lead he then poured into the keel. He designed his own sweat box to bend the wooden ribs onto which white oak planking was installed.
“He has a friend in Maine who reminded him probably 20 years ago that he’s not building a cathedral, he’s building a boat to sail in,” says Hable’s wife, Judy.
But Bill Hable has never concerned himself as much with the sailing as he has with the building.
“The medical profession would go broke if they had to take care of me,” says Hable. He considers his three-decade project both mental and physical therapy.
Years ago, Hable tried a gym but concluded it wasn’t for him.
“The problem people have that exercise,” he says, is "they walk and all they get is their shoes wore out - they have nothing to show for this. Hable, instead, tells people, "you should go out in the field, pick some stones, take ‘em home and build a stone house, then you would have exercise and you would have something to show for it.”
To Judy Hable, her husband of 56 years may have a point. ”I really kind of think maybe if he finishes it he’s going to wonder, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”
Spouses don't come much more supportive.
“Wouldn’t it be boring to be married to somebody who didn’t have a passion for something?" Judy Hable rhetorically asks.
Roughly a schooner’s length away, at the aptly named Next Place Bar & Grill, Hable’s boat is a regular source of conversation.
“We call it ‘The Ark,” laughs the bartender. Felisha Polmanter wasn’t even born when Hable started work on the schooner. "Everyone’s been anticipating it being finished."
Curious bar patrons frequently wander next door to see the boat. If Hable is working he often treats them to personal tours.
“There’s going to be a crowd when that shed comes down,” Polmanter predicts. “Everybody’s going to want to see it wheeled out.”
Most recently, Hable has been working on the schooner’s cherry wood interior, which includes a dining table, sleeping quarters and a shower.
Hable admits to sitting sometimes at the helm of his schooner, imagining he’s sailing - wind in the sails, riding the swells of Lake Superior.
Yet should life have other plans for the 78-year-old, Hable insists he could die happy.
“I’m happy right now,” he says adamantly. “The point is the doing, the doing is the point.”
For 32 years, the neighbors thought Bill Hable was building a boat. He’s actually been busily crafting his perfect life.
“My way,” he says. “That’s enough.”