Hours from the ocean, a sailboat dream becomes an Internet sensation – The Boston Globe

Hours from the ocean, a sailboat dream becomes an Internet sensation – The Boston Globe

For he announced to his family and friends that he was going to build a proud wooden sailboat and take her around the world. And he was going to do it hours from the sea, on the Western Massachusetts farm his family has lived on for five generations, harvesting the lumber from the trees around him, just as his ancestors had built the homes and barns they use today. He named the project “Acorn to Arabella,” the name he had given to the boat. Romantic.

Less romantic: the fact that Denette didn’t know anything about boats. Nor did he know how to sail. Nor did he have any money. All he had was a dream and some trees. And YouTube.

Seven years later, Denette is standing inside the galley of the Arabella, now less than a year from completion, one of four full-time staff buzzing around the massive, patchwork shed built to house the boat. Denette and a boat carpenter, Kaylyn “KP” Palella, work on the Arabella, and the other two work on the content. Ben Fundis handles the video editing — he also owns the Screening Room, an art house cinema in Newburyport — and Anne Bryant, who used to work for a wooden-boat-building magazine, handles the website and social media. On this day, there were also two paid interns milling about, plus a boatbuilder down from Maine.

Interns Aidan Messier (left) and Adam Wiatrowski worked on the Arabella.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Add it all together and you have the basic plot, set, and stars of what is essentially a weekly television show, one with 100,000 loyal viewers on YouTube.

From the outset — the first tree and video were cut in January 2016 — Denette documented his progress on YouTube, first with the help of a friend and soon with a full-time video editor in Fundis, paying him out of pocket with what Denette made as a route-setter at a climbing gym.

“If we can inspire you, convince you to follow along and help us out a little,” Denette wrote on the original webpage, laying out his gamble, “then maybe, just maybe, we can leave our jobs and build full time.”

Building the boat, and the audience, happened slowly until January 2018, when the YouTube algorithm decided people might enjoy watching Denette pour 4.5 tons of lead from a homemade melting pot to make the ballast keel, the heavy counterweight on the bottom of the boat.

Overnight, everything changed. Advertising and merchandise sales grew, as did the subscriber base, and out of the nearly 3 million people who watched that video came a stable audience that supported the project through donations, merchandise sales, and never missing a video, something that took on added significance during the early days of the pandemic when watching the steady progress on the boat brought a soothing assurance.

Recently, more than 220 videos into the series, those viewers heard the announcement that Acorn to Arabella has an end date. Next June, in Mystic, Conn., the Arabella will touch the sea for the first time, ending one story and beginning another.

“When I kick the bucket, if someone were to tell my life story, my hope is that the boat is the prologue,” Denette said.

Steve Denette worked on the Arabella.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There is much work to be done, but the Arabella is already something to behold as it nears completion, hulking with lumber, nearly every inch of it from trees that once lived on the farm, all funded through a modern form of “busking,” as Denette describes it.

When he marvels at what the Arabella has become, Denette said what he treasures most are all the stories the ship already has to tell. The many different hands who have helped build it, and the individual trees that make up its bones — he can tell you which ones he climbed as a kid and how they were harvested, including the first batch he felled with his grandfather. When his grandfather was in his 20s, he did the same to build the house Denette now lives in.

“The idea of cutting down trees and waiting for the lumber to season and waiting years to build something is what you did. I always had this appreciation that someone went into the woods and cut down a tree and built this barn. Somebody brought that into existence. Boats are just a more complicated, movable version of that,” he said.

“And,” he added, “to harvest trees, build a boat, then have this boat take you anywhere in the world is romantic.”

Wes Craft is part of the group of people building the 38-foot boat.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There’s no concrete plan for where Denette and his girlfriend will go when they do head off to explore the globe on the Arabella, though they will start small. After all, he still doesn’t know how to sail.

What they do know is they will continue to document their journey and make videos, continuing the story for the many people who are connected to the Arabella, and the dream it represents. Denette said he’s heard from emergency room doctors who watch the videos to decompress after a tough day; veterans who find solace in the steady progress; sailors who say they haven’t been on the water in years but were inspired to get back out there.

Steve Denette (left) has a huge following on his YouTube chronicling the process of building the Arabella. Wes Craft worked with him on the boat on a recent day.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Each spring, they host an open house for donors who support the project through Patreon, a membership platform. In May, nearly 800 people came from all over the country.

Soon, the boat barn will be dismantled so the Arabella can be loaded on a truck for the ocean, leaving behind a bare patch on the lawn, just as it was before. As that day gets closer, Denette can’t help but think back to all those people who told him he was crazy, that he was destined to fail.

“Now, it’s like,” he paused to look at the Arabella, “show me the boat you built.”

Kaylyn Palella (right) has helped build the boat.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.


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