World cruise begins with a backyard project

Staff photo by Bob Davis
Ron D'Amore (right) works on the keel of his 52-foot heavy sailing cruiser with his friend, Rich Plocar. D'Amore plans to sail the boat around the world.

Building a Dream

Modern-day Noah constructs a boat to sail around the world

Staff Reporter

Noah got many strange looks as he constructed his craft and Ron D'Amore says he gets his share of strangers stopping by to take a second look.

In fact, people have taken to calling D'Amore Noah, because the 52-foot heavy sailing cruiser under construction in his yard "is the exact design of an ark. An ark's the most stable boat. It'll never tip over".

Someone even found a painting of Noah building his ark and it had a homemade ladder similar to the ones that D'Amore employs.

But what people see in the back yard is not only a do-it-yourself project deluxe. No, they are witnessing a man's lifelong dream being painstakingly brought to fruition.

D'Amore, a personable, wisecracking 44-year-old fireplug of a man, has led an unorthodox career as a sailor, Las Vegas bartender, go-go joint proprietor and disc jockey/funnyman at places where a left hook is as valuable as a quick wit. He's even changed his name a few times, the latest being a blend of his grandmother's and mother's. "A long, sordid story," he simply states, leaving it at that.

He now wants to escape the remaining trappings of normalcy and travel the world in the boat he built from scratch.

"I don't know if I'm as crazy about boats as I am of traveling," said D'Amore. "I like to read National Geographic; I like to roam. I figured a boat's a cheap way to go. I figured "Why not?"

Why not. With those two words he embarked on what has become a four-year project that often has him working on the boat 50 hours a week.

"I used to work my butt off; I just wasn't enjoying myself," he said, smoking a long, thin brown cigarette. "The more money you make, the more you worry about it and spend time watching it.

"There's a lot of places to go," said D'Amore. "That's what it's all about; money is not important. When you die, all you're going to have is what you've seen, tasted, felt and smelled - your memories."

D'Amore, a native of the West Side, got his taste for travel while sailing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans during a six-year Navy stint during the 1960s.

The former salty dog sports a tattoo on his bicep of a demon standing on a shark. Asked what it means, D'Amore replies "it symbolizes a drunken sailor in Hong Kong with a pocket full of money."

He came back and tended bar for a couple of years in a Vegas casino, a place where he said he made great tips.

"But the guy who designed the place put a crap table by the door," he said, adding that he often left work with less money than when he arrived.

The D'Amores work outside their rented Bridgeview home.

D'Amore eventually left with winnings and moved to San Diego where he owned and operated several go-go joints that catered to the naval base there. The most notable was called the "Fickle Pickle." He sold the nightclubs and left "for reasons to let the readers guess" and moved back to Chicago about five years ago, unsure of what he wanted to do next.

He said he briefly owned a comedy club in Summit where he met his wife, Sheila, who worked there as a waitress.

D'Amore said he decided to undertake his boat-building effort about five years ago. There he was, pushing 40 and not knowing what he wanted to do with his life except that he didn't want to languish in nightclubs serving drinks and telling jokes to people trying to ease the pain of everyday life.

"I read magazines about cruising around the world and was really jealous of those people. I remember wishing I was in my 20s so I could start building a boat to do it. Then I read about a lady who was 79 years old and sailing the world."

If a little old lady can do it, so can I D'Amore told himself. He sent away to a California boat dealer for the blueprints to build the sea-faring craft of his dreams.

He got the plans for "The Reliant," a boat designed by Glen L Marine Designs of Bell Flower, Calif. The blueprints call for a sailing sea cruiser that's 52 feet long with 49 feet of deck space, 14 feet wide, a main mast 57 feet tall and a cruising weight of 34,500 pounds.

The boat will be "pure luxury" he says, with three staterooms that can sleep five couples, a galley (sea talk for kitchen), a chart room, a dining room, an engine room, a hot tub and two heads with showers in the hull. It will also include bronze fittings, brass railings, air conditioning and central heat. The only compartment above the teak deck will be the cockpit.

Once built, the boat will be worth $250,000, said Glen Witt, president of Glen L Marine Designs.

"It's a boat designed for the person who wants to get the hell out of this mad rat race we all live in," Witt said in a telephone interview. "A lot of people get the dream but it takes a lot of guts, determination, time, energy and-money to build a boat."

Witt added that although he's never personally met D'Amore, the Bridgeview resident has had a running conversation with his company's boat designers for the past four years. "He's one of the happiest, funniest people I've talked to," Witt said.

"One can't imagine the amount of time that has gone into this boat; I stopped keeping track long ago," D'Amore Said. "But we've done a lot of things wrong; we're not boat builders."

"I don't think we knew what we were getting ourselves into," said Sheila. "We've taken it in steps and once we get a section done, we celebrate. It helps break the project up."

D'Amore is almost finished with the hull of the boat and should be turning it over in August to get the rooms, deck and masts built.

So far, D'Amore estimates over 2,000 feet of oak has gone into the hull and 135 sheets of quarter-inch plywood has been cut into small strips and laid in a crisscross fashion to form the outer layer.

Every piece of wood has been nailed, screwed and glued together with epoxy, that costs $108 a gallon. "If I hit this thing with a sledge hammer, it'd bounce back," he said.

The nails are all bronze so as not to throw off the ship's electronic navigating system as steel does.

"Try driving a bronze nail into an oak board," he said. "You have to drill a hole and then pound them in."

D'Amore figures at least $20,000 has been spent on the hull, the most difficult, laborious part of the project.

"The hard work is pretty much done; the hull is a killer," he said. "Most people buy a hull and finish it. Most people aren't as goofy as me."

D'Amore and his wife, Sheila (top), apply a coat of fiberglass resin to the hull of their boat. The inside of the cruiser (above) will include three staterooms, a galley, chart room, dining room and a hot tub.

He figures the boat will eventually cost him $75,000 but should be finished in a little more than a year. He said the interior, electronic equipment, engine, masts and sail will set him back the most financially.

So far, the going has been tough. "I've gone through three power saws, three drills, seven or eight chucks. I've burned up two grinders today alone."

D'Amore said he has fallen off the boat three or four times, had a tent covering the operation come down as many times and he has thrown countless tools from the boat after smashing or gouging his flesh.

He has had a non-stop rash since coating the vessel with fiberglass and sanding it. "I've also breathed in so much sawdust that if I have a kid, I swear he'll have a wood eye."

The keel, the framework extending under water to give the craft balance, has used about 25 sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood cut into tiny pieces and has taken six months to build.

"It had to be shaped, shaved, cut, bolted and laminated. We built it on the driveway first and disassembled it and put it back together" on the underside of the boat.

He finished the keel June 29, the day it rained briefly. The date is duly noted on a calendar in the kitchen with the happy exclamation "THE KEEL'S DONE!!"

The next day, D'Amore discovered the keel had warped several inches, causing him to almost have a seizure.

"The wood had to be super dry. It shouldn't have happened because it was laminated.

Witt, the boat designer, said a flustered D'Amore called with the bad news and a boating engineer told the two of them that what happened was impossible.

Even more bizarre, the keel then straightened itself out somewhat by the following week when the reporter returned. D'Amore and his friend Rich Plocar a retired purchasing agent who helps with boat work several times a week, spent the day drilling' holes through the keel to place bolts through it to straighten it.

"Those guys told me it was against all laws of nature," D'Amore said, shaking his head and pointing at the keel. "I can just see God up there saying, 'Hey, St. Joe, come over here. We're going to have some fun with this guy today'."

D'Amore takes most everything with a joke, a manner that allows him to cope with the arduous boatbuilding task.

To finance his dream, D'Amore runs a disk jockey and videotaping business. He is the "cruise director," or entertainment director, of Mama Luigi's, a nightclub banquet hall at 75th and Harlem Avenue.

D'Amore jokes with fellow comic Orlando Reyes on the stage at Mama Luigi's, 75th and Harlem Ave. D'Amore works as entertainment director at the nightclub-banquet hall and serves as host for the Tuesday night comedy show.

On Tuesday nights, D'Amore emcees the comic night at Mama Luigi's. His job is to warm up the crowd and introduce the fledgling comics. He's sort of a low-rent Don Rickles.

Nightclub comedy isn't pretty. The jokes are raucous and so are the crowds.

"Some of the humor is risque and off-color," D'Amore warns the 35 or so people sitting at the bar. "All the virgins leave the bar." Nobody leaves.

A woman keeps talking loudly as D'Amore tries to tell a few jokes.

"Hey, knock it off," he, implores. "Do I sit on the edge of the bed and bother you while you're trying to make a living?" Later, D'Amore haggles with a comic named Orlando over how much he will get. The comic, the only one of the bunch with experience, wants $75 but D'Amore can only offer him $50 and dinner. The guy later agrees.

"He's a quick wit," said Jim Talerico, manager of Mama Luigi's. "When he gets going he even does back flips onto the dance floor."

"A lot of people come here because of Ronnie. Of course, we don't know how many stay away because of him."

D'Amore said the money he and his wife make is all funneled into their dream. He said they only rent the house because the yard is big enough to hold the boat. He calls the house the boat's "life support system." The house and garage are crammed with boat blueprints, cruising magazines, boating paraphernalia, wood and tools.

"Everything is to support the boat; we don't even support ourselves," he said. "When we're done, we're going to take the boat to dinner.

D'Amore and Sheila are taking boating lessons and plan to become certified captains in order to take passengers for hire.

D'Amore said he's going to sail the boat on Lake Michigan until he and Sheila get the hang of it. He said they'll charter it for groups of people to recoup the costs of building it.

"Then we'll take off down the Mississippi - assuming it rains," he said.

Asked where he plans to visit first, D'Amore says, "Summit, Burbank, I hear Oak Lawn is nice."

"Naw, just kiddin'. We'll go by Florida and the Bahamas and then with my chart hit one island after another. We'll then go up the east coast and take it across the Atlantic," he said, with an expression that, seems like he can see himself manning the wheel of his dream boat.

"We'll hit the Mediterranean, Italy, Greece, Africa. I'd like to see the Great Pyramids. The Philippines, Japan, wherever hits our fancy."

He said people who take 10-year cruises generally spend most of their time in port and spend only one or two years actually at sea.

D'Amore and Sheila are taking boating lessons and want to be certified as captains, allowing them to take passengers for hire. They hope to take tourists on cruises at their various destinations to replenish their resources as they go.

The boat can easily hold several weeks of provisions and 400 gallons of water. D'Amore said a machine will allow them to turn salt water into drinking water. They also plan to do some fishing.

"I hear once you get started you can't stop", Sheila said. "It's kind of scary leaving like that. But it's really exciting. There are so many places I want to see."

"I want to go back around the world sober, this time," D'Amore says with a laugh.

And as he reasoned before, why not?