ORLEANS — Jan Biondi's hands are on the oars of the Chester Yawl rowing craft she built this winter, powering herself and a rider across the sun-soaked calm waters of Town Cove. It's only the fourth voyage for Summer Rose, the 15-foot, 100-pound realization of a decades-long dream.
Those hands on the oars have turned many of Biondi's dreams into reality. They have sculpted and painted, dug up clams, arranged landscapes, dissected whales, provided therapeutic massages, and carried her luggage as far away as Zanzibar and the Galapagos islands.
Born in Connecticut, she enjoyed childhood sojourns in Brewster and sails on Sheep Pond. When her sister and she were teenagers, they flew a kite from a sunfish in Cape Cod Bay. “That's the epitome of freedom,” she said. “I want to do it again.”
Biondi attended the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and then worked with Dr. Stormy Mayo at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. She studied sperm whales in the Galapagos. Whales and dolphins were the inspiration for her sculpture and painting. She spent decades out west, in California and Hawaii, making art and learning fly fishing, among other pursuits. Three years ago, she took a solo trip to Africa for four months, where she got to sail an outrigger dugout canoe whose sails were made of plastic bags sewn together.
With her parents entering their 90s here, Biondi chose to return to Cape Cod. She shellfishes in her 10-foot motor workboat, has just wound up a gardening business, and continues to paint. A show of her work is up at Jo Mama's Cafe at 400 Main St. in Orleans through the end of the month.
“My whole life has blossomed since I came back here,” she said.
Last year, Biondi was at Rock Harbor when a Chesapeake Light Craft boat went by. “I just dropped my jaw,” she said. “It got my gears going. I'd kind of forgotten; it had been my dream for 40 years to build a boat.” Not liking the noise of power boats, she had “grown up always feeling like I wanted to have a woman-powered boat.”
Biondi was drawn to the “wineglass” transom and other features of the company's Chester Yawl model, based on the “Whitehall” boats that ferried captains to their ships off Whitehall Street in New York City in the 1800s. “Pirates used it for getaways because it's so fast,” she said. It's a very well-balanced boat, and has plenty of room to stretch out and nap atop the floorboards.
Friends in Orleans welcomed her to build the craft in their walk-out basement, and Biondi set to work eagerly with kit and manual. Maybe too eagerly. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “It was as if I wanted to build the boat in one day. A friend said, 'Settle down. It's supposed to be fun. One step at a time.' It brings you so much into the moment.”
The manual suggests allowing 120 hours to put everything together. “I logged my hours and stopped logging at 190!” Biondi wrote wryly in an email. “Then it was two more months of sanding but not every day. It dragged out to about five months to finish it, from beginning to end.”
Friends and family were on hand for the launch at the Orleans Yacht Club, and the next day Summer Rose was in Provincetown for the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Biondi was putting the last coat of varnish on the front deck and drying it with a hair dryer half an hour before the Orleans launch, attended by 25 people in a downpour. In Provincetown, two friends on board with her yelled up to the bishop, “She built it herself!”
“He was smiling, and the crowd was cheering,” Biondi recalled. “We were one of two rowboats at the blessing.”
Summer Rose will have another set of oars by next summer, when Biondi's daughter will be visiting from Oregon. Upcoming voyages include Pleasant Bay, Nauset Marsh, and the Outer Beach.
“I can't imagine where else I'd like to live,” Biondi said as a pair of swans glided past. “Cape Cod is my heart and soul. I feel this is home.”
For more about Jan Biondi's artwork and travels, go to www.biondiarts.com; to see photos of the boat building process, visit www.bionditravels.com. Information on Chesapeake Light Craft is at www.clcboats.com.