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For festival’s boat owners, wood is what dreams are made of

Fans of wooden boats often call crafting their handmade vessels a labor of love.

For Walter Hackman, 80, of Bakersfield, having his 55-foot, 40-ton Chinese junk built in a small shipyard in a rural town south of Shanghai set him on a journey to China to rebuild his life.

The vessel will be one of 53 on display Saturday at the Balboa Yacht Club for the third annual Wooden Boat Festival.

The story of Hackman’s wooden boat began in April 1989. He was opening the art gallery he owned in Pasadena when he was met by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who told him his 23-year-old son, Wally, had been slain.

Walter Hackman and his daughter Lynn Selich will see the 55-foot wooden Chinese junk they used to own displayed at the Wooden Boat Festival in Newport Beach on Saturday.
Walter Hackman and his daughter Lynn Selich will see the 55-foot wooden Chinese junk they used to own displayed at the Wooden Boat Festival in Newport Beach on Saturday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Scott Smeltzer | Daily Pilot)

The traumatic news set Hackman’s life adrift. He divorced his children’s mother and found himself pondering where he would live and what he would do next.

“It changed my life totally and completely,” he said. “Any plans I had got shelved. I was at the crux of change.”

He decided to revisit a long-abandoned dream — to live on a wooden boat along the coast.

The decision launched the roughly two-year process of having his Chinese junk custom-built in a remote shipyard on the Yangtze River.

The boat, designed in the tradition of a Chinese fishing vessel from 500 years ago, was handbuilt in the early 1990s out of Douglas fir, camphor and teak.

Hackman somewhat sarcastically named the boat Mei Wen Ti – Mandarin for “no problem.”

The name was born out of his interactions with the Chinese boat builders. Regardless of what he asked during the tumultuous process, they would respond, “Mei wen ti.”

Hackman would inquire whether the builders had issues with assembling parts for modern amenities such as plumbing, power and engines that were not present in Chinese vessels five centuries ago.

Though they assured him “Mei wen ti,” “it became a real concern,” he said. “I almost abandoned the project several times.”

Eventually, he hired an engineer to help the boat builders interpret plans for the technology.

After the boat was built, Hackman faced the challenge of shipping the huge vessel to the United States. When the shipping company demanded about $40,000 more than the originally quoted price to send the vessel, he worried it might sit in China forever.

But in 1993, after a lengthy stalemate, the boat arrived at Los Angeles Harbor on a container ship.

Mei Wen Ti’s wood exterior is stained golden brown. A smiling, golden-eyed tiger graces the long bow. Inside, the vessel has a large stateroom, a living room area, a kitchen and a bathroom.

Hackman recently published his first novel, “No Problem, Mr. Walt,” a memoir of the journey to Mei Wen Ti’s creation, his experiences in China and how the boat guided him into the next chapter of his life.

On Thursday morning, Hackman and his daughter Lynn Selich of Newport Beach sat overlooking the water at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, laughing as they recalled cleaning and refinishing the wood on the junk.

“Usually boats don’t do too much,” Hackman said.

But in his case, the vessel helped him cope with the loss of his son and build a stronger bond with his daughter.

“Even when we were just having fun and not working on the boat, it was where we met,” Selich said. “We’d barbecue and have holidays on it. There’s really nothing like being on a boat, any type of boat.”

But Mei Wen Ti nearly sank one weekend after the bottom sprung a leak. Later, wood worms in Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor began eating the hull.

The dedication and money necessary to care for wooden vessels, which quickly age from the effects of salt water and sunlight, distinguish them from their fiberglass counterparts.

By 2000, Hackman had remarried and was ready to sell the boat. Selich, recalling the wonderful times her family had on the boat, decided to buy it.

“At that time, I just was not – with every ounce of my being – able to let that boat go,” she said.

A few years later, after realizing the immense cost of keeping the boat in good condition, Selich sold it to Jim O’Connell, who keeps it berthed in Los Angeles Harbor.

On Saturday, Selich and Hackman will be reunited with Mei Wen Ti at the Wooden Boat Festival.

They plan to watch as it sails into Newport Harbor on Friday afternoon.

“I just hope there aren’t any problems getting it here,” Selich said.

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IF YOU GO

What: Wooden Boat Festival

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Balboa Yacht Club, 1801 Bayside Drive, Corona del Mar

Cost: Free

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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