Should Middletown, Rhode Island, sailor Geordie Shaver cross paths with American Pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz in some waterfront bar, I’m guessing those boys might tip their caps and buy him a beer. History channel’s two prime-time antiquers, after all, know a good find when they see one, and Geordie found himself a doozy: the mahogany and teak wheelhouse that was added to and later removed from Sir Thomas Lipton’s storied J-Class sloop Shamrock V.
So, where do you accidentally stumble across a piece of the 1930 America’s Cup challenger, the graceful sloop that crossed the Atlantic only to be bested by Enterprise in the waters off Newport in the fifth and final try by Sir Tea to take the Auld Mug home?
Well, in this case, it would be on Old Baptist Road in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, where Geordie was driving en route to a carpet store one day four years ago. Geordie knows boats. He’s sailed in a handful of America’s Cup campaigns and pulled strings on a lot of other craft over the years, including aboard Shamrock‘s J-Class rival, Ranger, the New York Yacht Club defender that beat Endeavor II in 1937 — the last time J-Class yachts raced for the Cup.
As Geordie drove around a corner, there on the side of the road was the wheelhouse, propped up on a couple of boards. The blue tarp that minutes before covered it had just blown off, exposing the treasure beneath. Geordie says the property owner found the wheelhouse in a shed when he bought the place, and had dragged it out to the side of the road to get it out of his way. He told Geordie he wasn’t sure what it was, but thought it came off a boat named Shamrock, and yes, he’d be more than willing to part with it.
Back home, Geordie told his wife, Heather, about the find. Their first thought was to drag the wheelhouse home and turn it into a playhouse for the kids. Don’t spend more than $1,000 on it, was Heather’s plea.
Back on Old Baptist Road, Geordie offered $500. The owner was thinking a grand. Geordie countered with $999. “I told my wife I wouldn’t spend $1,000,” he said.
The wheelhouse was loaded onto a trailer and brought to the Shavers’ backyard. At some point, Geordie got the idea that rather than a den for kids, the structure should be raised a foot or so and left on wheels for a traveling party place they’d call the J-House.
In the years since, they’ve done a good deal of digging into how this piece of maritime history landed in their laps.
After losing the 14th America’s Cup, Lipton gave up his quest to outsail the New York Yacht Club, and Shamrock was sold. In 1937, she ended up in the hands of Italian publisher Mario Crespi, who renamed her Quadrifoglio. At the outbreak of World War II she was moved to a hay barn in the Italian Alps and hidden to keep her from being scrapped for her steel frame and parts. After the war, Crespi did a major refit of the boat, adding bulwarks and a larger wheelhouse, along with new engines and a bird’s-eye maple interior. The boat was sold to another Italian in 1969, and eventually came full circle in 1985, when the Lipton family bought her back, donated her to the Museum of Yachting in Newport and renamed her Shamrock V. In a restoration overseen by Patron Saint of Wooden Boats Elizabeth Meyer, Shamrock was returned to her sleek racing lines, and the oversize wheelhouse, along with the bulky bulwarks, were removed.
The house sat on Newport’s Bannister’s Wharf for several seasons, serving as a ticket and T-shirt kiosk, but was eventually removed and stashed away in the North Kingstown shed for a decade before Geordie took his fateful car ride to the carpet store.
These days, you’re apt to see the varnished J-House at Newport Polo, where it’s often rented out for upscale tailgating. Geordie delivers it on its custom trailer; all you have to do is bring the food and booze. Or you might find it down at Surfer’s End on Second Beach, with the Shavers inside entertaining while the kids cut up the waves. Friends and the curious stop by to visit, and word of the J-House spreads.
“It’s like the party in the kitchen,” Heather says, describing the scene at the J-House. “People love to be in it.”
This article first appeared as “History for Rent” in the March 2015 issue of Cruising World. To read more from editor Mark Pillsbury, click here.