- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Pierre’s only seagoing vessel leaves port

There was one big thing missing back in 1979 when Leland Middleton started work on a seaworthy sailing boat suited to cruising round the world, and that was an ocean - an ocean would have been nice.

But in landlocked Pierre, South Dakota, about as far from any ocean as you can get in North America, Middleton didn’t fret over what he didn’t have. He dreamed of sailing round the world and set to work accordingly.

“I brought it from Tacoma,” said Middleton, who lives now in Tea, South Dakota, where his grandchildren live. “It was just a bare hull, a shell. I finished it with an all teak interior.”

Always handy with tools, Leland, who goes by Lee, put the boat project on hold for a while when he took time off to build a new house for his family; and he took time off again for a while when he put his kids through college. Time seemed to ebb and flow over this thing and that and something always demanded his attention.

But the boat was always there to occupy his thoughts, if not his hands, during all those years.

“It’s like building a 747 by yourself,” he told the Capital Journal in a telephone interview. “Noah did it, but he had his boys helping him.”

He built a shed around the boat to protect it from the weather. When people asked him about that big old ship he was building, he’d ask them, “Haven’t you ever heard of a prairie schooner?”

He never completely got the dream boat out of its makeshift dry dock in a backyard near the Missouri River on Pierre’s Jefferson Avenue. The big ship is 80 percent finished after all these years.

But things took a new tack last week when three workers for A-G-E Corp. — Andy Johnson, Kelly Simons and crane operator Reed Finch - used a heavily counterweighted crane to hoist the vessel away from the braces that were holding it up and load it aboard a waiting truck driven by Thomas Duncan of Gladewater, Texas.

Duncan has decades of experience as a truck driver and has specialized in hauling boats since the 1990s. This, Duncan said, was a medium-sized boat; but he was impressed when the scale on the crane told him the boat weighed 36,000 pounds.

Leland Middleton can account for quite a bit of that weight. It’s the 12,000 pounds of discarded lead tire weights he gathered from all over the state of South Dakota to melt down to make six tons of ballast.

Duncan said specializing in hauling boats has put him in some interesting situations; including this one.

“This is crazy - coming to South Dakota in winter to move a sailboat? Nobody would do that,” he said.

Employees of A-G-E Corp. seemed to agree; after all the stuff they’ve had to move in and around Pierre, South Dakota, over the years, this is the first ocean-going vessel.

“It’s an ocean liner,” Middleton’s brother, Jack Middleton, marveled. “It’s about 52 feet long.”

The plan now, Leland Middleton said, is to take it to a craftsman he knows near Tucson, Arizona - about what you’d expect of a sailing vessel born on the Great Plains, charting a course on its maiden voyage for the desert Southwest - so that a craftsman Middleton knows can finish it.

After that, the plan is to get the ship down to San Carlos, a Mexican port in the Baja Peninsula.

“I just want to move it down to a warmer climate and sail it out of Mexico,” Lee said. “I’ve been working on it a long time. It took a lot longer than I anticipated. A person can always dream things done faster than they can actually be done. There is always something that comes up that slows a person up.”

His dreams for the boat, he added, have not changed that much since he got that wild idea back in 1979; although his plans for the crew might have altered some.

“It’s going to be sailed around the world by some of my friends,” Lee said. “I may or may not go. They might have to dig me up to take me along.”

There’s bound to be a fair wind the day they set sail. That’s one thing every mariner learns while building sailboats in every kind of weather out here on the Great Plains; you can always find a wind.

You might have to travel to find an ocean.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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