Key West

Forty-year saga of gallery owner Helen Harrison and her husband, Ben, began in San Francisco, matured in Costa Rica and ended up in Key West

Helen and Ben Harrison were young and in love when they decided 40 years ago to leave San Francisco with their Irish setter, Ralph, for a crazy adventure that would involve smuggling marine parts and building their own 38-foot sailboat in the mountains of Costa Rica.

“It originally was explained to me as a chance to travel and see the world — that’s how you talked me into it,” Helen, 64, said recently to her husband of 41 years.

“I blame it on her,” Ben, 68, responded. “She agreed to go.”

Both are happy they did. The harder-than-expected but rewarding journey ultimately landed them for good in Key West — where she has run her own art gallery for the past 28 years and he has worked as a musician, writer and lawyer, making use of a law degree he earned in the ’70s.

The sailboat, however, is long gone. In 1993, a few years after the arrival of their second child, they sadly sold for $35,000 the “work of art,” which took more than three years to handcraft. They had named it La Dulce Mujer Pintada, Spanish for “The Sweet Painted Lady.”

But the memories surrounding La Dulce Mujer Pintada live on. They still have the rusty but working Craftsman table saw used in its construction four decades ago. There’s also the German Cassens & Plath sextant for navigation by the stars, eight well-worn books on boat building, photographs, stacks of journals, Super-8 homemade movies and now Ben’s book: Sailing Down the Mountain: A Costa Rica Adventure.

“I banged out 400 pages on a manual typewriter while living on the boat,” Ben said. “But back then there was no access to publishing, especially if you didn’t have an address. So it sat on the shelf for a long time.”

Then one day Helen showed the manuscript to a friend, the late Susan Mesker, who persuaded Ben to finish it.

The book is Ben’s fourth. He also wrote Official Visit (about his oldest son’s recruitment by college and professional baseball teams), Charlie Jones (a fictional racy ride that follows multi-generational characters from California to Mexico) and Undying Love (the true story about bizarre Count Carl von Cosel, who in the 1930s in Key West slept with the decaying corpse of a young woman with whom he fell in love while treating her for tuberculosis).

The now gray-haired Harrisons recently relived their sailboat-building adventure from inside their cozy home on White Street, next to Helen’s art gallery and backyard studio. It was a rundown hangout probably used by drug dealers when they bought it in the 1980s.

Their story begins in 1970 in Dallas, where he was going to law school and she was going to college. They fell in love, broke up in a messy situation that included Ben resuming relations with his ex-wife, and got back together when Helen was dating someone else. The stormy start turned into smooth sailing, with the affair resulting in a 1972 wedding and fresh start in San Francisco.

“The plan was to go out and take the bar examination and see where it took us,” Ben said.” It took us to the bar room.”

Ben tended bar at the Cliff House, where Helen was a cocktail waitress. Irish coffees cost 50 cents and well drinks were just 75 cents.

“It was a strange economical time,” Ben said. “I was getting union scale, $37.50 a shift, plus tips. Between Helen and I we were taking home $80 to $100 a day. Our rent was $200 a month. We could have a good time and save money.”

And they did, saving $13,000 in one year. That money, along with $20,000 left to them by Ben’s dad after his sudden death, gave them just the financial wherewithal to go through with a grand plan hatched after friends invited them to go on a sailing trip from Corpus Christi, Texas, (Ben’s hometown) to Panama City.

“Why, after the trip, we had any further interest in sailing is another mystery,” Ben wrote in the book.

They endured thunder and lightning storms, mosquitoes, a broken bathroom, scary dodging of oil platforms without sails and an unexpected visit by a Customs agent, who somehow did not discover their marijuana.

When they got back to San Francisco, the original plan was to buy a $14,200 Sea Wolf kit boat that was being made in Taiwan. But the energy crisis hit and fiberglass petroleum products went up dramatically, causing their contract for the boat to fall through. Instead, the same yacht broker told them he was moving to Costa Rica to build reproduction 36-foot sailboats through a new company called FibroTecnica.

“He promised the first one off the mold to us,” Ben said.

The couple began amassing boat building books and nautical magazines. To get wholesale discount prices on marine products, they established a business: Ben and Helen Harrison, Boatbuilding and Repairs.

“It had a nice ring to it, though we had done neither,” Ben wrote in the book.

They also met with a marine architect who provided them with guidance and promised them plans. “We usually got the plans too late,” Helen said.

In September 1974, the couple and Ralph the dog piled into a 1967 Pontiac with 98,000 miles and drove to Costa Rica. They shipped a crate with a new 36 horsepower Volvo diesel engine that they bought for $2,300, as well as clothing and tools. To get through borders and past Costa Rican Customs without paying taxes, they “conveniently packed” screws and winches in their coolers.

The Harrisons decided to build their boat in the mountain town of Santa Ana because it was much cooler than working in the heat and humidity at sea level. The town also was only an hour’s bus ride from the capital of San Jose, where FibroTecnica operated in the same airport hangar-type building that assembled Land Rovers.

They started with just the hull, which Ben said looked like a “big bathtub.” They joked they were the only two gringos in Costa Rica who did physical labor.

“We thought it would take us four months,” Helen said.

But it took more than three years. It led to visa problems. And it caused them to exhaust their savings. In desperation, they asked a drug smuggler named Mike to help them avoid paying the heavy taxes on 21 boxes of marine parts sent to them from the United States. Under Costan Rican law, a boat in transit could import merchandise duty free, so the gringo drug smuggler with his Panamanian-registered vessel accepted the parts for the Harrisons.

They entertained themselves at night by writing in their journals and sometimes watching two TV shows: El Chapolin Colorado (the Red Grasshopper, a children’s comedy) and Iris Chacon (a foxy Latin singer who wiggled a lot). They also would have a couple of beers when Ben sang and played his guitar.

In January 1977, with only three days left on their visas, they were forced to launch their 20,000-pound work of art, even though their sails for the boat had not cleared Customs.

The boat was driven to the coast, where they cringed as a crane operator lifted it before lowering it into the water for a high-tide departure. The Harrisons recently watched for the first time their Super-8 footage, now digitalized, of Helen christening the boat by breaking a bottle of Korbel champagne on the hull.

The first time Ben tried the engine it died. But he bled the fuel line and tried again. This time it started.

“We hid out in the islands for three weeks to work on the boat [to make it seaworthy] and to go out on test sails before hitting the open waters,” Ben said.

They made it to Panama and stayed just the required 48 hours to get a stamp from a foreign port so they could return to Costa Rica to completely finish the boat. Still broke, they survived on Ben’s $200-a-month job writing a manual on boat building for FibroTecnica, repairing boats and by trading girlie magazines to commercial fishermen for shrimp.

It would be March 1978 when the couple was ready to leave Costa Rica for good. They would sail through the Panama Canal (at a cost of just $60) and make several stops, including the San Blas Islands, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

On Aug. 3, 1979, the couple arrived in Key West after five days and nights at sea , and five years after they left San Francisco. They passed the Australian pines at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. The next day, Ben landed a gig playing music at Two Friends, a bar and restaurant where Mel Fisher and his treasure hunters used to hang out. The Harrisons had found home. They would live on their boat seven more years before finally buying that rundown home on White Street.

“We lived our dream,” Helen said. “Not many people can say that.”

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