Story And Photography By Bill Jacobs
A DETERMINED MAN
BUILDS HIS OWN TRAWLER
o for it, Grandpa!”
Those words of support from 17-year-old granddaughter Carolyn
were all Roy Ness needed to hear to launch him into a boatbuilding
project to which he would devote more than 6,000 hours over the
next two and a half years.
After spending a few days with four generations of the Ness
family of Escanaba, Michigan, I wasn’t surprised by the answer to
my question of a moment before: what had prompted Roy to begin
such a challenging voyage? When most people who’ve been boating
all their lives reach the age of 70, they start to wonder if the time to
hang up their captain’s hat is near.
But Roy Ness is not most people.
So here I was, sitting next to him in the pilothouse of the 49-foot
trawler he had designed and built 19 years ago, two years after
his 70th birthday. With Roy were his wife, Lola, his eldest son, Jerry,
and Jerry’s wife, Faye. They were the first in a continuous stream
of family members who would come and go over the next couple
days as I got to know Roy and the story behind his remarkable
I supposed there was a connection between the tenacious spirit of
Roy and his family and the fact that we were in Escanaba, located
on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The U.P., as locals call it, is not a
land for the faint of heart. Escanaba lies along the western shore of
Little Bay de Noc, a departure point for tons of iron ore headed for
Cleveland, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, and is shrouded by weather
that’s cool part of the year and downright frigid the rest. The days
are short, the forests are dense, the lake is ice-cold, the sky is deep
blue, and the highways can be lonely without the logging trucks
roaring out of the woods.