Guided by a Rudder: Meet Paul Dennis, Freedom Guru

manually moving freedom sailboat rudder
Tom has to take a wide stance to move Sunshine’s rudder

Getting to Paradise Requires Steering

Early in our relationship with Sunshine, back in the grubby days of fall 2012, when we were fairing her keel and getting ready to paint her bottom, Tom admitted one day that he thought the rudder was overly stiff.

I didn’t want to hear it, I just wanted to slap on some blue paint, drop her in the water, and head for the palm trees.

But the proof was there. The rudder turned when you turned the wheel, but not easily, and there was a slight juddering to the movement, as if it turned by falling into a series of grooves or grinding over something. One person should be able to grasp the rudder itself and pivot it back an forth, but it took both of us to move Sunshine’s. And so Tom began an online search for guidance on dropping a rudder and greasing the bearing.

For days he searched, reading articles and online forums. As with most of her other parts, a Freedom’s rudder is different. Much of what he found didn’t apply to our type of boat. But then, buried deep in a discussion on Cruisers Forum, he found a recommendation for a specialist in Freedom sailboats.

Guidance from Warren River Boatworks

The news that there was such an expert in the world, someone who could help Tom address those items that weren’t covered in the manual, was the best thing we’d heard in weeks. That his shop, Warren River Boatworks, was in neighboring Rhode Island was cause for a joyful chest bump.

Image of boat shed at Warren River Boatwork
It was a rudder just like this that started it all. The Freedom 38 Tranquility
sits serenely in the yard at Warren River Boatworks

Tom called and talked with Paul Dennis of Warren River about our rudder issue. By the time he hung up the phone, he not only had ideas for freeing the rudder’s movement, but also information on its design and functional properties, the boat geek stuff he loves. Paul had invited us to come down and visit the shop and Tom was amazed at his willingness to take the time to discuss the problem and offer advice over the phone.

Of course we wanted to take Paul up on that offer right away. The shop is located in Warren, just over an hour from where we were staying in Hingham, and about 3/4 of the way to Newport. We were already planning a trip to Newport the following weekend for the boat show, so we arranged to stop by on our way there, meet Paul and pick his brain, as much as he would let us, about other aspects of Sunshine’s rejuvenation.

Anxious as we were, we arrived early that Saturday morning, Paul wasn’t there yet, but half a dozen boats of all sizes were at the dock. On the west coast, Freedoms are little more than oddities, so we’d never seen more than one at a time before. For Tom it was an early Christmas. Jason, Paul’s mechanic, was also there. We struck up a friendship with Jason right away and since then he’s been our resource for all things pertaining to Sunshine’s engine. He sailed his own boat, Low Compression, up to Maine this summer, and joined us in Boothbay. But I digress.

Image of freedom sailboats and masts at Warren River Boatworks
Freedoms and some of the carbon fiber masts that make them so special, at Warren River Boatworks. That’s Jason’s Low Compression in the background.

Paul Dennis, Repository of All Things Freedom

Paul Dennis, Warren River Boatworks
Paul Dennis aboard Cheers in his shop, Warren River Boatworks

Paul arrived and we got a tour of his shop, and heard about his history with Freedoms. Paul worked at Tillotson-Pearson, the builders of both Freedom and Alden yachts. He was Production Manager for the big boat division and in charge of the Freedom line when Sunshine was built. As far as I can tell, he knows everything there is to know about this unique family of boats. We haven’t found a way to stump him yet. As Tillotson-Pearson no longer builds Freedoms, there was a clear need for a shop specializing in maintenance, repair and restoration of these unique vessels. Paul established his shop to fill that niche in 1992.

We’ve been back to Warren numerous times since that first trip. Not only has Paul always been ready to provide advice about almost everything we’ve done on Sunshine, but he’s also been a great source of parts and materials.

Because he works on so many boats that share common characteristics, he’s often asked to remove an item from one boat that will  work perfectly well on another. He offers these parts and pieces for sale to other Freedom owners. Which makes his shop a candy store for Tom and me. For instance, the Fortress anchor that now graces Sunshine’s bow, was originally on a Freedom 36. We’ve been very pleased with it. It held us solid everywhere we went in Maine. But that’s a review for another post.

Over the last year we’ve bought hatches, hoses, a bigger battery charger, the anchor, batt cars, and our wonderful dripless stuffing box from Paul. He’s helped with major processes like the rudder rebuild and the stuffing box replacement, and advised us on simpler, but equally important things like the choice of hoses and adhesives. He’s been our complete resource for parts and materials, and our guru for procedure.

We’ve been surprised over and over at Paul’s generosity with his time and expertise, and at the things he has on hand when we have a sudden crisis. And we’re grateful to him. We made it pretty clear from the beginning that, with our bony budget, we have to do everything ourselves, so he knew we wouldn’t be bringing Sunshine in to WRB to have work done. But we did run back and forth purchasing plenty of parts and supplies from him.

Sunshine in Warren

Then one day in late October we sailed Sunshine down to Warren and tied her up at the Town Wharf, right next door to Warren River Boatworks. Tom worked on a project for Paul and we spent time with friends and explored the very welcoming town of Warren.

tom working in boat shop
Tom: Never happier than when working near boats

Given the surgical strike nature of our previous visits, we’d never really explored. Turns out it’s a foodie haven. On Water Street, which runs along the river, there are a dozen terrific places to eat within easy walking distance of our slip. Picturesque and arty, Warren is an extremely easy place to settle into and extremely hard to leave.

Paul’s Fleet Heads for Winter Quarters

But as the New England fall days got cooler and – well, let’s face it – cold, the boats disappeared one by one from the docks and moorings around us. And then one day Paul asked me if I’d like to help take a boat from his dock to the marina where it was to be hauled out and stored for the winter.

Well, yes! I leap at any chance to go anyplace on a Freedom, and I’m especially fond of spending time on the bigger boats. I try not to drool all over their vast galleys. So I served as deckhand for a couple of hours aboard 38 foot Rhapsody, one of Sunshine’s big sisters. I didn’t do much other than wrangling dock lines and fenders when we cast off and then again when we docked, just enough to help Rhapsody’s owner, Mark, who was recovering from a back injury, avoid doing himself a mischief.

Captain Mark steering the Freedom 38 Rhapsody
Captain Mark looks pretty happy at the helm of Rhapsody on a November day.

Along with Paul and his deckhand Jim aboard Blewberry Pancakes, a sleek and speedy Freedom 45, we motored from Warren, around Rumstick Neck and Nayatt Point to Cove Haven Marina where Paul’s “fleet” spends the winter. Though Sunshine won’t be spending the winter at Cove Haven with Rhapsody, Blewberry, Brio, Liberte, Owl Too and the others, we like to think of her as a virtual member of Paul’s fleet.

It was a gorgeous, almost windless day, so there was no sailing, but it was still wonderful to be out on the waters of Narragansett Bay. Along the way Mark and I talked about Freedom sailboats, his and mine, and about Paul. Like other Freedom owners we’ve met at Warren River, Mark sings Paul’s praises. When Blewberry blew by Rhapsody we both admired the bigger boat’s style, but Mark mumbled that he could see he wouldn’t be going on any cruises with that boat. Tom and I won’t be going anywhere with either of them unless the promise only to use their sails. Then we have some hope of keeping them in sight.

Blewberry Pancakes, a Freedom 45 motors on Narragansett Bay
Blewberry Pancakes, with her 67 horse Yanmar, blew by Rhapsody and her 27 horse. (Sunshine’s is a measly 18 horse. But we love our trusty little Yanmar, yes we do.)

With his vast knowledge, interesting stockpile and amazing willingness to help, Paul has made Warren, Rhode Island into the Freedom sailboat owner’s version of Mecca. If you’ve got a Freedom, you should definitely make the pilgrimage.

While they specialize in Freedoms sailboats, Warren River Boatworks handles maintenance and repair on all kinds of boats. For more information call Paul at 401-245-6949.

3 thoughts on “Guided by a Rudder: Meet Paul Dennis, Freedom Guru”

  1. Pingback: Tidal Life Christmas Cruise: Mamaroneck, NY to Jersey City, NJ - Tidal Life

  2. Nancy,
    Good to hear what’s going on in our life. So where are you now and where will you spend the winter: Hingham, Warren or Newport.

    Cold but sunny here on Whidbey, a rarity for this time of year. Miss you, but glad you’re living your dream.


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