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Modern-day 'Noah' spends 37 years building massive wooden boat

83-year-old Bill Hable started work on his Lake Superior schooner in January of 1985.

BLOOMER, Wisconsin — Editor's note: This story originally aired on KARE 11 in 2017. Both the article and video contain updated content.

Bill Hable was still in his 40s when he settled on a grand plan for his retirement.

He grabbed a chainsaw, cut down some trees and started building a boat. Hable figured the project would take 10 years to complete. He underestimated by three decades.

When we first visited Hable, he was 78 and standing in the scaffolding surveying his massive —  and still unfinished —  41-foot schooner.

“The main question that drives me crazy, 'When’s that boat going to be done?' And my pat answer is this: 'Don’t ask,'” Hable said in January of 2017. At the time, Hable estimated his twin-mast schooner was 97 percent complete

Five years later, Hable is 83 and still building.

Credit: Jim Hable
83-year-old Bill Hable at the helm of the 41-foot schooner that he’s been building for 37 years

In 2017, Hable had hoped to sail his boat on Lake Superior by the time he was 80. Now he says he hopes to set sail by the time he's 90.

And he doesn’t much care what anyone thinks.

“If I really wanted to get this thing in the water I could have it by the end of this year," Hable said five years ago. "But that isn’t the goal. I want to build it the way I want to do it.”

Hable approached his project like the career engineer he was. Before starting construction, he built a shed in his backyard to house the boat.

The structure was supposed to be temporary. “I hope to get the boat done before the building collapses,” he laughed.

Credit: Boyd Huppert
Bill Hable was in his 40s when cut the trees to start building his 41-foot schooner

Hable has touched every component of the massive wooden boat. Early on, he built a furnace to melt tons of lead he then poured into the keel. He designed his own sweat box to bend the wooden ribs onto which white oak planking was installed.

“He has a friend in Maine who reminded him probably 20 years ago that he’s not building a cathedral, he’s building a boat to sail in,” Hable’s wife, Judy, said.

But Hable has never concerned himself as much with the sailing as he has with the building.

“The medical profession would go broke if they had to take care of me,” Hable said. He considers his nearly four-decade project both mental and physical therapy.

Years ago, Hable tried a gym but concluded it wasn’t for him.

“The problem people have that exercise,” he said, is "they walk and all they get is their shoes wore out —  they have nothing to show for this." Hable, instead, tells people, "You should go out in the field, pick some stones, take ‘em home and build a stone house. Then you would have exercise and you would have something to show for it.”

Judy Hable said her husband of 61 years may have a point. ”I really kind of think maybe if he finishes it he’s going to wonder, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”

Spouses don't come much more supportive.

“Wouldn’t it be boring to be married to somebody who didn’t have a passion for something?" Judy Hable asked.

Credit: Jim Hable
Bill Hable has been building his 41-foot wooden schooner for 37 years

Roughly a schooner’s length away, at the aptly named Next Place Bar & Grill, Hable’s boat is a regular source of conversation.

“We call it ‘The Ark,” laughed Next Place's bartender in 2017. Felisha Polmanter wasn’t even born when Hable started work on the schooner. "Everyone’s been anticipating it being finished," she said.

Curious bar patrons frequently wander next door to see the boat. If Hable is working, he sometimes treats them to personal tours.

“There’s going to be a crowd when that shed comes down,” Polmanter predicted. “Everybody’s going to want to see it wheeled out.”

Most of Hable's time recently has been spent on the schooner’s cherry wood interior, including a dining table, sleeping quarters and a shower.

Credit: Jim Hable
Bill Hable in the interior of his partially built 41-foot schooner

Hable admits to sitting sometimes at the helm of his schooner, imagining he’s sailing —  wind in the sails, riding the swells of Lake Superior.

Yet should life have other plans for the 83-year-old, Hable insists he could die happy.

“I’m happy right now,” he said adamantly. “The point is the doing; the doing is the point.”

For 37 years, the neighbors thought Bill Hable was building a boat. He’s actually been busily crafting his perfect life.

“My way,” he says. “That’s enough.”

Credit: Boyd Huppert
Bill Hable sits atop his 41-foot schooner in 2017

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