At about 10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, after 32 years of not infrequently interrupted effort, Little Bear began its journey seaward to a port in Redwood City, the finished hull gleaming and pristine, its interior rooms paneled in walnut. The California Highway Patrol led the way.
Because the vessel weighs 70 tons and is as big as a house — it sleeps eight and has three bathrooms, or heads — and there being no convenient waterway between Dry Creek Lane off Canada Road and the Redwood City harbor, it had to be towed over the roads as a wide load. Therein lay the challenge.
Mr. Ellis, 71, faced an implacable deadline: a once-a-year high tide deep enough to accommodate the launching of his craft. He had found just one mover, Montgomery Contractors Corp. of Sacramento, agreeable to hauling his vessel from Woodside to the Bay, and he had an eight-hour window — 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — to use the roads.
The hours ticked by as the crew tried to maneuver the towing package out of Dry Creek Lane. Beams from flashlights held by friends and neighbors, their breath condensing in the cold night air, punctuated the darkness. Overhead utility wires got in the way of the hull and had to be pushed up with homemade poles. The eight-wheel dollies up front seemed uncooperative in rounding the turn on to Olive Hill Lane, and the electric motor used to slue the wheels around sparked and fizzled. Tight chain lashings held the vessel in place on the trailer, and its movements elicited ominous groans and pops of metal under stress.
Forward progress settled in at around 2:50 a.m. after the towing crew swapped out the two front dollies for a single one. They made it as far as the dirt triangle at Whiskey Hill and Sand Hill roads in Woodside.
After a day's rest, the overland journey at 3 to 5 mph resumed Friday night and ended Saturday morning, Jan. 10, at Docktown Marina in Redwood City. In need of deeper water, the vessel was then towed to the city's municipal marina.
The best laid plans, etc., etc. Asked at around 2:40 a.m. Friday morning for his impressions of the night's activity and with his vessel still sitting in Olive Hill Lane, Mr. Ellis replied: "I just hope we get there in two or three days. This isn't quite what I expected. I expected to be at Roberts (market at Woodside and Canada roads) at midnight."
Jim Thompson, his friend and protege, said he worked on the vessel as a gofer for five years in the late 1970s. "I was kind of the 'do it all' guy and wanted to learn a lot and I was lucky to meet Jerry," he said.
Mr. Ellis is "very determined and very smart (and) one of the best builders in the whole area," Mr. Thompson said, and added that he attributes his decision to go to college and pursue civil engineering in large part to being inspired and mentored by Mr. Ellis.
The vessel's departure "is something I never thought would happen," he said. "I thought that boat would be there forever."
Mr. Ellis' daughter, Kristin Mosely, 42, said her father began work on Little Bear when she was 10. She recalled many optimistic predictions of the vessel's completion. But as in the story of the boy who cried wolf, dashed expectations became routine, she said.
"It's like he's been pregnant for 32 years," she said. When he called her at her home in Colorado this time, "my heart just dropped," she said. "Is this really it"?
The long view seemed a habit for Mr. Ellis. Over the decades, he let Atherton homeowners with walnut trees know of his interest in their wood if the trees needed felling, said friend and Portola Valley resident Scott Petry. From those trees, he planed the walnut into boards, kiln-dried it, and used it to panel the vessel's interior, Mr. Petry said.
The help of friends can be a boon if your backyard yacht project takes 32 years, and Mr. Ellis' generosity has earned him many, Mr. Petry said. "He's so willing to share his knowledge," he said. "He spends 50 percent of his time working on other people's projects," whether a home remodel or a broken down truck. "He's got a lot of grace."