Hours from the ocean, the dream of a sailboat becomes an internet sensation

Because he announced to his family and friends that he would build a proud wooden sailboat and sail it around the world. And he would do it by the hour from the sea, on the western Massachusetts farm where his family has lived for five generations, harvesting lumber from the trees around him, just as his ancestors had built the houses and barns they use today. He called the project “Acorn to Arabella”, the name he had given to the boat. Romantic.

Less romantic: the fact that Denette knew nothing about boats. She nor she knew how to sail. She nor she had any money. All she had was a dream and some trees. AND Youtube.

Seven years later, Denette stands inside the galley of the Arabella, now less than a year from completion, one of four full-time employees buzzing around the massive patchwork shed built to house the boat. Denette and a boat carpenter, Kaylyn “KP” Palella, work at Arabella, and the other two work on content. Ben Fundis does the video editing – he also owns the Screening Room, an arthouse cinema in Newburyport – and Anne Bryant, who used to work for a wooden boat building magazine, manages the website and social media. There were also two salaried interns that day, as well as a boat builder from Maine.

Interns Aidan Messier (left) and Adam Wiatrowski worked at Arabella.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Put it all together and you have the basic plot, set and stars of what is essentially a weekly TV show, one with 100,000 loyal YouTube viewers.

From the very beginning – first tree and video cut in January 2016 – Denette documented her progress Youtubefirst with the help of a friend and soon with a full-time video editor in Fundis, paying him out of his own pocket with the proceeds from Denette as a route setter in a climbing gym.

“If we can inspire you, get you to join us, and help us out a bit,” Denette wrote on the original webpage, setting out her bet, “then maybe, just maybe, we can quit our jobs and build full-time.”

Construction of the boat and audience went slowly until January 2018, when the YouTube algorithm decided that people would like to watch Denette pour 4.5 tons of lead from a homemade melting pot to make the ballast keel , the heavy counterweight on the bottom of the boat.

From one day to the next everything changed. Sales of ads and merchandise grew, as did the subscriber base, and from the nearly 3 million people who watched that video came a stable audience who supported the project through donations, merchandise sales, and never missing a video. , something that took on added meaning during the early ones days of the pandemic when watching the the steady progress on the boat brought a reassuring security.

Recently, more than 220 videos in the series, those viewers heard the announcement that Acorn to Arabella has an end date. Next June, in Mystic, Connecticut, the Arabella will touch the sea for the first time, finishing one story and starting another.

“When I kick the bucket, if someone were to tell the story of my life, my hope is that the boat is the prologue,” Denette said.

Steve Denette worked at Arabella.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There is a lot of work to be done, but the Arabella is already something to behold as she nears completion, encumbered with timber, nearly every inch of trees that once lived on the farm, all funded through a modern form of ‘busking’ , as Denette describes it.

When she marvels at what the Arabella has become, Denette said what she appreciates most are all the stories the ship already has to tell. The many different hands that helped build it and the individual trees that make up its bones – she can tell you which ones she climbed as a child and how they were harvested, including the first batch she felled with her grandfather. When her grandfather was twenty, he did the same to build the house where Denette now lives.

“The idea of ​​cutting down trees and waiting for the timber to season and waiting years to build something is what you did. I’ve always appreciated that someone would go into the woods and cut down a tree and build this barn. Someone brought it into existence. Boats are just a more complicated and mobile version of that,” she said.

“And,” he added, “harvest trees, build a boat, then have this boat take you anywhere in the world and romantic.”

Wes Craft is part of the group of people building the 38-foot boat.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

There’s no concrete plan for where Denette and her girlfriend will go when they set off to explore the world on the Arabella, though they’ll start small. After all, she still can’t sail.

What they do know is that they will continue to document their journey and make videos, continuing the story for the many people who are connected to Arabella and the dream she represents. Denette said she has heard emergency room doctors watching videos to decompress after a hard day; veterans who find solace in constant progress; sailors who say they haven’t been on the water for years but have been inspired to get back out there.

Steve Denette (left) has a huge following on his YouTube chronicling the building process of the Arabella. Wes Craft worked with him on the boat one recent day.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Each spring, they host an open house for donors who support the project through Patreon, a membership platform. Nearly 800 people from all over the country arrived in May.

Soon, the boat barn will be dismantled so the Arabella can be loaded onto a truck for the ocean, leaving behind a bare patch of lawn, just like before. As that day approaches, Denette can’t help but think back to all those people who told him he was crazy, that he was doomed to fail.

“Now, it’s like,” he paused to look at Arabella, “show me the boat you built.”

Kaylyn Palella (right) helped build the boat.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.