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A pirate's life

"Stear Clear" strikes a weird chord in Cozy Harbor
Posted:  Friday, September 14, 2012 - 10:00am

Anyone strolling through Cozy Harbor in Southport recently has likely stopped dead in their tracks, entranced and perplexed by the bizarre spectacle seen from the shore.

Moored among the lobster boats and pleasure yachts is a dazzling sight that looks like it sailed straight out of the Kevin Costner film “Water World.”

“Oh sure, that’s Mike Lewis’,” said Southport General Store Owner Oliver Cusano when asked about the “unique vessel.” Cusano's quick reply assured me that the island community was well aware of the artist’s eccentricities.

Stear Clear

Upon closer examination of Lewis’s floating artwork, I noticed the ship is actually made of parts from several different boats: two canoes fastened with a wooden frame form a catamaran hull, and mounted on the deck are three carbon fiber windsurfing masts.

A giant teddy bear wielding a ski pole sits in a hammock stretched out on the starboard aft. Combined with the flamingo perched atop his shoulder, the bear seems perfectly ready to fend off swashbuckling foe.

The rest of the ship overflows with similar peculiarities. A carved sperm whale painted with registration numbers sits at the bow below a spinning purple whirligig. A flamboyant beach umbrella hangs over the hammock – to provide shade? Wrong.

“That’s my spinnaker,” Lewis said. He explained that its main function is to attract wind.

As they sailed around it, all the children from the Southport Yacht Club told Lewis he had the coolest boat in the harbor. Some giggled, enchanted by the miniature cannon positioned on the bow.

“The little kids there, they look at me at me and I say (to them), ‘Remember this. When you get old, you can always have a pirate ship.’”

A wooden sign with the ship’s brazen name, Stear Clear, seemed to demand respect from day-trippers puttering around the harbor.

What about the name? Lewis said that after the initial launch he asked a lobsterman friend of his if he had seen the boat. “And he’s like ‘you know what, I steered clear of that. I didn’t want people to think that it belonged to me, or that I had anything to do with it.’”

The most menacing feature, however, is not the ship’s name or that the whole boat is held together with just pot buoy line. It's the two deer skulls propped atop the bowsprits, grinning as if to cast a wicked omen on this year’s hunting season.

Who is Mike Lewis?

Mike Lewis is not your typical sailor.

Lewis is not a run-of-the-mill artist who paints pretty little gift shop lighthouses. He’s more like the uncle your parents warned you about – the one who played with dynamite as a kid.

Lewis referred to himself as a folk artist. “It’s what they call outsider art,” he said. Building the boat was a creative departure from his typical 16-hour days as an artist who does wood carving, stonework, glasswork and painting.

People around town might know Lewis by his distinct art featuring whales with toothy grins and pretty mermaids, which adorn doorways of many businesses in the region.

Others might recognize him by the unusual truck he drives around, which is covered in an array of multicolored buoys and nautical do-hickeys on the back of the cap.

A police officer once stopped Lewis to warn him of the visual hindrance he was causing. There had been some complaints from drivers worried that paraphernalia would fly off and hit people. “Well that should keep them on their toes,” Lewis said in response.

Lewis’ original intention for building what he calls “Boothbay’s only three-master schooner” was to enter it into the Windjammer Day’s parade this past June. He stayed up all night working on the vessel. By 2 p.m. the next day the parade was over and the boat had yet to be launched.

Then came the Shipyard Cup. “I wanted to get out there. With my backup motor and sailing downwind I could probably pass one of those boats,” he said. “I wanted to go by and say, ‘Is that what you get for (2.5) million dollars?’”

Despite the mounting anticipation, Steer Clear has yet to take its maiden voyage. Before the frost comes, Lewis is planning what he calls the “Southport to Linekin Bay Expedition.”

“I’ve got a friend over in Linekin Bay. I told him I got a yacht and I want to bring it over and tie it to his dock. He kind of knows me, but he isn’t really aware of what I’ve been working on,” Lewis said.

Public opinion has been positive toward Lewis’ labor of love. People often give him a thumbs-up as they pass by.

“Folks often ask me, where did you bring that up from? And I tell them, ‘Oh I brought it up from Hades,”’ Lewis said with a mischievous grin.

Having grown up in Key West, Fla., Lewis has worked on, in, and around all of types of vessels.

At an early age, he learned shipbuilding skills by helping his father. He sailed from Key West to Tampa and worked building lobster boats and eventually his own sailboat.

Building Stear Clear provided Lewis with an entertaining side project. “It’s something to take my mind off doing my art, and it gets me out on the water,” he said.

“I like to just row over there and see the expressions on the people at the restaurant, like ‘I don’t know what the hell that is.’”

People who don’t understand Lewis seldom understand his art.

“If it doesn’t make you smile or laugh, you ain’t getting it,” Lewis said.

Lewis recalled an incident that happened not too long ago on a private boat launch, one that required non-members to make a donation for use of the dock.

“I had my boat stuck over there at low tide. I couldn’t get it out, and somebody approached me in a blue blazer and asked me if I was a member. I said, ‘No.’ The guy is looking at me, and then at my boat. (It was an old motorboat rigged up with funky sails). “So then he asked me, ‘Exactly what kind of boat is this?’ I said this is the best kind – the kind that floats. Well that sent him stomping off to the parking lot.”

In a world of typical characters--Starbucks-crazed soccer moms, trucker-hat hipsters and Tweeting tweens--it is comforting to know people like Lewis still exist.

True free spirits like Lewis live immersed in their creations, unafraid to make the world a weird and beautiful place – one mermaid at time.