Restored ship fires up fun

The yawl captures attention and its owner gets to show off his handiwork.

By NICK JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

GULFPORT - It was shortly after midday on Boca Ciega Bay on Saturday when the first shots were fired.

The cannons had been readied and the order was given to fire at will. Smoke, flames and scorched hotdog buns flew through the air.

The mock invasion kicked off the seventh-annual Gecko Fest in downtown Gulfport.

The ship firing at the shore was the Vesper, a restored 1937 staysail yawl, piloted by Capt. Nikko Lorenczi.

His crew for the day was several members of the Florida Pirate Festival, which will be in Vinoy Park in November and will feature more pirate entertainers and cannon fire.

"Everything we do shooting cannons is as historically accurate as we can make it," said one of the gunmen, Chris Jones. "Even the small arms are made the way they were hundreds of years ago."

But live rounds in the cannons and small arms have been replaced with tightly packed hotdog buns.

The noise got the attention of a small crowd gathered on the docks behind the Gulfport Casino.

"She is really close in design to a lot of pirate sloops that did chase down the bigger boats," Lorenczi said of the 55-foot ship.

Being in a faster, lighter and more maneuverable ship made it easier for pirates to chase down the larger ships that are often depicted in movies.

The Vesper is just that. Made by J.J. Taylor and Sons in Toronto, it won two races from Nova Scotia to Bermuda in 1938 and '39, long before Lorenczi got a hold of it last October.

Lorenczi said it was in terrible disrepair, nothing like it looks today, "It was an empty shell with a good-running diesel when I got it."

He bought the ship for about $3,000 and put in six 18-hour days a week while restoring it.

Now, the Vesper would stand out in any boatyard.

Its hull is made from 2-inch thick mahogany strips with a new black paint job. The mahogany on the deck is a rich brown accented by the original brass instruments.

Lorenczi makes a living buying ships like the Vesper and restoring them. When he sells it this week, it will be the 15th larger ship alongside the hundreds of smaller vessels he has sold.

Lorenczi, 45, said he ran away from home in Montreal at 14 and sailed to the Florida Keys.

There he worked on a shrimp boat with a crew of Portuguese sailors who taught him how to weave items out of coconut leaves, which he sells at events like Gecko Fest.

Although he has a home in northeast St. Petersburg, he spends most of his time on whatever boat he's working on.

He smokes clove cigarettes, drinks rum and lives the pirate life.

When asked what he likes about his lifestyle, his answer is an unpretentious one.

"I have no idea," he said.

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.