POINT RICHMOND -- Board a sailing vessel and leave the land behind, even for a short time, and it will change you.
Schooner Eros captains Grace and Bill Bodle are extending that healing experience to some of our nation's most fragile souls: severely injured military veterans.
Through the Bodles and San Ramon-based Sentinels of Freedom, wounded soldiers recovering in Bay Area hospitals and rehabilitation centers are treated to a day of sailing around San Francisco Bay on a 115-foot teak luxury schooner used to help rescue trapped Allied troops off a French beach in World War II.
"There's something about sitting on Eros, seeing all this amazing scenery, listening and feeling the move and go, that is cathartic and uniquely tranquil," said Jason Deitch, a disabled Army veteran who sailed on Eros' debut wounded-soldiers trip in August. "And the way Bill spoke with us that day and seeing how impassioned he was about doing this made a sizable impact on us."
Sailing with severely injured soldiers in wheelchairs or walking on prosthetic legs is daunting. Sailboats move beneath your feet. Cabin stairs are steep and narrow. A wave over the bow will douse a slow-moving sailor.
But the down-to-earth and unassuming Bodles are genuine adventurers with a knack for making friends and taking on seemingly impossible tasks.
He was a child prodigy raised on a Northern California ranch who entered UC Berkeley at age 16, became a dentist, embarked on a path toward teaching medicine and, instead, went to sea.
"One never knows what actually causes an epiphany, but I had met Grace and we were sailing an old boat, and, well, there you have it," Bill said. "I always thought life should be an adventure."
She is a UC Berkeley-trained anthropologist and former social worker who went on to graduate from the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London and earn a U.S. Coast Guard 500-ton master captain's certificate.
"I just had this idea when I was growing up that I didn't want to have a little house with a picket fence and two cars in the garage," Grace said. "This was a good alternative."
Married 48 years, the couple ran the historic Stone Boat Yard in Alameda and rebuilt the dilapidated Villa Tramonto ("Sunset House" in Italian) in North Berkeley, a mini Italian-style compound of four residences built by Ansel Hall, the National Park Service's first chief forester.
And there's more.
They rebuilt four sailing yachts, crossed the Atlantic via boat 14 times, circumnavigated the globe under sail and carried paying passengers to dozens of exotic ports in the Virgin Islands, West and East Indies, Caribbean and Mediterranean.
Sailing requires patience, but Eros' restoration tested the word's outer limits. Even a freelance documentary filmmaker gave up midway through the 18-year endeavor.
A relative had left the vessel in the Bodles' Alameda shipyard, and it was in bad shape.
The steel framed hull had to be rebuilt. That meant each of the hundreds of pieces of handcrafted solid Burmese teak on the hull, decks and interior would have to come off and be reassembled in exactly the same spot.
"There are 110 planks on the hull and they weigh an average of 400 pounds each," Bill said. "It took four guys to lift each one. To move the ship, we hired the same crane used to lift the deck section back up onto the Bay Bridge after Loma Prieta."
Sentinels founder Mike Conklin, also Grace's brother, watched his sister and brother-in-law restore Eros into the gleaming double-masted sailing ship docked today at the Sugar Dock in Point Richmond.
But while the Bodles played Humpty Dumpty with the Eros, Conklin was undergoing his own transformation.
After his Army Ranger son was wounded in 2003 in Iraq, Conklin was inspired to support returning injured soldiers and formed Sentinels of Freedom. It has become a nationally recognized program for its work helping wounded veterans after they come home.
Knowing that Bill is a Navy veteran, Conklin spoke with him about the mostly young men in Bay Area hospitals and rehabilitation centers fighting to recover from injuries suffered while serving in the U.S. military.
"None of these young men had ever had the opportunity to sail on a boat like Eros," Conklin said. "I asked if they would consider taking these veterans on a day when they didn't have a full boat. But Grace told me, 'No, we'll take them on their own and make it a special day.'"
It took some planning, but last summer, the first group of veterans set sail on the Eros.
It was so successful, the Bodles want to keep it up.
And they especially want to treat wounded veterans to front-row seats at the America's Cup sailing races in the summer and fall. The Bodles have applied to the America's Cup organization for a viewing slot along the course, where their passengers would be within spitting distance of the racing boats.
Such a day would be a gift like no other.
As Bill Bodle says, a "boat like the Eros is a magic carpet. It can take you anywhere."
Type and materials: Staysail schooner was constructed in England in 1939 with steel frames and Burmese teak. Designed by Scotsman William McMeek and built by Brooks Motor Craft.
Dimensions: It's 115 feet long overall with a beam (width at the widest point) of 22 feet; it weighs 185 tons; it requires 13 feet of water to float (draft); it carries 9,000 square feet of sail area; it accommodates eight guests in four cabins and eight crew; and it has a motoring range of 3,200 miles traveling at 9 knots.
History: It was built for the daughter of an English lord and her American husband, Jean White and Henry vom Berge. The Royal Navy commandeered the schooner immediately after its maiden voyage to help evacuate trapped Allied soldiers off the beach at Dunkirk, France, during World War II. After the war, Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos bought it, and the schooner became a regular sight in the Mediterranean yachting scene. (If only the Eros' teak decks could talk: Niarchos' four wives included Aristotle Onassis' first wife, Athina, and her sister, Eugenia, who died of drug overdoses within four years of each other.) Mary "Lucy" Bancroft acquired the ship in 1974 and began a charter business in the Caribbean and along the New England coastline.
Names: The schooner got off to a bad start. It seems vom Berge violated two ship-naming conventions in 1939 and christened it "White Bitch," after his father-in-law's name and famous dog-breeding business. (Names based on avocations or family monikers were considered bad manners.) Lloyd's Ship Registry outright refused to record it and it was quietly renamed "Jeanery." Niarchos named it "Eros" and Bancroft called it "Fair Sarae."
Current owners: Longtime Bay Area residents Grace and Bill Bodle, who ran the historic Stone Boat Yard in Alameda, acquired the schooner in 1991 after Bancroft's husband died. Other family members (Bancroft's two young grandsons were also Bill Bodle's nephews) were either disinterested or too young. It took 18 years, but the Bodles restored the schooner to much of its original appearance and materials, although it is equipped with a modern galley, engine and electronics. The two also re-christened it "Eros" and charter it throughout the world.
Online: http://schoonereros.com and http://vimeo.com/45222485.
bill and grace bodle:
Hometown: Point Richmond
Background: Both California natives, they met at U.C. Berkeley and married nearly 50 years ago. Bill is 78. Grace is 72.
Claim to fame: The couple restored Eros, a 115-foot restored schooner launched in England in 1939 that was used to help evacuate trapped Allied troops off a French beach in World War II. In addition to running sailing charters all over the world, the Bodles treat severely wounded military veterans to a day of sailing on San Francisco Bay.