To explain the genesis of his dream, Alex Neymark points to a grainy black and white photo of himself as a young man, climbing aboard a motorboat his father built.
Neymark looks to be about 21, wearing a Russian fur hat on what was likely a cold day on the Dnieper River in Ukraine. The boat looks sturdy, of plywood painted red, and Neymark took pleasure knowing his father built it.
One day, he vowed, he, too, would build a boat.
Neymark, who worked as a civil engineer in Ukraine, immigrated to New York City in 1989, got a degree from Pace University in finance and general accounting, worked at the World Trade Center and on Wall Street, and never forgot his dream.
But he lived on Coney Island with his wife and stepdaughter in a one-bedroom apartment and, like so many people's dreams, his remained simply that: a dream.
Then he took a job in 2001 as a financial analyst with TIAA-CREF and moved to Charlotte. He and his wife eventually bought a four-bedroom townhouse with a two-car garage. Only Neymark didn't think of it as a garage; he envisioned a workshop, big enough for building a boat.
His boat would be a work of art, a thing of beauty. Neymark, who is now 55, would settle for nothing less. He is a perfectionist, meticulous with details, obsessive you could say. As a trained engineer, he understood the principles of mathematics and science.
But he wasn't a boatbuilder.
A classic wooden runabout
The world is full of boatbuilders, some who do it out of necessity to earn a living, but many who share Neymark's dream because they love the water and love the idea of building something so efficient and with such natural lines that it can ride the waves.
Dories. Kayaks. Peapods. Whitehalls. Scows. Cutters. Cruisers. Yachts and yawls. Wooden and fiberglass. Plywood and mahogany. There are as many different kinds of boats as there are builders. Neymark's boat would be a tribute to his father, his greatest friend and inspiration, who died a few months before the family immigrated to the United States.
He bought plans for what is known among builders as a “crackerbox” design, or runabout, a classic wooden boat 15 feet 3 inches long, 6 feet wide, with an inboard motor.
In the beginning, in October 2003, he stacked planks of mahogany against the wall of the garage. Above the planks, he hung the design, by a company called Glen-L. Then he set to work. He cut a mahogany frame for the hull from patterns and stretched planks of mahogany lengthwise across the frame, building a skeleton of the boat to come.
Over the mahogany, he screwed on marine plywood, bending the wood with clamps to conform to the shape of the skeleton. Over the plywood, he glued on more mahogany planking. He sanded the wood. He stained it.
That much took two years.
It looked beautiful, so much like a finished boat that friends asked when he planned to launch it.
That's when he ran into a year's worth of trouble.
He glued thin fiberglass cloth over the mahogany to make the boat more durable. Applied correctly, the layer of fiberglass should be invisible. But remember: Neymark wasn't a boatbuilder. He was learning as he went.
Parts of the finish looked hazy. Although hazy doesn't sink a boat, the perfectionist in Neymark wouldn't stand for it. He decided to strip off the fiberglass. It took a day to scrape off a foot-long length down to the original wood, months to strip the entire boat. Once all the fiberglass was off, he had to sand the boat again, then stain it again.
Two more times, he applied fiberglass and two more times it came out hazy and two more times he stripped the boat back down to the original wood. He became extremely frustrated. But it's not in Neymark's nature to give up. He had to get it right.
In the process of so much scraping and sanding, he ripped two ligaments in his shoulder, which required rotator cuff surgery in April 2006. That set him back another six months.
Then his mother's health failed and he quit work on the boat and took care of her until her death.
Sometimes, he discovered, life intrudes on your dream.
Life as a boat widow
The boat monopolized his thoughts. It kept him awake at night. It strained his marriage.
His wife, Julia Malinsky, who works as a pharmacist, saw how tenderly he stroked the smooth mahogany sides and knew that until he finished she would be, in the words of a neighbor, a “boat widow.” She took vacations without him, to Paris, Mexico, England. She postponed improvements on their house.
Neymark only had eyes for his boat.
“You have to find balance with your family,” he said, “which I have to truly say I did not find…”
He scored each plank of mahogany with a knife so it would better adhere to an under layer of plywood; he custom-built a wind deflector in front of the cockpit, using a radiator, towel, hot water and clamps to bend the mahogany into the perfect curve; he hired a friend to fashion stainless steel hardware and he polished every piece, even pieces inside the boat that other people will never see; he polished every screw, thousands of screws; he used his mother's Singer sewing machine to upholster a leather seat for the cockpit; he applied 12 layers of marine polyurethane and sanded between each layer.
“It's not patience,” he said. “My patience was gone long ago. I would say it was perseverance.”
Powerful, wild and beautiful
After five years of devoted labor, the boat was finally ready to launch.
Neymark took her out for a secret test run in the middle of August, and invited family and friends to Lake Norman over Labor Day weekend for an official christening. Only he wouldn't allow the traditional bottle of champagne broken over the bow. That might have damaged the finish.
The boat felt powerful in his hands, and wild, and beautiful the way he imagined she would. He named her the Déjà Vu, letters applied to the stern in 22-carat gold.
“When you see her, it's like something you saw before in your dream,” he explained. “Now it's realized from your dream to reality. It's in front of your eyes.”
So now what? Once you realize your dream, what do you do?
Neymark promised his wife to catch up on vacations.
If that were all, he wouldn't be Alex Neymark, boat builder, dreamer, an immigrant from Ukraine who can't believe his good fortune.
He held up a photograph of a sleek wooden Adirondack guide boat. Something smaller and simpler to build over the winter, he said. He talked about building custom boats for sale and starting a summer school to teach children the techniques of boatbuilding.
Next, he fingered a photograph of another, bigger boat, and there was no mistaking the look of longing in his eyes. It is a high-efficiency 29-foot Kiwi cruiser from New Zealand, which burns about 5 gallons of diesel an hour, the first of its kind in the world.
That's Neymark's next dream.