The Lavengro is the last original Biloxi schooner “White Winged Queen” in existence and still sails under a traditional gaff rigged sail plan.
Sailing through history
Originally built as the Helen in 1926, she is a 2/3rds scale yacht on the lines of the Biloxi shrimp and oyster schooners of the early 1900s. She was built in Back Bay, Biloxi, Mississippi by famed Biloxi schooner shipwright J.D. “Jackie-Jack” Covacevich, for the family of Thomas Bayne Denegre. Although the majority of the fleet were built and used for fishing operations on the Gulf, the Helen never fished commercially, instead being sailed and occasionally raced by the Denegre family on the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Ponchartrain.
During WWII, the Helen was loaned to the US Coast Guard station in Biloxi, where she was used as a sail training and patrol vessel. After the war, she was sailed extensively in the Gulf of Mexico and up the eastern seaboard by a series of families. She eventually ended up in Connecticut, where Denegre’s son, Thomas Denegre Jr., ran across her in the mid-50s. In 1959, then-owner Robert Wilson renamed the schooner Lavengro, a Romani word meaning “lover of words.”
In 1970, Leslie and Byram Bates bought the Lavengro with the intention of sailing to Hawaii via the Panama Canal. The couple ended up drifting in the doldrums with a broken engine, for weeks relying on the Coast Guard to bring them supplies until they finally reached Hawaii. There, the couple divorced and the Lavengro was sold to a young man named Peter Jones who dreamed of sailing to Tahiti.
Less than a year after he purchased the Lavengro, Jones left her tied to a faulty mooring buoy off Maui, where she broke free in a surge and ran aground, putting an enormous hole in her port side. Tahiti plans were delayed while Jones spent a year and a half learning how to rebuild the Lavengro in a Maui boatyard. Jones and his family did eventually make it to Tahiti, then started a charter business using the Lavengro to take tourists diving and sailing around Hawaii.
At some point in the mid 1980s, the son of the original owner, Thomas Denegre Jr., happened across a United Airlines photograph of a schooner in Maui. Despite the 30 years since he had last seen her in Connecticut, Denegre immediately recognized his old Helen due to a fluke of her construction. To accommodate her original Buffalo engine’s 17’ propeller shaft, the main mast had been stepped two feet forward of where it would have on a typical Biloxi schooner. Indeed, she can still be distinguished from the two replica Biloxi schooners, the Glenn L. Swetman and the Mike Sekul, both owned by the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, by this mast placement.
After a brief period doing charters in Southeast Alaska in the 1980s, the Lavengro returned to the charter business in Maui until the late 1990s. Unable to give the Lavengro the care she deserved, Jones and Maui Classic Charters began looking for a new home for the schooner. They found the Northwest Schooner Society, which had a strong track record for restoring old ships, and in 2000 sailed her across the Pacific to Seattle to donate her to the Society. In an odd case of “small world syndrome,” when she transited the Ballard Locks to her new home in Lake Union, the owner of the sailboat ahead of the Lavengro was wearing a Lavengro t-shirt from her time in Hawaii.
Since her donation to the Northwest Schooner Society, the Lavengro has undergone significant restoration, including a major hull refit in the winter of 2010 that will keep her sailing for another 80+ years. She is a well-known sight at wooden boat festivals in the Salish Sea and maintains an active sailing and education schedule. She is maintained and crewed by an exclusively volunteer crew.