This is a story about a boat, and oysters, and a new concept in dining...a moveable feast if you will. Once neglected, America's oldest oyster boat is taking on a new role as a floating oyster bar, and it's coming to a location near you. But to make this new culinary concept a reality, this boat needs your help. Here's the whole story....
Two years ago, a typical photo assignment changed the course of photographer Jean Paul Vellotti's life. You might say that was the day he became an accidental oysterman.
When tasked with capturing a local captain for a Whole Foods Market advertising campaign, he visited the East Norwalk-based Norm Bloom & Son oyster firm. There, he climbed aboard a derelict oyster boat to get a better perspective of his subject who was standing on the bow of the immaculately kept Catherine M. Wedmore.
"That day was bitter cold and the Norwalk River was starting to ice up. I had second thoughts about jumping on that old boat because if something gave out and I fell into the water, I could die," recalls Vellotti. "But I took a chance and the art director loved the images.
"When I went back into the office, I found out that old boat's name was Laurel and she was built in 1891. I was also told that a business decision was being made to crush her. I immediately recognized that destroying Laurel would not only contribute tons of material to the landfill, but would also erase more than 100 years of local maritime history."
Raised in East Norwalk, Vellotti felt the idea of destroying such a historic boat unthinkable. At that moment, he decided to take another chance and became Laurel's guardian.
"It's a perfect match that combines my maritime skills, my ability to rebuild or repair almost anything, and my love for oystering and the sea. Some people ask how I found Laurel; I tell them she found me," said Vellotti.
The story also involves oysters. Lots of them, more than you could ever imagine in your lifetime. Laurel has had a remarkable career harvesting and transporting the bivalves along the ports of Long Island Sound, the Great Peconic Bay and Great South Bay in Long Island and even New York Harbor. Her reach once extended from Providence, Rhode Island all the way to the Delaware Bay.
"I want to ensure that Laurel's legacy continues, not just as a vessel worthy of the National Historic Register, but as a culinary ambassador and "floating oyster bar" which will make stops around Long Island Sound and beyond.
"But first, we must replace her 100-plus year old deck. Although structurally sound, Laurel's deck leaks badly which has caused serious damage to the wood underneath. It's a critical moment. If we can replace the deck, we will give her a whole new life and make her the queen of the fleet once more," said Vellotti.
Having exhausted his personal funds stabilizing Laurel during the past two years and no traditional loans available, Vellotti is hoping a hot new trend—crowd-funding—might literally give him a kickstart.
"I heard about the Kickstarter website and saw people were funding all sorts of creative projects including food trucks. So I though, 'why not give it a try' and I worked hard to put together a video and my own Kickstarter page," explained Vellotti.
Because crowd-funding backers expect some type of reward for their dollars, Vellotti had the idea of making crafts with wood removed during the restoration. These unique items include bookmarks, picture frames and a custom oyster knife.
"I wanted to be able to say thank you to our supporters and also give them something tangible to remember the Laurel. I think my favorite is to become a plank owner of the Laurel. Limited to 250 backers, we will carve their name into a new deck plank and also send them a section of the old deck.
"I think it's a pretty neat idea because if Laurel gets on the National Historic Register, people can say, 'my name is carved into her deck.' You can't exactly carve your name into the USS Constitution, so this is like the next best thing," added Vellotti.