BRIDGEWATER ‚ÄĒ¬†Late Monday afternoon, Sandi Rollins of Economy and a friend stopped for a treat at Bruster‚Äôs Real Ice Cream on Riverside Drive.
Rollins looked across the street along this stretch of eateries and bars parallel to Route 51 and did a double-take.
‚ÄúIs that what I‚Äôm seeing?‚ÄĚ she said, her eyes fixated on an arresting sight ‚ÄĒ¬†a group of diners on a vintage, 25-foot sailboat parked on a trailer overlooking the Beaver River.
Boats certainly aren‚Äôt unusual here, but this one ‚ÄĒ and its guests ‚ÄĒ¬†is divine.
Decorating both sides of the sleek craft is a mural ‚ÄĒ¬†a blown-up replica of Leonardo da Vinci‚Äôs masterpiece¬†‚ÄúThe Last Supper.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs beautiful. I‚Äôm really impressed,‚ÄĚ said Rollins, who had to drive over for a closer look and a photograph. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs inspirational, too. I‚Äôm privileged to see this.‚ÄĚ
So are many others who pull over ‚ÄĒ¬†about a half dozen or more a day ‚ÄĒ¬†for a look-see or to capture the image.
Wolfgang Michael Dunker of West Ellicott, NY, abutting Jamestown in Chautauqua County, owns the Hunter sailboat built in 1976. He arrived in Beaver County a week ago, towing the boat he‚Äôs owned since 2000 behind a 22-foot Winnebago. Dunker plans to launch as soon as Friday ‚ÄĒ¬†depending on how quickly he completes last-minute repairs ‚ÄĒ¬†and cruise to the Dominican Republic.
But this isn‚Äôt a Huck Finn-esque pleasure trip, though it will be an intriguing adventure.
Dunker, 72, retired in 2008 after 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserves 98th Training Division where he schooled drill sergeants.
He visited the Caribbean island last spring on a weeklong, group mission trip with Praying Pelican Missions based in Minneapolis, and is returning to continue service¬†work helping churches and communities in the Dominican.
Why launch here?
He considered shoving off on the Allegheny River near its confluence with the Ohio, but said lack of rain caused low-water problems all spring.
Along the Beaver River, ‚Äúthey have a nice launching system here,‚ÄĚ Dunker said, and ‚Äúnice people, great places to eat.‚ÄĚ
His route is obvious: ‚ÄúBeaver River to the Ohio, down the Ohio 956 miles thereabouts and into the Mississippi and another 1,000-plus miles into the Gulf of Mexico,‚ÄĚ he said.
To get to the Atlantic Ocean, he‚Äôll take the Okeechobee Waterway ‚ÄĒ¬†a canal system through the heart of Florida ‚ÄĒ¬†from Fort Myers to near Stuart.
He‚Äôll winter on the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee in his other motorhome and volunteer at a Catholic church in Pahokee in the heart of sugarcane fields. Depending on the weather, he‚Äôll resume his journey next spring ‚Äúand island hop to Puerto Rico and the Dominican.‚ÄĚ
But he‚Äôs in no hurry.
Dunker has charted no itinerary: ‚ÄúIf I‚Äôm tired, I‚Äôll stop. If not, I‚Äôll keep going.‚ÄĚ
And added that he has ‚Äúno idea where I‚Äôm going to be stopping. God‚Äôs going to show me where.‚ÄĚ
There are marinas and docks along the way where he can restock supplies and fuel, but Dunker‚Äôs quite self-sufficient.
‚ÄúI can fish for my food. I‚Äôve got a water system on the boat that I can take water out of the river and clean it,‚ÄĚ he said, using a reverse osmosis system for potable water. He‚Äôll collect rainwater, too.
He‚Äôs also stocked gallon jugs of water and about six months‚Äô worth of canned goods and other non-perishables.
The sailboat has a galley kitchen with a butane stove, but he‚Äôs also taking a barbecue grill fueled by liquefied petroleum gas.
Solar panels will generate electricity and a solar coil will heat water. Plus, he has a gas-powered generator on board.
Until he gets to the Atlantic, a 9.9-hp Evinrude outboard motor will power the boat downstream. As backups, he has two electric motors if he runs out of gasoline. And a folding rowboat ‚ÄĒ¬†just in case.
Once in the ocean, he‚Äôll hoist the sails ‚ÄĒ¬†there are three of them, the tallest 28 feet ‚ÄĒ¬†and tuck into the wind.
Dunker has more-than-ample courage and confidence.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt have any sailing experience,‚ÄĚ he said, which, of course, sounds incredulous. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve studied and watched videos, but haven‚Äôt physically done it.‚ÄĚ
What‚Äôs more astounding¬†is the Zephyr ‚ÄĒ¬†the registered name of the sailboat ‚ÄĒ¬†hasn‚Äôt been in the water since he bought it 20 years ago.
For one thing, his wife of 50 years ‚ÄĒ¬†who died of cancer in May last year ‚ÄĒ¬†was a landlubber. And all these years, Dunker‚Äôs been getting the 44-year-old boat seaworthy.
The way he sees it, the sailboat was basically a gift.
Years ago, he was given a 21-foot sailboat that had a cracked hull and was badly damaged.
Dunker repaired and sold it for $1,395.
He bought the Zephyr at an auction for $1,000 and a trailer for $395.
‚ÄúTell me,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúDid God do that?‚ÄĚ
But Dunker assures he‚Äôs got sea legs.
He‚Äôs been aboard a friend‚Äôs 28-foot Marinette, aluminum motorboat many times fishing in Lake Erie ‚Äúwith 8- to 10-foot waves.‚ÄĚ
Besides, the Zephyr‚Äôs ‚Äúnot going to be sailed as a sailboat until I hit the Gulf of Mexico,‚ÄĚ Dunker said. ‚ÄúIt will be motored downstream. I can‚Äôt get lost very easily.‚ÄĚ
Before his wife died, Dunker said she told him to ‚Äúgo ahead and do the things you want with the boat.‚ÄĚ
After she died, Dunker sold the house they lived in for 45-plus years and lived in his Winnebago on his sister‚Äôs property in western New York.
Just before the house closing, he sat in the living room, staring at a painting he‚Äôd viewed many times.
His father-in-law first owned it and subsequently gave it to his daughter ‚ÄĒ¬†Dunker‚Äôs wife.
‚ÄúWhen we bought the house, she put that in the living room,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúthat‚ÄĚ being a reproduction of ‚ÄúThe Last Supper.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt really hit me,‚ÄĚ Dunker said, and knew the artwork had to grace his sailboat.
‚ÄúI was in the living room thinking and looked up at the picture and God just said ‚Äėthat‚Äôs going on the boat‚Äô and he didn‚Äôt mean the little painting. He wanted the big thing,‚ÄĚ said Dunker.
Earlier this summer, Dunker visited a sign company in Falconer, N.Y., specializing in vinyl wraps. The artist took a photograph of da Vinci‚Äôs painting, enlarged it more than 20 feet, printed it on vinyl, and glued it to the sailboat.
The artwork looks like it was painted on with brush strokes.
Dunker said his solo voyage has the support of his three children: twin daughters, one living in Virginia, the other in California; and son living in Rochester, N.Y. And his wife.
‚ÄúShe‚Äôs here with me,‚ÄĚ he said.
Dunker doesn‚Äôt plan to write a book or pen a journal¬†but will keep in touch with family and friends via cell phone and social media.
Periodically, he‚Äôll post details about his voyage on Facebook at Wolfgang Dunker or Mike Dunker.
As long as he‚Äôs physically able, Dunker would like to continue mission trips to the Dominican Republic every year as the work there is ‚Äúnever ending,‚ÄĚ he said.
Dunker said his voyage is guided by God.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not worried,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúPeople tend to be scared. I have somebody on my side.‚ÄĚ