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Return to tall ship where romance started

Neil 'Nobby' Peers and Claire Yannacone of Patchogue

Neil 'Nobby' Peers and Claire Yannacone of Patchogue on the Picton Castle in 2008, with their chidren Ronan, who is now 7, and Tegan, who is now 4. (May 23, 2012) Credit: Family handout

Claire Yannacone wasn't particularly handy growing up in Patchogue.

"I never fixed my own anything because no one in my family did that," she said.

But she became interested in marine diesel engines while taking a college course in oceanography.

As her expertise grew, she landed a berth as second engineer on the tall ship Picton Castle. Sailing around the world while working with chief engineer Neil "Nobby" Peers not only improved her technical skills -- it led to their marriage in 2001.

Both will be in Greenport this weekend for a reunion, when Picton Castle arrives Friday as part of the Tall Ships Challenge Race Series marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Although neither is a member of the crew anymore, each retains an attachment to the 179-foot, three-masted square-rigger based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Yannacone, 39, a Riverhead High School earth science teacher and mother of two, will be greeting the ship with friends Friday.

Peers, 42, remains the vessel's "port engineer," handling major projects in harbors when he's not operating his Patchogue-based Whitworth Marine Services mobile contracting firm. He will be onboard Saturday replacing an electrical generator while the public tours the ship.

When Yannacone, whose parents, Victor and Carol, were founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, decided to delve into large marine engines in 1992, she found "it was one of the first things I was relatively good at quickly."

She was able to get a job in the engine room of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater. "I was a brand-new baby engineer and I was looking to learn as much as I could," she said. Yannacone knew about the Picton Castle, which was being converted into a sailing vessel from a motorized fishing trawler built in 1928. She had heard that its engineer was someone she could learn a lot from, so she signed on as a Picton Castle deckhand in 1996. She worked her way up to become second engineer and was invited to crew on the ship's first circumnavigation the following year.

"I loved learning about it," she said of the engine room. "It was like a whole new world opening up to me."

The person opening up that world was Peers. He had been an agricultural tractor mechanic in England with no nautical experience before he came to the United States in 1994 to work at a summer camp for disabled kids in Pennsylvania. He joined the ship the next year as its only engineer and crew member when it was based at South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan.

By the time the vessel had completed most of the first circumnavigation, it dawned on the pair that they had more than professional interest in each other. Yannacone left the ship in 1999, but they dated and she returned to rebuild the engine with him the following winter.

Their relationship came to a critical point when Peers' visa was about to expire in January 2001. They decided to get married that month -- with her father, a Patchogue Village judge, presiding -- and had a second more elaborate wedding in the spring. Now they have a son, Ronan, 7, and daughter, Tegan, 4.

They may be ashore now, but Yannacone said tall ships like Picton Castle never lose their appeal for her and Peers.

"They're really a lot of fun," she said. "It's an amazing lifestyle. It's a lot of hard work. But it's really satisfying. You're going to beautiful places. It's a more intense way of living."

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