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VIII THE PROPER YACHT

 

The history of the OCC has been inextricably intertwined with the history of

the development of small modern cruising yachts, and yet in some ways the

link is contradictory. The Club’s ideals, and its early members’ aims, demanded

tough, ‘go anywhere’ small boats. A few demonstrated that it was possible to

sail safely across big oceans without a deep pocket and with little more

knowledge than that within the grasp of most people. Their success, and the

proliferation of high profile ocean racing, triggered a demand for boats which

was met by the mass builders, at first mainly in France. The result was hardly

what the serious cruising man was looking for and indeed was an anathema to

one in particular.

In 1960 a young New York University physics professor named Arthur Beiser

bought a 58ft ketch which was well beyond his budget. She was Minots Light,

well known on the US Eastern seaboard as one of John Alden’s most beautiful

creations. To say it was an impulse buy would be to deny that Arthur had coveted

her from the day he first saw her, but his tale of her purchase well illustrates his

philosophy on matters of choosing a partner, and is worth repeating here.

‘In looking for a yacht, intangible feelings are as important as

tangible facts. I am a believer in love at first sight as essential an

element in choosing a yacht as in life generally. Five minutes

after meeting Germaine, I knew our lives would become

intertwined; we have now been married for 50 years. Five minutes

after seeing Minots Light in 1957, I knew our destinies were going

to mesh too. On a November day three years later Germaine,

our daughter Alexa, then aged three, and I went to City Island,

New York to check on our 32ft sloop Petrouchka, stored there for

the winter. To our surprise Minots Light was a few boats away, a

swan among mere ducks. She had that day been put up for sale,

the price was right (although four times my annual salary), and

the yard’s broker allowed me to climb up and look her over.

Wow!

Just then Alexa had to go to the bathroom which was at the far

end of the yard, and Germaine went off with her. “Quick,” I said

to the broker, “I will buy Minots Light if I can sign the papers

before Germaine gets back, because she is a sensible person

and will want us to sleep on it and by tomorrow somebody else

will have grabbed the boat.” The broker raised his eyebrows,

even higher after I proposed $500 (all I then had in the bank) as

a deposit, but he wrote fast, I signed fast, and the disgracefully

inconsiderate deed was done barely in time. A few days later I

 

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was offered half again the price by another admirer, but I just

laughed at him.

I do not offer this tale as a paradigm – of course mature

consideration should have a place in such matters – but I would

not think much of a life never salted by unbridled lust.’

Several years later Arthur took the bold decision to resign from his teaching

post, cruise extensively and try to make a living from his writing. The result

was successful on both counts. Arthur and Germaine crossed the Atlantic in

Minots Light in 1963 and joined the OCC the following year. In 1966 he published

The Proper Yacht, a classic in the study of the requirements for the ‘ideal’ long

term liveaboard boat. A second edition was published in 1978, and although

now out of print it is timeless in its sound commonsense advice on choosing

the yacht to meet your requirements. Arthur’s pocket may now be a lot deeper

than it was when he scraped to afford Minots Light, but his tale is an object lesson

which demonstrates, to coin an expression, that ‘fortune favours the bold’.

In 1980 Arthur wrote a lengthy article for Flying Fish, closely examining the

merits of Minots Light, of traditional construction and layout, and her successor

Quicksilver, at the other end of the modernity scale. Rather than repeat that advice,

which has been overtaken by time, he now gives us his trenchant views on yacht

construction and design which bring us right up to date with his thinking:

It is 40 years since I published The Proper Yacht and since then

I have had no reason to change my view of what a proper yacht

should be: ‘A fast, handsome, seaworthy sailboat capable of ocean

passages, one that a man and a woman can live aboard indefinitely

yet sail coastwise by themselves. ... There are many requirements

a sailboat must fulfil to be really satisfactory: it must be solidly

built, easily handled, and so on. But these are the barest minima.

To my mind, unless one’s spirit soars at the sight of a boat,

unless one instantly sees oneself at its helm under a blue sky

with porpoises leaping alongside, it just won’t do. ... I believe

that of all the elements that go into a proper yacht, the one that

should never be compromised is beauty. ... There is no excuse

for an ugly sailboat, and every reason to insist that a vessel

meeting almost any reasonable set of requirements ... be a

pleasure to the eye as well.’

The first edition of The Proper Yacht consisted of eight chapters

that analyzed the various specifics that go into such a paragon,

together with descriptions of 38 yachts, from 29ft to 61ft overall,

that more or less qualified. Only eight were series-built. The rest

were one-offs designed and built to suit their owners’ wishes. In

those days it was entirely normal to commission a one-off and

plenty of able designers and skilled builders were available to

 

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bring it into being at a not too outrageous price. Series-built

fibreglass yachts had entered the marketplace only a few years

before, and nearly all of them, because of fears about the

suitability and durability of the material, and because the

ingredients were then cheap, were overbuilt. As a result many

are still sailing today, and indeed one of my grandsons is bringing

back to life a veteran 26-footer. But custom boats in wood, steel,

and aluminium were still the rule.

The second edition of The Proper Yacht appeared 12 years

later with an updated text and descriptions of 58 yachts, only

one of which, my own Minots Light, had featured in the previous

edition. Now 22 were series-built in fibreglass: the future was in

clear sight. The costs of yacht building had started to soar, and

one-offs, already uneconomic in the smaller sizes, were becoming

so in the larger ones as well. In 1977 we had asked McCurdy and

Rhodes to design a 50ft sloop for us to be built in aluminium.

Bids came from six excellent yards on both sides of the Atlantic,

and the cheapest was well over twice the cost of a new centreboard

Swan 47, which was comparable in many respects. Since the

McCurdy/Rhodes yacht’s secondhand value after a few years

would probably be no more than that of the Swan, it did not

seem a wise investment, and we ordered the Swan. Like most

Swans, Quicksilver turned out to be a joy to sail, swift and

mannerly, which helped to compensate for our not being the

troop of celibate monkeys it was planned for on deck, and in the

sleeping arrangements.

About fifteen years ago the publishers asked me to prepare a

third edition of The Proper Yacht. By now one-offs under 60ft were

rare and it was not easy to find good yards that were interested –

more money was to be made from larger craft, with 100-footers

proliferating and still bigger ones soon to come. Yachts of the size

a man and a woman could manage by themselves were almost all

series-built. What advice would I have for a seeker of a new

yacht? Very little, because the multitude of choices about the

elements of a yacht that once existed have mainly vanished to

leave (apart form the colour of the upholstery) just one: take it

or leave it. All I could think of were rather basic things to avoid:

ultra light displacement; general flimsiness (begin an evaluation

by jumping up and down on the deck); sandwich construction

below the waterline; interior moldings that prevent access to the

hull, especially in the bilge; deck-stepped masts and rigging

terminals that merely fit into slots in the mast; inadequate lifelines;

and so forth. A page would cover them. And certainly I could find

nowhere near the 58 examples of proper, or even almost-proper,

yachts of the previous edition. So no new Proper Yacht.

Today the target customer for a new yacht is usually a charter

 

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Minots Light – one of John Alden’s most beautiful creations

company, not an individual sailor. Charter boats do not need to

survive gales at sea, to have the autonomy that large tanks and

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stowage space afford, to be able to sustain the good life on board

for weeks at a time, to be especially reliable (chase boats are

always nearby), to have berths that can be used at sea or a

place for wet oilies or provision to carry a dinghy on deck without

getting in the way – the list is endless. But the boring sameness

and general unsuitability for serious cruising of most of the series

boats around does not mean that finding the right vessel is totally

impossible, just harder than before. If enough money and courage

are available, one can look for the few builders of one-off medium-

sized yachts that still cling to life. However, I am not sure how

closely they approach the virtuosity of, say, Wolter Huisman,

whose current projects are unfortunately all leviathans. (A quarter

of a century ago Mr Huisman wanted very much to build the 50ft

McCurdy-Rhodes sloop for us.) This does not mean that the result

now need be less than entirely sound, only that the wealth of

experience and expertise once available for medium-sized one-

offs is no more.

A few excellent series builders, such as Nautor and Oyster, are

still with us, but their gold-plated sliver of the market is tiny. A

less exalted but larger and still respectable niche is occupied by

firms such as Hallberg-Rassy and Moody. Then a big jump down

to mass builders who turn out thousands of boats every year.

Economies of scale, rigorous cost control, and occasional hints

of corner-cutting mean quite moderate prices. If tempted by their

products, I suggest chartering an apparently suitable candidate

first and, if it still seems promising, go on to buy the service

manager of the charter company a beer and ask him about his

experiences with that boat and with others of the same builder. It

will be an enlightening and perhaps depressing tale. But who

knows? Sometimes a fairly good yacht turns up from a large-

scale builder. What will never turn up again is the variety that

once was normal, which I think represents a loss to civilization.

What do Germaine and I sail these days? Sixteen years ago

we bought the first Moody 58, a fibreglass sloop built in Moody’s

own yard by old-school craftsmen. (The current Moodys are mass-

produced, not badly, by Princess Yachts.) It was just what we

were after, a large, fast, handsome sloop that could be adapted

(with such additions as electric winches) to a couple no longer

young who cruise several months a year, usually by themselves,

and want to be able to go anywhere in safety and comfort. If we

were building Ardent Spirit today, there is little we would change

other than her hull colour from soulless white to elegant black,

which we did soon after buying her.’

Arthur and Germaine have continued their membership of the Club and have settled

in the Mediterranean for their middle years, cruising for about four months annually.

 

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