In the early 20th century, R-boat racing attracted the brightest and the best. R’s were large enough to be yachts and small enough to be toys.
One of the most historic of the lot, Pirate, R11, is being restored in Seattle at the lively Center for Wooden Boats. Pirate was the first West Coast boat to campaign on the East Coast—she won the 1929 nationals at Larchmont—and she was a leading R campaigner up and down the West Coast for as long as R’s were viable.
Relaunched this spring, with work still cranking along and plans to start sailing in the fall, Pirate is a boat that has touched many lives, and she’s very much alive herself.
The Center for Wooden Boats describes itself as a hands-on maritime museum aiming to preserve the Pacific Northwest’s vital and varied small craft heritage by preserving artifacts and maritime skills. Here, they say, “You can put your hands on the oars of a graceful pulling boat or the tiller of a traditional wooden catboat. With help from master craftsmen, you can learn to steambend an oak frame, cast an oarlock, sew a canvas ditty bag, splice a line or caulk a seam.”
While a lot of the heavy lifting in the restoration of Pirate has been done at yards close by, the finishing and maintaining of Pirate is a logical fit for the Center for Wooden Boats, located on the shores of Lake Union. Scott Rohrer, who’s driving the project, reports that as of mid-April, “The house is on, and we’re ready to plank it.”
Scott didn’t mention, the last time he talked to SAIL, that it’s been a long haul since 1999, when a flight of angels banded together to return Pirate from Southern California to her birthplace in Seattle. Former owners had given her aluminum spars, and the leaky deck had been sheathed with plywood in an effort to make her tight. Much of the repair work had been performed with epoxy resins that interacted badly with the original materials.
But it seems so long ago . . .
Here’s a little history, courtesy of the Pirate web site.
In the spring of 1925, yachtsman Don Lee of Los Angeles made a challenge to his son Tommy—win the Pacific Coast Star Championship and the elder Lee would give his heir a new R-boat as a reward. Whether inspired by this offer or by base competitive instinct, the young Lee sailed his Star Satellite to first place at the championship, held that year in Victoria, British Columbia.
And so begins the story of Pirate, christened and launched on Lake Union on April 4, 1926. She was shipped to Southern California, where she had a successful and happy racing career under Tommy Lee. She made her appearance on the national stage in 1929, under new owner O. K. Hunsaker and skipper Matt Walsh.
Pirate was shipped east for racing at Larchmont, New York. As the story goes:
Walsh took L. A. Evening Herald sports writer Fox Case along with him as crew. Once at Larchmont, New York, they picked up local sailors Gordon Sykes and Manning Staires to crew. After two races, the scores for the top positions were very close. In the third race, the wind blew from the northeast. Walsh took the start at the committee boat and led the fleet to the weather mark off Scotch Caps. In clear air and riding up on a starboard tack lift, he tacked just three times. Pirate held the lead on the reach across the sound to a jibing mark off Hempstead Harbor. The final leg went to the finish line off of the Larchmont breakwater. Pirate finished well ahead of the R-boat fleet and beat a few of the larger, faster Q-boats as well
The racing continued to be close, but at the end of the week Pirate closed out the series and became the R-Class national champion by a single point over the famous Herreshoff-designed Yankee.
There is more to the Pirate story, and the restoration, and ongoing activities at the Center for Wooden Boats. The story is well and generously told at Pirate.