It’s late morning on a hot and nearly windless day off Miami Beach, Florida, and the late-February sun is beginning to make the irregular swells look larger than they really are. But the undulating water still retains some of the power from a weather system that has long since moved on. Around us, sailboats are heaving and rolling randomly in the calms, their sails powerless to steady them.
Elsie feels the motion too, but she rises to meet an approaching mound and then returns to her original trim with no slamming of empty sails or rolling down to the gunwale. Then, too, the boats around us are thinner-skinned and minimally underbodied.
A graceful clipper bow with trailboards, a subtle sheerline, and the raked masts of a handsomely proportioned ketch rig are signature themes of the venerable yacht designer L. Francis Herreshoff, whose boats began to enjoy great popular success in the years just before World War II and continued well into the 1960s. Not that Herreshoff ever insisted on holding to first principles when drawing a yacht. In fact, he was always ready to experiment with a yacht’s lines or its aesthetic presentation. Anything that would make it more "right" was fine with him.
In fact, as he once famously wrote to the editor of a sailing magazine, he was always amused by people who were interested in having a yacht that had “some sort of preformed and geometrically developed shape which had no connection with usefulness.” He'd probably be delighted to know that two of his most enduring designs, the 58-foot ketch Bounty and the similarly dimensioned Tioga, have been skillfully blended into Elsie, a 57-foot sailboat that proudly displays the best of the Herreshoff style and tradition even as it embraces new design and construction systems.
Although Herreshoff’s plans for the two yachts were similar, he gave Tioga a centerboard that extended down from the bottom of the yacht’s long keel; the top of the trunk reached all the way up to the tabletop in the main saloon. And he gave Bounty a long fixed keel that drew nearly 7 feet of water.
That kind of draft wasn’t an option for Elsie’s original owner, who had planned, among other things, to motor her through the French canal system, so he asked Tad Roberts, a Maine–based yacht designer, to blend the best aspects of the two hulls into a centerboarder. The centerboard, he said, should have a foil section that really worked when going to windward but could be retracted easily when the sheets were eased or it was time to head for shoal water—or a French canal.
Roberts drew a modern foil and had it built in carbon fiber and wood. He gave it a shape that would fit smoothly into the keel but wouldn’t intrude into the main saloon. And in order to make all the features work properly, he raised the coachroof, deck, and sheerline up 4 inches. He did it so subtly that no one would notice, except perhaps Herreshoff himself.
He had completed the white oak–framed hull with 13/4-inch Douglas fir planking—with no plank less than 40 feet in length—when the owner’s circumstances changed and he had to abandon the project. Then John Steele, owner of Covey Island Boatworks near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, entered the picture. The project was a natural for Covey Island, which has years of experience building in wood. Steele bought the bare hull, and the crew went to work.
The first step was to remove the planking from the frames and encase everything in epoxy. The planks were replaced and secured with stainless-steel bolts. Then the Covey Island team covered the hull with E-glass and epoxy and painted it a light gray. To keep things simple and reduce future maintenance costs, Steele covered the coachroof and decks with two layers of Douglas fir plywood, which had been sheathed in epoxy, over laminated Douglas fir carlins and deck beams. The sides of the coachroof are also laminated plywood, but the interior facing has a layer of veneered mahogany.
When you step aboard Elsie, the first thing you notice are the solid bulwarks that run all the way around the yacht. There’s safety in that heft, and the height covers much of the coachroof’s vertical rise. The varnished caprail on top of the bulwarks outlines the yacht’s handsome sheerline. Although the cockpit isn’t large for a yacht this size, it is seamanlike in arrangement with the mizzenmast located at the forward end. The relatively small cockpit is an advantage when reaching for the headsail winches, which are located on either side close to the helm station, or when securing the lowered mizzen. A solid coaming around the outer edge of the cockpit further adds to the snug feeling.
Moving forward toward the bow is easy with the strong hand-holds on the coachroof. And except for blocks for the headsail sheets, the deck is free of tracks and clutter. The foredeck is also open, and solid-bronze strips placed horizontally on the deck keep the anchor chain from scarring the surface. A small hatch on the foredeck accesses an open space large enough to provide quarters for a paid hand or visiting grandchildren.
With her traditional design, Elsie has several feet less freeboard and at least 2 or 3 feet less beam than a contemporary yacht of the same size. Even though the interior volume will clearly be greater on a modern design, Elsie’s interior is well configured for a family or two couples. The owner’s cabin aft makes a snug hideaway during the off-watch. Two no-nonsense seaberths line the main saloon on either side. To port forward of the main saloon is a second double cabin, and directly across to starboard are two Pullman-style berths, one above the other. The two-cabin layout works perfectly well, but a good option, says Steere, would be to replace the twin berths with additional storage space for clothes and a large workroom or office. The main saloon has comfortable seating around the dining table, and a nicely crafted butterfly hatch directly overhead captures plenty of light and air.
All interior joinery is varnished mahogany. The ceilings and overheads are pine with a V-joint configuration and are painted off-white. The cabin soles are varnished mahogany. Three gimbaled kerosene lamps produce enough light to read a book or play cards; when they’re turned down, it’s inviting to settle back in the padded cushions and listen and dream as a suntanned dinner guest regales his audience with stories of what it was like when he was young and went voyaging to the South Seas.
The Florida sun continues to climb overhead, and with just catspaws on the surface of the water it is obvious that any real sailing aboard Elsie will have to wait for another day. But Steere has done many sea miles aboard her, and he knows how she handles when the breeze comes up. “My wife and I like to carry everything," he says, "until it becomes clear that the mainsail needs a single reef. That usually happens when the wind pushes up to about 25 knots." When he takes the reef he drops the staysail to help balance the helm. Steere says Elsie also handles well under just the jib and mizzen, a profile that Herreshoff had in mind for when the weather started to build.
Elsie does have a very large skeg-hung rudder, so the sails must be trimmed to minimize what could be significant rudder loadings. But that’s a pretty small price to pay for the privilege of sailing a vessel like this. After all, she will be a head-turner in any anchorage or marina. And as L. Francis himself put it so well many years ago, “When a small vessel is carefully built from a good design, she will hold her original value for a very long time."
Designer: L. Francis Herreshoff
Builder:Covey Island, 2 River Road, Petite Riviere, Canada; tel. 902-688-2843
Draft (board up/down)
Sail area (100% foretriangle)
1,529 sq ft
85-hp Perkins diesel
Sail area-displ. ratio