On this idyllic California summer morning, Soncy, a classic 40ft Rhodes-designed sloop built in 1957, is on her way to Santa Catalina Island. On board are owner John Clark Jr., his 10-year-old son, Ian, and me. As we motor out of Newport Harbor while raising the sails, two other sailboats come within shouting distance, and their skippers giving us a thumbs-up. “Beautiful!” one of them shouts across the water. John used to frequent compliments about his boat, waves in return. Well-deserved compliments, I might add. Soncy is impeccably maintained, her classic lines drawn by one of the most renowned yacht designers of that era.
As we clear the breakwater, the rumble of the engine is extinguished and Soncy’s dark blue hull slices smoothly through the azure waters off Orange County. A leisurely five-hour sail lies ahead.
I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of sailing aboard Soncy many times in recent years. John Clark, however, has never known a time that Soncy was not a part of his sailing experience. His grandfather Bill Clark taught his grandson, practically from infancy, to appreciate the ocean and boats. John recalls his first voyage to Catalina when he was 4 years old, his father and grandfather taking turns at the helm. It was love at first sight with the palm-studded island. A half century and many dozens of voyages later, the love affair continues.
It all began many decades ago when Bill Clark found himself admiring hull #10 of a beautiful new Rhodes-designed sailboat at the 1957 New York Boat Show. The boat was among the very first fiberglass hulls available to sailors in the 1950s, and the smooth polished surface, with its clean, flowing lines, was captivating.
The Coleman Plastics Company had commissioned renowned naval architect Phillip Rhodes to design a 40ft auxiliary sailboat to be mass-produced by the revolutionary method of using huge fiberglass molds. It was heralded as a brand-new era, and this was among the very first completed fiberglass yachts to be on display to the public. Little was known back then about the strong dynamics of fiberglass. As a result, the hull was built much thicker and heavier than boats today, with a full 18,800lb of displacement. The hull, cabin, and decks were all built of solid fiberglass, eliminating the potential for leaking plywood cores. Even the mast was built of fiberglass, resulting in a great deal of weight aloft as well. Boats of that era were designed not to sail flat, but to get quickly onto a 25-degree heel and take advantage of the long overhangs to achieve a longer waterline length for greater boat speed. In the end, though, what probably interested Bill Clark most was the price—about half that of a similar wooden boat—plus the promise of durability and low maintenance.
When the show closed, hull #10 was sold to a fellow in Northern California, who christened the boat Trepidation—meaning fear of an event that may happen. As it turned out it was an unfortunate choice of name, since soon after taking delivery the poor fellow lost his job and put her back up for sale. Upon discovering she was once again available, Bill Clark offered to buy the almost-new boat and re-christened her Soncy, an old-English word meaning lucky, which is certainly how the elder Mr. Clark must have felt to have scored his dream boat.
Soncy has remained in the Clark family ever since, as John’s grandfather passed ownership of the boat on to his son, John Clark Sr., who passed it on to his son, John Jr. “One day,” John Jr. tells me, pointing to the towheaded 10-year-old sitting on the foredeck looking for dolphins, “she will pass to my son Ian, making four generations of Clark sailors to skipper her.” Indeed, though none of the other Clark children have shown such keen interest, young Ian has definitely inherited the sailing gene and already has his own boat, a Sabot, that he sails as part of the Balboa Yacht Club junior sailing program.
“I have something to show you,” John says excitedly, leaving me at the wheel while diving below to retrieve something from the cabin. He returns with a salt-stained photo album, shuffles through the pages and hands me two photos to look at. One is an old photo of John around age 7 at the helm of Soncy, flanked by his two sisters and his father, John Sr. The other is a more recent photo, everyone striking the exact same pose, only it is a 7-year-old Ian at the helm, flanked by his two sisters and his dad, John Jr. “Maybe someday,” John says, wishfully, “there will be a third one of Ian and his family in that same pose, sitting right here in this very cockpit, sailing to Catalina.”
Not surprisingly, in terms of maintenance, the boat has been an ongoing labor of love, with a series of generational improvements made over the years. Grandfather Bill, for example, swapped the tiller for a wheel and redesigned the interior. Similarly, John Sr. added self-tailing winches and a holding tank, and replaced the original Atomic 4 with a diesel engine. Still, by the time John Jr. took over as skipper, the boat was beginning to show her age. So he took up the task and lovingly attended to every detail: replacing the wiring, rigging and chrome fittings, varnishing the wood and painting the aging discoloring white hull a deep rich blue. The boat today is a delight to any sailor’s eyes.
We arrive at Avalon and pick up a mooring. Within minutes, two men in dinghies cruise by to ask about Soncy and compliment her looks. John, as always, smiles and answers questions about his floating pride and joy. Young Ian is anxious to go ashore, to explore the hills, ride the zip line and do other fun things. John understands his son’s joy. “I remember that feeling as a boy of arriving on the boat and the pull of the island,” he says. “Heck, I still feel it every time. I’ve sailed here dozens of times, and I never seem to tire of it. It’s like a piece of me. A place frozen in time. I watch my son roam the same hills that I did as a boy. Unlike so much of mainland California, this island has not changed very much over the decades.”
As for me, I totally get it. I also have been sailing to Catalina since I was quite young. I, too, never grow tired of the voyage or the destination. We sailors in Southern California are blessed to have this Pacific island paradise right off our shore, and it is especially nice to arrive aboard such a splendid vessel as the good ship Soncy.
Sailor and writer Michael E. Petrie is the author of You’re the Only One I Can Trust, a murder mystery novel that takes place at Catalina Island. More info at calwriter.net