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A yacht named Witch and a cauldron of intrigue

It was a sad day on the Cowes waterfront in January 1912 when an empty dinghy without oars was brought in from the Medina River. Sailors, tradesmen and ordinary citizens talked in hushed voices about what might have happened. Few entertained hope that the rower was alive, but without a corpse, speculation ran rampant. Was it an accident? Suicide? Foul play?

Witch, designed in 1902 by Charles Sibbick, caught the eye of a man who has become a shipwright so he can restore her.

The boat belonged to Charles Sibbick, a noted yacht designer and builder who had gone missing Jan. 12 during one of his regular morning rows on the river. Though no longer in business, he was still a fixture around the Cowes waterfront, where he had worked from the late 1880s until he closed shop in 1903. His office was in the Albert yard, where about 300 boats — popular with commoners and royalty alike — had been built to his lines during those years.

Sibbick’s disappearance added a mysterious spin to the life of a designer who once was among the elite of his profession but who vanished from memory, overshadowed by his British contemporaries William Fife III, Charles Nicholson and George Lennox Watson.

“Charles Sibbick is largely unknown in the yachting world and really should be more famous,” says Martin Nott, who is researching Sibbick’s life and work.

It is not a logical topic for Nott, who published motorsports magazines for 30 years and roared around in fast cars and fast boats. About eight years ago he leafed through a sailing magazine and saw an ad for Witch, a 36-foot cutter Sibbick designed and built in 1902. She was down on her luck but still had substance. What got him was her lovely looks: the elegant sheer, the lavish overhang aft and the resolute but somewhat stubby bow — a trademark of Sibbick’s cruising boats. (It’s always the same story, it seems. Once dreams and fantasy take over, even the most reasonable men get into trouble.)

On top of it all, Witch has the stout rig of a gaff cutter, which is capable of stretching out to cover some ground and won’t shrink from a blow. But the real topper is that Nott didn’t just buy the yacht. He also changed jobs. He traded pen for plane and became a shipwright so he could tackle the long list of jobs with confidence and competence.

Charles Sibbick

“I always liked making things, but as the proud owner of a classic yacht, I discovered I knew very little about traditional wooden boats or how they were constructed,” he says. “So I enrolled on a nine-month boatbuilding course at the Boat Building Academy in Lyme Regis.” And because he wanted to demonstrate to himself and others that he was up to snuff in this gig, he delved headlong into building a replica of one of Sibbick’s racers: the half-rater Diamond, designed in 1897.

Fast, fancy and short-lived

Back then, the raters were the fad du jour. Unlike the large and famous yachts of the day, these light and fast “skimming dishes” were the first that employed a fin keel that was separate from the rudder. This was very efficient by comparison because it dramatically reduced wetted surface. In the United States, Nathanael Herreshoff came up with the idea of separating keel and rudder in 1892 with his famous Dilemma, a revolutionary design that was more than a half-century ahead of its time.

Although there is no known link between Herreshoff and Sibbick, Nott concedes that it is possible, perhaps likely, that Sibbick was influenced by a half-rater called Wee Winn — Herreshoff No. 425 built, also in 1892, for Miss Winifred Sutton in England, who raced her very successfully. Wee Winn was later shipped back to the United States and now is with the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I.

Sibbick’s raters could be as large as a 12 Meter, according to author Martin Smith in his story The Great Designers: Charles Sibbick. But mostly they were small and light boats with very little freeboard that were raced with abandon in protected waters. Smith suggests that the cost of 300 pounds for a 2-1/2-rater back then made these boats affordable for people who otherwise were excluded from yachting, then a sport for tycoons and royals.

The year before he designed Diamond, Sibbick received an interesting commission for a 1-rater from Prince George, the future King George V. Although this was a compliment to Sibbick’s standing as a designer, there was a catch: The prince desired to take possession of the vessel a week later. “It perhaps says much of the character of a boatbuilder of whom little firm personal history remains that amid the melee of his usual orders he took up the challenge, instigating 24-hour shifts and acetylene lighting at the yard,” Smith writes. “White Rose hit the water six days later, going on to win first prize at the Castle Yacht Club regatta two days after that.”

On the mend, slowly

Martin Nott

No such hurry for Nott, though, who has been working as a boatbuilder and moonlights on Witch, which he has owned since 2006. Ironically, the boat is now at Moreton Marine’s workshop in Cowes, a stone’s throw from the location of the old Albert yard, where she was built 112 years ago. It’s a long list of jobs, and there are hardly any plans left, so he is trying to reconstruct her from photos and historic accounts. It’s painstaking work, requiring patience and a robust mindset.

“I focus on one small space at a time,” Nott says. “Otherwise I wouldn’t get through.”

The good news: There was hardly any rot, and some of the original interior wood benches, bulkheads and fittings are still serviceable. He replaced most of the oak deck beams and some broken frames. Her planks are pitch pine and mostly in good condition, but there were some that had to go, which Nott replaced with Douglas fir.

The original bronze nails had weakened over time, so he decided to refasten the hull with silicon bronze screws. A new ply deck with teak planks replaces the original one of yellow pine, but the original skylight will be repaired and put back, Nott says. He wants to keep the elegant and flush deck but caved in a little bit, adding a small doghouse with a sliding hatch and companionway doors. He recently replaced some short planks in the bow and tended to the frame futtocks, welding new sections to repair the iron floors, which are also galvanized.

To Nott, it’s a crash course in boatbuilding technology that represents the state of the art, circa 1902. Several Sibbick yachts from the era are still around, including the cutter Bona Fide (1899), which won a gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 1900 and now is a fixture in the tony classic-yacht events around the Med, and the cruising yawls Thalassa (1906) and Saunterer (1900). Capt. Lawrence Oates, a member of the ill-fated Antarctic expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, once owned Saunterer.

Fun as long as it lasted

Although several of Sibbick’s cruising boats withstood the test of time, it’s a different story with the swift raters, which were super-fast and super-efficient, with their split lateral plan and low freeboard. They soon became as obsolete as pillbox hats because they were one-trick ponies. Racing was the one and only thing they did really well. For anything else, such as sailing in open waters or cruising, they were patently useless.

With demand slowing, Sibbick shuttered his operation in 1903. At the height of his business, he had employed about 70 men and churned out more than 30 boats a year.

“It’s possible the reason for his business’s demise is that, as a craftsman, he had always put more work into his vessels than he was able to charge for,” Smith says.

Or maybe, as Nott surmises, he was frustrated by the change of measurement rules that would bring about the International Rule, which went into effect in 1907. It solved the ratings puzzle and produced elegant and seaworthy craft, such as the Meter classes. But those boats, unlike the raters Sibbick knew how to design so well, did not sport a modern underbody with a split keel and rudder for several decades.

On Feb. 19, 1912, when Sibbick’s body was found, the worst fears were confirmed: One of Britannia’s finest yacht designers had met an untimely end. The how and why remain secrets that went to the grave. “There has been speculation that he committed suicide, but there was no evidence for this,” Nott says. “I believe it was just an accident.”

The epitaph in the Isle of Wight County Press on Feb. 24 read:

Few men were better known in the professional yachting world than the late Mr. Charles Sibbick, who was 63 years of age. He attained considerable fame as a designer and builder of small racing yachts, his wonderful raters being remarkably successful at English and Continental regattas. Until the alteration in the yacht racing rules practically revolutionized the design of racing craft, he was indisputably the premier designer of the type of racing yacht that made the name of Sibbick famous throughout the yachting world.

For Nott, Sibbick’s mysterious end is part of the intrigue, which further stoked his interest after the acquisition of Witch. It’s safe to say the vessel and her creator have turned into an obsession for him. So while he’s sawing, planing, hammering, screwing and painting away on Witch, Nott also continues to research Sibbick’s story and history. And if all goes well, book and boat will be launched sometime in 2015.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

June 2014 issue