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Hand Motorsailer

Illustration by Jim Ewing

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William Hand covered a lot of ground as one of America’s pre-eminent yacht designers. His lasting legacy is an admirable fleet of 42 husky, seafaring yachts known today as the Hand motorsailers.

Designed from 1927 through 1942, these cruising craft took the powerboat’s reliability and added a sailing dimension for versatility, creating a hybrid with tremendous range when motorsailing and the ability to sail without power.

In effect, Hand came up with an entirely new kind of boat, a “spectacular achievement in a field where concepts generally evolve in small increments,” wrote Daniel MacNaughton in The Encyclopedia of Yacht Designers.

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1875, the self-taught Hand set up business in Fairhaven, Mass. When his 16-foot racing sailboat, Little Nellie, won nine of 10 races at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club regatta in 1905, the 30-year-old designer was on his way.

He got into speedboats, and his V-bottom boat Countess won the 1916 race from New York to Block Island, R.I., averaging more than 27 mph. He designed big, hardy schooners, including the 1920s Arctic exploration vessel Bowdoin.

For fun, there was swordfishing. He was “Billy” Hand around the Block Island wharves, and his motorsailers grew out of that passion. They were generally ketch-rigged and gas-powered, with plenty of fuel — up to 1,000 gallons — giving them tremendous seakeeping abilities and a range of up to 1,500 miles. The ketch rig could be used to steady the boat in rough seas or as a sole source of power.

The classic lines evoked the Banks fishermen and knockabouts Hand so admired. The husky displacement hull was topped with a sturdy superstructure with a “commanding” pilothouse. The sails were set on stocky masts, many rigged with old-fashioned ratlines.

And while the Hand motorsailers were “fundamentally yachts,” notes MacNaughton, “some were used to fish commercially for swordfish, requiring only a crow’s nest and an extended forward pulpit” — just what Billy had in mind in the first place.

January 2014 issue