Stout. It’s a profound word, short and to the point. Beer or boat, it doesn’t just describe something brave and bold or staunch and sturdy. It also expresses an attitude, something like “ready for everything, afraid of nothing.”
It’s an apt word for Canadian Fifer, which made a big impression at this year’s Classic Boat Festival in Victoria, British Columbia. At 33 feet overall, she’s not exactly imposing, but few other boats announce their heritage and intent quite as eloquently as this ketch-rigged motorsailer with a pretty pinched stern. Her most prominent feature, however, is a massive prow, which looks as if it could handle a sperm whale with anger-management issues. Fifer, it is tempting to imagine, could slip her lines on a moment’s notice to steam out to where the wild things are and return with a hold full of fish.
“She has fishing boat heritage, but she’s not a conversion,” says Tom Bean, 54, a trained shipwright from Victoria who now works in the petroleum/environmental sector. He’s the yacht’s master and has known her for longer than he’s owned her. With his horticulturist wife, Cindy, 54, he exhibits Fifer at the festival every year, so the boat has become a fixture of the event, as well as an iconic presence on the surrounding waters.
“We like cruising in the Gulf Islands or along the Sunshine Coast,” Cindy says. “Our favorite place there is Chatterbox Falls.” For 16 summers — ever since they bought her — the couple has cruised local waters aboard Fifer.
Her life started in the early 1960s, when she was built by James Miller & Sons in St. Monans, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland. The famed firm was founded in 1747 not just as a boatbuilder and joiner, but — as an early practitioner of “vertical integration” — also as an undertaker that made and sold coffins. Best known for fishing vessels, Miller rose to fame when James Cook and George Vancouver, who later played important roles in discovering and charting the waters of the Pacific Northwest, were still nautical nobodies. Since then, the yard has built scores of craft of all stripes and splashed more than 100 of these Fifers, with three of them ending up on the North American west coast, according to Bean.
Bean’s boat was commissioned in 1964 for Oliver Summer, a successful British businessman who emigrated to Canada but returned to get the kind of vessel he and his wife, Gladys, could trust on long voyages. (He circumnavigated Great Britain with a med student crewmember who many years later happened by at the Victoria festival with his family and, to his joy and surprise, recognized the boat.) Summer went on to cruise the Mediterranean and then had his boat shipped to the East Coast before taking her to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and up to Vancouver. Later, Summer took her across the Pacific to Hawaii on an ambassadorial visit to the local chapter of the U.S. Power Squadrons.
CANADIAN FIFER AT A GLANCE • LOA: 33 feet • BEAM: 10 feet, 3 inches • DRAFT: 4 feet • DISPLACEMENT: 18 tons • BALLAST: 1.5 tons • POWER: 55-hp Ford 592 E diesel • SAIL AREA: 281 square feet • TANKAGE: 200 gallons fuel, 100 gallons water
Fifer Fishing Boat Type Yachts, as they were officially called, were introduced in 1958, long before modern production builders discovered the virtues of selling one and the same hat with different feathers, meaning one hull in various configurations. In the days of the Sputnik, the thrifty Scots already built hulls on spec that could be kitted out as seaworthy pleasure boats or, depending on the order books, “for fishing further afield” or “trawling with winch, lobster fishing, sports fishing with good space and many rods, mussel and whelk dredging.”
The original brochure also touted the robust nature of these boats — a “hull designed on genuine fishing boat lines by fishing boat builders of long experience and standing. No attempt was made to fine the lines to give a yacht appearance. The result has been a boat of outstanding character and appearance with commodious accommodation and, most important, the seakeeping and comfort qualities of a fishing boat. The hull specification is that of the fishing boat, and no attempt has been made to reduce the scantling sizes or cheapen the boat in any way.”
Obviously, Fifers were not flashy or fast. Their mission was getting there and back, regardless of conditions. These sturdy and dependable North Sea fishing boats carried desperate and displaced people safely across the Atlantic after World War II, unlike the rickety boats operated by criminals that often kill scores of modern-day refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East for European shores.
But Canadian Fifer has always been a pleasure boat, spending most of her first five decades in the cold, limpid waters of British Columbia, where Bean grew up playing on canoes and runabouts and learning the trade of a shipwright. One of his jobs was working on Canadian Fifer as a skipper and boatbuilder for her previous owner, who granted him first right of refusal when he sold her. And Bean refused the refusal. “Boats always find the right owners,” he says, “and I happened to be the next one. Besides, during her restoration I practically touched every surface.”
He knew exactly what he was getting into: a hull with scantlings specified by Lloyd’s and 1-1/2-inch planking — larch below the waterline, mahogany above, fastened to 2-1/2-inch oak frames. Bean believes the deck is original, made of 3/4-inch teak over marine plywood and sitting on oak beams. “We carry 275 feet of anchor chain,” Bean says as he points his flashlight into the anchor locker, above the double forward V-berth that used to have four bunk beds. Behind the chain is more proof of “stout”: a massive oak stem that runs into the keel, which measures 8 by 5 inches, continuing to the sternpost, which is a half-foot in diameter.
Looking around on deck, it’s patently clear that Fifer is well cared for, but she’s not a prima ballerina that spends more time in the paint booth than on the water. There are numerous shippy details, many of them original, such as the enormous mooring bit, the bronze clamps, the brass horn and the rustic turning blocks from Tufnol, which might not spin as easily as carbon blocks but would probably survive a nuclear war. All of this is congruent with her style and use, like the patina on her hardware, thanks to the Pacific Northwest’s unrelenting elements. A practical and chic feature is Fifer’s aft wheelhouse, which protects the helm and companionway in nasty conditions.
Much of the instrumentation has the original look and feel of the ’60s, including the gimbaled Sestrel steering compass, which has an external night light and shares the cramped space on top of the dash with several best-in-show plaques. “The card was damaged because at one point the wrong dampening fluid was used,” Bean explains. ”But it was impossible to source a replacement. Not even the Sestrel people knew that this card was ever produced.” So he rolled up his sleeves and set to work. It was a watchmaker’s job.
The atmosphere in the mahogany-and-teak interior is a tad dark but plenty cozy. The space isn’t palatial, yet with more than 6 feet of headroom in the saloon there is no sense of claustrophobia. However, privacy for a boatload of people — the builder’s brochure talks about nine berths — could be an issue. So the Beans decided to stick to the proven 6-4-2 arrangement: drinks six, eats four, sleeps two.
Beneath the teak cabin sole, Bean shows off another stout detail: not a wine cellar, alas, but 1.5 tons of ballast in the form of brushed and painted steel ingots neatly stacked into the bilge compartments.
On the sides of the coachroof is an example of the polar opposite of stout: dainty lace curtains that are strung up on crochet rings to perfectly match the diameter of the portholes. “Great idea of the original owners,” Bean says with a laugh. “Fitting and practical because you can see out but not in.”
Getting under way on the morning after the festival, Bean guided Canadian Fifer across the busy waters of Victoria’s Inner Harbor. Unhurried but confident, she cut a pretty figure in the fall sun, dodging ferries, seaplanes, kayaks, whale-watching boats and water taxis that scurry back and forth along the waterfront and its dominant landmark, the Empress Hotel. Connoisseurs of pinched sterns notice the smooth flow of water along her hull before it closes at the stern.
Once past the cruise ship terminal and the throng of fishing boats drifting past the breakwater on an outgoing tide, Bean goosed the Ford Industrial 592 E engine to about 1,800 rpm, which is good for 6.5 knots of cruising speed and consumes about 1 gallon of diesel an hour. Bean reckons he fills up once in a busy season, otherwise every 18 months.
Still in siesta mode, the Juan de Fuca Strait wasn’t dishing up the conditions a Fifer needs to strut her stuff. “She likes it rough,” the captain explains, “but she stays dry on deck.”
Has she ever let him down? “Yes, there was one incident when we drifted not under command,” he remembers. The water pump decided to quit before her time. And what about sailing? After all, she’s not just an honest vessel, but also a bona fide ketch with tabernacled masts and nearly 300 square feet of sail when every stitch of canvas is flying. “Yes, but that’s a lot of work, plus she needs a snort of breeze,” Bean says. “It was easier to swap the pump on the fly and continue under steam.”
After all of this, only one last question remains: What’s a Fifer? Bean points to the stuffed animal in the wheelhouse and a printed note for show attendees explaining that the boat’s name is “in homage to the fifer, a small rodent closely resembling a petite beaver, less the broad tail.” This species was declared extinct in Canada by the World Wildlife Federation, but there was one colony left — in the area of St. Monans, Scotland. “Therefore, as a timely eulogy to the Canadian fifer, the name was registered.”
Then he smiles. Of course, that’s a bunch of bull. The origin of Fifer’s name is the county of Fife, where St. Monans is located.
Pretty stout, indeed.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.