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Less is more in this quest for ultimate sailing

The morning fog was lifting off Puget Sound as Blakely Rock slipped by to starboard, our bow turned north in search of wind. Soon a light, unsteady breeze sprang up. Nice, but on most boats it wouldn’t be nearly enough to unship the iron oar. Luckily, Francis Lee is not like most boats.

With her narrow beam and double-ender hull shape, the 62-foot Francis Lee dosen't follow the production-boat trend that favors a lot of beam aft.

All was quiet on board, save for the muted splashing of the ripples against her hull as she sailed in this zephyr, with some hustle, close-hauled. In the words of Bob Perry, the boat’s designer: “It’s not magic. Just physics.”

This interpretation of physics rendered a handsome yacht with a slim and slippery hull shape, a flirtatious sheer line, a small coach roof and an uncluttered deck sans lifelines. Francis Lee measures 62 feet overall and nearly 55 feet on the waterline. That’s conspicuous for a daysailer. By contrast, her maximum beam is only 9 feet, 10 inches, nearly 2 feet less than a Catalina 315, a boat that’s roughly half as long.

She’s a bona fide double-ender that quotes from, but also expands on, such vessels as Bruce King’s Nantucket Splinter, L. Francis Herreshoff’s Rozinante and Raymond Hunt’s 210. The concept for Francis Lee harkens back to the good old days when boats didn’t have to be designed and built around a couch. Besides, she was constructed locally in the Pacific Northwest by indigenous talent, with the use of biomass. And that’s as rad as shunning the bow thruster while sticking with tiller steering on a boat of this size.

A soft spot for Scandinavia

Francis Lee is the culmination of a lifelong dream of the owner, Kim Bottles, 68, who resides on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and is retiring from his construction business. He named her after his father, who imbued him with an appreciation for Scandinavian designs, such as the Nordic Folkboat and the Dragon. Over the course of his sailing career, Bottles also owned a skerry cruiser, one of those svelte classics with low freeboard and endless overhangs, designed for the coastal waters of Sweden. Later he sailed a Swede 55, a sleek Knud Reimers boat that offered more volume and cruising amenities.

When he had a chance to start from scratch, it was back to basics. “Since I was 14 or 15, I have been thinking about the perfect boat,” Bottles says. His views changed over time, gravitating toward elegance and simplicity. And in Perry he found a willing collaborator. “If there is any tradition of sailing yachts I love, it’s the Scandinavian one,” he says. “Skinny hulls, low freeboard, beautiful cabin trunks — it’s all in the proportions.”

He and Bottles became friends out of mutual respect for each other and because they have similar likes and dislikes when it comes to boats. Perry calls the late Bill Garden a mentor and says his personal yacht, Oceanus, a 60-foot canoe-stern cruising sloop, sold him on double-enders. When talk turned to creating a daysailer for Puget Sound — a project they dubbed “Sliver” — inspiration was not in short supply.

Owner Kim Bottles (feft) and designer Bob Perry worked together to create Francis Lee.

At first Perry noodled around with overhangs; Bottles preferred a canoe shape with plumb ends. In the process, they saw a lot of each other, but there also was a time when Bottles visited to help his pal cope with personal tragedy. Perry had lost his son Spike to illness and was going through a difficult time. “I was worried about Bob,” Bottles recalls. But the sailing turned smooth again, and in honor of the memory, a small flag with a symbolic spike flies from Francis Lee’s spreaders.

Despite this hardship, there was no mission creep. They wanted to create a yacht that conveys the “pure pleasure of sailing,” according to Bottles. Rule No. 2: keeping excessive gear off the boat. “If I didn’t need it, I didn’t want it” — that’s how he frames it. Amenities below deck were kept to a minimum. There is a double berth in what could be called the owner’s cabin, before the mast. Abaft it there’s the head, with a small sink and a composting toilet — simple, never smelly and without plumbing issues. It might not work for a crew of 10 suffering from Montezuma’s revenge, but this is a daysailer/weekender, not a charter bus.

The two settees in the saloon can be used as extra berths. As for the galley, a portable cooler or plug-in icebox come on board when necessary, and a small gas stove can do most of the cooking on short outings. The rest of the kit? Consumed by subtraction: Aft cabins with en-suite heads and showers, a swim platform, sunpads and an entertainment center with pop-up bar are no-shows. Heck, on the test sail the boat didn’t have a chart plotter and nobody noticed. That’s one reason for her mere 8.6-ton displacement, less than 40 percent of a Hanse 630, a lavishly equipped production sailboat of similar length. And because light is fast, Francis Lee can drop off the horizon long before others can think about making sail.

A showcase for the region’s talent

The quiet ambience below serves as a reminder that the hull is built of wood, with its inherent noise cancellation. She was strip-planked in western red cedar and sheathed in e-glass and epoxy at the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington, where Bottles had served on the board and as treasurer. Getting students involved in a unique project was part of his dream.

“I was pissed,” Perry says about his reaction when he found out that Bottles craved a wooden boat. “I wanted it light, and I couldn’t see that working.” But the engineering studies put the weight where Perry wanted it, and all turned out well.

The deck, cockpit, cabin and structural interior, however, were built of foam core composite and assembled outside the hull before being dropped in as a monocoque structure, which added little weight and lots of stiffness. It was a precision job, but to Jim Franken, who did the 3-D modeling, it was business as usual. “It all came from the same computer file, so it had to fit,” he deadpans.

Franken was part of a cast of area specialists who helped bring the boat to life: Tim Nolan, who did the structural engineering; boatbuilding instructor Bruce Blatchley, who oversaw the hull construction; composite guru Russell Brown and CNC expert Brandon Davis; Ivan Erdevicki, a designer in Vancouver, British Columbia, who assisted with the keel; Tim Ryan, who managed finish and assembly at CSR Marine; and Frank Schattauer, who supplied the sail wardrobe.

On our trip, the wind shut off intermittently but came back strong, which is when things began to look lively. Francis Lee heeled to the breeze 15, maybe 20 degrees, stiffened and stayed there, thanks to the ballast bulb of 7,500 pounds at the bottom of her fin keel, which draws 10 feet. She felt balanced, and it was fun to keep her in the groove with that gorgeous Gucci tiller. Even in lumpy water the boat sailed dry and tacking angles remained tight. And once they add a foot brace for the helm, it’ll be heaven.

The mainsheet winch in the center of the cockpit is powered; the two primaries on the coamings aft are manuals. The arrangement works well for short-handed cruising, but it produces congestion around the traveler when racing with a crew of five. To spread bodies around, two winches will be added farther forward. Regrettably, the asymmetric spinnaker wasn’t aboard for this trip. That sail — simply flying from the bow roller — would take up the excitement another notch.

Less is less, and so much more

Looking at Francis Lee from afar and being used to the towering spars on other yachts of her size, the mast looks distinctly shorter because, well, it is. “It’s a Farr 40 rig, and it fit. Got it locally,” Bottles says, adding that it saved him in the neighborhood of 50 grand. But the shorter stick also has to do with physics. If the boat is light and narrow, it doesn’t need a ton of sail. Hence, her sail area-to-displacement ratio of 22.3 is relatively modest, but she converts horsepower into speed because Perry reached into his bag of tricks.

Unlike yachts with lavish overhangs, Francis Lee’s canoe hull does not gain sailing length through heel. And stability does not increase significantly with heel because there is not much contribution from a narrow stern. To balance that, Perry increased the volume ever so subtly “to keep that quarter wave down as long as possible,” as he points out. “I had in mind a design like Laurie Davidson’s Black Magic, the boat that dominated the Cup in 1995. He faced a similar challenge with a narrow boat and did a masterful job adding volume forward.” Perry says he studied that shape and adapted it for Francis Lee’s stern section.

Given the fad of wide sterns, twin rudders and hard-chined hulls on production boats — ask Perry about that — Francis Lee is an outlier. A sliver of counterculture, perhaps. But she has shown that she can keep up with much larger yachts, especially going to weather. And she has a pussycat personality — purring along, not itching to round up in gusts. It’s simplicity in motion, too. What you need is there, what you don’t isn’t. So it is easy to focus on the pure pleasures of sailing, which is why this boat exists.

When Bottles walked down the dock for the christening — accompanied by a piper wearing a kilt and a crowd that included his wife, Susan, and his extended family at this year’s Perry Rendezvous in Port Ludlow — he had come full circle in his quest to get back to basics. Granted, a 62-foot daysailer is not for everyone. But with bubbly dripping from her bow and hip-hip-hoorays ringing out in the harbor, Francis Lee validated her owner’s vision, her designer’s understanding of physics and the efforts of their crafty assistants. Well done, all.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

November 2014 issue