Buying a stock fiberglass boat is a pretty safe undertaking. You know what you’re getting, and since production boats are designed to appeal to the tastes of the average boating family, chances are you’ll be satisfied — if you’re an average boat owner.
But if your tastes are more eclectic, your understanding of hull design more secure, your risk tolerance higher and your pockets a good bit deeper — and, yes, you’re of sound mind — you could find yourself owning and restoring an old wooden yacht.
The decision to restore a wooden boat is rarely based on economics, unless perhaps you are classic yacht restoration specialist McMillen Yachts (www.woodenyachts.com). For the rest of us, a decision to restore a wooden boat is likely driven by an emotional desire to resurrect childhood memories of happy times spent on a family boat. I can relate. My family chartered a 1960 37-foot Egg Harbor every summer, so that boat and other early Eggs still have a powerful hold on me.
On the other hand, Sparkman & Stephens and other designers of wooden Consolidated yachts in the 1930s created boats that remain, in certain aspects, superior to anything production builders turn out today. This reality was brought home again for me in June when I met John Eraklis in Yarmouth, Maine, to see his classic wooden boat. Eraklis bought the 1937 65-foot Consolidated yacht Phoenix — the only remaining Consolidated that S&S designed — intending to restore it to its original condition. Family circumstances changed, however, and Eraklis has put the boat up for sale. After a walk through and around the boat, there is no question she needs work, but there’s also no question that she can be brought back by the right people.
One can immediately see the appeal of this yacht when it was built, its capabilities and merits, as well as the potential it still could hold for the right owner, someone willing and able to bring her back to her original or better specifications. The December 2007 issue of Soundings chronicles more of Phoenix’s history, including the years in the 1960s and ’70s, when she hosted celebrities, and her partial rebuild by her present owner in 2006.
In putting this column together, Eraklis provided me with a lot more help than I usually get in terms of documentation for this 75-year-old boat. I have the July 1937 issue of Rudder magazine, which has a two-page article concisely describing the newly launched Phoenix:
“A sleek product of the present season’s design activity is Phoenix, a twin-screw ‘commuter type’ cruiser … built at the yards of the Consolidated Shipbuilding Corporation. … With her twin Speedway 6-cylinder 5-3/4 by 7 gasoline engines she attained a little over 24 mph on her trial runs … and is designed for a normal cruising speed of something under 20 miles [per hour]. Phoenix measures 64 feet 8 inches overall, 63 feet 4 inches waterline, by 12 feet 6 inches beam and 3 feet 6 inches draft.”
The yacht has a head and crew quarters forward in her narrow bow, a galley, the saloon with engine room below, and two more staterooms with a head aft. The saloon and aft staterooms are flooded with natural light through large windows and deck hatches, and a small cockpit is provided topside above the lazarette. She is run from a topside helm tucked abaft the saloon and above the stateroom trunk cabin, and her dinghy is handled and stowed just abaft the bridge. Part of the reason boats have gotten short and fat is that they are more livable, but these are boats, not cottages — or so I happily delude myself.
Amazingly, I also have the original 27-page S&S specifications, complete with an index. Here I learned that those Speedway engines are rated at 260 hp at 1,800 rpm. The engine room is well forward of the center of the hull, so I’m guessing the propeller shafts, with 21-by-20 Hyde Turbine props bolted to the ends, are some 25 feet long. What I do know is that they are in three pieces each, made of 1-3/4-inch Monel. Also, the interior wood is “to be waxed, not stained, the deckhouse windows crank up and down with automobile type lifters, the galley stove is to be American if possible.”
Regarding construction: “All white cedar for inner planking is to be as long lengths as possible, oak to be white oak, teak to be Indian, mahogany to be Mexican, fastenings to be Everdur, keel, stem, floors and frames white oak, clamp and shelf Douglas fir.” Planking is 5/8-inch Mexican mahogany on the outside, 7/16-inch white cedar inside.
My friend Phin Sprague, who as the owner of Portland (Maine) Yacht Services knows about these things, says the choice of wood was so specified because mahogany is harder and more abrasion-resistant and the cedar is lighter and more rot-resistant. “Bulkheads are two layers of cedar laid diagonally with casein glue in between, stiffened with copper rivets and Everdur screws. Sound deadening is to be accomplished using Acousti-Celotex panels,” according to the specifications. Her decks are 1-inch thick teak planks, swept with the sheer.
Edson-improved sprocket steering was used, with a 28-inch mahogany wheel 31 inches centerline to deck, as were 125-pound and 65-pound yachtsman’s type anchors. “The bottom is to receive four coats of Smith’s green paint, the bilge to be painted with red lead, the keel and stem to be well-painted with linseed oil.” And the specs go on, requiring the diligence and best materials and methods of the builder in her construction.
What is most interesting about Phoenix is not so much her construction, which reflects what were at the time the best methods and materials available, but her design and juxtaposing that design with today’s boats. She was long and narrow, with a length/beam ratio of more than 5. At 65 by 12.5 feet, she has a block area of 812 square feet, which means she is roughly the same size as a modern 50-footer with a 16-foot beam. Her slim, low-resistance, lightweight semidisplacement hull could make 21 knots with 520 horses driving small and inefficient (by modern standards) propellers. Our same-size 50-footer would likely not get on plane with that amount of power, let alone make 20 knots.
One of the reasons boats in that era were so narrow is that high-horsepower, lightweight diesels hadn’t been invented, so these proportions were more a necessity than a virtue. However, considering the sheer comfort and seakindliness of those designs, the easy motions, a complete lack of pounding and snap roll, their mindboggling efficiency and the grace with which they moved through the water, we have definitely lost sight of something in the intervening decades.
Viking Yacht co-founder (and president and chief operating officer) Bill Healey told me years ago that he would design new boats around newer and lighter diesels, particularly MANs, as they became available. Bill and his brother Bob and son Pat are smart businessmen and they know their market and, in my view, build some of the best production convertibles in the country.
While tournament sportfishermen like Vikings need to make 40 knots to be competitive, a mindless pursuit of speed has taken much of the marine industry in the other direction from grace and fuel miserliness, with short, fat boats using every bit of horsepower that can be squeezed under the saloon to cruise at ever increasing speeds. This is foolishness since increasing cruise speed from 26 to 34 knots can easily more than double the horsepower required while decreasing economy more than 50 percent. The extra iron weighs a lot more, the hull has to be built heavier to support the higher slamming loads, the boat needs to carry more fuel at more than 7 pounds and $5 a gallon, and on it goes until what you basically have is a brick that will plane with huge bottom loading figures. Look at some modern 70-foot sportfishermen and you’ll see chines back aft that are immersed more than 14 inches below the waterline — a floating brick.
Phoenix floats with her bottom at the transom 2 or 3 inches below the waterline, an excellent indication not only of her light bottom loading but also how easily she moves through the water at semiplaning speeds. While our seriously overloaded convertible will take tremendous power to get on top and will require every bit of 17 or 18 knots to do so, the Consolidated has no hump speed — she just glides right up like a triple-log pontoon boat. As a practical matter, this means you can run Phoenix at any speed from 0 to 20 knots comfortably and smoothly. This will be one of the smoothest-riding boats on the planet in a short, steep chop, with her very fine entry and long waterline.
She has a very small and low deckhouse because she would quickly become unmanageable, especially down sea, and unstable if you started piling structure and sail area up high. Remember, a broach starts with a roll, and if you keep her light and low topside, use rudders that are the right shape and size, and gear her down to swing larger and slower-turning props for extra traction, she will naturally resist broaching.
The Consolidated was designed specifically for a Long Island Sound chop, with her 64-foot waterline double the length of the 2- or 3-foot waves she was expected to regularly encounter. She was purpose-built for coastal waters, to be able to keep moving at 20 knots when the wind picked up and to allow her owner to read his newspaper uninterrupted on his way to the Big Apple every morning. Seas were to be as uneventful and the voyage as unremarkable as a train ride on straight and level tracks.
Hers was a well-proven design even back when she was built, so an owner didn’t have to worry about handling quirks or whether she would make her target speed. The case is the same today for an owner who decides to take her on. I am no wooden boat restoration expert, but many of these older wooden boats can be brought back to life for substantially less than it would cost to build an identical one from scratch. And once rebuilt, an old wooden boat would be in much better shape, stronger and stiffer, rot-proof and leak-free, and last a lot longer than her original construction would ever have permitted.
Boothbay Harbor (Maine) Shipyard has analyzed Phoenix and has a plan to restore her — starting with the hull bottom — using laminated white oak or angelique with epoxy resin for the frames, Alaskan yellow cedar for the first layer of planking and a second layer of mahogany or silver bali planking bonded to the first with 3M 5200. With the new bottom, Phoenix would run in the $275,000 to $300,000 range.
I can imagine her with a pair of new lightweight, quiet and reliable diesels, coupled with a Seakeeper gyro stabilizer. Adding a 1,155-pound Seakeeper (if that’s the right unit for this boat) along with the diesels would keep the weight in the bilge about the same as it is now with the 2,800-pound GM 671s she was repowered with a couple of decades ago. One thing I would make sure not to do is end up with less weight down low, since that weight is counted on to keep her both stable and comfortable in a moderate seaway. With a new, strong bottom, the foundations for the engines and Seakeeper could be built right in.
Phoenix is a coastal vessel and would not thrive offshore; a shorter and beamier deep-vee (3.5-to-1 length/beam is about right) is a much better sea boat. And if you are looking for condo proportions — a floating gin palace — then a 1930s or ’40s boat is not for you. But if you have a sense of adventure, value an intelligent coastal design, want to be the center of attention in Rockport, Maine, or Nantucket, Mass., and can afford to bring her back to life, a yacht with Phoenix’s pedigree could well be a rewarding undertaking.
Anyone with serious interest in Phoenix can email Eraklis at email@example.com.
Eric Sorensen is a consultant to boat- and shipbuilders, boat owners, and to the government. He was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” Eric can be contacted through his website, www.ericllc.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.