A stiff westerly pinned Ziska to the linear dock of Boat Haven in Port Townsend, Washington. Dusk was leaching into darkness when the decision was made to move the 52-footer to a better spot for the last night before the 2019 Race to Alaska.
But the move was easier said than done when all hands in town were preparing for the fifth running of the tortuous, 750-mile route that takes competitors to Ketchikan, Alaska, propelled by wind, muscle and wit. Luckily, out of nowhere, a small tug and a tiny inflatable materialized to pull and push this doll of a cutter, all 12 tons of her, against the wind and current. Once she was clear, the crew yanked up the staysail and Ziska, tug on her hip, blasted off into the night.
The previous weeks had been a blur of activity, capping two years of cosmetic surgery on a boat that’s been blessed with healthy bones for more than a century. She’s a Morecambe Bay prawner, aka a Lancashire nobby (nobby is English slang for rough wood), built in 1903 by Crossfield Brothers in Arnside, Cumbria. Designed as a working vessel but finished as a yacht, she probably had a design inspired by racing yachts. Back then, getting the catch to market first and cashing in always was a race.
Ziska spent her early years on the English west coast and in Ireland. In the 1950s, she surfaced in Whitby on the North Yorkshire Coast, and the insurance firm Lloyd’s of London spotted her in Plymouth on the southern coast in the 1970s, when she sustained severe storm damage and was laid up for decades afterward.
Enter Ashley Butler, now the principal at Butler & Co. shipyard in Cornwall, but 19 at the time, footloose and cruising his boat Merganser.
“I spent the night in Cowes Marina and discovered Ziska laying ashore in a very sorry way,” wrote Butler in one article. “Also in the hands of fate was the meeting of her owner on my walk back to Merganser. Within half an hour we’d done a straight swap.”
While working as a shipwright, Butler restored Ziska to the nines, painting her light blue. He made a splash on the U.K. classic yacht circuit in 1998 before sailing the engineless beauty across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, where he dazzled the competition in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta.
In 2000, Butler took a job at Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he built the Sally B, a workboat-style yawl, for himself. With that, Ziska had to go. He sold her in 2003, but not before giving her a rousing party in Antigua for her 100th anniversary. That marked the end of her heyday; for the next couple of years, she sat more than she ever sailed.
Then the recession hit, and Butler grew worried. He persuaded a friend and fellow shipwright, Clint Thompson, to take her on. Thompson trucked her across the country to Port Townsend to cruise and live aboard before selling her to another Port Townsender who’d owned classics. Sadly, he couldn’t do right by her because of his own failing health.
But again, fate was smiling on her.
“There was food on board. Rats moved in,” says Stanford Siver, an East Coast transplant who saw Ziska from across the marina while in the cockpit of Blue, his 1937 Atkin Dragon. “The cushions had to go straight to the dumpster. There was a lot of mess.”
Even still, he couldn’t resist. Except for some charters in the Caribbean, Siver, a trained scientist, had no significant boating experience when he left a “toxic work environment” to restart his life on the West Coast. Upon moving to Port Townsend in 1991, he’d attended the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, which connected him to a platoon of fellow alumni whom he hired for Ziska’s restoration.
Among those who helped restore her were Pat Mahon, one of the instructors, who went on to the Great Lakes Boatbuilding School and built Ziska’s new Douglas fir spars. J Galloway refastened her topsides, patched and reglassed the deck, and joined the sailing crew. Matt Fahey, who studied philosophy, was the rigging expert.
“We chose round wire settings to terminate the wire at the deadeyes and turning up the bottom ends, because she always was rigged like that,” Fahey says. “Lanyards are used to tighten the rig, parceled and served with Seine twine.”
Siver designed a new interior, which he built in his workshop: curvaceous cabinetry and settees from sapele mahogany that create a cozy cabin with an updated galley and a wood-burning stove.
Local yacht designer Carl Chamberlin created new line drawings with the help of photogrammetry. “The basic technique is to take a series of overlapping digital photos covering the [hull’s] surface,” says Jack Becker, another Northwest School alum and former instructor. With software, the photos then are turned into a 3-D, true-to-scale line plan.
As Siver got acquainted with Ziska’s features and history, he nixed the previous owner’s plan to rerig her as a yawl. “Don’t mess with a 100-year-old boat. If you want a yawl, buy a yawl,” he says.
Ziska once had a Coventry Victor gas engine but was not motorized when Butler found her. So, Siver had her fitted with two 12-foot oars that produce about 0.6 knots of speed in calm water, which is about as fast as a sea bass could push. To actually get somewhere aboard this boat, she has to sail.
Siver had intentions to get her to Ketchikan, for the finish of the Race to Alaska. She would have to traverse the Salish Sea, threading the needle through the first waypoint at Seymour Narrows followed by the narrow and tricky Inside Passage to Bella Bella, British Columbia. Then the final push north, past the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Along the way, there would be spectacular scenery and cold, wild water—hostile at times, serving up 30-knot headwinds and 8- to 10-knot tide rips.
In years past, racing thoroughbreds on one or three hulls had always won the event, but entries also included cruising boats, beach cats, dinghies, rowing craft, kayaks and even standup paddleboards. Showing up with a 116-year-old boat was damn bold, like racing the Indianapolis 500 with a Ford Model T.
For Siver, entering an ancient boat with a rookie crew meant breaking convention while maximizing adventure and flirting with the record books. Racing Ziska to Alaska also served as a stark reminder of what it was like when boats like her defined the cutting edge.
With barely enough time to get her ready after her spring relaunch, there was no shakedown for the crew, so the “Ziska Boys” (Siver, Galloway and two newcomers, Odin Smith and Benjamin Geffken) learned as they raced. At times, the satellite tracker showed them boiling along at 5-plus knots, but often, Ziska was in stasis, on the hook, waiting out a foul tide. Beating into the teeth of prevailing northwesterlies, and constantly muscling tiller and sheets, was pure grunt work. Ziska was neither designed nor built to be constantly whipped to weather.
“Dixon Entrance was blowing 50, gusting 60 at times,” Siver says. “I worked the helm for three hours. Physically, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Smith had turned 16 before the start and now is the youngest crewman ever to complete the race, while sailing on the oldest boat ever to compete. “Often, we were forced to sail between a close and a broad reach,” he says, adding that he saw advantages in Ziska’s high-drag full keel. “We hit a number of logs, but nothing broke. Chipped some paint and called it good.”
After 15 days and 19 hours, Siver rang the finish bell at the dock in Ketchikan, exhausted but elated. As 22nd of 35 starters (10 boats did not finish), Ziska claimed several records: She is the oldest, and the heaviest, boat ever to start and finish, and she covered the most distance in the event’s history. It took her a whopping 1,282 miles to complete a 750-mile course, averaging 3.4 knots.
“We were in a different race and we bleeping won,” Galloway says, noting that the winners finished in just over four days. “I moved into a tiny space, did the most difficult thing with three strangers while pretending it was 1903 all over again.”
After the race, Siver delivered Ziska back to Port Townsend via the outside route (another long haul) and immediately put her on the hard for some TLC before showing her at the Wooden Boat Festival in September.
He now has plans to ship the oars. “Next winter, she’ll get an electric drive with a lithium-ion battery and a range of 50 miles,” he says. And, Blue, his double-ender, is a free agent now, looking for a new home. Unless, of course, her owner changes his mind.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.