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Restoring a classic

Deciding whether to rebuild or buy new is never easy, but when the boat is as pretty as the Rhodes Reliant, the decision might not be as difficult

Famed yacht designer Ted Brewer reportedly once said, “No one yacht is perfect, but the Reliant comes very close to perfection, in my opinion.”

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Designed by Phillip Rhodes and built by Cheoy Lee Shipyard in Hong Kong from 1963 to 1976, the Rhodes Reliant 41, with her abundance of teak and polished bronze, is eye candy to classic yacht lovers.

But beyond her good looks, this full-keel, narrow-beam, heavily built beauty can sail. And she can handle those snotty offshore conditions that have many of today’s boats seeking the nearest sheltered harbor.

Although her sublime aesthetics, punctuated by generous overhangs, will turn heads — she has a waterline length of just 28 feet on her 41-foot LOA — it is her easy motion at sea and surprisingly accommodating three-cabin layout that make these aging fiberglass yachts good candidates for upgrades, if not total restorations. They were designed as yawls or sloops, but most were built as yawls.

Soon after the success of the Reliant 41, Cheoy Lee started building its own modified version, the Offshore 40, which had the same hull form but slightly shorter overhangs. The Offshore 40 mirrored the Rhodes’ unique offset companionway, moving it from the starboard to the port side. One can only wonder why Cheoy Lee decided to build a “modified” version.

Because of their age and generous exterior wood, as well as some questionable construction methods and materials, owning a Reliant can be a high-maintenance proposition. Indeed, the level of TLC needed to keep the aging ladies afloat and in good condition can be frustrating, and it is this frustration, along with a long love affair with his boat, that led Mort Taubman to have his 47-year-old Rhodes Reliant rebuilt as new.

Taubman, a high-profile Washington, D.C., lawyer, has owned Shearwater since 2000. He previously owned a 48-foot Camper & Nicholson, and before that he owned another Rhodes Reliant 41. “While the Camper & Nicholson was a fine yacht, I missed sailing the Rhodes,” Taubman says. “She is much easier to handle when it’s just my wife, Allyson, and myself on board. We’re comfortable taking her out for an afternoon sail or sailing offshore to Nantucket [Mass.]. We simply love sailing her.”

John Norton (left) brought Mort Taubman's aging Rhodes Reliant 41, Shearwater, back from near death.

Although Taubman sailed Shearwater extensively, making annual offshore passages, he was faced with seemingly unending maintenance issues. Three years ago, he had the Annapolis Harbor Boat Yard replace the old Westerbeke diesel auxiliary engine with a new Yanmar. The yard also replaced the original, corroded fuel tank. New galley countertops and a new refrigeration system were added. A year later, Shearwater was brought back to the Annapolis Harbor yard to have her decks inspected because they felt soft underfoot. Although the original teak decks were removed and glassed over before Taubman purchased her, the wood core was delaminated and saturated. The decks needed to be completely rebuilt — not a casual job.

Soon after work began on the decks, the yard discovered that several, if not all, of the wood bulkheads had signs of delamination and rot. At this point, Taubman and John Norton, who owns the yard, began having serious conversations about the ever-growing “to-do” list. Taubman readily admits to thinking perhaps it was time to buy a new boat, but he couldn’t get over his love affair with Shearwater. “I just don’t like the way new boats look or sail,” Taubman says, “and after doing the math on what a new boat would cost, I figured I might be ahead of the game if we continued to work on Shearwater.”

He gave Norton the green light to proceed with the decks and bulkheads, but that was only the beginning of what turned out to be a total refit from stem to stern.

Shearwater was literally taken apart and inspected for structural and cosmetic damage, and although there were signs of encouragement, these checkups often pointed to additional problems. For example, when the chain plates were inspected, the metal was in satisfactory condition. The wood knees to which they were attached passed muster with a moisture meter, but Norton wasn’t satisfied. “We drilled holes in the bottoms of the knees just to be sure, and nothing but soft, dry dust came out,” he says. “The knees were completely rotten and had to be replaced.”

Shearwater underwent a stem-to-stern refit and rebuild, including a new deck and interior, as well as a suit of sails and a paint job.

At each stage, Norton reported back to Taubman, who kept giving the go-ahead to proceed. Although he continued to have faith in his old girl, Taubman must have had moments of doubt, but once he and Norton had traveled this far, there was no turning back.

Norton sent me a copy of the eventual “to-do” list, explaining, “These were the major issues only. There were hundreds of other little things that had to be done.”

Although Taubman wanted to maintain the integrity of the original Rhodes design, he nonetheless made some decisions to minimize future maintenance. The original teak decks were not replaced, but the core underneath was rebuilt and covered with fiberglass, then coated with Awlgrip and non-skid. The wood spars were replaced with aluminum ones, but they were smartly disguised in a faux wood finish using an Awlgrip polyurethane coating. From just a few feet away it’s impossible to tell they’re not wood.

An inspection during the launch party the Taubmans held revealed a totally refit yacht, from all-new cushions to polished deck hardware, from a new suit of sails to all-new rigging, from a mirror-like paint job to a custom liquor cabinet in the forward cabin.

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Neither Norton nor Taubman was anxious to provide an exact figure of what the rebuild cost, perhaps because some items were still being fine-tuned, even during launch day. But both men nodded in a gentlemanly manner when a ballpark figure of $300,000 was mentioned. And Norton admits he learned a few things. “Open communication is key to a successful project like this,” he says. “Whether it’s a conversation between Mort and myself or between my guys here in the yard, it’s vital that everything is out in the open. Problems can only arise if you’re not talking to each other honestly.”

Based on the smiles, handshakes and high-fives during the launch party at the boatyard, the decision the Taubmans made to rebuild Shearwater was a good one. Not only did the math add up, but one look at the all-new Shearwater under sail also explains why Taubman had such a love affair with this 47-year-old lady.


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LOA: 40.75 feet

LWL: 28 feet

BEAM 12.5 feet

DRAFT: 5.75 feet

HULL TYPE: long keel

RIG: masthead yawl

SAIL AREA: 803 square feet

DISPLACEMENT: 21,000 pounds

BALLAST: 9,000 pounds

DESIGNER: Phillip Rhodes

BUILDER: Cheoy Lee Shipyard

RESTORATION: Annapolis Harbor Boat Yard,

PHONE:(410) 268-0092.

Major problems found on Shearwater

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• delaminated and saturated coring in the decks

• detached and water-stained teak facade on the trunk cabin

• leaking toe rails

• leaking hatches

• mold growth above the headliner

• leaking port lights (even though originals were fixed and did not open)

• delaminated inner skin to lower headliner

• malfunctioning headsail furling system — intermittent

• sections of rigging to replace or repair

• rotten chain plate knees

• delaminated and rotten bulkheads

• areas of mold and mildew throughout

• duplicate compression posts taking up valuable space in main saloon and forward stateroom

• corroded electrical wiring, outdated alarm and protection systems

• outdated electronics

• ineffective and/or abandoned waste system

• clogged and partly abandoned freshwater system

• unsafe main mast winches

• outdated galley gear

• new paint job needed on topsides

June 2014 issue



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