They knew they had nailed the start of the race. When Chris Maas, a retired boatbuilder from Seattle, and his brother Alex, who used to make high-end carbon tillers, glanced backwards after the start of 2021’s Yellow Island Race in Deer Harbor, Washington, they realized they had opened a sizable lead over the fleet, which was still scrapping for a whiff of breeze.
They were racing Slipper, a tantalizingly elegant and wickedly fast 27-foot wood/carbon daysailer, which Chris designed and built at his home on Center Island, Washington. For the brothers, observing the boat’s performance in light and fickle winds was an object lesson in adept boat handling and efficient small-craft design. Slightly heeled with a plumb stem and powered by a modified Starboat rig, Slipper cut nary a wake as she ran away from the rest of the race fleet.
Chris, 64, built Slipper as a personal project. One of his goals was to create a fast and comfortable boat with modern features, including a lifting keel, a high-performance profile rudder and retractable electric auxiliary propulsion. More importantly, he wanted his boat to make a statement about the respectful and efficient use of finite resources. To accomplish that, he used recycled materials and repurposed gear whenever possible. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve [taken stock of] the resources I have used to build my boats through the years. I have to admit, it’s a little bit appalling. Philosophically, I’m coming around to the idea that there’s a lot of good equipment out there. It’s either just languishing in somebody’s basement or backyard, or it’s going out to the dump.”
That’s how this consummate bargain hunter with a slight propensity for hoarding ended up repurposing parts for Slipper. Those parts included an old Star mast that had broken on deck level but still worked. “A Star rig is a lovely thing, beautifully engineered and built and optimized by top sailors for, I don’t know, 100 years,” says Chris. “It’s very tunable. Like jewelry, just tiny wires. I counted 13 separate ones to keep it up. It’s a little scary.”
For this project, Chris summoned decades of skills and experience. He had constructed open-water rowing shells, fast dinghies (including International Canoes) and foiling Moths. When he set to work on Slipper, for inspiration, he looked to the traditional East Coast daysailers that get underway on a whim with no fuss. Then he went all out.
He cut cedar strips for the hull from a driftwood log and sheathed it in surplus 200 g carbon cloth from Boeing. He used that same carbon to reinforce the hull in critical areas and to cover the boat’s bulkheads, which he built from wood that was milled from a cedar tree his neighbor had cut down. For visual effect, he overlayed the transom with a thin veneer of gorgeously textured Honduras mahogany, which was a leftover from a 1950s East Coast boatbuilding project. He made Slipper’s neatly curved tiller from a piece of Douglas fir that once was coated in creosote and supported an old water tank. He built the narrow keel fin from a core of Douglas fir wrapped in carbon; it’s strong enough to support a 380-pound bulb, which he cast from surplus lead ingots in a self-built concrete mold.
The fully retractable auxiliary electric outboard lives in the starboard half of the small cuddy cabin. “That motor is based on a 3.3-horsepower Mercury outboard, which I converted to an electric motor,” says Chris. This e-motor, and its solid-state controller, previously powered a kids go-kart and a mini bike. A piece of the hull is attached to the bottom of the motor’s lower unit. Haul up the motor and the hull closes seamlessly.
“Epic,“ is how Todd Twigg described his experience crewing on Slipper. “No words can fully describe the dreamlike sensations of sailing her or seeing her sailed.”
Twigg’s endorsement set high expectations for a day sail on Slipper last summer. Blue skies had produced light summer winds in the San Juan Islands, so we left the dock under electric power and gained open water in a minute. Chris hoisted the main, unfurled the jib, shut off the motor and retracted it. Immediately, Slipper picked up speed, slightly dipping her leeward rail to greet the water that was happily burbling by. Meanwhile, the guests onboard literally found their comfort zone on the cockpit benches that Chris designed with just the right seat depth and backrest angle.
With the main sheet run all the way aft and the control lines forward on the cabin top, there was nothing to disturb their peace—no hiking straps, no tiller extension or trapeze wires. “I see these guys on Melges 24s and it doesn’t look fun, how they’re hanging over that lifeline, just awful,” Chris chuckled. “This was my answer. You’re sitting in the boat, you put your arm over the coaming as you steer and have a pleasant sail.”
Light air could not stop Slipper from charging through Lopez Pass, which is notorious for its strong currents. However, just as we emerged on the east side, the breeze shut off and the boat started to drift as the narrow foils lost the flow they needed to work effectively. Chris was about to deploy the motor, but the breeze sprang up from the opposite direction, which Slipper instantly converted into forward motion, taking us back to the dock on the far side of Center Island.
It was patently obvious why this boat left the competition in the dust at the start of the Yellow Island Race and only surrendered her lead after the 49-foot, schooner-rigged sled Sir Isaac took advantage of a tactical error by Slipper’s crew. (They had rounded Jones Island too tightly and paid for it by parking in the wind shadow for a while.) In the end, Slipper crossed the finish line in second and corrected out to third overall, a fine showing for a boat her size that’s saddled with an astronomical PHRF rating.
With that podium finish to his credit, Chris proved that it is within the realm of possibility to make a sensible, elegant and well-performing craft almost exclusively from recycled materials and repurposed equipment. Slipper’s approach to sustainability might well eclipse the collection of hardware on her trophy shelf.
Draft (keel up/down): 14”/7’
Displ.: 1,300 lbs.
Sail area (up/downwind): 280/474 sq. ft.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.