A classic in search of a good home

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Her keel was laid 15 years ago, but this lovely 57-foot Herreshoff ketch has attracted no serious buyers

By Douglas A. Campbell

Senior Writer

At 7:30 a.m. on the Thursday the big Herreshoff-designed ketch Elsie was scheduled to sail from Charleston, S.C., to Annapolis, Md., the captain was bent over the port rail, a pain in his gut, his face a ghastly gray.

The mahi-mahi that a waiter in black bow tie had served the night before appeared to be the culprit, and so J.B. Currell put the options before his crew. He told first mate James “Geese” Geasling and fresh hand David Jones that an offshore gale was forecast. They could put to sea as planned — with a less-than-fit captain — this rainy, blustery May 5 morning, or they could delay a day. The crew chose to wait, and once again Elsie’s search for an owner was put on hold.

If beautiful boats have feelings, this one must have thought herself an aging, unwed debutante with no prospects. Elsie’s keel had been laid 15 years earlier, and she finally was brought to sail-away condition in 2002 and is on her third broker since. But despite the type of striking looks that caused a Bristol 38 owner in Charleston to call her “the most beautiful boat in the marina,” no buyer has been found. So, like the wealthy father of an unwed daughter, Elsie’s builder has, in essence, increased the dowry.

John Steele, a partner in Covey Island Boatworks of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, — which finished the 57-foot (LOD) ketch from a framed and planked hull — had been asking $875,000 and found no takers. So this spring, he said he would offer Elsie at “slow auction,” reducing the price $25,000 every month until she’s sold.

The move from Charleston to Annapolis was part of the marketing tactic. Elsie was, in effect, getting a new coming-out party in one of the nation’s yachting capitals. But now the party would be delayed one more day.

Elsie — with her raked white masts and light gray hull, clipper bow, low freeboard and sweeping sheer — is a not-quite-exact replica of L. Francis Herreshoff’s Bounty/Tioga design. Yachting historian Llewellyn Howland explains that L. Francis, son of the legendary Nathanael G. Herreshoff, created the Bounty design after he drew the lines for Tioga (later renamed Ticonderoga), which at 70 feet was “arguably the most famous yacht of her size,” he says.

Tioga had, among other “interesting things,” a cutaway forefoot on her full keel and a clipper bow. “Bounty is a scaled-down version,” says Howland. “Bounty is a reasonable size … [a boat that] a fair number of people can hope to own. She just happens to be a beautiful boat.”

Under way

The captain awoke aboard Elsie Friday morning feeling fine. Provisions had been loaded Wednesday afternoon, so following some minor preparations Currell took the helm in the aft cockpit, his crew cast off the lines, and Elsie headed away from the Charleston city dock, making room for some other vessel among the multimillion-dollar motoryachts and sailboats there to assume the “most beautiful” crown. The wind was still blowing more than 20 knots, and the ketch was heeling to starboard under bare poles even before the shore side of the long, submerged Charleston jetty was reached.

Currell, an owner of MAS Epoxies in New Jersey and now a partner in Custom Yacht Group — a new Annapolis brokerage firm — consulted Geasling about the sail plan. Geasling, a 37-year-old delivery captain from Annapolis whom Currell calls the best sailor he has ever met, considered the alternatives and decided to raise the working jib on the inner forestay and to put one reef in the main, leaving the yankee and mizzen furled. Outside the jetties in 3- to 5-foot seas, the sails took the load off Elsie’s 85-hp diesel, kicking her speed past 7 knots.

An occasional wave splashed against the port side, sending spray back to where Currell steadied the wheel. There was no dodger for protection, no Bimini, no autohelm, no engine gauges in the cockpit (they are at the nav station.) There wasn’t even a depth sounder, hardly a concern in a boat running offshore for 400 miles.

The day before, Geasling had attempted to make coffee, and the galley’s four-burner propane range wouldn’t work. A gas sensor appeared to have corroded in the boat’s long disuse. A trip without hot meals was a drag, but the absence of the other amenities was all part of the sales plan. Covey Island had decided to give the eventual buyer a blank pallet, except for a few touches by Elsie’s first two lovers.

The construction

Elsie’s pedigree can be traced to a fellow in Toronto who began building her around 1990, Steele says. She has frames of laminated white oak, and her hull was shaped with 40-foot-long Douglas fir planks, each 4 inches wide and nearly 2 inches thick. The planks were expensive, rare quartersawn lumber, their vertical grain resistant to warping. There’s a groove on both edges of each plank, and a spline was fit into those grooves and glued in place. Then the planks were fastened to the frames with stainless steel bolts.

Another man bought the framed and planked hull from the first about 12 years ago and trucked it to Nova Scotia, Steele says. “We worked on it for about six months and then the owner essentially had to give up on his plan to build the boat. He didn’t do that easily or quickly or willingly,” Steele says.

At that point, Covey Island had installed bulkheads, the engine bed, some tanks and the cabin sole. “I think we had raised the sheer 4 inches,” at the customer’s request, he says, but there were no decks. The customer had seen a boat called Fille d’Or and wanted Steele to give the Herreshoff that boat’s layout, including the raised sheer. Raising the sheer gave Elsie greater interior volume. It also allowed the cabin sole to be raised, hiding the trunk for the carbon fiber and fir centerboard that increases draft from 5 feet, 9 inches to 11 feet.

It was 1992 when work stopped on the boat, Steele says. “So the boat was in storage for quite a while.” After nine years, the customer finally admitted he would be unable to finish the boat and told Covey Island to finish it on spec. With a mortgage from the provincial government of Nova Scotia, the yard resumed work according to their customer’s plans.

All of the structural wood was coated in epoxy. The hull then was layered with e-glass and epoxy, and finished with light gray polyurethane, the deck and bulwarks with white polyurethane and non-skid patterns finished in gray. The bulwarks cap, cabin eyebrow and cockpit coaming cap were all done in bright mahogany, and the interior was done in varnished mahogany and white enamel. The interior includes a huge head forward, then a double cabin to port and a passageway pipe berth and full bunk to starboard. Next comes the saloon with U-shaped dinette and pipe berth to port, and settee and pipe berth to starboard. A U-shaped galley with Corian counters is abaft the dinette, with a nav station opposite. Finally, the companionway is bracketed by the captain’s double stateroom to port and a second head to starboard. The interior is traditional. As described, the exterior with its raised sheer is an amalgam of Herreshoff’s design and the customer’s wishes.

Classic lines

“L. Francis Herreshoff was the great American artist of yacht design,” Howland says. “His father was the great engineer.” The son designed “superb cruising boats, lovely, useful, elegant classics.”

Halsey Herreshoff, the grandson of Nat and president of the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, R.I., says his uncle wasn’t a builder, and that consequently his designs were used by a large number of builders. Howland notes that L. Francis created the Herreshoff 28 during World War II for Rudder Magazine as a design for would-be boatbuilders.

“At the end of the war, there were thousands of boats around, and one noted that some of them really looked great, and some of them looked awful,” Howland says. “It’s an old established fact that backyard builders will take liberties. Aesthetically, there’s always a consequence when you change a design.” But there have been many knockoffs of the Bounty/Tioga lines, he says.

Saddled with the chore of finishing Elsie, Steele says he sought some guidance. “Part of our problem is we’re a busy yard building boats,” he says. “We’re in Nova Scotia. The market isn’t. We’d just rather focus on the boats that are on order.”

So Steele recruited Brian Commette, a broker at Northrop and Johnson in Newport, R.I. “I did run up there and visit the boat a couple of times,” Commette says. “As a broker, I would have recommended a more thorough boat because whoever buys that boat will be buying it as a trophy, really. If I could summarize my input, it would really be to keep the boat as contemporary as possible. I may have also suggested to John to keep exterior varnish not to a minimum but keep it manageable, just because that’s something that yachtsmen are beginning to pay attention to.”

Commette says he was the original broker for Elsie and put her in the Newport Brokerage Show to great reviews, yet found no serious buyers. “Elsie is going to take a unique buyer because she involves some compromises that all classic yachts bring along with them in terms of interior space and ergonomics,” Commette says. “Beneteau manages to put three staterooms that are actually livable in a 42-foot boat.”

While Commette describes Elsie as “a very capable sailboat,” he says the same size Beneteau would have a lot more amenities and a lot more interior volume. On the other hand, Commette says, “the technique that John Steele uses is really terrific.” He says he sold a Covey Island schooner that had circumnavigated. “The boat surveyed so much better than any fiberglass boat of the same age that might have sailed half as many miles,” he says.

Steele named the boat Elsie as a play on an acronym his accountant uses to shorten the formal name of his company, Lunenburg County Shipwrights Inc., or LC. He completed the boat in 2002 and sailed her that fall to Newport for a show, then sailed her back to Nova Scotia for storage and a refit. In 2003 he convinced his wife to sail with him from Rockland, Maine, to Newport to turn the boat over to Commette.

“She was pretty skeptical, to put it mildly,” says Steele of his wife. “Our last boat was a 53-foot Bristol pilot cutter, so she’s experienced, certainly. She felt just two of us on a 57 was a bit over the top.” By the time the couple reached New Bedford, Mass., he says, they sailed onto a mooring without an engine “just for the pure enjoyment.”

An “amazing sail”

The storm that had been building offshore from Charleston as Elsie heeled to starboard promised anything but enjoyment. The wind was from the north-northeast, just off Elsie’s track up the coast. Geasling, an avid fisherman, had two lines out shortly after Elsie had cleared the breakwaters, and he lobbied hard for time in the Gulf Stream, where the big fish are. But Currell wanted to stay out of the stream’s slop, although he knew he would have to squeeze close to it to get around the Carolina capes. The forecast was for big, steep seas and the captain, having spent a day in abdominal agony, wanted comfort for this trip.

The same weather system that weekend would take the life of a seasoned offshore skipper on his way to Bermuda and require the Coast Guard rescue of his four crewmembers after their 45-foot sailboat, Almeisan, turned turtle. In a separate incident, two men off North Carolina, sailing south from Norfolk, Va., to Charleston, would have to be rescued when their Bavaria 41 took on water and couldn’t be sailed in the violent seas. In yet another instance, the Coast Guard had to airlift an 83-year-old sailor from a third boat after he injured his head in a fall [see story Page 34].

Aboard Elsie, Geasling relaxed once he had the sails balanced. While the starboard rail was buried for 18 straight hours in 35- to 50-knot winds, Geasling was able to tie the helm off to the winch and leave it untouched for hours at a time. During one long stretch, the wind blew so hard that the sea was all foam, and a rain squall pelted his unprotected face like gravel. The wind was noisy in the rigging, but Elsie plowed through the bigger waves resolutely; below in the cabin, there were no shudders or creaks, just a reassuring, comfortable movement.

Geasling turned the watch over to Jones, a 40-year-old hand from Wilmington, N.C., with limited offshore experience. After some suggestions he left him alone at the helm. “By the time I got up there — 8 to 12 p.m. — it was a little crazy,” Jones recalls. “It was pushing my comfort level with just one reef in the main, and we had the jib up. It was screaming. The starboard rail was buried a good while. It was fun. The boat fortunately can be balanced even in that.”

“That was an amazing sail,” Currell says. “Let me tell you, we got tested.

“I think that every person that has walked on that boat at every boat show that we’ve gone to … they walk through this boat and say: This is a real sailboat. I think it’s the true yachtsman’s boat, not just a condo at the dock. I would go anywhere in the world on Elsie.”

For more information on Elsie’s slow auction, contact Custom Yacht Group at (410) 295-3476, or visit www.customyachtgroup.com.