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Goodbye to the Bristol Channel Cutter - Soundings Online

Goodbye to the Bristol Channel Cutter

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The high quality of the $400,000 28-footer wasn’t enough to keep builder Sam L. Morse Co. afloat

The high quality of the $400,000 28-footer wasn’t enough to keep builder Sam L. Morse Co. afloat

After hand-building 126 of the extraordinarily expensive 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutters and 41 of the equally pricey 22-foot Falmouth Cutters, the Sam L. Morse Co. of Costa Mesa, Calif., has closed its doors.

The company is offering its molds and patterns not to the highest bidder “but to the purchaser deemed to be best capable of continuing the construction of these classic vessels.”

The boats, designed by Lyle Hess and inspired by the wooden boats of cruiser-authors Lin and Larry Pardey, “were for the niche market of the serious distance cruiser,” says Sumio Oya, who owns the company. “As the economy weakens, the demand for these expensive but high-quality vessels diminishes.”

There may have been more to it than that, according to an Annapolis, Md., couple who sold the boats. “My feeling is the closing of the Sam L. Morse factory is a very sad situation,” says Bernie Jakits, co-owner of Rogue Wave Yacht Sales. “It was expected probably for the last 15 years, because there are not that many people who are willing to spend that much money [up to $400,000, he says] for a 28-foot boat.”

Jakits’ partner in life and business, Kate Christensen, says the problem included trying to run the company “on a shoestring and just buying every screw as you needed it,” she says. “He [Oya] didn’t have an order the last year and a half.”

Which is not to say the two cutters, fashioned in fiberglass after 150-year-old designs from the southwestern coast of England, have no following. “This is my second one, actually,” says Mark Giegel, who sails Aerial, BCC hull No. 93, on eastern Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay. “I had [another] one a few years ago. It’s a disease.”

Giegel describes the Bristol Channel Cutter as “pretty much functionally the embodiment of the perfect-size boat and quality of boat and design of boat.”

“Actually, I have several half-hulls on my office walls,” he says. “You can always dream about the possibility of doing things that you may never have time for.”

Richard Graver — who also sails primarily on Long Island Sound, aboard BCC hull No. 103 Susie Q — discovered the design in Ferenc Mate’s illustrated book, “The World’s Best Sailboats.” He bought his boat in 2003 and sailed it from the Chesapeake to Long Island Sound, his first real cruise.

“I can’t say enough about that little boat,” he says. “It just feels real solid. Last year I took it out in a storm to get experience, maybe 30 knots [of wind]. I went out with one guy. I felt no fear at all and felt totally under control.”

Despite his love for his cutter, Jay Scott Odell — who owns Itchin, BCC hull No. 85, and sails on the Chesapeake — wasn’t surprised by the closing of Sam L. Morse. In October 2005 he helped show a Bristol Channel Cutter at the Annapolis Sailboat Show. “They sold 40 Beneteaus at that show and not one BCC,” he says, adding that if he were 35 years younger he’d buy the molds and patterns himself.

Sailing one of the Morse boats, Odell says, is “impractical, but it’s impractical like a poem. You don’t need a poem. You don’t need a boat with that much varnish on it,” he says.

Jakits takes little prompting to swing into a Bristol Channel Cutter sales pitch. “When you’re at the helm,” he says, “you look forward and you see the most beautiful, hand-crafted furniture that all has purpose. Everything is beautiful on it. You feel that you are on something that is very special. You walk into a nice home and you see beautiful rugs and china and artwork — it’s that same kind of feeling, but the boat is built for sailing around the world.

“The cabin top is 1-inch marine plywood with quarter-inch glass on either side,” Jakits continues. “Everything is done where the owners themselves can repair it. The sails are all manageable. She drives effortlessly. You row away from the boat, and you can’t stop turning around and looking at it.”

Jakits and Christensen own Indigo, the BCC in Mate’s book. “We were last year in the Channel Islands, anchored between all these plastic boats, and you can see where one sticks out above all the others,” says Jakits. “There’s a sort of magic about the boat, and they do have soul. Last year we sailed our Channel Cutter from here [Annapolis] to the Bahamas and back. And we left Dec. 6 in a snowstorm, and we were never scared in the boat,” despite what he describes as butt-kicking weather.

The Falmouth Cutter built by Morse is “exactly the same boat” as the BCC, says Christensen, except that it is 22 feet on deck and “a lot closer to Seraffyn,” the Pardey’s first Hess-designed boat. A new Falmouth Cutter had cost around $150,000, she says. Used, they cost $55,000 to $60,000. Used Bristol Channel Cutters can run more than $200,000.

Oya, who is Japanese and worked in marketing for a Japanese company, bought Sam L. Morse in the late 1990s after falling in love with the boats while sailing in California, Christensen says. “He went to the factory to buy one, and he ended up buying the factory,” she says. “He truly believed that if you just focused on the quality, the rest would follow.”

Jakits says that under Oya, the company was “riding on the coattails of the name of the boat, the reputation they have. The boats are the best little boats you can find. The factory looks like a temple,” he says. But that apparently wasn’t enough to keep it afloat.

Is there a way someone else could bring back the tough little cutters? “Maybe,” says Jakits. “I wish there was. The problem is that the work force that is building them is already at the point of retirement. All good things, in a way, fizzle out.”