A homecoming queen and the king who built her

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A classic Chesapeake motor cruiser quietly made her 50th anniversary homecoming pilgrimage in June to her humble place of origin, an equally classic boatyard and “home for Neptune’s Darlings” on Maryland’s middle Eastern Shore. The 40-footer was designed and built by the legendary Ralph Wiley, who named her Sweet and Low (for reasons of his own), and she was launched in 1963.

Sweet and Low is a utilitarian cruiser that Ralph Wiley built as he transitioned out of sailboat racing.

Retaining her original name, Sweet and Low evoked memories of her colorful creator, who died in 1981 at the age of 88 and was one of the most notable Chesapeake designers. Wiley established his custom boatbuilding business on the eve of the Great Depression in 1929 as a distinctly old-fashioned boatyard, located in a deepwater cove off Town Creek in Oxford, Md. He sold his yard to two out-of-towners in 1965, lawyer John Case and designer/boatbuilder Edmund Cutts.

Today, the Cutts & Case Shipyard (www.cuttsandcase.com) preserves its charming character from an almost lost era, partly as a low-key kind of retirement and rehabilitation home to classic wooden yachts. Here, the sons of Cutts, Eddie Jr. and Ronnie, continue the family tradition of fine ship joinery and workmanship, but clients must learn to be patient. Wiley, a fine writer and raconteur, explained his slow-motion theory of boatbuilding thusly: “If a design is to be a work of art, it must be done without rushing and is likely to take months or even years instead of weeks. If one is to venture into the dangerous field of originality there must be no question of time limits, and the work must be pleasurable.”

A successful campaigner in regattas, Wiley raced a double-ender named Fox with his wife, Mary, as crew. He built this 39-footer in 1946 along the traditional lines of a Tancook whaler. Now in repose, she gathers kindly historic dust amid a secluded group of fraternal friends packed together tightly in a boat shed, awaiting restoration, new owners or, for some, breaking up.

As Wiley entered his 70s and yacht racing became too much of an effort, he began to think about a stout and stable, quiet and comfortable powerboat that would please other aging, frugal raghaulers like himself in retirement. His requirements were inspired by “lows”: low displacement and low fuel consumption, as well as sweet lines. Also, low initial cost and low maintenance because he provided little exterior brightwork and such that might demand many work hours with high labor costs.

Wiley was as innovative in construction and design ideas as Cutts, his equally colorful successor, who died in 2009 and is widely remembered as a gifted, highly opinionated boatman with an eye for originality. Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, says Wiley experimented with alternative deck construction methods (strip-planked athwartships) and was an early proponent of glue-strip planking. His papers and drawings are housed in the museum collections in St. Michaels, Md.

Boatbuilder Ralph Wiley opened his Oxford, Md., yard - now the Cutts & Case Shipyard - in 1929.

Ralph Houghton Wiley (1891-1981) “became known for his comfortable motorsailers, as well as yacht adaptations of traditional boats, such as Chesapeake Bay bugeyes and Tancook whalers,” says Lesher. “His innovative and original designs generally relied on local materials and techniques, such as deadrise V-bottom construction. A respected and well-loved personality in yachting circles, Wiley was visited frequently by cruisers passing through who enjoyed his storytelling and good humor.”

Sweet and Low’s hull, deck and house are built of glued and edge-fastened cedar strips, now sheathed in fiberglass and epoxy, according to her seventh and present owners, Christopher and Lois Chadbourne of Arlington, Va., who purchased her in 2010. The boat is berthed at Chalk Point Marine and yard-maintained at Alex Schlegel’s Hartge Yacht Yard on Tenthouse Creek in Galesville, Md., on the Bay’s middle Western Shore.

“Three boats were built by Wiley to this design, and ours is [Wiley] hull No. 52,” says Christopher Chadbourne. “Under a succession of Chesapeake Bay owners, she has cruised the Bay and the Eastern Seaboard as far north as Maine and as far south as the Bahamas. Powered by a single 6-cylinder diesel, she cruises at 8 to 10 knots. Since 1993, her last three owners have undertaken complete refits. We think she’s ready to face her next 50 years, and Lois and I — and our dog, Kip — hope to take her to Florida one winter.”

Incidentally, Wiley the writer was canny and shrewd in the way he carried out self-promotion. For example, rather than paying to advertise in Yachting magazine, he devised a clever method in which the magazine paid him to write in detail about his yachts. The copy was witty, entertaining and full of details and insight without being too condescending and boastful.

In a 1966 issue of Yachting, for example, he wrote about Sweet and Low as “The Other Man’s Boat,” although he cherished her as his own: “As it seemed probable that our boat would be operated and maintained on a retirement income, extreme speed, the maintenance of two high-speed engines and a gasoline consumption of 20 gph or thereabouts seemed unnecessary luxuries.” Wiley did not believe in recklessly throwing his money around.

A 1966 fuel bill of 50 cents per hour was his goal. “To a good Irishman, a rousing wake is a mark of affluence,” he propounded, “but it is a sinful waste of power in getting him to his final destination, and the same may be said of powerboats.”

Examining the wake of Sweet and Low at cruising speed, he noted, “There is no doubt of her Scottish ancestry, for little power is being wasted in stirring up the ocean. The hull rides level, the bow does not come up to obstruct vision and there is a minimum of pounding.” (Wiley would be aghast at the mountainous wake of some of today’s three-level behemoths, which shove and build large seas forward rather than part them delicately.)

S&L’s “ducktail” stern was another case of Wiley’s experimentation in that it “forms a built-in boarding and swimming ladder, a great factor of safety in case some old geezer should fall overboard,” he wrote. “It also smooths out the wake, improves propeller performance and provides a fine place to mount an auxiliary outboard motor” for a deckhouse-mounted skiff. Further proof of the hazards of a new design, he pointed out, was the oft-repeated role of the owner, forced to hose down the ducktail after a convenient night’s lodging for a dozen or so mallards.

Christopher and Lois Chadbourne are the seventh owners of Sweet and Low.

In designing the pilothouse, Wiley was inspired by the long-distance truck driver’s sleeper cab and mocked up the whole structure to study. “The younger generation will doubtless don a flowered shirt and enjoy the outside control station on the bridge [with sliding doors for deck access],” he wrote, “but the old-timers will prefer the cool shade and comfort of the pilothouse.” To reduce engine noise in the house, he turned to soundproofing material used in the telephone booth. Thus, when under way, “it is possible to converse in an ordinary tone of voice, a most desirable feature for anyone who has spent many years in sail.”

During my brief spin about the harbor as we set a scene for Annapolis photographer John Bildahl (www.bildahlphotography.com), the sound-muffling was put to a test as I relaxed in the pilothouse. Loud outbursts from Kip, a Tibetan terrier temporarily parked out of the way below in the saloon, raised the noise level considerably. The frisky pup displayed severe withdrawal symptoms when separated from his master, up high at the helm, and his mistress, on standby duty in the stern, ready with a boathook. I had to strain to listen to the engine purring over the yip-yapping Himalayan dog chants.

It just so happened that another Wiley yacht, a double-ended, cutter-rigged 46-foot ketch named Surf Bird, had just arrived after a nine-day cruise of the Chesapeake by owners Richard Hall and his wife, Heleny Cook, of Washington, D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Built in 1956 as a sloop, she was converted to a ketch by her original owner in the early 1970s. Hall, the boat’s second owner, bought her in 1989 and contracted with Cutts for a total refit in 2006-07 at a cost of $150,000. The restoration included a new engine and the patented “Cutts Method of Kevlar Cording” the entire hull, which carries a promise of no leaking. That claim has held up, Hall says.

Three other Wiley yachts are at rest with other vintage vessels in the Cutts boat shed, including Fox, although it is highly unlikely she would ever be broken up. But you’ll have to wait for a complete story on the Cutts & Case collection, including rare motorcycles, to sort things out.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

August 2013 issue