Skip to main content

Bug-eyed over an old bugeye

Sometime in murky August, a maritime apparition reminiscent of a Chesapeake past will materialize through the summer haze — a vessel to be noticed and admired sailing out of Annapolis. Look for three sails set on a ketch rig, slightly raked aluminum spars and an extra-long bowsprit with rails.

Image placeholder title

She is a 1969 Kenner Skipjack 35 named Sarah E., a two-masted, recreational bugeye of overkill fiberglass construction with an almost classic skipjack hull. Her new home port is the end of a dock at Watergate Village, Back Creek.

Bugeyes dominated the Chesapeake’s oyster fishery in the 19th century before being gradually replaced after World War II by the smaller, more inexpensive skipjacks. Their sailing rigs came down, and most were converted to power or abandoned. The 50.6-foot Edna E. Lockwood, built in 1889 and now a static exhibit docked at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, is the last Bay bugeye retaining her sailing rig and working appearance. She dredged and carried cargo for an amazing 78 years until she retired to the museum life in near terminal condition in 1968 and was later revived. She once carried an impressive 1,713 square feet of sail, compared with the Kenner skipjack’s 650 square feet.

Around 50 of these Kenners were built by the Kenner Boat Company, operated by brothers Bill and Dick in Knoxville, Arkansas, from 1948 to the late ’70s. The Kenners were prolific builders and offered the Skipjack 35 in bare-hull kits and factory-finished, as was the Sarah E. Other notable Kenner sailboats included the Privateer 26 and 35, the Herreshoff double-ender Rozinante and the Kittiwake 23. They also turned out large houseboats, powerboats, jonboats and even plywood pirogues.

How our Kenner showed up here from the West Coast is a charming tale of a young Maryland emergency physician who was smitten by this traditional design and found what he was looking for late last year in Tacoma, Washington. “A trucking company transported this heavy, 49-foot [LOA] vessel across the country last December in appalling storm conditions. It took three weeks and was an adventure for the driver,” says owner Matt Sasser, 35, of Eastport, Maryland.

Kenner Skipjack 35

Blocked up at the Whitehall/Hinckley Yacht Yard on Whitehall Creek, outside Annapolis, this centerboard pleasure yacht presents a humongous, ponderous appearance, even without a rig. Her impressive 13-foot bowsprit has a railed forward perch with a wooden walkout platform extending far ahead; a massive barn-door rudder exits imposingly from her transom.

As former owners of a 28-foot S2 aft-cockpit sloop, Sasser and his wife, Sarah, had two other demands that required a large deck space for roaming. “Our 90-pound Italian mastiff, Guinness, has bad hips and knees, and our English bulldog, Sam Adams, also takes up considerable room,” he explains, laughing.

New residents in the Eastport section of Annapolis off Spa Creek, the Sassers have fully embraced the sailing life and joined the friendly Eastport Yacht Club overlooking the mouth of the Severn River. After walking away from a disappointing Kenner Skipjack for sale in North Carolina, Sasser began searching the Web, flew west and found his boat in Tacoma. Although this Kenner was well constructed and maintained and passed a recent survey with few notations, she may well test their skills. They are young and able, however, and keen to handle any challenges.

“The surveyor found the expected soft decks, non-marine-grade wiring, and [it] needed bulkhead reinforcement,” Sasser says. “He did a resurvey for me and did the engine, too, a 2008 55-hp Westerbeke that started right up. I negotiated the price down to $14,000 and found a boat transporter facing an empty load returning east, who did the job for $7,000.”

After winter and spring relented in their weather onslaughts, Sasser and friends Dennis Krizek, Jim Rosenthal and Don Heklar began stripping and prepping the hull for DIY Awlgrip. “I am a home-tools-handy guy, but my boat-wise friends loan me what I need for boat work,” he says.

Matt Sasser's Kenner Skipjack 35 should be right at home on the Chesapeake after the restoration is completed.

“On my own, and for the first time, I took up some decking, recored and fiberglassed over it,” he adds, proudly. “I drilled and injected epoxy resin into other soft areas — first time doing that, too — and I’ve prepped the hull for my first attempt at painting a boat [roll and brush]. Most of the sanding to the gelcoat level was done to remove a bad paint job. We’re planning a launching/naming reception in mid-August.”

When I visited the Kenner on the hard at Whitehall in early June, I hoped not to find one of those amateur backyard projects that never end. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality construction and the boat’s pleasing lines and sheer. To confirm my non-professional opinions, I asked two Annapolis friends to have a look. Fred Hecklinger is a surveyor and authority on traditional Bay watercraft, and Capt. Iver Franzen is a naval architect and former associate of the late Annapolis designer Tom Gillmer. (In fact, Gillmer had something to do with the Kenner 35 and Privateer 26 designs.)

The courtly Hecklinger, not easily impressed or fooled, reports that the “basic concept of the hull is very good; looks almost like a real skipjack hull. Of course, it has more freeboard and is not low to the water as to haul in an oyster dredge, but it is well done for what it is. I see no evidence of it coming apart. All in all, a good representation and quite good proportions, except for the somewhat high aft end of the cabin house for providing standing headroom.”

Franzen likes the boat, too. “It harkens back to a time when boats were boats and houses were houses and never the twain met,” he says. “I particularly like the big quarterdeck, great for an awning overhead and lawn chairs. … I especially like those little bronze dolphins that tie in to the monkey rails surrounding the aft deck. That was definitely a Gillmer touch.”

Vintage Kenner skipjacks are still out there. I located one in the Northern Neck village of Weems, Virginia. Wild Goose has two roller-furling headsails and is for sale for $8,000 by her owner, Allan Young. A restored 1977 Kenner 35 is under cover in Port Charlotte, Florida, with an asking price of $94,900.

As for the Kenner Boat Company, it has long since dissolved, but Bill Kenner Jr. and his son, Dalton, are still building small powerboats in Knoxville as K2 Marine, along with other Kenners — Gary, Dale and Devin. In 1970, the company had 350 employees.

The Kenners still have the Skipjack 35 mold, but it’s in a field and overgrown with weeds and brush. “There’s a tree growing out of one hatch,” says Bill Jr., laughing. “And the mold for the rudder and bowsprit is somewhere out there, too. Hey, you wanna buy the mold and go into the boatbuilding business?


LOA: 49 feet

LWL: 32 feet

LOD: 35 feet

BEAM: 11.8 feet

DISPLACEMENT: 12,000 pounds

SAIL AREA: 650 square feet

DRAFT: 2.6 feet (board up), 6 feet (board down)

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

August 2014 issue