" 'Til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove "
A few months back, I was asked to contribute a regular column to Ontario Sailor Magazine . As regional sailing magazines go, in my unabashedly biased opinion, I think it is a pretty good one, covering all aspects of the local sailing scene. You can pick up a current issue at any local reputable book store in Ontario, some marinas, a few chandleries, or you can subscribe at the link above. I recommend you do so. Then maybe I could get a raise.
I'll occasionally re-publish a back-issue column here from time to time. This is one of those times.
An Ode to Orphans
The good news: Sailboat manufacturers are still building new sailboats, and they are, generally, faster and better handling and more comfortable and better equipped than ever before.
The bad news: There are a lot fewer of them than a generation ago.
My wife likes to point out that I was born at least 20 years too late. I think “Gimme Shelter” may be the best song ever written or performed, I appreciate the occasionally troubled soul of triple Weber carburetors lying in wait under a Ferrari Daytona’s hood, and I feel that mankind’s greatest technological achievement was traveling to the moon.
So, it stands to reason that I have a soft spot for boats from the “Golden Age” of boatbuilding in the 60s and 70s.
As wonderful as new boats are, as shapely and sleek and polished and equipped and better than back in the day boats, they have become….safe.
Today we have so much more design knowledge, so much more computing power, and so much more real-world experience than four decades ago, that fewer chances are taken because there are fewer chances to take.
If you know what works, you do it.
And you don’t do anything else.
Flash back a few decades: There may not be bliss in ignorance, but there sure is enthusiasm. See, if you don’t know everything, if you don’t really know what won’t work or what won’t sell, you’re free to try damn near anything.
There were lots of boatbuilding hits, and a lot more misses, and a lot of enthusiasm as entrepreneurs discovered that it was possible. If you had a space big enough to hold a mould and enough cash to buy enough wood, resin, cloth, hardware and sails to build a boat that you could display at a boat show, then you could become a boatbuilder! No courses to take, no mandatory building codes to worry about, if it floated and moved under it’s own power and you could sell it, you were in business.
Looking back from our well-regulated and thoroughly thought out 21st century, it’s pretty amazing.
Some great designs came out of that era, boats that are still built today, in one iteration or another, like the Laser and the Hobie Cat and the Catalina 30.
Others, the vast majority, were far less successful.
In some cases, marques died an untimely death due to bad management, cashflow issues, or the vagaries of the economy. In other cases, the boats just weren’t very good- poorly designed or poorly built or poor performers. In many cases, it was simply a matter of a boat that was just too … weird.
And I love them all. From North Sea -inspired Nordica and Halman double enders built in the farmland of southern Ontario to comfortable and clumsy Grampians to the Tardis-like accommodations of the fish-tug shaped Tanzer 28, these boats represented a freedom of design that has been paved over by the superhighway of knowledge. Hell, no one in their right mind would ever even consider building a Willard Vega or Fales Navigator again: a center cockpit, pilothouse, sloop-rigged sail trawler? That idea, on paper is insane.
Yet dozens were sold.
The Golden Age saw some weird stuff, but also some better than fine boats that…
Just. Won’t. Die.
Look at the racing fleets throughout North America- for every close pointing late model J Boat on a course, there’s a dozen elderly C&Cs and Mirages nipping at her transom, waiting for the skipper to slip, still competitive (enough) three decades on.
And maybe that is one of the other reasons why there are far, far fewer manufacturers building far, far fewer boats today: They Just. Won’t. Die.
How many 30 year old cars do you see on the road today? Maybe boatbuilders could have, or should have, learned something from automakers back in the day- you don’t have to build it to last forever.
You just have to build it to last long enough.
I’m glad they didn’t.
I enjoy walking down the Dock and passing Sirens and Sirius 21s and Tanzer 22s and DS20s and Bluenoses and C&C 24s, seeing the optimism in the designs, the belief that if we could put a man on the moon, then, dadgummit! we can certainly build and sell a full keel, bowspritted and trailboarded, full headroom, 25 foot cruiser.
Alas, the newest Bayfield 25 is now more than a quarter century old. Bayfield Boats closed up in 1988. Tanzer boats died a year earlier. So Did Vandestadt and McGruer, Sirius builders. Nordica packed it in even earlier, while Halman managed to hang on until the mid 90s. Whitby, Ouyang, Mirage, Grampian, Aloha, Ontario, Hughes, CS, Paceship, McVay? Gone, gone, gone, gone, nada, done, closed, history, no more, goodbye.
We don’t go to the moon anymore, either.
I’m not sure we’re better off. BDJ.
Let me know what you think.
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