Sailing Forward from Modern to Traditional
By Bruce Bradley
Shirley and I joined the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club in 1996, and in 1999 bought a new 38-foot Beneteau cruising sailboat, Ode To Joy. Over the next eleven years we sailed out of our home port at the GPYC. We cruised on all the Great Lakes (except Lake Ontario), sailed DRYA races and eight Port Huron-to-Mackinac races, and did many day sails on Lake St. Clair. While most of our sailing was cruising and day sailing, we did enjoy racing, especially the Mackinac races with our family-based crew consisting of our three grown children and two spouses, all excellent racers. Sailing Lake Superior, northern Lake Michigan, the North Channel and Georgian Bay were some of our most memorable cruises.
Over the years we equipped the boat for cruising and racing with all the modern conveniences, including the latest electronics: autopilot, radar, chart plotter, wind direction/speed, VHF with AIS, speed and depth sounder. We added an electric windlass and an electric winch. Other notable improvements included a large capacity inverter, an elaborate stereo system, complete cockpit enclosure with screens, and a crane to lift the dinghy’s outboard motor up to the transom. Both mainsail and jib were roller-furled with the main rolling up into the mast, a common Beneteau feature.
During the summer of 2010 we sailed/motored to our summer house on Cape Cod through Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, Hudson River, New York Harbor, Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, and along the southern Rhode Island and Massachusetts coast. (A narrative of the trip was published in the late fall 2010 and winter 2011 issues of The Grosse Pointer). During the summers of 2011 and 2012 we cruised the New England Coast, which included a month spent exploring the coast of Maine, with its beauty resembling Lake Superior, the North Channel and Georgian Bay, although differentiated by tens of thousands of lobster pots and salt water. Our final trip in Ode To Joy, with all its modern conveniences, was a cruise to the Bahamas in the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013 via the Intracoastal Waterway to West Palm Beach, Florida, and across the Gulf Stream.
Back to the Future
I began my sailing career as a child on Long Island Sound, day sailing on a 19-foot John Alden-designed “Sloop Sakonnet” and cruising on my grandfather’s 44-foot Herreshoff, a Fishers Island 31, named Procyon. Our family frequently cruised the New England coast on Procyon, creating wonderful memories and a love for big-boat sailing and cruising. I vividly recall my father and grandfather talking at length about the beautiful design and workmanship of Herreshoff, how well the boat sailed, its perfect balance and ability to handle the chop off the New England coast, especially Buzzards Bay.
Procyon was designed by Sidney DeWolf Herreshoff under the watchful eye of his father, “Cap’n Nat,” and was built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1929. The boat was the the sixth hull of fourteen boats in its class, which were built mostly for residents of Fishers Island, New York. In those days the size of the boat was usually described by its waterline length, which is 31 feet; thus the class was named “Fishers Island 31”. The dimensions are: LOA 44 feet; LWL 31 feet; beam 10 feet 6 inches; draft 6 feet 2 inches; displacement 18,000 pounds; and sail area 870 square feet. Procyon was originally named Azura. Today her sister-ship Torch, hull #7, is on display in the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island.
My Grandfather reluctantly sold Procyon in 1959 to a sailor and author at the well-known yacht design firm of Sparkman Stevens, Francis L. Kinney. I have always had an interest in Procyon and over the last several years I developed a growing interest in finding her. During the summer of 2012 I had the opportunity to sail on another sister ship, Kestrel, (also owned by the Herreshoff Museum). After a great sail that lived up to everything said about the “Fishers Island 31”s, I asked the museum if they could locate Procyon. They discovered her about three miles from our summer home on Cape Cod, and for sale by Steve Ballentine, of Ballentine’s Boat Shop, which is highly regarded for restoration and preservation of classic and antique boats. She was in good condition with stunning brightwork, the original teak deck and mast, and a well preserved hull. Fate was knocking; I bought her! (I had actually seen her a few years before, not realizing it was Procyon.)
After fourteen wonderful years sailing Ode to Joy with all its modern cruising amenities, we put her up for sale.
The story of Procyon is about much more than finding my grandfather’s boat. It is about going back from the modern to the classic boat and discovering that the basics of sailing without many of the modern amenities and technology can be very rewarding. Especially significant is the excellent performance of the old designs. Procyon is a very fast boat.
When I grew up sailing we had no electronics other than an RDF (radio direction finder). We had ice for refrigeration and battery power only for lights and engine starter. Navigation tools were a hand-bearing compass, parallel rules, dividers, navigation books with tables (tides, currents etc.), paper charts, and our noses. We also had no roller furling, used a mechanical windlass for hauling up the anchor and had a sounding line for water depth. We had running back stays and steered with a tiller. Yet all in all, we managed to get along quite well.
We spent our first sailing season with Procyon (August and September 2013) learning the boat, which is much longer and heavier than the Beneteau, has more sail area, is steered with a tiller, has running back stays and is faster. We found Procyon to be just as easy to sail, if not easier, since she has a self-tending, club-footed jib, is beautifully balanced, has wide teak decks, and has better visibility from the cockpit. Shirley and I can handle her comfortably. The previous owner would often sail single handed in the right weather. Procyon is much more challenging in heavy winds since the mainsail has a large sail area and reefing is done by traditional, slab reefing. With a little experience, we were able to master heavy weather fairly well. Setting the sails and furling require more effort than the modern rig. The large main is furled on the boom and requires effort to haul up; but I can still do it, thanks to a good winch and workouts with my physical trainer. The jib is hanked on to the headstay and furled on the club boom. Hauling up the jib requires very little effort as it is relatively small. This extra effort is a small price to pay for such a magnificent sailing boat. With her deep “V” hull, long forefoot keel and weight, she handles the heavy choppy seas of Buzzards Bay far better than any fin keel boat. She points higher than our Beneteau and sails fast, consistently sailing over eight knots in moderate-to-heavy breeze and over seven knots to windward.
We did learn of a new hazard, though. Often, while out sailing, we would notice many other boats sailing toward us on near collision courses. It turned out that we were the subject of many “photo-ops” and, of course, loved it.
We had our first overnight shakedown cruise over Labor Day Weekend, 2013, when we joined the Barrington Yacht Club cruise at Cuttyhunk Island, a day sail from our home on Cape Cod. We had another couple aboard, and the accommodations worked out very well for the two couples. We were warmly received by many old friends who enjoyed having a classic boat join the fleet.
My philosophy on equipping and maintaining the boat is, first and foremost, to maintain its historical and classic integrity. As much as possible, everything that is visible should reflect the appearance and functionality of the original design. Updated features that are not easily seen, but make sailing and cruising more enjoyable and safer include a modern diesel engine, hot and cold pressurized water, refrigeration unit in the icebox, automatic bilge pump, and a small Garmin GPS, which includes depth and speed, mounted on a lever that is only visible when it swings into the companionway when underway. We have been able to maintain the interior in its original configuration and have only replaced cushions and worn out plumbing fixtures. The exterior is also original with only slight modifications to the running back stays, new cockpit cushions, and a much improved full batten mainsail. We even replaced the need for an autopilot with a simple system to “lash” the tiller for those long straight runs and for tending to other tasks. This is often not necessary since the boat is so well balanced the heading can be controlled by the set of the sails alone.
Our second season, the summer of 2014, brought many new experiences and friendships as a result of owning and sailing a classic Herreshoff. The first major event was a family reunion with my siblings and cousins who sailed on Procyon many years ago when it belonged to my grandfather. It was a wonderful way to bring the family back together. We began racing in a weekly evening sailing series where we met other area sailors as both crew and competitors. We had no trouble finding crew to sail on our classic, and won our first race. We joined the nearby Buzzards Yacht Club, a small informal club with great sailing programs and were able to participate in their PHRF race series. We cruised to Mystic Seaport Museum (three days each way) to participate as an exhibit in their annual Classic and Antique Boat Rendezvous. We were pleased to be given the prize for the best restored sailboat over 40 feet. At the end of the summer we cruised to the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island, (where she was originally built in 1929) for their annual regatta. We raced against some famous Herreshoff classics and enjoyed being part of their history. It was a great summer!
I suppose that owning an eighty-five-year-old classic sailboat is a step back in time —which, of course, it is. But it also represents a huge leap forward in the enjoyment of sailing, family, and friends. In that respect, it is something of a time machine that allows us to select the past, present or future anytime we step aboard.