By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Lessons from America

The historians say the ship that won our independence from the Evil Empire, the British, was the pilot schooner. These ships did the blockade running for the colonies, keeping commerce going and colonists fed and informed. Historian H.I. Chapelle says the pilot schooner was the result of a trend toward,

greater dimensions and reduced displacement in proportion to size, combined with greater deadrise, finer ends and longer runs. . .

What is noticeable right off is the sharp bow. The lines within the blue box is Sultana, built and sailing around 1768, at 50 feet. The cod fish bow is evident here. These ships were quite seaworthy since the bow would not allow them to dive into ocean waves. It practiced as a flat junk bow in that regard.

However, by the 1770s schooners were being designed with sharp bows. These pilot schooners didn’t have to cross oceans.

The lines within the red box are from Flying Fish, named after designer Bob Fish, around 1850. While the deck lines are similar the lowest waterline shows how sharp Flying Fish was.

When pilot schooners were desperately needed in the War of 1812 young George Steers showed a precocious talent for design. He designed his first pilot schooner when he was 21 years old. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 21, but I’m not going to tell you what I was doing.

That aside, George was 30 when he designed America. It was based on the pilot schooner bow, with additional features. In this article we will look at three of those features. Before we do, it is worth mentioning that the one aspect of America which was copied immediately after her appearance was this sharp bow. While the British claimed the sails enabled her to win, or they claimed the rake of the masts enabled her to win, American designers didn’t.

They copied the bow. And yet there are two additional features of America well worthy of mention. They can be applied to small boats, as we will see.

The first feature is the rocker of the keel. Before this, keels, even when they angled down, were straight. In fact, yards went to great lengths to get long timbers which either were straight or could be cut along the grain to be as straight as possible. It was thought, any sort of curvature would ruin steering. Here in a drawing of America I have put in a red line which shows the rocker of the keel aft and well forward. You can see the keel turn up.

At the deepest point of rocker, Steers also put the widest beam, which is 55% of the distance from the bow to the stern.

I’ve drawn a black line at that point. In fact, when the British took the lines of America, they included a half-breadth of the frame at that point. The precise fellow who took the lines evidently saw this feature. He has put it at the 11th of 18 stations. The stations were about 5 1/2 feet apart.

Putting the deepest part of the keel and the widest beam at 55% of the length from the bow may have been originally due to the sharp bow. By putting more ballast and wetted surface aft of midpoint, the bow would be discouraged from digging too deep in the ocean waves during the crossing of 1851.

Would you like a smaller version of the 100’ America? William Atkin drew a America Junior, at 25 feet. While the sail plan is beautifully similar, the hull is not. Its’ deepest part of the keel is fully aft, with the widest point at the midpoint of the waterline. The planks have to be steambent. I imagine the men who built the original America loved her long gradual lines, as they wouldn’t have to wrestle with the planks to fair them.

Would you like to go even smaller, say about half the length of America Junior? How about the 14 foot June Bug by Philip Bolger. It has its widest beam and deepest rocker aft of the waterline midpoint.

I once came across a Midwest lake marina website in which the owner said June Bug was the fastest boat on the lake. I’m not surprised.

It is featured in the Bolger-Payson book, BUILD THE NEW INSTANT BOATS. In that book Dynamite says Mr. Bolger designed June Bug as a ‘mooring tender from which to work with heavy gear such as large mushroom anchors and concrete blocks.’

The original plans call for 59 square feet of sail. Since the beam is only 3 feet 3 inches on a flat bottom, any more would overpower June Bug. Now if you’ve got the bug to give her a schooner rig, or you have more than one young sailor in the family, I’d suggest buying two of the Tortoise sails. Put the mast at the midpoint of the boom for the foresail, and at the 1/3 point of the boom for the mainsail. Any more than 60 sf of sail would be too thrilling.

One final note about schooners. Sailboats should entertain you, or you’ll neglect them. The schooner yacht America was neglected by two of its original owners, so this can happen to the best of boats. Either a boat must be fun and fast or it must be comfortable to launch and return to shore.

Philip Bolger himself kept his Tortoise handy for many years; it was handy and comfortable to launch and dock, I’m sure. As far as being only 6 1/2 feet long, you can only sit in one place at a time anyway, so 6 feet doesn’t limit your enjoyment, only your expenses and worry. A schooner, however, should entertain you. It should look beautiful to your eye as you gaze at the masts and sails and wheel. The tackle, the shrouds, the turnbuckles and pulleys and sheets are all part of the beauty. There is a music to them. Enjoy the varnished gaffs, deadeyes, lanyards, blocks, and wood masts.

Most of us don’t remember the practical. We dispense with it as soon as it does the job, like a soup can. We remember what is beautiful. While we cast aside what alters and mutates, we remember what is always the same, even if we have to keep it that way. Enjoy varnishing the masts, sculpturing the booms and gaffs, painting the topsides, wrapping the lines, sanding the chines. They can only be done perfectly once, then that moment of perfect form and function is over. So let’s be grateful that we have something which is just as comfortable in Eden as it is in this century—a boat.

What else is moved by the invisible, the wind?


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