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Preview: Sailing with Bill Mayher on VITAL SPARK, A Concordia 31 Ketch

March 8, 2016

Bill Mayher takes us for a sail on his Concordia 31 Ketch VITAL SPARK – a perfect balance of New England workboat sturdy and 1950s yachty.

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– [Eric] Tell me about the balance of a ketch rig.

– [Bill] Well it seems to balance because the mizzen is so far aft, especially with a boomkin. It seems to wanna go into balance so you can always fiddle around with the mizzen trim and with the jib trim to find this sweet spot which, you know, we didn’t put a lot of effort in doing this. I mean it just wants to do it.

– And you see the boat kind of naturally round up in these puffs and then fall off in the lulls and that’s just kind of this seesaw effect of the sail playing on the underwater profile of the boat.

– Yeah, I think so. This is my first catch and it’s really wonderful. See you’re not at war with the boat ever. This is like a nice cow pony. Like she knows her job.

– Like the pony at the fair.

– Pony at the fair. Yeah not a speed demon, perhaps, but it feels like a sail boat. If it’s blowing over eight or 10 knots, it’s fine. The rudder and the keel are all one thing so it’s not a menace, lobster trap-wise. It’s not unpleasant to wake up early at an anchorage and go across the bay.

– Bill, this is a really broad companion way hatch. Is that kind of a typical Concordia detail?

– Yeah, all the yawls, as far as I know, have this wide hatch and it’s really great. The way the dodger works is this comes up like this and then there’s a screen that fills this whole area at night so you get a really big screened-in area. Not exactly the scoop, because it’s facing the wrong direction, but a lot air possible and if it’s too much air then you just slide the companion way shut and then you just get that much.

– [Eric] Wow, this is like a time capsule.

– Yeah. This boat is designed is designed for a family of four, with the kids sleeping in less than splendid conditions forward but pretty first class here. These are the famous Concordia berths. This is all set to go here. You do the canvas and then you tie this… Tie this down like that. To make your bunk up in the morning it’s done and then outta of the way and then when it’s time to go to sleep, you just drop it down, so you don’t have a lot of bedrolls and stuff that you have to deal with. It’s tucked away there. So that is one sweet berth.

– [Eric] You’re not a little guy.

– [Bill] Full head room. I’m six, two and I’ve got head room in here.

– [Eric] Right.

– So that’s, on a 31-foot boat, that’s a rare event. And so it’s great, it’s actually pretty great to be at sea because you know here we are. If you’re bouncin’ around, there’s a lot to hold on to. It’s a comfortable… This galley area is great, simple sink, fresh water, there’s a big icebox here. We have one butane stove. And these, really fantastic. This stove here, is a gimbaled burner, there’s a propane canister that screws into this so it’s gimbaled two ways. So this is the great cup of tea, hot chocolate, cup of soup, when under way.

– There isn’t a drop leaf table on center line.

– You know we’re holding this heavy peg. This swings out. Drop leaf sets down. So this is a butternut. It’s pretty nice, it doesn’t take up any room. Some part of my identity is having the stewardship as opposed to the ownership. I don’t really feel like I own it. If you do your own work and ya take care of things for a long time, they kinda last.

– [Eric] Where was the Concordia company at in its existence when The Vitals was built? What year are we lookin’ at here?

– [Bill] ’64.

– [Eric] 1964.

– Yeah, that was, I think, a pretty high water mark for Concordia. This was the year of a dozen or so or 20 Concordias lined up at the dock all summer long. This boat is a work boat kind of finish but it’s a very pleasing boat to lie in your bunk and review its construction, which is of course one of the greatest pleasures of owning a wooden boat or cruising in one. You can go through the order of the build, the carlings and the clamp and the deck beams and the cabin top and the… It’s just a wonderful way to do it. This is Massachusetts cedar for the ceiling. Woodwork is butternut with a satin finish. But this is definitely a family boat, and in an era when they used it pretty much every weekend and then went for a two or three-week family vacation. One of the things I’m saddest about is those vacation traditions seem to be lost now. You know, cruising down east is less of an option than it was. But when this boat was built and when the yawls were built, it seems like that was the deal.

– [Eric] You’ve owned The Vitals for?

– [Bill] I think 22 years. Yeah. She’s 51 years old.

– [Eric] Can you tell me what that is about? Your relationship with this boat?

– It’s just the perfect boat for my style of living, not just sailing. You know, I wasn’t a yacht club kid and the way I could go sailing was to race on boats and not complain. It’s not a goal of mine to have a hammer and tongs boat.

– [Eric] How big is The Vitals? She’s sparred. Quite a boat.

– Yeah, I think 48 feet would be the pickup line in a bar overall if somebody asked you big your boat was.

– 48 feet, you gotta big bow spread and then this tremendous boomkin out the back here.

– [Bill] Right.

– [Eric] But on deck, she’s–

– [Bill] 31 feet.

– [Eric] 31 feet.

– [Bill] 25 feet on the water.

– [Eric] Real little package here.

– [Bill] Yeah, yeah I think that’s, package is a good word.

– [Eric] Right?

– [Bill] There’s a lot to it and not a lot extra.

– Can you talk us through kinda your experience with a ketch in this kinda configuration of the cockpit.

– Well, this is really a cat bull cockpit. It’s not a offshore boat by any means because in fact the cockpit drains go below the water line where we heel over. So if you took a big green one aboard, it would be there for the duration.

– You’re down in it, I mean it’s a big bathtub here.

– Yeah, yeah.

– This kind of two long bench seats, big bridge deck with space to put your feet either side of the mizzen.

– And the bridge deck is a Concordia thing. The yawls have the same bridge deck. Two people can sit there. My wife, Caroline, often finds herself lying with her head up to windward and it’s a wonderful bunk, in fact, she’s been known to go to sleep almost instantaneously when we head off.

– Seems amazing to me, Bill, we’ve set our sails, we’ve come out, it’s blustery, kind of a puffy day out here on the reach. But as the boat gets loaded up, she’ll fall off a little bit, and then as it lightens up, she’ll round up a little bit but she kind of– We’re not steering the boat, the boat’s steering itself. Now, there’s no autopilot.

– I believe that is your standard rack and pinion autopilot.

– What are we lookin’ at here?

– Just a bronze worm gear to a transom hung rudder. The rudder’s right hangin’ off the transmit. It’s not an internal thing. It’s hangin’ on gudgeons, like the small dingy. Rack and–

– Yeah, this is centerline, these three stripes, if you could see those. I mean the rudder is doing very little.

– So that right there, you know that your rudder’s on center line.

– Right.

– And we’re kinda gonna come up into this puff. This is fascinating.

– Yeah.

– Come up into this puff, and then that head sail’s gonna get a little bit of breeze on.

– [Bill] It is fascinating.

– [Eric] It’s amazing.

– [Bill] I mean, I should have more confidence. I should be down below cooking dinner and stuff as we’re going to windward.

– [Eric] Makin’ us a cup of tea.

– [Bill] I don’t do that so often but…

– You wanna take us through a tack on The Vitals here? How do you tack a boat like this?

– Well you just take the wheel and you steer it through. When it’s quite breezy, I begin to bring her back a little before but then she tends to get kinda knocked out. So I’m takin’ her like that and anticipating holding her up. And then you can really feel her in the groove and feel her accelerate.

– So you just turn the wheel?

– You just turn the wheel. There’s no sheets to trim.

– Main is on its own little traveler, vision is just sheeted to a single point on the boomkin.

– [Bill] Right.

– [Eric] Jib, club comes across and away you go.

– The jib sheet, when one needs to tend it, is over here and there’s a winch here and then if you wanna trim her back in again and then cleat her off.

– It’s all right here. In this very, very safe-feeling cockpit.

– If we had more friends, we might need a more complicated boat, but… It’s mostly just the two of us. The idea of this boat is to have it really balanced and comfortable. Caroline didn’t come into the marriage as a committed blue water sailor by any means. And she’s a good sailor and a she’s a good helms-person. The fact that this does have this balance and this kind of comfort level is really great for her and great for me. Especially as we get older, you know. It seems like this is gonna be a fun boat to have around for a long time.

– Talk to me about the style of this boat and while, I think she was built, very simply. Plank on frame.

– Yeah.

– She wasn’t overdone in any way as being completely yachted up or tarted up, more of a painted work boat finish, her whole life, I would think.

– Oh yeah.

– But you see this incredible like, scroll work at the top of the rudder head and these little details that were, must have just been a signature of her builder.

– I think it’s Pete Culler’s stuff. He had a wonderful eye for scale and flourishes even though nobody was a stronger advocate for authentic design, no frills design. He was also a frills guy in a sweet way.

– But not something, not a carved rudder head of mahogany with 12 coats of varnish that you could see your reflection in.

– Right, yeah.

– Subtle, carved, painted work boat finish.

– Right.

– On these very subtle details which just really set this boat off.

– That’s one of the great pleasures of working on this boat. If you paint a wooden boat every year, your hands pretty much are everywhere many times. And sanding this scroll work here on the rudder head is a pleasure around that curve and I feel like I’m back in touch with the builders, back in touch with– I’m goin’ into what, 22 years on doing this? It’s pretty fun to revisit that. It’s kinda like dancing with your wife after a long marriage. I can make this rail cap actually look pretty good. But if you give me a big varnished surface, then that’s really a challenge for me. If you look right along here–

– [Eric] Wow.

– That looks like the big boys.

– [Eric] What kind of wind speed do you need to get this boat sailin’ along?

– [Bill] I would say eight-ish is when she picks up her heels and starts to feel like a sailboat. Below that, it’s the 30-horsepower jib.

– [Eric] Motor sail.

– Yeah. Yeah. And it’s a wonderful little engine. It’s a three-bladed propeller, so it’s got a lot of dig and she goes along nicely, and–

– So under eight knots, would you, light air, you’re goin’ somewhere, got the motor goin’, motor sailing.

– [Bill] Right.

– [Eric] Would you have everything up, main, mizzen, jib, or just jib and mizzen?

– [Bill] Oh, sure. You trim her in and she goes fine.

– [Eric] It’s not makin’ a lot of noise.

– [Bill] And you have great visibility.

– Right.

– So it’s not, it’s just not a problem.

– And then eight to what? What kind of wind speed would you need to start thinking about reducing sail in some meaningful way?

– Well I think over 20. It sails fine to 20, and then Caroline and I will just take down the main sail.

– Just dump the main.

– Just dump the main.

– Right.

– And she sails, you know, instead of going to windward at five knots, she goes to windward at four and a half knots. It points nearly as high and so she has that, that easy motion and she tacks in a very nice orderly way that’s not a womp or boom situation where it’s tearing off of the other tack and you think… I mean, I make it a big deal about how well-behaved this is, but she is. You don’t have to have a speed demon boat when the next anchorage is two and a half miles away. There’s always a possibility, it’s not like going down the Jersey coast where if you don’t make it you’re in some kind of inlet pickle. Here, there’s always somewhere good, I guess, so I’ve become an advocate of the slower boat. Still one that’s fun to sail, still one that acts like a sailboat. That’s absolutely essential. Four and a half, five knots, we can get there in a nice way.

– So how old are these sails? They must–

– 30 years.

– They must have a memory.

– 30-plus.

– Yeah?

– Yeah, they furl themselves.


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