Dick Cooper - March 2010

 

Falling in Love with a Classy Old Lady
by
Dick Cooper

 

As most boat owners eventually do, I concluded in the spring of 2003, that I had a big-enough boat. After all, my classic Alden-designed Bristol 35 had graceful lines, handled easily, did not have too much teak and, most importantly, she was paid for.
She was a good Bay cruiser, a little too much keel for my liking, but I managed to stay off the bottom by keeping a sharper eye on the chart and the depth sounder. As I watched my sailing friends move on to bigger, newer yachts, I was content in knowing that my old Bristol still had her charm and could dance with the fleet (given her PHRF rating of 189).
That all changed a few months later, on a Friday night in July.
I was paying for a couple of bags of ice in the office of the Sailing Emporium when marina owner Art Willis said, “I just got the listing for a Hinckley Bermuda 40 in Tolchester. It’s in beautiful condition, loaded with gear and priced to sell quickly. Do you want to take a look at her?”
Art knew my weakness for a Bill Tripp design. I had openly lusted after the Bermuda 40 and Block Island 40s in the marina.
Naval Architect Jack Horner, writing for BoatUS Boat Reviews, described the Bermuda 40 as “a quintessential example of Tripp’s art and masterful eye for near-perfect balance. I think it can be safely said that this boat has stood the test of time, and, although the design is now [50] years old, many people, myself among them, still consider the Bermuda 40 one of the most beautiful yachts afloat.”
I agreed and the next morning, as I walked down the Tolchester dock toward the B-40 for sale, I could feel my pulse beating faster. She was stunning. Flag-blue, a gold accent line just below the rub rails ending in the Hinckley trademark talaria, the stylized version of Mercury’s winged feet. White decks with teak eyebrows on the cabin line. Rich teak combings framing a cockpit long enough to sleep in.
And then, there was the steering wheel.
It was a gleaming circle of inlaid teak that seemed to say, “touch me, turn me, take me hard alee.”
My love for the shabby little Bristol 35 with the small, cramped cabin was gone.
The decade we had spent together was forgotten in a minute. All I could see were the long, wide decks of the Bermuda 40 stretched out before me. The teak grate on the cockpit sole gripped my feet with a secure, safe feeling that I had never known standing at the helm of old what’s-her-name-Bristol-thing.
After wandering in awe through the Hinckley-finished main cabin and v-berth with their furniture-quality, polished wood cabinets, paneling and teak and holly sole, I was hooked.
I remember thinking, “There’s no reason I should not own this boat.”
I offered the asking price, which was five times more than I paid for my first house in 1972. Two other offers came in over the next five hours, but mine was first and at the end of the day, I was the owner of Hull #99, a Hinckley Bermuda 40 Mark II yawl built in Maine in 1971.
The Bermuda 40 has her roots in the Tripp-designed Block Island 40. Three Hinckley owners went to the company in 1958 and said they would buy new boats if they looked and performed like the BI 40. Tripp made some changes to the bow and stern, and the Bermuda 40 construction began in 1959 with Hull #1, Huntress. The Hinckley yard in Southwest Harbor, Maine, built 203 B-40s over the next 32 years. Huntress and number 203 Highlands are still actively sailed on the Chesapeake.
After my deposit check cleared, my joy was immediately followed by fear and anxiety, but never buyer’s remorse.
I have sailed since I was a kid and have owned boats most of my adult life, but suddenly I was back at the beginning of a long and steep learning curve.
Maneuvering a 40-foot, 9-inch vessel that weighs 20,000 pounds required a new skill set. On the sea trial, the previous owner explained that you have to start planning any approach well in advance. He illustrated his point by taking the boat out of gear shortly after entering Tolchester harbor. The boat’s momentum carried us at a sustained, comfortable speed in neutral as we glided along the fairway and prepared to dock. Only at the last minute did he slow the boat in reverse and then gently tap the throttle until we came to a stop in the slip.
He also gave me a packet of information about the history of the B-40 and a membership form for the Chesapeake Bay Bermuda 40 Association. “You will want to join this group,” he said. “It is a good way to meet other owners and share information about boat maintenance.”
I soon discovered that buying a Hinckley does not mean it is trouble free. The original engine had been replaced in 1996, but there were several issues that had to be worked out. After a first season of repairs and redesign, the diesel began to purr and we began cruising the Bay without fear of being towed back to port.
One of my first official acts was to rename my boat. It is an old superstition that a boat’s name should not be changed, but one look at this wonderful vessel told me her name was Tusitala. As a boy growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had read and reread Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In a book about Stevenson’s life, I discovered he had moved to Samoa in 1890, searching for a climate that would ease his suffering from tuberculosis. The Samoans called him Tusitala, “teller of tales” in their language. As a career journalist, I thought it was a fitting name for my boat.
At the suggestion of the previous owner, we joined the B-40 Association. A group of Chesapeake Bay B-40 sailors formed the club in 1977. They held their first rendezvous that year on the Rhode River. As the group aged, members bought bigger or smaller boats and some even moved into that strange world of power boating, but they have remained a close-knit group. While most of the members are on the Chesapeake, Richard and Agatha McClure of Singapore send in their dues every year.
One couple, Dick and Edythe Gantt, is completing a circumnavigation on Celerity, their 1983 yawl. They have been making the loop in stages over the last several years. When Dick needed medical assistance during the Southeast Asia passage, the McClures were there to help. The Gantts are refitting Celerity in Grenada and plan to sail her to Bermuda later this year before returning to the Chesapeake.
In January, the Gantts were awarded the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake’s James H. Fox Memorial Cruise Gold Medal for Celerity’s recent circumnavigation. They are only the second members in the 65-year history of the Club to be so honored.
Last year, the association sponsored a 50th Anniversary Cruise to celebrate the launching of the Huntress and the start of the B-40 production. Eighteen boats joined in as the fleet traveled the Bay with stops on the Wye River, St. Michaels, Oxford, Rhode River, Annapolis and Gibson Island. On the Annapolis leg, the fleet drew a crowd with Huntress and Highlands and several other B-40s tied up at the National Sailing Hall of Fame docks.
While my wife, Pat, and I have not made any blue water passages aboard Tusitala, we spend most weekends and summer vacations sailing her around the Bay. For a big boat, she is remarkably easy for a couple to sail. On a beam reach, her favorite point of sail, it just takes two fingers on the top of the wheel to keep her in the groove. When you have the jib, main and mizzen trimmed just right, she almost sails herself. She is not the fastest boat on the Bay and she does not point as high as newer designs, but she gives you a steady, confident feeling that if there is a problem, it is not the boat’s fault.
The B-40 has always been a beautiful boat, but her lines stand out even more now in an age when new boats too often look like fat wedges of pie. We have found it takes work to keep her brightwork shining, but it is worth the effort.
When we are at anchor, other sailors motor by and compliment us on her lines.
One fair summer day, we put her through her paces on Miles River and Eastern Bay. Off the entrance to Leeds Creek, we waved to a passing powerboat friend. Back at our slip in Higgins Yacht Yard in St. Michaels, the friend stopped by to tell us, “You have the prettiest boat on the river.”
He’s right.

Dick Cooper spent 36 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, and in 1972 won the Pulitzer Prize for General Local Reporting. He and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Maryland.