Wind in Their Sails -August 2009

The magic of a wooden boat

by: Joshua H. Balling

Standing at the massive wheel of White Wings as the 76-foot sloop planed across the waves outside Nantucket Harbor, Donald Tofias was a man in his element. The commercial real-estate-agent turned wooden-boat-builder kept one eye on the taut white sail driving the vessel forward, the other on his crew working the lines and winches.

It was late August 2008, and Tofias had White Wings out for a pleasure cruise, though the vessel – like her sister-boat Wild Horses – was also built for racing. A week before, in the heat of the annual Opera House Cup, he was driving Wild Horses hard, locked in a heated battle with a 12-meter at a mark-rounding when her mainsheet began to tear. Tofias decided to abandon the race rather than cause further damage to the sail or fall woefully behind.

He was disappointed, but not devastated. It had been a successful Race Week for the Ws. White Wings had also torn a sail in the Opera House, and limped home to a 38th-place finish flying just her jib. But Tofias’ two smaller W-boats, which call Nantucket home – Harvey Jones’ Mustang and Wendy Schmidt’s Equus – finished second and third in the classic wooden sailboat race.

“It happens. You get good days and bad days. Overall, I’m very pleased with our four days of racing. We had a nice day on the water in the feeder race from Hyannis before the wind died, and there was some great racing in the PHRF races. I’m disappointed Wild Horses and White Wings ripped their mainsails, but we had great starts. I’m really pleased with how well Wendy Schmidt did on Equus and Harvey Jones did on Mustang,” said Tofias, who grew up around boats, and always considered sailing a sport and a hobby. But it became a true passion when he quit the commercial real-estate business to form his own company dedicated to building the state-of-the art wooden sailboats that have become perennial contenders every August in the Opera House Cup.

Sleek and graceful, the W-boats sail in the Spirit of Tradition class. With cold-molded hull construction and high-tech designs, they are traditional-looking above the water with modern underbodies, said Tofias, who launched his company in 1998 with the release of White Wings and Wild Horses. The smaller W-46s Equus, Mustang and Zebra, which spends its summers in Maine, followed in 2001.

“Racing day-sailers is really the business we’re in. We helped create the Spirit of Tradition Class,” said Tofias, who is hoping to sell one or both of the W-76 boats and start construction on another W soon. The company has designs and preliminary drawings for seven boat-lengths, from 37 feet to nearly 150.

“I’d love to build one of the big ones, but I’m not doing it on spec. “If the right client came along…,” he said of possibly building the biggest W yet.

Wild Horses spent the winter in the Caribbean racing for the Superyacht Cup in Antigua, in the St. Barths Bucket, and other stops on the winter yacht-racing circuit. White Wings remained in Newport, but both boats were out on the water again this spring, racing in the New York Yacht Club Spring Regatta and the Tiedemann Memorial Regatta in Newport, and as of presstime were heading to Maine for the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta before returning to Nantucket for Race Week and the Opera House Cup. Early in the week, White Wings will take on Wild Horses in a match race to benefit Nantucket Community sailing, which will auction off seats on the boats for the contest.

Wooden magic

There is something magical about a wooden boat. It is alive in ways its fiberglass brethren can never hope to imitate. It forgives mistakes by its master in ways newer, more rigidly-constructed boats can’t.

It often inspires – even requires – fanatical care and massive infusions of cash, but rewards the “boatstruck” with epic days under sail, a feeling of being one with the wind and water, and provides fodder for countless stories on those winter days that seem to stretch forever between sailing seasons.

But there is also something less concrete, more existential about the wooden boat, perhaps a connection to the past that seems more and more fleeting as the 21st century unfolds before us. It’s something Tofias is trying to keep alive.

In Michael Ruhlman’s book “Wooden Boats,” Jon Wilson, publisher of Wooden Boat magazine and the man credited with keeping alive the wooden boat tradition in the United States, says “Wooden boats . . . have a soul. Wooden boats . . . are alive. It’s as if the grace of the forest trees was bequeathed in abundance to every plank sawn . . . The care of living things requires deeper commitment and responsibility.”

Pretty heavy stuff, but then again, wooden boats are more than just a hobby for most who own and covet them. They border on obsessions, and have convinced otherwise perfectly sane men and women, entrepreneurs and model parents, to forsake mortgage payments, youth soccer games and job responsibilities when confronted with the opportunity to possess the perfect wooden boat.

There is also the legacy, born of legendary vessels with majestic names like Intrepid, Weatherly and Gleam, wooden icons of a different age, that harkens back to a less complex time unsullied by the diesel engine.

The Age of Sail, it was called, and its sports cars were the graceful sloops, catboats and schooners owned by captains of industry like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Mellon – powerful men who raced their floating chariots on a grand scale, in international spectacles like the America’s Cup, and with far less attention on the waterways of San Francisco Bay, Newport Harbor and the Hudson River.

The W-Class vessels epitomize all that is special about wooden boats, but with a 21st-century twist. They are a unique blend of timeless naval architecture, high-tech materials and space-age engineering. Sleek and streamlined above, they are agile and light, and designed to be sailed by a crew of four or raced by 12-16. The massive wooden wheel dominates aft, easily accessible to the skipper from any point astern.

Below decks, elegant simplicity rules the day. Polished hardwood and gleaming metalwork glow softly in the light which streams through a pair of deck hatches. There are four berths for crew or guests, a sink, stove, refrigerator and head with a toilet, sink and large shower. They are outfitted with auxiliary engines and state-of-the-art electronics and hardware.

Tofias understands the romance, the obsession, and the skill required of building – and owning – a wooden boat. Sailing is in his blood. It has been since he was a child.

“I grew up sailing and racing wooden boats. My first boat-building experience – I thought I was helping – was when I was 6 years old watching a sailfish get built. Growing up, we had a house right next door to the Bigelow Boat Yard, and as a young kid I watched wooden boats get built,” said Tofias, who has sailed and raced everything from Beetle Cats and Wiano Seniors to 12-meters.

“Building with wood is so current for our time. It’s a renewable resource. You plant a tree, let it grow 40 or 50 years, cut it up, and the seeds can grow new trees. Wooden boats have been built for 5,000 years. The United States has a 300-year-old tradition of wooden boat-building. I love that connection through the generations.”

Bigger, faster, better

Designed by the late Joel White, the son of writer E.B. White, the W-Class grew out of Tofias’ appreciation for the Concordia, a type of classic yawl he fell in love with at the vessel’s 50th anniversary in 1988, and is loosely modeled on the New York 50, a Nat Herreshoff design that’s 50 feet long on the waterline, and 70 feet above it.

It also grew out of his desire, so common among boat owners, for something bigger, something faster, and something better. He was also looking for a life change.

“I had this vision of building one-design race boats, so in the mid-1990s I decided that I had done the real estate thing long enough, and I started the boat company in 1996. It really was a way to sail full-time, and do what I really wanted to do, build a fleet of one-design boats.”

So he approached White, a friend and MIT-trained naval architect, and together they hatched the idea of the W-Class. White got to work designing what eventually became Wild Horses, but soon fell ill. Tofias e-mailed him a note telling him he could put the project on hold until he got better.

“He sent me a fax saying wild horses couldn’t keep him away from the project, so that’s how the first boat got its name,” Tofias said.

Wild Horses was launched at the Brooklin Boat Yard in Maine June 23, 1998.

“It was fabulous. Everything fit, the boat was gorgeous, and we sailed in Maine for a week doing shakedown cruises, came down to Newport, started racing, going back and forth to Maine, and we were here in 1998 for the Nantucket Bucket and the Opera House Cup,” said Tofias, who over the past decade has taken the boat up and down the East Coast, to the Caribbean and Europe for winter racing.

The second boat, White Wings, was named in honor of White, who died just before the launch of Wild Horses.

“We launched White Wings Sept. 23, 1998, and sailed her south to Florida. Then both boats went down to the Caribbean, cruising and sailing in the British Virgin Islands, Antigua and St. Barths. We sailed down to Martinique, and shipped them to Majorca. We spent the second summer with both boats in Europe sailing in the Western Mediterranean. Because of that, the Spirit of Tradition Class has grown very big in Europe.”

Before White died, he was hard at work designing a smaller W-boat, which became the W-46. Two of them spend their summers on Nantucket, and can often be seen in and just outside the harbor being put through their paces by islanders Chad Hudnut on Jones’ Mustang, and Jeremy Pochman, on Schmidt’s Equus.

“The big boats are fabulous, but they are more labor intensive, and they might not be as appropriate for out here as the smaller ones are,” said Tofias.

“Naturally, the bigger the boat, the faster they will be. But the concept is essentially the same. They are racing day-sailers, though the bigger boats do have long-range cruising ability.”

The sputtering economy hasn’t exactly helped Tofias’ business model, but he tweaked it a bit this winter to include more W-boat charters, so he’s staying afloat. He’s currently in talks with two Nantucket families to build a pair of new W-46s, and the company is selling “a lot” of Downeast Peapods, the double-ended wooden rowboats loosely based on Nantucket whaleboats built in Maine by a company he bought in 2007.

“The economy has obviously had an effect. There’s not as much activity as we’d like on the sales end, obviously,” he said. “But with the charters and the Peapods, I guess you can say we’re compensating.”

Light, strong and built to last

W-Class boats are cold-molded, a process of building up the hull using multiple layers of thin, vertical-grain wood veneer, which makes them incredibly light and incredibly strong, compared to fiberglass, “which uses an incredible amount of petrochemical resources,” Tofias said.

Fiberglass boats have other drawbacks as well, as inevitably, cracks will appear in the hull, and over time, they will absorb water.

Metal-hulled boats are no better, Tofias said.

“Steel boats rust, there’s no way around that. Aluminum boats are easily built and fabricated, but eventually the metal corrodes, and when stainless steel is put next to aluminum, it separates,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of work the last 10-15 years on carbon-fiber boats, which are incredibly light, but there have been problems with them delaminating.”

Which brings Tofias back to wooden boats.

“I think we’ve come full circle,” he said. “The problem with a plank on frame boat, is that the wood is always working, and water is getting in. Every five, 10, 15 years, you have to rebuild them, and replace the planks, the frames, or both. The beauty of a cold-molded boat is that the entire hull, every layer, is sealed in epoxy. If the builder has done a good job, there’s no way water can penetrate it.”

Living history

Tofias is proud of the boat-building legacy his company is carrying forward.

“I’d like to say with our boats built in Maine, the same with the Alerions out here on Nantucket, we’re continuing a 300-, now almost a 400-year-old tradition, using renewable resources and skills handed down over generations,” said Tofias, who lives and runs the W-Class Yacht Company out of Newport, R.I. He’s also a founding board member of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport.

“There’s probably no finer profession in New England than to be known as a master shipwright, maintaining these beautiful old boats, and building new ones,” he said. “The whole skill set is not much different than what it was when the founding fathers came, and found an incredible resource in these incredibly tall trees. When we were still colonies, the king’s soldiers would go around, and burn a crown under the tallest trees. They used the long planks for hulls and masts, and shipped the whole lot over to England. For well over 200 years, Britannia ruled the waves, and the basis was having the fastest ships, and the best wood. To do that they needed access to trees over 200 feet tall, and straight. They found them here.”

Unfortunately, they also managed to cut almost all of them down. But they’re coming back.

“If you look at pictures of New England from over 200 years ago, it’s almost barren, but in the last 150 years, the woods have all grown back, not as tall, and the species are very mixed, but they’ve come back,” said Tofias, who uses Atlantic white cedar, red oak Western red cedar, Douglas fir, and exotic tropical woods in his W-boats.

“The teak we buy is plantation teak, planted 50 or 60 years ago. I feel good about that, that we’re not going into the rain forest and cutting down trees,” he said.

Joshua Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today and the assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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