Modern ma­te­ri­als and el­bow grease bring a Graves Con­stel­la­tion sail­boat into the 21st cen­tury

Soundings - - Contents - By Mike Smith

How one boat owner dis­cov­ered the modern ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques it takes to bring a Graves Con­stel­la­tion sail­boat into the 21st cen­tury.

We’ve all thought about it: buy­ing an old fiber­glass boat and fix­ing her up with a lit­tle cash and an am­ple ap­pli­ca­tion of sweat eq­uity. It’s a way, at least in the­ory, to own a nice boat with­out spend­ing a ton of money. But talk can be cheap—as cheap as a bone­yard boat with grass grow­ing in the bilges. Does the do-it-your­self con­cept play well in real life?

Ask Mike Zani of Portsmouth, Rhode Is­land, who is now sail­ing and rac­ing a true clas­sic plas­tic on Nar­ra­gansett Bay. Vela is a re­born 53-year-old Graves Con­stel­la­tion that’s been brought into the 21st cen­tury.

Vela is Zani’s sec­ond re­build. His first was a 1962 Cape Cod Mar­lin, a fiber­glass ver­sion of Nathanael Her­reshoff’s 23-foot Fish, de­signed in 1916. The Mar­lin is fa­mous for her grace­ful sheer, eas­ily driven full-keel hull and not-so-pretty cabin trunk. De­signer Ezra Smith, one of Zani’s rac­ing crew, drew a new one—lower and less tur­ret-like—that Zani built in ply­wood. Fresh paint and many coats of var­nish later, the Mar­lin looked great. Zani, CEO of a soft­ware com­pany, did most of the work him­self.

Restor­ing a clas­sic plas­tic boat is “re­ally sat­is­fy­ing,” Smith says. “Peo­ple think of old boats as slow, but back in the day, full-keeled boats were race boats, de­signed to sail as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble.”

These old boats were solidly built and can be brought back to life with modern rigs and gear—but there’s a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween restor­ing a 23-footer and a 30-foot boat like Vela.

“Be­fore start­ing a restora­tion like this, it’s im­por­tant to scope it out and de­cide if you’re go­ing to be the gen­eral con­trac­tor or DIY it,” Zani says. That’s why he beer-can-raced Vela for a sea­son.

He dis­cov­ered that she needed sub­stan­tial work to make her just right. This would be no DIY job.

To get it done the right way, Zani en­listed Smith as well as yacht de­signer Matt Smith ( no re­la­tion to Ezra) and Dan Shea, a boat­builder who spe­cial­izes in res­ur­rect­ing clas­sics.

There are a “goodly num­ber” of clas­sic com­pos­ite boats like Vela, Shea says, “hand­laid of solid fiber­glass by guys who gave a damn.” Restor­ing one is a good value-for-money project that usu­ally can be ac­com­plished with straight­for­ward wood­work.

“Re­build­ing the deck and struc­ture is pretty much Boat­work 101,” he says. At least it is for a guy like Shea, whose Bris­tol Boat Com­pany is next door to the Her­reshoff Marine Mu­seum in Bris­tol, Rhode Is­land, on the for­mer site of the Her­reshoff Man­u­fac­tur­ing Com­pany.

Like many clas­sic plas­tics, Vela has Her­reshoff genes in her hull. The Graves Con­stel­la­tion is a 29-foot, 5-inch sloop, a typ­i­cal cruiser/ racer of the mid- 1960s, de­signed by E. Sel­man “Jim” Graves of Mar­ble­head, Mas­sachusetts. Scut­tle­butt says L. Francis Her­reshoff helped draw her hull lines. (Her­reshoff lived in a Gothic-style cas­tle over­look­ing Mar­ble­head Har­bor, not far from the Graves Yacht Yard.) True or not, Con­stel­la­tions have a def­i­nite “Her­reshoff- ness” about them, and are smart sail­ers, in that fam­ily’s tra­di­tion.

Graves built 27 Con­stel­la­tions be­tween 1964 and 1971. (As for Vela, she launched in ‘65.) Each was es­sen­tially a wooden boat built on a fiber­glass hull—the deck, cabin house, cock­pit and in­te­rior were stan­dard wood con­struc­tion. Aux­il­iary power was an out­board in a well. As was com­mon in the early days of fiber­glass con­struc­tion, the solid layup was heavy; builders 50 years ago achieved the re­quired stiff­ness with thicker fiber­glass and molded stringers, not balsa or foam cor­ing. This con­struc­tion kept Vela’s hull strong and stiff into her sixth decade.

But the boat’s wooden parts were show­ing their age: The cabin house and the deck had se­ri­ous leaks. So, Shea ap­plied the chop saw

and started the re­build with a bare fiber­glass hull. Ac­cord­ing to Ezra Smith, her decks were orig­i­nally built of Ma­sonite, which “lasted pretty well,” but her hull-to-deck and deck-to-house joints were leak­ing. “She was go­ing bad from the edges in,” he said.

Shea re­placed the deck with two lay­ers of marine ply­wood, bolted and epox­ied to an in­ner flange that, he said, kept the hull stiff. He cov­ered the ply­wood with fiber­glass in epoxy, car­ry­ing the fab­ric over the deck edge and onto the hull for an even more se­cure joint.

Be­sides the wood, al­most all the ma­te­ri­als for Vela’s re­fit came from To­talBoat, a brand of boat­build­ing sup­plies from Jamestown Dis­trib­u­tors, also in Bris­tol. Zani is friends with Mike Mills, pres­i­dent of Jamestown, and sits on the com­pany’s board of di­rec­tors.

“To­talBoat was born in an ef­fort to im­prove the prod­ucts that we have come to trust and rely on,” Mills says. “Our own ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing and sell­ing al­lowed us to de­velop prod­ucts that we feel work bet­ter and cost less.”

Zani hoped to use To­talBoat prod­ucts ex­clu­sively in the Vela project. And he did, al­most: Only Awl­grip had the top­sides color he wanted, and only Pet­tit had the bright white antifouling. Oth­er­wise, ev­ery­thing else was To­talBoat, in­clud­ing some items not yet on the mar­ket. The project was done in To­talBoat’s shop, too. Vela was too big to fit in Shea’s place.

The boat races with four crew, but her orig­i­nal cock­pit fit only three, so one goal of the re­build was to add room for an­other back­side, so all could sail “legs in.”

Ezra Smith re­designed the cock­pit to fit ev­ery­one, but this meant lop­ping 2 feet off the af­ter end of the cabin trunk. Zani also wanted to move the for­ward hatch from the cabin top onto the deck, a pref­er­ence that re­quired tak­ing an­other few inches away. Short­en­ing the trunk made it look boxy, so Ezra Smith low­ered its pro­file, adding

rec­tan­gu­lar, Her­reshoff-style win­dows to the var­nishedma­hogany cabin sides. The win­dows were a last-minute de­tail that gave the boat a true- clas­sic look. ( Nathanael Her­reshoff used this style of win­dow in his New York 30s, de­signed in 1905.)

As de­signed, Vela had rudi­men­tary ac­com­mo­da­tions for four: set­tee berths in the main cabin, a head and V-berth for­ward of the main bulk­head, and a gal­ley un­der the com­pan­ion­way. The bulk­head also sup­ported the deck­stepped mast. Short­en­ing the trunk made the al­ready tight cabin even tighter, es­pe­cially with the bulk­head bi­sect­ing the space. The so­lu­tion? Re­move the main bulk­head and sup­port the mast step with a car­bon-fiber deck beam. Zani asked Matt Smith to en­gi­neer the beam.

Zani also wanted to move the chain­plates 9 inches in­board to re­duce sheet­ing an­gles. Nar­row­ing the spread of the shrouds in­creases com­pres­sion load on the mast, so Smith had to re­cal­cu­late for the new rig to spec the beam and de­ter­mine how to tie it into the boat’s struc­ture. Shea lam­i­nated the new cabin-top beams of solid car­bon fiber, with ply­wood knees at each end to fit un­der Vela’s deck and tie into a new par­tial main bulk­head. (All of the boat’s new deck beams were lam­i­nated.)

The re­sult was es­sen­tially a ring frame trans­fer­ring the com­pres­sion loads to the boat’s hull. Shea also built ply­wood knees to take the repo­si­tioned chain­plates for the fore and aft lower shrouds. All struc­ture was glassed into place

“There are a goodly num­ber of clas­sic com­pos­ite boats like Vela out there, hand­laid of solid fiber­glass by guys who gave a damn.” — Dan Shea

with mul­ti­ple lay­ers of fab­ric and epoxy resin. The added rig­ging loads also re­quired a new, larger sec­tion mast, which, serendip­i­tously, turned out to be the same sec­tion used in the 30-foot Pear­son Flyer. Zani found a used Flyer mast and mod­i­fied it to fit Vela. He also added roller-furl­ing gear, and had North Sails build him a set of 3Di Nor­dac seam­less polyester sails, with a loose-footed main­sail that’s eas­ier to bend on and per­mits cooler rig­ging along the boom, be­cause there’s no track.

The rig­ging and deck hard­ware is all new, laid out by Zani, who also did

Vela’s bot­tom. Re­mov­ing the bulk­head and adding the win­dows made the cabin more en­joy­able, with bet­ter light and more room, even though it’s smaller over­all, Zani says. The V-berth is a lit­tle big­ger, and mak­ing it eas­ier for sailors to move fore and aft. The smaller cabin still sleeps four, but there’s no room for the gal­ley, which was al­ready gone when Zani bought the boat. And he has no need of it. When he cruises with his fam­ily, they eat out of a cooler.

The rac­ing crew can now launch and re­trieve the spin­naker through the new round hatch in the fore­deck, us­ing a string drop; Zani added a roller abaft the hatch to make the process eas­ier, and no­body has to leave the cock­pit. “All this was from open­ing up the cabin,” he says.

The lower sheet­ing an­gle for the head­sail lets the boat point higher, which re­sulted in a small reg­u­la­tions penalty for rac­ing, but Vela can still sail faster than her rat­ing, ac­cord­ing to Zani. The new cock­pit is more com­fort­able, even with all four crew on the seats; the new coam­ings are lower and don’t dig into the backs of the crew’s legs when they’re sit­ting on the side decks.

Zani says that de­spite this suc­cess­ful restora­tion project, he’s not likely to do an­other with a clas­sic plas­tic boat: “No, not un­less I felt there was a boat bet­ter than Vela.”

She’s good for two peo­ple to sail for fun, four guys to race, for sail­ing with the kids, and so forth. She’s faster and bet­ter-look­ing, and now has a bet­ter cock­pit. The out­board in the well is ef­fi­cient and stows in a cock­pit locker when not needed. It all works great, Zani says.

But, he added, “There’s a chance I might start again with the same boat, but make a mold of the deck, rather than build it in wood, so other peo­ple could do it, too.”

Vela ar­rives at Jamestown Dis­trib­u­tors need­ing her deck and struc­ture re­built (left). The early stages of the process in­cluded (clock­wise from top left) re­build­ing deck beams, car­lins and house; paint­ing bulk­heads and in­te­rior; in­stalling decks on bulk­heads; and pat­tern­ing for the deck.

Win­dows were cut into the sides of the cabin.

To­talBoat Thixo Flex is ap­plied to the house sides to bond ma­hogany sides and deck (top left); house top gets fiber­glass (left); Shea ad­mires the work (above).

Vela gets gleam­ing coats of paint on deck, top­sides and hull. She is then ready to be moved out of the paint shed to re­ceive bot­tom paint and rig­ging.

LOA: 29’5” Beam: 8’0” Draft: 4’8” Displ.: 6,000 lbs. Sail Area: 390 sq. ft. De­signer: E. Sel­man “Jim” Graves Builder: Graves Yacht Yard

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