Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Clara Brown, Part One

Over the last few decades, sailing has gotten a reputation, not entirely undeserved at times, as the pastime of the privileged. While it evokes romantic imagery of billowing sails, and cruising silently along the water, it also brings to mind thoughts of yacht-clubs and blazers, of J. Crew, and of the strata of the super-wealthy.

This polarizing imagery is disingenuous to the broader sailing community however, and to the history of the sailboat, whose origins reside with fishing, shipping, and exploration, and not with excess and decadence.

This heritage is readily apparent in all aspects of the Clara Brown, a small sloop designed by the famous naval architect John G. Alden, and the current flagship for the Sail Buffalo Sailing School. Founded and headed by Piere Wallinder, the Sail Buffalo School’s program is designed to inspire a passion for the open water throughout the greater Buffalo community, especially in those who wouldn’t normally be exposed to sailing.

In this regard, the program exemplifies the spirit of the architect Alden, whose fast and solidly built designs, as well as their well-known affordability, helped many throughout the country own sailboats and experience sailing for themselves.

This three part entry will focus on the life and influences of John G. Alden, give an in-depth description of the Clara Brown, and finally discuss how the Sail Buffalo Sailing School is hoping to use the Clara Brown to help build community out of their passion for sailing.

Part One:
John G. Alden
Photo of John G. Alden
 courtesy of Alden Designs
Born in Troy, New York in 1884, John Gale was born to Charles and Priscilla Alden. Throughout his youth, he spent his summers with his family in the coastal town of Sakkonet, Rhode Island, and it may have been there that his passion for sailing began.

As a child, he demonstrated an early pension for designing sailboats, with his small model vessels cobbled out of spare wood pieces far outperforming the store bought miniatures sailing in lakes around his neighborhood home. By the time he was 10, he and several other children raced in small sloops on the small Sakkonet ponds, but they quickly graduated to the ocean waters nearby, much to the terror of their parents.

Even at that young age, his boating knowledge was already incredible, as one anecdote depicts him explaining to a gathering of a half-dozen engrossed adults the intricacies of the America’s Cup, a sailing race whose route passed right by Warren’s Point, in Sakkonet. Another story illustrates Alden’s early sailing aptitude, as he took his newly completed knockabout (a small sloop), the Little Rhody, down the Hudson from Troy and out to Rhode Island, where he maneuvered through storms, dealt with a leak the entire trip, and even capsized once, all the while travelling alone for the roughly 300 mile trek.

In 1900 the Alden family moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts. There, John began exploring the Boston harbors, sketching ship profiles and watching the fisherman work. In 1902, his father passed away, and rather than use the money left to him for college, John began actively pursuing his passion for naval architecture. After a short-lived stint at the famous ship designing firm of William and Starling Burgess, he began working with BB Crowninshield in 1904, where he completed a year of unpaid apprenticeship and four years as a draftsman. In 1908, after getting married and having his first child, he left Crowninshield and started his own firm.

The firm had little success at first, and closed down entirely in 1917 while John enlisted in the army. After the war, the firm still had little success, but that all changed when his Malabar design won the 600 mile Newport-Bermuda race in 1923, 1926, and 1932, all with Alden at the helm. In 1932, all four top finishers were Alden designs.

This internationally renowned race propelled Alden to the forefront of sailboat design throughout the country, but more important than his accolades was the affordability of his boats. Unlike most yachts and sailboats of the time, which were constructed in highly specialized, high-end ports of New Jersey and Boston, he commissioned several fishing shipyards in Maine to build his ships, which helped bring down his cost significantly.

The appeal of the Maine shipbuilders was two-fold. First, they were cheaper than traditional yacht builders, but as their entire business revolved around constructing sailboats that could withstand the harsh coastal New England winters, they were incredibly reliable and sturdy vessels. Second, since almost all of Alden’s designs were inspired by the Gloucester fishing schooner model, who better to capture that hardy New England resiliency than the shipwrights who made careers out of constructing fishing ships.

When John G. Alden retired from designing in 1956, it was after a period of great change for his company. Throughout World War II, his firm had been commissioned to build minesweepers and tugboats, and estimates on the contract suggest that at least 700 designs were made for a cost of almost $300,000,000. His firm had ballooned from the small office of close-knit draftsmen, to a 90-person workforce of engineers and other attendants.

The military contracts would continue throughout the Korean War, and though the firm still designed smaller private ships, the focus of the company had become these larger vessels. For Alden, whose soul had always been with the sailboat, this shift in focus may have been too much, similar in shock to the realization that, at age 70 in 1954, he may not be physically capable of running some of the very ships he designed.

After retiring from the company in 1955-56, Alden’s life resumed a similar pattern, as he and his wife began spending summers in Sakkonet. There, he was known to still occasionally sail along the coast, entertaining a passion he had fostered his entire life, beginning as a youth along those very shores and culminating in a career of almost 1000 sailboat designs that captured not only the essence of those New England waters, but the love of sailing that was in his heart.

On March 3, 1962, John G. Alden died, leaving a legacy of fast, reliable, and beautiful ships which continue to enthrall both sailing enthusiasts and onlookers alike.

Biographical information on John G. Alden summarized from the book John G. Alden and his Yacht Designs, written by Robert W. Carrick and Richard Henderson.

(For part two of this series, click here.)

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