Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Clara Brown, Part Two

(This post is part of a three part series about the Clara Brown. For part one, click here)

The Clara Brown in her berth 
Though I grew up in a small New England town myself, I did not have the same coastal experience John G. Alden had. My small home, nestled in the hills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was far from the shoreline fishing that inspired Mr. Alden over 100 years ago.

I grew up in the “Lakes Region,” which makes my relocation to the “Great Lakes Region” feel like being called up to the big leagues. I had been on a few boats before, but spent most of my youth in the water rather than on it. I had only been sailing really once, when my mother and I had gone on a catamaran when I was very young.

So when, during our interview about the Clara Brown, Pierre Wallinder said, “We can go on a small sail, would you like that?” my immediate response was “Yes!” I had only been at Preservation Studios for a week, and I was going sailing? Coolest job ever.

It wasn’t until we were on the water that I finally got it. There was that moment when it clicked, and I understood that sailing was about more than monogrammed sport coats, salmon colored shorts, and custom made wrist watches.

The Clara Brown changed how I looked at sailing. From the moment I set foot on the dock and saw
her smooth hull, through the joy I felt as we cruised along the breakwater, sail billowing out in front of us, and the excitement as the boom swung over our heads during a sharp turn, this small sailboat had a profound effect over me. I could tell, as we pulled out of the harbor amidst the cheers of children on a field trip to the Naval & Military Park, that I wasn’t the only one who was easily moved by her either.

Part II
The Clara Brown

Perhaps no ship better epitomizes Alden’s vision than the Clara Brown. She manages to evoke that rustic New England charm, all the while moving with all the speed and grace that Alden was known for.

The Clara Brown was built in E. Boothing, Maine, in 1952 and brought by her first owner W.R. Christopherson to Vermont. There she was likely used primarily for recreation, racing in several of Lake Champlain’s annual boat races. In 1956, Clara Brown won the “Free-For-All” competition held by the Mallets Bay Boat Club, and won the “Long Distance Race” for her owner in 1957. Christopherson was a veteran of the Mallets Bay Boat Club races, having won races in 1940, 41, and 46-49 with his previous boats the Elizabeth, and the Saratoga. In 1964, the Clara Brown won the Free-For-All race once again, but under the steerage of Philip Davis, who also won races throughout the 60’s captaining several other boats.

Sometime in the mid 1980s, the Clara Brown was purchased by Kenny Schobert in Little Valley, New York, and spent every summer up until 2010 on Lake Erie. After Schobert’s passing, his friend Larry Tocha, a shipwright in Barcelona, Pennsylvania, maintained the ship, replacing the mast and ensuring the ship stayed in the great condition he received it in. Pierre Wallinder, from Buffalo, NY, and founder of Sail Buffalo, bought Clara Brown in May of 2011, and it currently resides with several other Sail Buffalo ships at their teaching facility in the First Buffalo River Marina.

There, in the marina, the Clara Brown bobs gently in her berth, waiting for the chance to show off her elegance in the open waters of Lake Erie. Once her sails are raised, and she is able to spread her sails, she evokes description that verges on blatant hyperbole.

Part of this is from her unique appearance. First and foremost, the sloop is not only narrower (7’) than most other similar vessels, but shallower as well (4’11). This sleek design means that the Clara Brown glides effortlessly across the water when the wind is at her 450 sq ft of sails, supported by her 36’ 11” spruce mast.

Though her small shape is conducive to quick and effortless cuts through the open water, it does make her a little sluggish in the bays, to which Alden included a small inboard, inline four-cylinder engine in the aft-mid section underneath the step into the cabin, attached to a propeller built into the three-and-a-half foot tiller. The cockpit controls discreetly blend into two benches, port and starboard, with the ignition and odometer built into the step, gas intake flush to the port bench, and throttle on the starboard, conveniently designed to slide out and be placed aside.
The Clara Brown at sail
Photo courtesy of Pierre Wallinder
Once the main sail is raised, the Clara Brown demonstrates the genius of John G. Alden. Though the engine still purrs quietly, it cannot compare with the way the boat glides almost silently along the water, cutting through waves effortlessly, riding at a steady 15-45 degree angle to maximize wind contact with the sails. In the open water, the jib is raised, increasing the sail coverage by a full 50 percent. Instantly, the Clara Brown begins to accelerate, showing off the speed her designer was known for.

Beyond her technical grace, the Clara Brown exudes aesthetic beauty. Her cedar-covered-oak hull is painted white, with her red-painted oak keel only peeking out from the water after she’s settled into her natural lean. The frames and floor are white painted oak, with spruce trunk beams and oak heavy beams along the cabin. The trunk top and deck are canvas-covered plywood, with mahogany siding along the trunk side, rails, door frame, and outlining the bridge.

It is in the open water that the discrete placement of the engine controls becomes invaluable to fully experiencing John Alden’s vision. When the throttle is removed and the sails are raised, the passengers are immediately transported to a pre-industrial age, as her entirely wooden frame and body evoke rugged yet charming qualities quite similar to the ones John Alden would have observed off the New England coast throughout his life. 

When turning the Clara Brown the intuitive location of the rigging lines becomes apparent as the boom eases smoothly and silently port to starboard, the jib seamlessly billowing out in response to the direction change. The pilot can effortlessly direct even novices to manage either the rudder or the lines, all of which are conveniently and aesthetically placed port and starboard.

I was one such novice, but Mr. Wallinder’s sailing prowess, and the ease at which the Clara Brown handled, more than made up for my inexperience. Once I realized that it was natural for a sailboat to lean so dramatically, I relaxed and was finally able to appreciate being on the water. Never before in my life had I had that feeling of weightlessness, that illusion of flying just inches above the water, as the small sloop cut effortlessly through the waves.

The experience sailing with Mr. Wallinder changed not only my perspective on the project, giving even greater importance to John Alden’s brilliance which was just as apparent in the small details as in the overall design of the boat, but on sailing itself. Being out on the water completely erased the cynicism I had prior that small trip, and it helped me understand how this pastime continues to persist even after the advent of inline and outboard motors, and the speedboats and Jet Skis that followed.

Sailing lives on through the passion that John G. Alden developed in his youth, that he filled all his designs with, and which subsequently inspired sailors around the country and world. Here in Buffalo, that passion is spread by Pierre Wallinder, who slowly converts unsuspecting interviewers into sailing lovers, and helps many others in the city experience sailing with his Sail Buffalo Sailing School.

(For Part Three of this series, click here)

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