La Dolce Vita

Designed by C. Raymond Hunt in 1937, the Concordia yawl is considered one of the most attractive sailing yachts ever. Photo by Lewis Wheeler

By Christopher Birch
For Points East

Dolce, a Concordia yawl, was for sale. She had been for years, but now her owner was getting serious. But let’s go back a few decades in Dolce’s history and evolution.

I’d maintained her and all her lovely brightwork during the portion of her life spent on a mooring in Boston Harbor. It’s funny how one job can lead to the next on a boat. You go to replace a bilge pump and soon find yourself also replacing its hose. Then the pump’s in-line fuse holder is getting swapped out, and, before you know it, the cabin floorboard covering it all is out of the boat and on your workbench for a quick block-plane trim and some varnish.

On a wooden boat, any job is a certain path to the next one. Planks and ribs and keels and decks move and are known to need some tending to. On the wooden sailing yacht Dolce, the path from job to job was circuitous and exciting. And – no surprise, really – they all led to my delivering her to Newport, R.I., where she would be featured in the brokerage show that runs concurrently with the annual Newport International Boat Show.

Dolce was designed by C. Raymond Hunt in 1937. Hull No. 53, she was built for the Concordia Company, in Padanaram, Mass., by Abeking & Rasmussen of Lemwerder, Germany in 1957. One-hundred and three Concordia yawls were built, in sizes small and large. Seventy-seven of them were 39 feet, 10 inches LOA. Twenty-six of them were the larger 41-foot model. Dolce is a large.

Some say the Concordia yawl is the prettiest boat ever built, and I would have a hard time disagreeing. With a narrow beam and a sheer line running low to the water, she’s pleasingly long and lean. Her tiller works like a subtle ash stripe, accentuating her hull shape. I believe there is no finer line in all of naval architecture than the triptych span from stern post to transom to mizzen sheet in this yawl’s profile. When seen from astern, her perfect little transom makes your mouth water.

The narrow sailboat design, with the full keel and long overhangs, has come and gone. Today’s boats keep getting wider, their keels more “finny,” their overhangs amputated at the hip. Rails soar high above the sea creating a profile more closely resembling a warehouse then a boat. Many of today’s sailing yachts, with their faux-wood accents and particle-board veneered interiors, look to be punched out of factories as cheaply as possible by manufacturing robots. The result is a boat that has something of an “Ikea-craft” look and feel.

The lovingly hand-crafted Concordia yawl, in contrast, is museum-grade from stem to stern. She may not have as many bedrooms as a modern boat, but she tracks like a train, her tiller feels marvelous in your palm, and her rig is as powerful as it is elegant. Lay a sunset out behind her, and you get the image that could go with the word “nirvana” in the dictionary. Many years after the last boat was built, Waldo Howland, president of the Concordia Company, summed up the design this way: “I say it’s much like a good apple pie. You can’t improve on it no matter how many inventions come along.”

Now back to our delivery: I enlisted crew for the trip to Newport. We loaded up with Nutter Butter Cookies and coffee and dropped the mooring after work on a Tuesday in mid-September. When headed westbound through the Cape Cod Canal, my preference is to plan for a nighttime transit with the current. Reverberating wakes in the canal can be a real nuisance, and there is less wake-making traffic at night. More importantly, the southwest wind tends to lie down at night, which makes for a more pleasant arrival in Buzzards Bay.

To help with nighttime orientation, yellow streetlamps are on the north bank, while white are on the south side. It’s a clever touch on a fine canal.

Winds were light as we left Boston, and they remained so throughout the night. Minots Light, off Cohasset, displays a flashing light signal of 1-4-3. It’s known by the locals as the “I Love You” signal because 1-4-3 are the number of letters in the the words of that phrase. We felt very well-loved for hours as that light crept by to starboard.

The Cape Cod Canal was quiet, and we went through quickly. A southwest wind filled in off Cuttyhunk with the sunrise, allowing us to kill the engine and enjoy a fast sail for the final few hours to Brenton Point and around into Newport Harbor.

The annual Newport Boat Show runs Thursday through Sunday in mid-September. The Wednesday before the show opens is a busy day in Newport. The boats are packed into the show extremely tightly using a process akin to laying bricks. Hiding out on VHF Ch. 71 is the master mason organizing the build by dropping us into place one at a time. Our assigned moving time was given to us well in advance, and it was remarkably specific: 2:17 p.m. We arrived in the harbor in the late morning, picked up a mooring, ate our Nutter Butters, and enjoyed a quick nap while half listening to the action on the VHF radio.

Dolce was summoned on schedule. We started the engine, dropped the mooring, threw the boat into gear, and nothing happened. The place where forward gear used to exist was now just a sickening spot of nothingness. Forward had become just as neutral as neutral and we began to drift.

The wizard on the radio has no patience for stragglers. You either go in the wall of boats when and how you are assigned or you get tossed off to the side in the bad-brick pile never to be spoken to again. Panic begat ingenuity. Our reverse gear still worked, so that’s what I went with.

My enthusiasm for the full-keel underbody on Dolce waned as I weaved backwards through a crowd of multi-million-dollar boats with the wind continuing to build. A slow landing and some snappy work with the dock lines by my crew, and we were in without a scratch. Rum all around, and more Nutter Butters. We toasted forward gear for staying with us through the stonewall-sided Cape Cod Canal.

Of the 103 Concordia yawls built, 102 of them reportedly are still floating. Work on and around these boats calls for an extra degree of care, caution and luck. Hull No. 53 was getting plenty of all three.

Troubleshooting confirmed that the problem was within the transmission itself, and was not related to a failure of the cable that controls it. Now my job was to rebuild the transmission. Fortunately, this was a new engine, meaning a 40-year-old Yanmar diesel and not the original 1957 Gray Marine gasoline engine. I still had many concerns. Would it come apart easily? Would the prop shaft push back far enough to allow for removal of the gear without removal of the prop and/or rudder first? I knew the prop was in an aperture in the deadwood of the keel. I had visions of the trailing edge of the prop nuzzling into the leading edge of the rudder denying us the last half-inch we needed to back the transmission off from its spline mating with the engine.

Luckily, crewman Andrew Cousins is a master transmission wrestler. It wasn’t easy but he managed to return to our shop with that marine gear in the back of his truck. A couple of days later it had been rebuilt. A couple of days after that it was back in the boat.

Dolce did not sell at the show. Now my job was to deliver her back to Boston. New crew was enlisted and a float plan developed. Wind forecast and canal currents called for us to be off the dock in Newport at 3 a.m. In the pre-dawn hours, my ever-encouraging mother-in-law, aware of my travel plans, made her way to Sakonnet Point, near the Rhode island/Massachusetts line, with her flashlight. She wished us a most welcome good morning in something like Morse-Code. Minots Light incarnated, but moving. We reciprocated with our flashlight as we sailed past.

The boat was in fine form as we arrived in Massachusetts waters. A northwest wind provided calm seas and fast sailing. We cranked along under full sail with speeds consistently above seven knots. Another Cuttyhunk sunrise, this time with the island to starboard, and then we were quickly into the canal with the engine running strong.

One of the hazards of a 3 a.m. departure is that a sailor can forget his sunglasses. Later, when the sun finds his face, he may be forced to make do with a pair of old rusted children’s sunglasses found in the bilge to shield from the glare. And so it was this day. I’ve had worse problems, and I wasn’t going to let this one get me down.

Eyeglasses and me don’t get along well anyway. If it wasn’t for the tape in my eyewear repair kit, I’d be blind for the majority of my waking hours. Dolce sucks up vanity like a sponge, and there just wasn’t any left over for her crew this day. With children’s glasses and a bit of tape, I soldiered on.

Between the canal bridges, we fortified ourselves with coffee and cookies. The northwest wind that delivered such pleasant reaching in Buzzards Bay promised upwind sailing in Cape Cod Bay. Crackerjack crewmember, Lewis Wheeler, always quick to get a boat trimmed out right, had us nicely set up for the work ahead. We were ready to beat when we entered Cape Cod Bay. But beating would have to wait for another day. A wind shift to the east quickly changed our plans. The new breeze filled in nicely and we were off again on a reach.

Usually when I head out sailing, the wind is on the nose. Regardless of destination, I seem to always have a headwind. This trip was proving to be quite different: A favorable wind was actually following me around corners! Different, but good.

“The Concordia yawls were not built to fit any racing rules, they were built to fit the ocean,” Waldo Howland said. Thus, sailing in Cape Cod Bay was exceptionally good, and the boat continued to impress as she galloped north. You sit very low in the water in this boat, and the rumble and roar of water passing wood provided a comforting bass line.

The power of the wind translated into boat speed with optimal efficiency. She didn’t fuss or fight; she just went like a dart. Her speed was almost too fast. Her ride was almost too smooth; her balance almost impossibly perfect. A psychedelic sunset welcomed us into Boston Harbor.

Newport to Boston in one short late-September day. The Concordia yawl – not a slow boat. In the end, the boat was donated to a charity on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’ve since lost track of her.

It’s easy to be boat-struck by Dolce. With a little patience, lots of gumption, and the right cookies, she’s a joy to maintain and even better to sail. I’m confident that her next caretaker is enjoying the path from job to job on this boat as much as I did. And that’s my story.

Chris Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc., on Long Wharf in Boston, where he has been building, restoring and maintaining boats for some 36 years.

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