Special Delivery

By Greg Coppa
For Points East
Over the years, I have owned and sailed many boats. Boats fulfill our needs of the time, and often, as our life situations change, we choose a boat that is a better fit for satisfying our desire to either race, cruise or daysail. Sometimes we backtrack to a boat similar to one that we had before, or to the same class, or even to the very same boat. And sometimes a boat is so good, and so loved by its owners, that it never strays very far from where it was first launched. Special Delivery, a Pearson-built Ensign, fits in the latter category. It has been in our family, and sailed out of Wickford, R.I., off the very same mooring, since the late ’60s. Five generations of Coppas have been fortunate enough to have shared many good times in the cockpit of Hull No. 1337.

The Ensign was actually derived from another Pearson yacht class called the Electra. The Electra had the exact same hull, but was really a mini-cruiser, complete with a self-bailing cockpit and full, if small, cabin. About 350 Electras were built from 1959 through 1962 to meet the specs of the then popular Midget Ocean Racing Club (MORC).

During that period, glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) vessels were still relatively new, and the limitations and capabilities of the combination were not fully understood by boatbuilders. As a result, so called, “fiberglass” boats tended to be a bit overbuilt, “just in case,” and they tended to be modeled after the successful wooden classes of the times. After all, why deviate greatly from what was successful?

During the early years of transition away from wood, the legendary Carl Alberg was the chief designer at the nascent Pearson Yachts of Bristol, R.I., and his full-keel models, the Electra included, were reminiscent of the beautiful boats he had grown up with in his native Sweden.

Successful though the 22-foot, six-inch Electra was, Everett Pearson related to me, in an interview, that dealer feedback indicated that those considering an Electra purchase often voiced a preference for a larger cockpit and smaller cabin version of it. The sources must have been highly trusted because Pearson commissioned Alberg to do a redesign, which resulted in the “plastic classic” familiar to us now as the Ensign.

The sail area of the main was reduced, the height of the jib shortened, and the mast was positioned a bit forward. The main cabin was eliminated, a cuddy retained, and the resulting commodious cockpit proved to be perfect for comfortable daysailing or active racing. The Ensign was an immediate hit, and, before long, more than 40 fleets, around the country, were formed. Eventually, nearly 1,800 of these little beauties were built by Pearson. The class is now being perpetuated by a Ensign Spars, Inc., of Marquette, Mich.

Of course, you expect to see Ensigns in Rhody waters and places like Marblehead, Hingham, Mamaroneck or Larchmont. But I have come across them bravely beating into stiff winds off the Windy City on Lake Michigan, in the Colorado Rockies not far from major ski areas, and with the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. On one occasion, I saw a couple gently gliding along in the sheltered waters off Hamilton, Bermuda, at sunset. The sight of those unmistakable reverse transoms, reminiscent of some of my favorite 12 Meter Cup Defenders, never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Our Special Delivery (Dad was obstetrician for Everett Pearson’s wife Virginia, hence the name) was somewhat unusual in that the seats and cockpit coaming, not just the floorboards, were teak, not mahogany, a relatively expensive option in 1968. My dad figured that, with seven children and numerous guests, this was a good investment. With teak, he would not have to constantly remark to everyone to “mind the varnish.” Another benefit was that, when the boat was actively raced, the teak seats were way less slippery than the glossy ones of our competitors.

As the 50-year mark approaches for Special Delivery, the teak is showing considerable thinning, though it was always well protected with oil. But that is to be expected given the use the boat has seen. Some of the end-grain balsa used to stiffen the deck has had to be replaced. This was because of water issues caused by dried-out caulking beneath winches or cleats, and it was a relatively easy repair to make. Otherwise, the boat is structurally fine, and a great surprise is that original winches, handles, cam cleats and spars show no signs of deterioration. They sure knew how to build things in those days.

Special Delivery was actively raced by several Coppas in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. Getting to as many as 10 different yacht-club starting lines for the Narragansett Bay Yachting Association (NBYA) events, racing, and then returning home for the Wickford Yacht Club Wednesday night series, meant that all nine of us family members – and a support group consisting of many friends – were involved in various ways.

Of necessity, roles often changed, and the result was that crew competencies developed, allowing anybody to do anything. To this day, when the boat is being sailed by any combination of the seven siblings, there is no need for direction. Whatever needs to be tweaked just gets tweaked by the most obvious person to tweak it.

My brother John and I were fortunate in that we sailed against the legendary Ensign skipper, Rollyn Whyte, who also was a Wickford Yacht Club member. It meant that we saw a lot of his transom, but as we learned from the master, at least we got to see it a little closer. And though we were much younger than other venerable Fleet 4 Ensign skippers, like John Bradley and Alden Walls, we had many respectable racing seasons before moving on to other boats.

One would think that, with all that race-related sailing; the boat would be idle for at least a couple of days a week. But it wasn’t. Somebody always wanted to take people out for a “pizza cruise,” or sail into Newport Harbor to see a Cup Contender, or anchor off Dutch Island for a swim.

I truly wish that we had a log of all the different people who came aboard Special Delivery over the years; I’m pretty certain the number is over a thousand. The cockpit could easily handle a crew of eight, especially if at least a couple were children, which was most usually the case with our family.

Very few boats have seen the aforementioned level of activity, but I bet a good number of those that did were Ensigns. Alberg’s “little big boat” turned out to be as versatile as those who lobbied for a bigger cockpit had hoped back in the early ’60s. And I bet that there are many other Ensigns out there, like ours, that are still providing fun and adventures to the families of the original owners.

In my opinion, the class leadership got one thing in particular really right over the years. It discouraged any tendency to upgrade hardware and start an expensive “gear race.” Thus most Ensign sailors would agree that, as a group, we concentrated on seamanship, sail trimming and making good tactical decisions, rather than finding that magical piece of equipment that nobody else had to give a boat an edge. This kept Ensign campaigning much more affordable than was the case in so many other classes.

The only criticism I ever heard voiced about the Ensign was that the cockpit wasn’t self-bailing. There were some days when we were flying spinnakers, off Newport in a strong southwesterly breeze, and surfing down some impressive rollers that a self-bailing cockpit would have been conducive to my inner peace. It would have been conducive to the mental health of my parents, too, because they occasionally got wind of the fact that teenage brother John had made another unauthorized excursion to Block Island.

My very much younger (14 years) brother Tom now is the steward of Special Delivery, though he generously allows his siblings pretty free use of her. The boat is still packed with friends and family members on any given summer day, and you never know where you might find her on Narragansett Bay.

A total teak replacement procedure will be needed soon, and perhaps an Awlgrip makeover as well. But the fact is that this jaunty little boat still catches one’s eye when under sail, and though in her fifth decade, she still delivers a thrill to all of us fortunate enough to take her tiller and handle her lines.

Greg Coppa lives in Wickford, R.I. and has been sailing in New England waters for over five decades. He still loves that Ensign, Special Delivery.