Wood Vibrations
The Wianno Senior racing sloop
celebrates its 75th Anniversary

In the summer, I used to wash my hair about once a month. The salt spray from Nantucket Sound accumulated in my hair until it became a sensitive weather instrument that would respond to increases in humidity by becoming sopping wet. For four years I served as a regular crew in the Wianno Senior summer race series on Cape Cod. That meant showing up at 1 p.m. sharp at the Wianno Yacht Club dock every Saturday and Sunday afternoon from the last week of June until Labor Day, to get my daily shower of salt spray over the rail.

The official name is "Wianno Senior One-Design Knockabout," but "The Senior Boat" is what they're called at the Crosby Yacht Yard in Osterville, Massachusetts, where the Crosby family has turned out more than 170 sleek wood-hulled racers since 1914. Two more are under construction this spring.

The Senior is a 25-foot gaff-rigged sloop designed primarily for racing and daysailing, with a crew of four. That's not to say you can't cruise on a Senior. Over the years they've been spotted in virtually every harbor between Nova Scotia and the Bahamas. But with a low-
headroom, poorly-ventilated two-bunk cabin bisected by a huge centerboard trunk that juts up out of the bilges, the Senior's overnight accommodations are spartan. Better to sleep on deck! Instead, the Senior's raison d'être is the summer competition on Nantucket Sound.

I got my first taste of the Senior as a 12-year-old in sailing class. We rigged PHEBE, cast off the mooring in West Bay and tacked up the narrow channel into a 20-knot southwest breeze, the same sea breeze that kicks up every sunny summer afternoon on Cape Cod's south shore. As we beat out through the Osterville Cut and onto the open water of Nantucket Sound, the short, steep waves came crashing across the deck and over the top of the cabin, soaking all hands to the skin.

Our instructor gave each of us kids a chance to take the helm and get the feel of the boat. Finally it was my turn! A gust of wind hit the sails, we heeled to starboard, PHEBE's vicious "weather helm" wrenched the tiller out of my hands and PHEBE turned straight into the wind. Our instructor grabbed the helm and bore off, filling the sails again. "Someday I'll learn to sail a Senior," I thought silently.

Three years later, I got my chance, crewing for the tempestuous Larry Wilde on APRES MOI. A lot of wishful thinking went into that name, but it never became reality. Still, it was a summer of surprises. Like the downwind leg when Larry leaped off the foredeck to grab an errant spinnaker sheet, and landed empty-handed in the water. Even after beating upwind with spinnaker still aloft to rescue Larry, we still didn't finish last! One day, jibing around the last mark before the finish, the gaff swung vertical and the bridle hooked over the top of the mast. The solid spruce gaff snapped cleanly into three chunks, miraculously without ripping the mainsail. We surged across the finish line to the sound of flapping canvas and snapping cameras, and again safely ahead of the last-place boat. That gaff's midsection, a cherished war memento, still resides in my closet.

I no longer live on Cape Cod, but I still go back every summer to race. And I'll definitely be in Osterville on July 29 and 30, when the class celebrates its 75th anniversary with a regatta that promises to bring together fifty boats or more -- the largest fleet of Wianno Seniors ever assembled at the starting line.

An Inherited Obsession

What's the irresistible lure of racing a Senior? Not the weather helm. Fortunately, one out-of-the-box tinkerer tried tilting his mast forward; now every mast in the fleet has a forward rake, and weather helm is a distant memory. But we're still stuck with the low freeboard. When you sail a Senior, you expect to get wet. Even the skipper, sitting all the way aft, is guaranteed a soaking at least once a day, when a wave crashes over the side and all three crew members duck out of its way.

So what keeps Senior sailors coming back year after year for their weekend fix of salt spray down the backs of their necks? Wianno Seniors are a family tradition. Consider the Hinkle family of Wianno. Jim Hinkle's FANTASY was one of the first crop of Seniors launched in the spring of 1914. These days, FANTASY now resides permanently at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, but Jim's son Joe carries on the tradition as skipper of FANTASY II.

Five miles east of Wianno is Hyannisport, home port of the Kennedy family, who have sailed Seniors every year since 1932 when a teenage John F. Kennedy was given VICTURA as a 15th birthday present by his father. Though the original VICTURA has been retired to the front lawn at the Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, a newer VICTURA, commissioned in 1975, is now a regular fixture on the race course. The racing habit runs in the family, and that's the key to the class's longevity.

Sibling rivalry is a major factor as well. Carter Bacon and his brother Eric have dueled for years on the choppy seas off Hyannis Port. But the Bacon brothers are as cordial in competition as at a beachfront party. Racing rules are followed scrupulously, and protests are avoided like the plague.

Shore Leave in Edgartown

For 60 years, the Edgartown Regatta has been the high point of the summer. This year, the regatta "weekend" begins early in the morning on Thursday, July 20, when dozens of Seniors, bow-heavy with suitcases and duffels, leave Wianno for an all-day race across Nantucket Sound to Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard island. But the racing doesn't end at the finish line. It's always a mad scramble for a safe spot to anchor in the crowded harbor, followed by a trip ashore in the Edgartown Yacht Club's launch, and a walk up the hill to one of the old-fashioned inns overlooking the harbor.

Initial worries over which Seniors will smash into each other around midnight -- as the turning tide rotates them all 180 degrees on their anchor lines -- are quickly forgotten in a swirl of evening cocktail parties, which spill over onto adjacent Chappaquiddick Island. Races are held in the afternoons only, giving weary skippers and crews all morning to sleep off the previous night's excesses.

Each year brings regattas to two of the four Cape Cod yacht clubs that race Seniors. This year Wianno (July 29-30) and Bass River (August 5-6) play host; next year, Hyannis Port and Stone Horse (in Harwich Port) will get their turn. After the race on August 6, the Scudder Cup will be awarded based on combined results from Edgartown, Wianno and Bass River.

A Place In History

The Wianno Senior class has seen its fortunes rise and fall. The Crosby yard launched fourteen Seniors in the spring of 1914, and it never again matched that first-year output, but it came close. The class's heyday was in the 1920s when a single large fleet raced off the Wianno Club dock in Osterville, while ladies sipped afternoon tea on the lawn on a bluff overlooking the race course. Wealthy boat owners hired professional helmsmen; the owner rode along as a passenger on his own boat.

In the fall of 1929, just before October's stock market crash, the Crosbys took orders for eleven new Seniors, making 1930 their second-busiest year ever. The Great Depression came late to Osterville. By then nearly 100 Seniors were afloat.

Boatbuilding in Osterville slowed during the Depression and ground to a halt during World War II, as the harbors became a training ground for naval landing exercises and rehearsals for D-Day. After the war, the Crosbys started production on a new sportfishing boat called the Crosby Striper. With no new Seniors coming out of the yard, the fleet's average age topped 30 years for the first time, and race participation began to shrink.

The 1960s saw the demise of the Wianno Junior one-design, a 16-foot Marconi-rig sloop built by the Crosbys and raced at Wianno for more than 40 years. But the Senior's mystique remained strong. The Crosbys came to the rescue and resumed building Seniors -- 50 new boats in 15 years. The fleet swelled again.

By this time, the Senior's designer, H. Manley Crosby, and his son Malcolm, had both died, and a third generation of Crosbys was hard at work building Seniors. Unfortunately, the cost of steaming and shaping New England white oak, Philippine mahogany and Alaskan spruce into a new Senior had risen prohibitively high. And maintenance costs were astronomical -- typically $7,500 per year. The last wood-hulled Senior was launched in the spring of 1977.

Fiberglass Renaissance

Eight years later, David Steere and Carter Bacon decided it was time to act. The two skippers directed a fundraising effort to finance the design and construction of a fiberglass Senior. The firm of Sparkman & Stephens performed the engineering work; North End Marine of Rockland, Maine molded the fiberglass shell; and the Crosbys turned it into a sleek racing machine complete with varnished wood trim and spars.

When she slid down the rails into North Bay in the spring of 1986, INVADER, with her gleaming brightwork, was virtually indistinguishable from the wood-hulled Senior that Lew Gunn had sailed to victory in countless races for the past ten years. INVADER definitely won the "look-alike contest." But how fast was she?

The answer came that summer when Gunn entered INVADER in the Scudder Cup series. INVADER finished the six-race series in fifth place, and Gunn's wood-hulled arch-rivals breathed sighs of relief. Since then, three more fiberglass Seniors have joined the racing fleet, but a fiberglass hull has yet to win the Scudder Cup.

Conventional wisdom holds that the fiberglass and wood boats are evenly matched in mid-summer during Scudder Cup competition. The wood hulls are lighter and faster in the early season races, but as their mahogany planks soak up water during July, they slow down, and by August the glass boats hold the advantage. But differences in boat speed are minuscule compared to the sail trim, strategy and sheer luck that really determine who wins the race.

Above all, the fiberglass re-design has ensured the continued popularity of the Wianno Senior Class. When skippers and crews converge on the Wianno Yacht Club for the 75th Anniversary festivities, they'll do so with the confidence that an even bigger celebration will mark the Wianno Senior Centennial in 2014!

Copyright © 1989, 2003 by Jamieson L. Hess. All rights reserved worldwide.
Original edition first appeared in July 1989 in OFFSHORE Magazine.