The Beauty of Boats that Look and Work as They Should

Written by William Sisson

Boats should look like boats, and churches like churches.

At their best, boats are an outward expression of an inner conversation about beauty and purpose (to paraphrase a furniture maker). A boat should make you want to run your hand along some part of it, and the right boat, as I have said before, should make you stop and turn as you walk away from it — and look back with longing.

“Boats that tug on the heartstrings” is how designer Bob Stephens expresses the feeling.

We live in a time when there is a hankering for the authentic, an appreciation for classic designs built with 21st century materials and processes — a rich old-timey look rendered bulletproof through contemporary construction.

A well-built boat today should last more than 100 years. Consider them heirlooms, something you pass down from one generation to the next. The towhead standing beside his grandfather in the pilothouse today could easily be helming the old gaffer’s pride and joy 40 years hence.

“The handcrafted boats of today are many steps above the ones we’re mimicking,” says Stephens, a partner in Stephens Waring Yacht Design, which espouses the “spirit of tradition” design philosophy.

Stephens and his partner enjoy “reinterpreting tradition,” taking the essence of a design or look and “infusing” it with a contemporary flourish, to say nothing of materials, systems and construction. And it’s not just longevity and performance that modern materials and methods deliver. “It’s dependability, durability and reliability,” says Stephens — the nautical trifecta for happiness on the water.

The simple, graceful midsize daysailers that Stephens Waring and others have designed are good examples of boats that meet the less-is-more ethic — lovely craft that evoke the past but are the epitome of functionality and performance. “They are really satisfying boats to design, to build and to use,” Stephens says. “There’s nothing extra on them. They are just pure use and a pure pleasure to sail.”

You see this poetry of structure in boats across all categories — the iconic shape of a Merritt or Carolina sportfisherman, the perfectly unadorned flats skiff, the unapologetic performance of an Intrepid or Yellowfin center console and many others, large and small.

Scott Hanson recently introduced a 23-foot outboard dayboat that harkens back to boats of yesterday. “Its beauty is its simplicity and cleanliness,” says Hanson, the owner of Canadian builder Rossiter Boats. “It’s not full of stuff. It’s keeping things clean. ... Using color to accent instead of making things busy.”

And, Hanson adds, “Just because we like traditional styling and design doesn’t mean we have to compromise engineering or construction or features or amenities. We don’t.”

On the water, functionality is its own form of luxury. And simple is usually better, even though simple in the truest sense of the word is hard to achieve.

“Everything is aged and pure,” says painter Paul Black of the weathered fishing shacks and working boats found on Maine’s Monhegan Island, where he draws inspiration. “Nothing about it is fancy, but all is beautiful.”

The best boats have those same qualities. The steadiness of purpose-built boats and those with working class roots. “Graceful were her lines, ever pleasing to the eye, because she was the embodiment of usefulness,” the late Norwegian sailor Erling Tambs wrote of Teddy, his old 40-foot Colin Archer double-ended cutter that once served as a pilot boat.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, poet and aviation pioneer, wrote of the value of winnowing man-made contraptions down to their essence in his book Wind, Sand and Stars. “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness,” espoused de Saint-Exupéry, also the author of The Little Prince, who disappeared in 1944 in a flight over the Mediterranean while serving with a French air squadron.

Done properly, de Saint-Exupéry believed, an aircraft (and I would add vessel) would be a “form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.”

There is beauty and purity in objects that look the way they should look.

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