My Unrequited Love Affair with a Boat
William R. Carr
You may not be unduly surprised when I admit that I have never owned a Sea Witch. After all, Sea Witch ownership is a pretty exclusive club, comprised of a very few fortunate or determined individuals. Perhaps as few as 30 Sea Witches have been built. And the club isn't about to open up to many new comers in the immediate future. They aren't making very many new Sea Witches in this day of plastic stamp-out designs, and the extraordinarily high cost of quality wooden boats – not to mention the fact that the plans have not been available for many years. And, of course, when somebody becomes a Sea Witch owner, they generally hang on to it until old age forces them to retire from the sea.
You may be a little surprised, however, when I admit I have never even set foot on the deck of a Sea Witch! After that admission, maybe you're scratching your head a little and thinking, "Some Sea Witch authority HE is!"
Over a half of a century after falling in love with her, the Sea Witch remains as strange, exotic, and distant to me as ever – like an illustrious and unapproachable Hollywood superstar. Though I've seen and been near a few Sea Witches, "my Sea Witch" is still a dream image. But time and distance have not caused my fondness to flag any. In fact, it has perhaps caused my heart to grow even fonder of her shapely lines.
So, though it might be a stretch to consider myself a Sea Witch expert, at least I can boast of having been modestly obsessed with the Sea Witch for half a century. Most of that time was spent sailing the seven seas as a merchant mariner, from which career I retired in January of 2006.
To this child of the rural Heartland, the idea of buying a Sea Witch has always remained far beyond serious consideration. Back in 1953, when my father first discovered the Sea Witch (and Sea Witch was selling for about from about $25,000.00, he was making $3.00 an hour (about $6,240.00 a year!). That was a good industrial wage back in 1953.
Clearly, the only hope of owning a Sea Witch would be to build one. And that's what my father hoped to do. He wanted to build a boat and sail to the South Seas where, as he put it, "People are still civilized." But even $300.00 for a set of plans seemed a tough mark to reach. Later, when my dad was laid off from his job, it literally became impossible, and his boat building dreams crashed permanently. And when I finally got an income of my own, as a Navy seaman (making about $98.00 per month), the price of the plans had jumped to $600.00!
As for buying a new Sea Witch today (if such were possible), "new replacement costs," built to original specifications, are estimated at from $150,000.00 to $200,000.00!
When the time finally came when I might have been able to buy an aging Sea Witch, or perhaps at least had one built in the Far East, I put caution ahead of heart and (at my father's urging), bought a farm instead. As my old Pappy always said, "It's always nice to have a place to set your stuff down." And when a seaman owns a farm, and finally comes home to it, those months off of the ship are generally devoted to non-seafaring activities – and the family that had materialized. (See: The Farm)
Nonetheless, I never totally abandoned my dream of building my dreamboat. But, as a seaman/farmer it was always very easy to put the project off. Earning a living at sea claimed about half of each year, and the farm and family claimed the other half. I worked on the plans for my dream boat from time to time – plans that always resembled the Sea Witch, but never quite satisfied me (See one such evolution at: A 35 foot auxiliary ketch based on the Angelman Sea Witch – another at 52 Foot Trading Ketch Model.)
Of course, the plans for the Sea Witch had been withdrawn from sale to amateur boat builders decades ago (while Hugh Angelman was still alive and sailing), and are no longer commercially available at any price – and now they are downright hard to find.
If I were comfortably ensconced aboard my own Sea Witch right now, of course, building a Sea Witch web site would probably be the last thing on my mind. I might even learn to live without a computer again – or at least without an Internet connection. But, since I am sitting in the loft of an old farmhouse in the Heartland, rather than on a Sea Witch (or on any boat), I'm still dreaming of building a boat.
Now that I've retired from a long career at sea, maybe – just maybe – I'll find the time to do it. But, though I have designed many prospective dream boats by way of a hobby these many years, in the end only a Sea Witch will seem to do.
And this brings me around to my main reason for started this web site. I'm hoping to eventually find someone who has an old tattered set of Sea Witch plans they'd share or sell cheap. And, of course, if this web site should uncover a set of plans (even if I never manage to fulfill my dream), I hope to post enough information to enable others to build Sea Witches in the future, further immortalizing Hugh Angelman and Charles Davies, with what many of us consider their crowning artistic achievement.
By now I'm quite confident that I can produce a set of lines that will be so close to the Sea Witch that the difference would be negligible, but while a boat built from such plans might look like a Sea Witch, it wouldn't "be" a Sea Witch.
Though the lines published in WoodenBoat No. 147 show at least a respectable facsimile of the Sea Witch lines, between that 1937 plan and about 1960 the Sea Witch went from an "11 ton ketch" to a 13 or 14 ton ketch. And while the newer keel shape is shown in later study plans, the underbody lines were altered too, in a way that must account for the additional 2 or 3 tons of displacement, which the deeper keel profile alone doesn't do.
Of course, the Sea Witch is not for everybody. Today, it seems, most prospective boat buyers and boat owners are literally afraid of wood. And in a world where everybody seems to be in a hurry to get where they're going, the Angelman Sea Witch may seem like a slow clunker. But what's an extra day or two at sea to a cruising sailor with all the comforts of home right with him and no jet plane to catch?
The portly Sea Witch, with it's gaff main, isn't as nimble to windward as more streamlined modern cruisers. To the part-time cruiser, or occasional sailor, speed means a lot more than to one with the more leisurely paced sea life a dedicated cruising sailor should develop.
Naturally, to someone who is always in a hurry, maintenance of a fine wooden boat is either time-consuming "work," or expensive, (or both). And everybody knows that a "traditional rig," especially with a gaff main and deadeyes, is more complicated and troublesome than simple modern yacht rigging, and that long bowsprits are "dangerous." And the gaff main is less efficient to windward than a modern Marconi sail.
However, Sea Witch was a design calculated to appeal to romantics and lovers of "traditional sail" – of old clipper ships and trading schooners – something yacht designers, and the general yachting community, had been busily distancing themselves from for some time. The Sea Witch was the very antithesis of progressive yacht design in the eyes of many when Wilmington Boat Works produced the first ones – a step back toward the stone age.
Yet they became embarrassingly popular. For many, it was like the answer to a prayer. There was still room for tradition in the world of "luxury" cruising yachts of modest size. The graceful sheer; clipper bow; double bowsprit; trail boards; dolphin striker (martingale); raked masts; deadeyes; gaff rigged main; "monkey rail" aft; and that exquisitely shaped transom – all of these things (which might have seemed comically overdone in a lesser design), were combined and incorporated to perfection.
And beam! How could a little 35 or 36 foot "clipper" have such beam (and have so much room below), and still be so sleek and pleasing to the eye from every angle? To quote the Rudder Treasury, "She has the comfort and the accommodations of a much larger boat." The Sea Witch sleeps eight, with three double berths, a quarter berth aft, and a crew berth forward in its own compartment. It has an "owner's stateroom" where one of the double berths is located, and a large main salon and ample galley.
The little photo below shows Sea Witch, from an angle that makes that beam quite apparent, but it is one of the most endearing pictures ever taken of her. Sea Witch appears as plump and rotund as she actually is. But she is very "pleasantly" plump, with such a sweet turn of lines at her bow, and such a graceful sheer and entrance at the waterline, that not even at this angle does she appear anything but streamlined and very "big and shipy."
And, in spite of her supposed handicaps, the Sea Witch was no sloth when it came to what sailboats are supposed to be for – she could sail like a champ – at least down wind!
One of the earliest magazine articles about Sea Witch appeared in the June 1945 edition of Rudder Magazine. Already the design had been, "...very successful with western yachtsmen as is proven by the popularity of such fine boats as Sea Witch, Sea Rover... and others. The Sea Witch and her sisters are small ships that restore the romance of the sea to modern yachting and combine the charm of the old time sailing ships with the conveniences of modern yachts."
Both Angelman and Davies (along with Robert Carlson, Dave Lee and other WILBO hands), created many fine and popular designs besides Sea Witch, both before and after, including some others referred to as "Wilbo ketches," but Sea Witch was the masterpiece. It was like good poetry, or a master's painting. You know it when you see it.
Hugh Angelman and Charles Davies must have known they had a once in a lifetime winner – and when Sea Witch won the Honolulu race on corrected time in 1951, the design experienced a world wide surge in popularity. The Sea Witch became the Wilmington Boat Works mascot and logo. The drawing that appears in the background of this page (left and right), was taken from the the letter my father received from "Wilbo" back in 1953. It was obviously drawn from the famous photograph at the top of this page, perhaps taken by W.C. Sawyer.
As for the "wood problem" – wood is what boats are supposed to be made of, and always had been made of since man first discovered he could float on a log. For the man to whom his boat is his home, the supposed problems of maintenance are not significant factors. Such problems concern only those to whom the boat is merely a part-time extracurricular recreational activity. Maintaining a wooden boat is certainly much easier than maintaining a home ashore, no matter what material it happens to be made of – and really not that much more demanding than maintaining a plastic boat. And plastic boats have been known to break like eggshells when the going really gets tough – sometimes at the most inopportune moment, such as when making contact with an unexpected rock or coral reef.
Stephen Carlson tells me that Dave Lee was Angelman's original collaborator on the 1937 design. But Charles Davies (Angelman's business partner at the Wilmington Boat Works), had suggested some significant hull design changes to improve performance, and his name was appended to the design as a co-designer. But the Sea Witch was very much Angelman's baby. And Angelman and his wife Leslie made the Sea Rover (Sea Witch No. 2), their home afloat for several years.
The Sea Witch was both a radical and traditional design, and the forerunner of a class of cruising boats (distinct from the Sea Witch class), generally termed "character boats." It was a radical departure from the sort of yachts that had been steadily gaining in popularity for many decades – designs with long sleek lines, little sheer, and long sharp bow and stern overhangs. Sleek, clean, simplicity was the standard, since speed was the primary design concern. Most were sloop or cutter rigs, with the schooner common in larger designs. The Marconi sail was the standard, except in a few schooners where the gaff rig was still rather common.
But this was a cruising boat, and cruising boats are built with livability and comfort in mind, yet the trend in cruising boats was also toward sacrificing comfort to speed. Many quaint and practical cruising boats, including the ketch rig, have been designed and built before and after the advent of Sea Witch, but it took Hugh Angelman to make the perfectly aesthetic "little ship" that was still classy enough to be a luxury yacht.
Slocum had popularized the yawl for cruising, as the result of his famous circumnavigation, but the ketch rig gradually revealed itself as about the handiest configuration for short handed ocean cruising. So Angelman choose the ketch rig in his Sea Witch design. With the gaff-rigged mainsail and those raked masts he scored an artistic coup which filled in the "empty gap" the Marconi main left in the rig, added a sleek appearance, and gave Sea Witch the visual appeal that had been lacking in standard ketch rigs – not to mention more sail area with less height.
Since the Sea Witch was so widely admired, many of it's attributes have been copied by other designers, and there has been a whole line of "character boats" with some of the attributes of Sea Witch, but not even Hugh Angelman, himself, has been able to equal, much less surpass, Sea Witch as the culmination of artistic appeal in a cruising yacht.
The popularity of the Sea Witch declined with the advent of relatively cheap performance oriented plastic production boats that were being built in increasing numbers in the Far East and around the world. But Sea Witch had had its influence on some of the most popular of them. More than any other, perhaps William Garden's 40 foot "Sea Wolf" design appealed to the class that might have gravitated to Sea Witch a few years earlier. They were sort of a "modernized" Sea Witch design with sleek lines.
Sea Wolfs are lovely boats with many of the character attributes of Sea Witch, including the rail aft, clipper bow, and teak deck and trim. But nonetheless they lack the essence that made Sea Witch what it was – a real little ship. It was sleek and arty, but with a Marconi rigged mainsail and a standard, single, comparatively short, bowsprit.
I've been aboard a couple of plastic Sea Wolfs, and being able to see light through the plastic hull was not reassuring to this lover of traditional wooden boats. In spite of the fine attributes of the design, and it's appearance from the outside, the feeling inside, where the hull could be seen, was of the unavoidably "cheap" appearance of plastic. So Sea Witch continued to be my dream boat.
Of course, this old sea dog has been around a bit, even if he has never landed on the deck of a Sea Witch. In fact, his cruising dream materialized at one time for a brief period. (See: Home Sweet Semangat – the dream once realized).
It was 1973 and, though I already owned the farm, I was still very much in the "China Coaster" period of my life. At the time, I was working out of Singapore in the offshore oil industry. (See: Oil Patch and Tow Boat Days in Southeast Asia.)
I'd designed a 52 Foot "Trading Ketch" based on the appearance of the Sea Witch. I'd hoped to have built in Singapore, and had been saving up a little nest egg for that purpose. But those were strange and troubled times. Oil crises and monetary crises were at hand, and the value began leaking out of my savings at an alarming rate. The good old greenback wasn't looking so good any more. So I decided to buy a boat (any boat), before my savings became totally worthless. This led to my "Semangat" adventure.
But, though it was a great experience, and the "Semangat" was a nice little cruiser and home, she was no Sea Witch. The Semangat (a Malay word, meaning inner spirit or life force in plants and animals), had been built in Malaysia by a Chinese builder to Peter Ibold's Endurance 35 design. She was heavily built of changal wood, and proved her metal in a Pacific Typhoon. But, though she was an attractive ketch, she couldn't hold a candle to Sea Witch.
Before going to work in Singapore, Saigon had been my home port – and there I had acquired a family. My son, Jim, was born there in 1969 and my daughter, Lilia, in 1974. When South Vietnam began to crumble to the Communists, I had to get them out of the country. In April, 1975, I flew to Saigon and we evacuated on an Air Force C-141 Starlifter a nine days before the North Vietnamese army marched triumphantly into town.
To make a long story short, my family ended up in Guam, and I sailed the Semangat on the long uphill grind to Guam to rejoin them. My idea of making my family into a cruising family foundered on the shores of that island, however. My wife didn't really want to be a boat person, and sailing scared her. So I was confronted with that age-old choice boat lovers are sometimes called upon to make. For the full story, read my book, Semangat - The Adventure.
Since I owned a nice little farm in Southern Illinois, and my father was aging alone there, I opted to sell the boat and settle in "Paradise north" in the Heartland. And here, amid the natural beauty of the Shawnee National Forest, together with cold winters and tick and chigger infested summers, I continue to dream of Sea Witch.
Though I've been collecting a store of boat lumber over recent years, it seems there's always one more project to be accomplished before I can get busy on the boat. And the question remains – if and when I do start on the boat, will it be a Sea Witch, built from Hugh Angelman and Charles Davies plans, or will it be my own personally rendered facsimile thereof? (See: Quest for the Plans/ Lines of the SEA WITCH)
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