Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 7 - Yet More Perfection


Lyle C Hess was born in Blackfoot Idaho in 1912 and whilst still a boy he moved with his family to Southern California. Lyle loved boats and the sea and from an early age he built and sailed boats. The first large sailing boat that he designed and built was Westward Ho. Lyle once said "All I've ever wanted to do is design boats". And design boats he did, beautiful, functional boats. Many of them based on the lines of the British Pilot Cutters. Perhaps the first of Lyle's designs to achieve fame was 24 foot Seraffyn launched in 1968 by Lin and Larry Pardey. Seraffyn subsequently circumnavigated and had a series of books written about her. There are at least two 24s in Australia, Daisy Cutter in Oyster Cove and Heather Belle in Melbourne.
In that same "series" of designs Lyle also designed a 26 footer of which there is at least one in Australia - Sally; a 30 footer, of which Lin and Larry Pardey's Taleisin is the most famous, having herself circumnavigated the globe about one and a half times. There is at least one 30 footer in Australia, Friendly Light in Port Albert.
Then came a 32 footer, designed at almost the same time as the 30 footer. There are at least 4 of these in Australia, Wild Honey (gaff rigged), Ubique (modified bermudan rig) and Zuline (Lyle's original bermudan rig). These three were built at the same location in Tasmania, in the order listed. The latter two are both in Melbourne. Wild Honey and Ubique are both planked in Huon Pine and Zuline in Celery Top. Another 32 has also been built in Tasmania on a cold moulded hull - Aziza.

A Fatty Knees Dinghy

Finally there was a 40 footer. To my knowledge only one has been built - in the US. Lyle however did not stop there, there were many other designs. Perhaps my favourite Lyle Hess design is his Fatty Knees dinghy, a beautiful little dinghy to row and sail and with the lines to carry a load. The story of the name is an insight into Lyle's sense of humour. Lyle's wife was known as Doodle, one of her grand children looked at her one day and said "Grandma you've got fatty knees!" and so a dinghy was named.


To sail a Lyle Hess design is a privilege and a revelation. Their lines are classical, a long keel, beamy and with maximum draft right at the stern post. Whilst no slug to windward they relish just eased sheets and will romp away in the right conditions. Once I crossed Bass Strait from the Rip to Banks Strait, on the tail end of a very heavy south westerly gale. The wind was about 25 knots and a big sea was running. We completed the whole trip at an average of 7.33 knots with two reefs in the main and a staysail. Not bad for a heavily laden, long keel boat on a 30 foot waterline. Just very occasionally we thumped off a wave with a hell of a bang. Generally though it was a very comfortable passage.
These are not boats that will spin on a dime, but they are very well behaved and very predictable. In a gale they give you a great sense of security. Hove to in 40 knots of breeze with the very steep short, slightly breaking seas of Bass Strait, the boat rides very comfortably, only taking wind blown spray on board and making somewhere between a half and three quarters of a knot to leeward. The trysail is the key to heaving to in that sort of breeze and there is no need for any canvas forward. As each steep sea comes along it seems impossible that she will climb up it safely, but after the first couple you realise that she is in her element. The biggest danger is passing ships. In those conditions they just cannot see you.
To quote from an interview with Lyle Hess:

When asked if there is a common quality running throughout his designs, Lyle thoughtfully answered, "I feel that any boat that points her bow out to sea should be designed so that the crew need not worry about a safe return--no matter what tricks the weather may play. I guess if there is a unifying thought behind my designs it is to bring skipper and crew home, in one piece, no matter what."

My experience of Lyle's designs is that is exactly what they do, and they're fun too!