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Original Issue

Chris-Craft finds a fair wind

Prodded by its new owner, Yachtsman Corny Shields, America's best-known maker of motorboats introduces its first sailboat—brisk under canvas but as luxurious as a home

In 62 years Cornelius Shields has out-maneuvered his opponents in every kind of sailboat from frostbite dinghies to the giant J boats of the '30s. Like all pure sailors, Corny Shields holds motor-boats beneath contempt. He finds no pleasure in their reliable—but noisy—engines, in the vibration and smell of machinery doing the work of silent canvas. "They're only good as sail lockers," he says. "I never wanted to own a big powerboat; it's just a floating hotel."

The Chris-Craft Corporation, manufacturer of many of these "floating hotels" has for years been as contemptuous of sailboats as Corny Shields is of "stinkpots." Since 1913, when Chris Smith started the company, Chris-Craft has concerned itself only with the kind of waterborne propulsion that comes from engines. During Prohibition it made fast boats for Canadian "exporters"—and then made faster ones for the authorities to catch them. Today, as the world's largest producer of motorboats, it sells more than 50 models of powered pleasure craft ranging from a 16-foot ski boat at $2,995 to a 65-foot motor yacht that costs $169,995. But it has never sold a sailboat, or tried to.

Under such circumstances, it might seem unlikely that Corny Shields and Chris-Craft would ever get together. But such is not the case. The brisk little vessel pictured here is a collaboration between the two that combines in one tidy package Shields's enthusiasm for wind and wave and Chris-Craft's know-how with powered luxury afloat. It is Chris-Craft's first fling in sail and, during the next year, the company plans to build and sell at least 50 such "sail yachts" at about $25,000 apiece.

The union that produced this happy hybrid took place in 1960, when the Wall Street investment firm owned by Shields and his brother Paul bought most of the stock in Chris-Craft. "Everyone should have a boat company," Corny explains blandly. But his interest in this boat company was purely financial. He remained at heart a sailboat man. "They don't have to be big to be lovely," says Shields of sailboats. "The greatest stimulant I have is my little Greek sponge boat. She's only 12 feet long and I've had her 32 years. I drive by the harbor every morning just to watch her bobbing at her anchor. She's my best possession."

Shields's other, less prized, possession, Chris-Craft, was capable of producing little sponge boats by the thousand if need be, but no one concerned with the company had the sponge-boat owner's affection for such craft. It remained for Corny to change that. As slyly as he planned the tacks on a racing beat to windward, the old sailorman decided to sell the motorboat men on sail.

"I didn't want to force them," says the man sailors know as the Silver Fox. "After all, I bought the company because I liked the management. So I just tried to convince them." He had potent arguments for his purpose. Boating of all kinds is a mushrooming business, but the men who design and build sailboats are not necessarily skilled at making seagoing comfort and luxury an integral part of their craft. Corny made the point that many a dedicated sailor who had given up sailing because of the lack of comfort might be lured back to the sea by the high-styled Chris-Craft luxury.

Then, too, there were potential customers in Europe, where fuel is expensive. The European is, by tradition, said Corny, a sailorman, and he will buy a sailboat. There was a further argument in the growing popularity of class-boat racing, since a one-design sailing auxiliary by Chris-Craft would inevitably be organized into a racing class.

Convinced at last that a sail yacht would not compete with similar Chris-Craft powerboats, Chris-Craft managers agreed to poll their dealers on sales problems. There was little or no problem about manufacture. During the years it had devoted to power, Chris-Craft had learned a thousand tricks of boat production equally applicable to sail: new materials, new methods, new tools. It had been in the forefront of the evolution of smaller, lighter, quieter engines suitable for auxiliary power. It had 10 well-equipped plants and a network of 637 dealers spread over the country. As Corny Shields saw it, no organization in the world was better able to bring the challenge and satisfaction of sailing to a waiting public.

With Chris-Craft sold on the idea, Corny sought out his old friend Olin Stephens to design the boat. Stephens' drawing board had produced two victorious America's Cup defenders—Ranger and Columbia—and a fleet of lesser and greater sailboats, including the Fast-net winner Dorade, the Bermuda winner Finisterre and the sprawling Blue Jay and Lightning classes. Now Corny asked Stephens to design comfort afloat, a home, speed and sport besides.

Stephens and Shields had been shipmates for 36 years, and Stephens was well aware that Shields would influence the design. He set to work cautiously. There was no trouble about length: 35 feet, the size Chris-Craft was geared to produce. But then "Olin came up with bowsprits and a variety of things I don't go for," Corny says. "I like a well-proportioned boat so I told him to take Versatile, the 89-foot ketch he designed for Harold Vanderbilt 12 years ago, and reproduce her in miniature—including the double ends and the sheer." (Sheer is the graceful curvature of a boat's deck-line from midships to each end.) A 90-foot vessel cannot automatically be shrunk to 35, nor can a decade of designer's knowledge be swept aside, but Olin drafted up a set of plans which, he now remarks with astonishment, "did have some resemblance to my old Versatile." Shields sent this plan to 50 personal friends and asked for their opinion without explaining further. Meanwhile, Chris-Craft sent the plan to its dealers. The consensus was that Versa tile's canoe-style stern would be hard to sell to motorboat men who are used to square sterns and level decks, so Olin lopped off the stern and flattened the sheer. Shields, smiling but firm, had Olin put the curve back in. "I had more trouble with that sheer line," Corny complains mildly, "every time I turned my back it was gone again. Maybe I spent too much time worrying about looks and beauty, but I didn't want Chris-Craft to leap into the market with just another motorsailer. I wanted their first sailboat to be even better than the best available."

Stephens' final design, measuring 35 feet overall, with a 28-foot 6-inch waterline, 11-foot beam and 4-foot 8-inch draft, was a functional compromise of sail and motor, sport and practical comfort. From the firm of Sparkman and Stephens came the hull lines and the sail plan of a fast and able sailing boat with an easy-handling rig that carries more than enough canvas (i.e., Dacron) for even a purist: 563 square feet with a masthead genoa up forward assuring good performance to windward. "She's about 75% sail to 25% power," says Stephens, "with the emphasis on the sail." Shields concedes the new Chris-Craft may even be overcanvased for the beginner, "but our aim is to have a satisfactory sailing boat—and no beginner should take a 35-footer out without instruction anyway."

Wooden wives

From Chris-Craft came the power plant (60-horsepower), the accommodations and deck plan, and a thoroughly tested new type of fiber glass laminate for the hull that measures up to three-quarters of an inch thick. The decks are reinforced fiber glass; the fittings of silicone bronze and brass, and the interiors glisten with polished mahogany.

To assure comfort Chris-Craft interior designers made scale models of the cabins and peopled them with jointed, wooden figures. For days this model family lived aboard to determine the size and shape of bunks, stairs, headroom. Wives, for instance, wield a strong influence in the choice and purchase of a boat, so Chris-Craft's engineers paid particular attention to the wooden wives' comfort. Even the bunks are so arranged that they can be tilted while under way to match the heel of the boat.

Racing Designer Stephens is pleased with the result. The hull is his but the home is by Chris-Craft. "Their plan is good—with that midships cockpit dividing the two cabins you can put kids to bed and still have a place to entertain," he says, shaking his head in admiration. "You can get a lot more into a small boat than I ever thought."

Skipper Shields, having won still another sailboat race, is modest about his victory. "For the family, we've got a practical, wholesome boat," he says, "and the sailor will get what he wants—a sailable boat."

And Chris-Craft seems likely to get what it wants—a salable boat.