Skip to main content
Original Issue

Rolls-Royce Luxury on the High Seas

The new Calkins 50-foot motorsailer combines the comfort of a powerboat with the speed of a top ocean racer

Ever since middle-aged joints first began to stiffen, middle-aged sailormen have dreamed of a boat that would combine the luxury of an Edwardian hotel with the sailing ability of a cup defender. Such a middle-aged sailor is Wendell H. (Skip) Calkins, 50, a chronically worried, pleasantly pudgy fellow from San Diego. However, because Skip is a naval architect and marine engineer by profession, his dreams have achieved practical reality in the high-priced but equally high-performing motorsailer pictured above. The C-50 (C for Calkins; 50 for its length, not the age of its designer) may not be the ultimate in motorsailers, but it is as good as any produced to date, and far better than most. As a powerboat, this sleek cruiser ranges up to 850 miles at 8½ knots. As a sloop-rigged sailboat, it points like a meter boat and foots with any ocean racer of its size. It has such a well-balanced helm that its wheel may be left for three and four minutes at a time without alteration in course. And in terms of comfort the C-50 may not be Edwardian but it is luxurious: 96 square feet of living space in the main cabin alone, including two 42-inch-wide bunks, 6-foot-4-inch headroom and broad picture windows that turn the inside of the boat into a solarium. It sleeps from six to 10 guests, according to owner's choice, seats a dozen comfortably in its 10-foot cockpit—which can be modified to include a fighting chair, and below which is a massive storage locker for racing sails. Such is the stuff, together with optional shower and standing headroom in the forward cabin, that Calkins' dreams are made of.

"It's a Rolls-Royce on the water," he says, and he has reason to crow. Although Calkins had designed only one full-sized yacht before his C-50—and doesn't even own a boat of his own—he stepped into the custom yacht field like a man stepping into an elevator shaft. The stock-model C-50 costs $46,500. With optional extras and customizing it can run close to $60,000. Yet five C-50s have been completed and sold to date, three more are in production and inquiries for more than 500 have been received at the cluttered Calkins household, where, until recently, all C-50 business was transacted. Making and selling C-50s is a domestic enterprise, homey in spirit and conduct, and, like those other well-matched domestics, Jack Sprat and wife, Skip and Jane Calkins have found it makes for good nourishment and clean platters.

The Calkins household is a rollicking ménage which seems about to slide off a Point Loma precipice into San Diego Bay. Besides Skip and Jane, it boasts a son and daughter, Chris and Kathleen, a mother-in-law, Agnese, and four inscrutable cats—The Little One, Flower, Figaro and Squeaky, who sits on the edge of the sink at cocktail time and licks up melted ice. While children who are chasing animals who are chasing children roar through the living room and out the kitchen, Jane says calmly: "It tends, at times, to become hectic." Calkins peers owlishly around the neck of the Spanish guitar he plays when he isn't designing boats or sailing them and adds: "If we ever get to the point where we're not full of cats and grandmothers and kids, we're going to have a boat of our own."

Calkins has been sailing boats and tinkering with engines for as many of his 50 years as he can remember. He met Jane at 15 in a Los Angeles dancing school. "We met in a grand right and left," she says. "I really wanted the boy behind him." The boy she got was building and racing hydroplanes before he even had a license to drive a car. When he got one, he promptly converted a Model T into a racing hot rod, of which Jane recollects, "I had no great love for that thing. We'd go off to dances; there'd be oil from the drip pan all over my dress." In 1935 Calkins went to MIT. He became a member of the Institute's first sailing team, skated on the varsity hockey team ("Kinda liked the contact") and spent three years majoring in naval architecture and marine engineering. His only exposure to sailing yacht design, however, was a course conducted by George Owen, MIT's famed dean of naval architecture. "If you wanted an A in George Owen's class, you designed an R boat," says Calkins. "So I designed an R boat, and got an A." But by 1938, R boats, like the other letter boats built to Herreshoff's Universal Rule (the letter designated respective sizes of boats built under the rule; the lower the letter in the alphabet, the bigger the boat), had all but passed from the scene—too big, too limited and too costly for their given classes.

For nearly 20 years after graduation, Calkins thought no more about sailboats. Instead he went to work on destroyers at the Bath Iron Works in Maine. The same year he married his dancing school partner, did a grand right and left back to California—and the war broke out. Three years after graduating he was in charge of planning, with a 250-man staff to help him, at Los Angeles Shipbuilding & Drydock Corporation in San Pedro. Calkins was on the climb, but before he could reach his peak the war ended and the shipbuilding business sank. Resolutely, Calkins kept his head above water with a small yacht brokerage and repair yard on the edge of Newport Harbor. "Those were lean years," says Jane. "We leased the business—inherited a mean old tomcat named Bilgewater, some broken-down furniture and a lot of headaches."

While Jane patched the furniture, Calkins escaped his headaches crewing on the ocean races up and down the California coast. One night in 1950, returning home from Ensenada, Calkins got to expounding on his ideas for yacht design to an old friend and fellow sailor named Charles Ullman. Ullman listened, sent Calkins to a drawing board, and a year later a 50-foot Calkins-designed sloop named Legend went into the water. Six years later Legend came screaming up Hawaii's Molokai channel at an incredible 13 knots to win the Transpacific, one of the world's longest ocean races—dramatic confirmation of Calkins' principles of design.

But custom-built yachts, even successful ones, are too precarious a market for a newcomer with a household the size of Calkins' to feed. Calkins went back to shipbuilding, this time for National Steel & Shipbuilding in San Diego. A wealthy San Diego aircraft manufacturer named T. Claude Ryan (whose firm, 31 years before, had designed and built a plane called the Spirit of St. Louis) was having problems of a different nature. Ryan wanted a powerboat; his sons wanted a sailboat. "Didn't have much use for sails myself," Ryan says now. "They weren't comfortable. I had no intention of giving up the luxury of a big powerboat. I told my boys, 'If somebody could design a boat that would cruise at 10 knots under power, and sail as fast as the fastest sailboat around, I'd be interested.' It seemed like a safe proposition. Everybody knew there wasn't a motorsailer around that could do it."

That summer, on the advice of a friend, Ryan tracked Calkins down in San Diego, phoned him, and spelled out some broad ideas on what he had in mind. Calkins' reply: "I've got something along those lines in my head."

He started with a basic hull design that was a most unlikely-looking sailboat. It resembled a New Bedford whale-boat, 50 feet overall, 43 feet on the water. "Essentially," he says, "it's just a big dinghy." Double ends gave it the look of a Norse viking shiporan oversized Indian war canoe. From Legend he took the fin keel, a hydrodynamically designed wing which, together with the rudder, gives C-50 the underwater profile of a swept-wing jet fighter sliced lengthwise. The insecure-looking fin—a concept much maligned by other designers—is actually so strong that when the boat is hauled out it can support the entire hull. "I'm an engineer," says Calkins, "with the finest training a guy can get and 25 years of experience. If there was something wrong with these fins, I wouldn't be monkeying around with them." He adds significantly, "In the '57 Transpac, Legend ran into a floating tree, rode up on it, and it smacked into the fin. It sure made a lot of noise, but the only damage was a little scratched paint."

The hull itself is strip-planked—the type of construction used in Maine coast fishing boats—glued with resorcinol resin to form, in effect, a single, solid mold of wood, silent under sail, impervious to the "working" common in wood-hulled boats and so thoroughly dry that one three-year-old C-50's bilges still smell as dusty as the woodshop in which it was built. A total of more than 60 hardwood floor timbers, centered nine inches apart, lends to the hull approximately twice the required amount of strength, yet, withal, the C-50 displaces only 9,500 pounds—roughly half the expected displacement of a boat 43 feet on the water. "We were able to get away with a lot less ballast," Calkins explains, "because the garboards [the planking on each side of the keel] aren't deep and the center of buoyancy is high, much higher than a conventional CCA-type boat. This is the same as having a low center of gravity; it's what makes the boat stand up in a stiff breeze."

The C-50 is as kindly on the water as it is luxurious within; it moves through a choppy sea like a Cadillac over a bumpy road. "The sharpness of the entrance angle determines the fore and aft motion of a boat," Calkins explains. "The angle formed by the hull lines sweeping back from the bow—it's like having the right size shock absorbers for your car."

The C-50 more than satisfied Ryan's specifications for comfort. How was it on sailing? Ryan showed the boat to a friend of his as hipped on sail as he was on powered luxury. The friend answered by ordering a C-50 of his own. A third order came in, and a fourth. Inquiries started to arrive from all over the country. And for each inquiry received, a personal reply from Jane was sent. By the end of the first year she had written more than 400 replies. She still handles all the correspondence; the operation remains small and very personal. "If you're going to buy your ultimate boat," Jane says, "you want your architect standing by like the family doctor." By last November Calkins could point with pride to a scarred coffee table just vacated by one of the cats and announce, "Every C-50 sale to date has been consummated on that thing, right in this living room."

But even success has a price. Since December 1, 1962 sales of the Calkins-50 have been consummated in an office on Byron Street Causeway down by the bay. Says Skip Calkins sadly, "We're growing. We had to do something. At home Squeaky, the cat, kept going to sleep on my drawing board."




Harried by Squeaky, who is licking ice cubes, Skip Calkins, with an assist from his wife, Jane, tries to answers an inquiry about the C-50


Claude Ryan's "Sabrina" sails to windward in San Diego Bay. It was Ryan who prodded Calkins to turn to motorsailers and helped him with the design of the boat.