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Original Issue


Frustrated by the shortcomings of the average express cruiser and yearning for the freedom of sail without the work it entails, a retired Navy man found inspiration in a fisherman's flopperstopper for a motor vessel rugged enough to take him across any sea. In 50,000 miles of cruising, his 'Passagemaker' has set a new style in yachts

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Robert P. Beebe has spent most of his 58 years in, on, under and around the water. He should, therefore, be reasonably used to the behavior of any craft subject to the vagaries of wind and wave. Yet, there in the galley of his own oceangoing motor-boat Passagemaker, Captain Beebe sat stunned and unbelieving. The reason: six plates, stacked neatly on a counter near the galley stove, had suddenly leaped off their shelf and cascaded onto the deck, clattering and shattering all over the place.

It was a sight at which most sailors would merely have shrugged. Aboard virtually any boat smaller than the late R.M.S. Queen Mary, anything that can come unhitched eventually will. Plates, pans, tools, gear, people are all fair game if they are not strapped securely in place. The wrong wave from the wrong quarter and hey, watch it! Why, even the rawest lubber knows that.

Yet there was Bob Beebe, 50 years a sailor, staring in amazement at the pile of plates strewn on his galley deck. And while it may come as a shock to anybody who has ever tried to sip hot coffee in a beam sea, he had good reason to stare. Sturdy, high-sided, salty and tough, his 50-foot Passagemaker had taken him across two oceans nonstop, flirted with hurricanes, bulled headlong into full gales, ridden easily over rolling swells, and in 50,000 miles of cruising had almost never broken a dish under way.

The trouble with the present circumstances was that she was not under way. At the moment of Captain Beebe's shocked surprise, she was hanging on a mooring in the anchorage of the Balboa Yacht Club with all her seagoing defenses down and at the mercy of every souped-up sportsfisherman who cared to roar past her at 10 knots over the courteous limit. So just forget that pile of crockery on the deck, Cap'n Bob. It was a freak happening, one that can't be repeated if only you and Passagemaker stay at sea where you both belong.

So what is she, this rugged but stylish craft that can do things no other boat of her general size and shape could dream of? Is she an express cruiser? Oh, no, no. A sailboat? An auxiliary? No, though she carries both sail and power. A motor sailer then? Oh, dear, no. She is, as her name not only implies but states most explicitly, a vessel designed to make passages.

Captain Beebe's boat can chug happily along for 3,200 miles without a stop and without a groan from her single huge Ford diesel. Single, you say? Yes, why carry two engines when the weight of a second could be converted into extra fuel, far more useful when you're halfway across an ocean? The thing is to make sure your single engine is reliable. Passagemaker's big Ford will get her across any ocean as smoothly as the old Super Chief riding the rails of the Santa Fe as long as it keeps running. And if it doesn't—well, there are Passagemaker's unique auxiliary sails to get you home. The term "auxiliary" is used advisedly, for on this boat the sails, not the engine, provide the extra, emergency power.

On the wind Passagemaker carries a normal working ketch rig: jib, main and mizzen. Downwind she flies two triangular foresails wung out to port and starboard with two more triangular sails on the mizzen, somewhat like huge storm trysails clewed to the struts of her flopperstoppers.

Her what? Her flopperstoppers. That's what the fishermen of the Pacific call the gadgets that play the most important role of all aboard Passagemaker. They consist of two clumsy-looking chunks of metal, about two feet across and two feet long, shaped vaguely like stingrays. These steel "fish" swim along under the water on either side of the boat on the end of steel cables held in place by outriggers stayed to a sturdy mizzen mast. Because they tend to hold their course evenly well below the surface where the waves have no effect, any effort on the part of Passagemaker to pull them up or down as she tries to roll is promptly discouraged.

Beebe's flopperstoppers, his unique sails, his single reliable diesel and the stern seamanship he has built into his Passagemaker are all practical expressions of a new wistful trend in yachting—the yearning of the amateur to own a boat on which he can truly rely as those who make their living by the sea rely on their working craft. This trend has led to a whole new class of motor yachts patterned on the ocean fisherman's rugged trawler.

Less wistful yachtsmen today are often sent to sea by more wistful wives. You can see them every year at the boat show in Manhattan's Coliseum. There he stands on the flying bridge of the latest chrome and mahogany marvel, knuckles white on the wheel, gazing off into the Columbus Circle exit. And below she goggles at the plush carpeting, the nifty full-sized refrigerator, the huge, luxurious staterooms, the hot-water faucets. "Why, it's just like an adorable little house," says she. Next summer, in a great fog of internal combustion fumes, they roar out at flank speed for the breakwater and the open sea. Then it comes, the first long ocean swell that turns the adorable little home into a Luna Park crazy house and the maritime marvel into a torture chamber. If she ever makes it back to shore, she will spend the following weekend tied up at the marina and likely stay there the rest of the summer. Come fall, there will be a natty "for sale" sign on her tunatower. It is, perhaps, the most significant fact of Passagemaker that when Captain Beebe talked of selling, it was Mrs. Beebe who demurred.

Captain Beebe's effort to bring a sea change to the sport of motorboat cruising began some nine years ago when he was finishing up a 30-year career in the U.S. Navy as a department head in the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. With retirement imminent, he began to dream of a small boat that would take him where he wanted to go, when he wanted to go.

"Long-range cruising had always meant sail," Beebe says, "mostly because a motorboat is a punishing device in any kind of sea." Yet a lifetime's familiarity with wind, current and tide charts told him there were vast areas of water where a sail was very likely to flap in its own juice, sometimes for days at a time.

"I knew auxiliary power wasn't going to help me," Beebe says, "when I couldn't carry enough fuel to get me out of those calms."

Besides, making sail is a sport for the young and the vigorous. "I've had my share of fighting a jib in a full gale," he said. "It's invigorating, exciting work, and I enjoyed it. It is also hard, dangerous work and I had reached an age when I wanted to cruise easily, comfortably and on my own schedule. Moreover," he adds, "I wanted a boat that could cruise not only the oceans, where harbors are thousands of miles apart, but the shallow canals of Europe."

Having decided that he wanted the impossible, Beebe went to work in Seattle to try to bring it to reality. Gradually the dream began to assume form. Each day, winter and summer, foul weather and fair, Beebe saw the salmon trawlers chug out to sea, their passages made easy by their makeshift outriggers. "Flopperstoppers, by golly," thought Beebe. "The trawlers of the Northwest have been using them for years. If they work for the fisherman, why won't they work for me?" The answer he got from other yachtsmen was a classic in Corinthian reasoning: they had never been used on pleasure boats before, so they obviously would not work.

"You don't say so," said Beebe and promptly got on the job. What he had in mind was not a boat with flopperstoppers stuck on it, but rather a boat intrinsically designed to accommodate the things.

After hours and hours of research, seven different designs, three full working plans and eight months' building in the Thornycroft yard in Singapore, he had his answer: Passagemaker.

It was, of course, far more than just a platform for flopperstoppers. It combined a whole philosophy of yacht construction aimed at long-distance cruising.

First of all, there was a hull designed to be at its best at cruising speed, not flank speed. "The object was to get there approximately on schedule," said Beebe, "not in record time." Then there was the question of power. The obvious answer was a diesel, big and dependable and with a fuel capacity to keep Passagemaker going for at least 2,400 miles nonstop. "There is nothing duller than steering a boat day after day without the stimulation of the changing weather you get under sail," says Beebe, and so an automatic pilot was a necessity. But what kind? "I picked this," he will point out, showing you the converted bombsight that he uses, "because it's all electric. You can fix it even at sea."

To top it all, Beebe gave his Passagemaker a big comfortable great cabin aft, a semi-enclosed cockpit guaranteed to keep one dry in all weather, a cheery galley and a roomy deckhouse.

Beebe's first cruise took him across the Indian Ocean from Singapore to Greece. With his diesel clicking off 7½ knots, he met his first real seas and launched the flopperstoppers. They hit the water with a splash and zipped down to their 15-foot cruising depth. Suddenly Passagemaker stopped wallowing, immediately and completely, and began a continuous flow of conversation. That is the first thing Beebe learned. Flopperstoppers talk. It is a strange language, almost but not quite intelligible. Coming on watch in the dead of night, for instance, as you step out into the cockpit, you will hear: "Helloooo there hummmmmm."

"I beg your pardon?" you will ask.

"Hooow booom, rah rah boooom," they answer.

"How's that?" you say.

"Hooo raaa raaaaa whoooooo!"

Beebe has never quite got the gist of flopperstopperese, but no matter. What they say isn't important; it's what they do.

Beebe and Passagemaker spent that summer puttering about the Greek isles, where they met an American artist whom Beebe soon married (his first wife died just before he retired). Next spring all three of them sailed for Marseilles and Passagemaker's second test: the canals. Down came the masts and away they went, slowly, happily, sometimes with less than an inch to spare in the locks, but Passagemaker did just fine, thank you, chugging up the Rhone River all the way to the Rhine and down to the North Sea. Nothing to it.

It was in England that Norris Hoyt, a long-time sailor and frequent SI correspondent (Aug. 8, 1966), met Passagemaker and almost instantly signed on for a trip across the Atlantic. The voyage was a revelation. In the Bay of Biscay, 25-knot winds whipped up big seas quartering from the stern—exactly the conditions guaranteed to make life hell on a small motorboat. Out went the flopperstoppers and presto, pots and pans sat quietly on shelves, food stayed on table and sleepers were able to stay in their bunks.

Hoyt, a schoolmaster by trade, spent the rest of the cruise jotting down such things as: "The flare of her bow increases exactly enough to lift air before taking water—and she nuzzles ahead" and "Layout is leisurely, comfortable, filled with privacy and places to put things. In fact, there is so much room it's sinful."

That is exactly what Beebe had in mind when he built Passagemaker.