by Andrew Pool
WoodenBoat Magazine Sept. 1978
By today’s standards it is old-fashioned with its heavy displacement, cutter rig, small cockpit, narrow beam, and such an anachronism as a bumpkin, but it has its virtues. It will run true as a dart, heave-to like an old duck, work its way to windward in relative comfort when the going gets tough, and sail itself beautifully — characteristics that few modern 25 footers can boast. One of my most vivid memories of a Vertue is of trying to catch a halyard that had come adrift and was just out of reach. “Here – use this!” said the helmsmen, and handed me the tiller as the boat sailed on.
– Yachting and Boating Weekly
“What do you think of her?” I asked, after we had moored up following a short sail in a lumpy sea. Walter, a man of well-chosen words, let his eye wander over her while I waited anxiously for his verdict. “Built like a church. Comfortable as an old boot,” he responded. And that was the end of the matter.
– Peter Woolass (STELDA, #120)
In 1936 a dainty little gaff cutter named ANDRILLOT slipped down the ways in Southampton, England. As with most notable births, there was little fanfare, nothing to set her launching apart from hundreds like it, though perhaps the practiced eye would have caught a certain “rightness” about her lines that would give just a hint of the joy and fame that she, her sisters, and their crews were to enjoy.
ANDRILLOT was the forerunner of the Vertue class, Laurent Giles’ most widely known and respected design. She was designed as a modernized, miniature Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, and had a very short, low coachroof, with sitting headroom and just two berths below. Her rig represented the highest development of the gaff cutter before it was finally replaced by the now-familiar marconi. Those of us who tend to think of the gaff rig as an antiquated, difficult-to-handle rig would do well to examine ANDRILLOT’s clean, efficient sail plan and think again.
ANDRILLOT was soon a celebrity, not only because of her looks, but also for the long passages she began to make, which were quite remarkable for a small yacht by the standards of the day. Her best was a cruise to Biscay, France, skippered by Humphrey Barton. She took in the West of England and the Scilly Isles, and returned via the Channel Islands, winning her skipper the Royal Cruising Club’s Founders Cup. By the outbreak of the war some ten sisters had been built, rigged as Bermudian sloops having double headsails, sometimes earning them the unattractive names, “slutters”. It was one of these, EPENETA, skippered by Lawrence Biddle, that won the Little Ships Club’s Vertue Cup in 1939 (from which the class takes it name) for a 750 mile summer cruise to Biscay, taking in 22 ports and taking only 19 days for the round trip – a remarkable achievement for a small yacht without an engine.
The post-war period brought with it many changes in values. Yachtsmen wanted better, smaller boats, and the Vertue was ideally suited to their needs. Giles made some alterations to improve the accommodations: a dog house was added to give standing headroom, the sheer was slightly straightened to create more sitting headroom over the berths, and the general layout was replanned. The original underwater lines have never been altered, and even if the Vertue connoisseur believes the sheer line to be less pleasing than in the earlier boats, he or she will still find much to admire. Through all of her changes, her looks are a strange combination of delicacy and ruggedness. She is every inch a thoroughbred, and all heads turn wherever she goes.
About 160 Vertues have now been built all over the world, with about half this total by either E.F. Elkins and Sons of Christchurch, England, R.A. Newman and Sons of Poole, England, or the Cheoy Lee Shipyard in Hong Kong. Specifications vary, but all have solid construction, as evidenced by KAWAN, built before the war and over 30 years old when she was driven onto a coral reef at Tahiti, then pounded by the surf over the reef and into the quiet waters of the lagoon beyond. She suffered only superficial damage.
Humphrey Barton now holds the record for Transatlantic crossings – 20. In 1950 he was still a partner of Laurent Giles, and at that time was already a highly competent and experienced yachtsman. As well as his Biscay cruise in ANDRILLOT, he had circumnavigated Ireland and cruised from Cowes to Santander, Spain. He had promised to skipper the Giles-designed BULVAIN in the Bermada Race, and dismissing as too dull the conventional ways of getting to America, he decided that it would be more adventurous and would aid the post-war British balance of payments if he crossed the Atlantic in a Vertue and sold her for dollars in the States. VERTUE XXXV, a stock boat built by Elkins of Christchurch, was bought and only slightly modified for the voyage. Barton took the intermediate route, encountering head winds for much of the way and surviving a severe storm during which VERTUE XXXV suffered damage to her cabin trunk when she was thrown onto her beam ends. He completed the voyage in 47 days. His book, Westward Crossing, which was written mainly as a diary during the voyage, gives his account. His vivid description of his disaster, written shortly after the storm, is quite touching and must rank among the finest passages of graphic writing on sailing.
The voyage caused much revision of thought. VERTUE XXXV was at that time the smallest yacht to have sailed over that route and seems to have been the first to have crossed the Atlantic with her mast stepped on deck. Also, these were the days when controversy (in England if not elsewhere) still raged over the relative advantages of the gaff and Bermudian rig for cursing yachts, and not long after the era when a yacht’s size was chosen by the yardstick of a foot of waterline length for each year of her owner’s life. Here, then, was an outstanding voyage by anyone’s criteria.
The next major voyage was by ICE BIRD, a specially designed ocean cruising Vertue, cutter rigged and built with an extra plank in her topsides to compensate for the reduction in freeboard caused by the weight of the provisions needed for long-distance voyages; and with a low profile, reinforced coachroof to increase the chances of surviving a knockdown. In 1952 Dr. Joe Cunningham voyaged in her from Ireland to the West Indies and on to Newfoundland. Cunningham worked in Newfoundland for couple of years and then made the return trip to Ireland. Than A.G. Hamilton, who had SPEEDWELL OF HONG KONG built in Hong Kong, sailed her to England in 1953. Later in SALMO, a sister ship, he made an Atlantic crossing by the northern route from Scotland to Quebec, then to Panama and Tahiti via the Pitcarian Islands, ending up in California. In his book, The Restless Wind, he tells of his voyage. SPEEDWELL had by this time passed into the hands of John Goodwin who sailed her first to the West Indies via Gibralter, and then on to South Africa.
Brian Bleasdale had MEA built in 1959 in Hong Kong to the ocean cruising design, though with the standard rig, and began a leisurely cruise home to England which was to take him three years. His first year took him to Borneo, and next to Ceylon and South Africa, and during the third he reached Falmouth, England. There MEA was laid up in a mudberth, apparently unloved and forgotten, until Bleasdale’s death in 1967 some five years later. His charts and log were still on board. She has since had a major refit in anticipation of a voyage to New Zealand, but on the death of her new skipper passed into Swedish onership.
Dr. David Lewis, best known for his later adventures, was relatively unknown in 1960 when he entered CARDINAL VERTUE in the first single-handed Transatlantic Race. Lewis’ book, The Ship Would Not Travel Due West, tells of the race preparations, of the sharing of ideas between the skippers Chichester, Hasler, Howells, and Lacombe, and of his own Transatlantic voyages, which were the race itself and the return to stormy Shetland.
CARDINAL VERTUE was then sold to a remarkable man, Bill Nance, from Australia. Nance is a modest man who shuns publicity and it is likely that many of his achievements will remain unknown, but we do know that in 1963 he left Brixham on the first leg of his circumnavigation and reached San Fernando in Argentina in 61 days. His next leg was to Capetown and then on to Melbourne. The Capetown-to-Mellbourne voyage proved to be as tough as he had feared, and with 2,000 miles to go he lost his mast off St. Pauls Island. He made Freemantle under jury rig, and carried out repairs before sailing on to Auckland. Here CARDINAL VERTUE was refitted before the last leg of her circumnavigation to Buenos Aires via Cape Horn. It was on his this leg that Nance gained the considerable distinction of holding the singlehanded speed record for a long passage: 122 miles per day for 53 days. (It was taken from him by Sir Francis Chichester in the very much bigger GYPSY MOTH IV during his circumnavigation, when he established 131 miles per day for 107 days and 130 for 119 days.) At that time CARDINAL VERTUE was also the smallest yacht to have rounded Cape Horn.
But CARDINAL VERTUE is only one of four Vertues to complete circumnavigations, and it would be wrong to deny KAWAN similar credit. Her shipwreck in the Red Sea, only a few days from completing a circumnavigation, brought to an abrupt end a voyage begun in England by the Canadian, Don Nealey, and taken over by Francis Gildas Le Guen in Papeete. Another French-owned Vertue KANTREAD (her name means courage in the old Breton language) already had a double Atlantic crossing to her credit before she set off with Pierre Labat on a voyage around the world that was to take her three years. Not quite the slowest time for a circumnavigation (that record seems to be held by Edward Alcard in his elderly SEA WANDERER) was made by the Californian Ed Boden in KITTIWAKE between 1962 and 1976. His voyage sounds like a scenic trip around the world. In his unhurried way he took in the French Canals, the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the West Indies, the Galapagos Islands, South Sea Islands, New Guinea, Singapore, South America, and back to the West Indies. A somewhat more hurried circumnavigation was carried out by the Canadian John Struchinsky in his BONAVENTURE DELYS. He set off around the world in 1969, completing his round trip in the West Indies in 1975.
Over the years long voyages completed by Vertues have become so commonplace and therefore unremarkable that the records are incomplete, but it is known that other Transatlantic crossings have been made by EASY VERTUE (ex. JONICA by Dan Robertwon), KANTREAD (Patrick De Gersant Killy), PAVAN (Oiaf Nissen), AOTEA (R.H. Montgomery), STELDA, George and I), BLUEJENNY (Dan Bowen), and CHARIS (Peter Pike. Another fine voyage was FIALAR’s non-stop three week circumnavigation of Iceland, skippered by L. Sills. Many comparable voyages have been made in the southern hemisphere, including that of KOTIMU (Neils and Billie Powell), with the original gaff cutter rig, from New Zealand to Austrailia and on to New Guinea, and that of AUSTRAL VERTUE (Mike McKoon) from Melbourne to Sydney to New Zealand and the Gilbert Islands via Fiji.
All these voyages, not to mention many ambitious summer cruises, have been made by yachts of the same class, a boat with enormous aesthetic appeal, as much admired for her good looks as for her sea-keeping qualities, and which is only 25’3″ long. She is probably the smallest boat in which to make ocean passages in any degree of comfort.
It is a little ironic that such a small, fundamentally conservative, unprepossing boat should become the hallmark of Laurent Giles and Partners, a firm which has produced stellar ocean racers and large luxury yachts whose innovation have influenced the whole course of yachting history. But perhaps there is a lesson in this, and a tribute to a designer who was willing to focus all of his creative energy on what could only have been seen at the time as a relatively minor design, in pursuit of excellence – the perfect expression of a simple concept. We can all tip our hats to his success, the handsome, able, tough, and beloved Vertue. No vessel afloat can top her
There is a fine book called VERTUE by Peter Woolass, which contains much of practical and general interest to the Vertue owner and enthusiast. It is published by Peter Woolass.