Editorial March 2006 Issue

Bottoms Up

Famous for his shoal-draft boats, Ralph Munroe (above), still inspires modern designers like Walter Shulz, founder of Shannon Yachts.

A funny thing happened down at the Shannon factory in Bristol, R.I., last year. An elderly gentleman showed up at the front door, introduced himself as “the great-grandson of Vince Gilpin,” and wondered whether he might peek inside the plant. Not that he was in the market for a boat. A more likely reason for the visit, I imagine, was to see firsthand the ruckus Great-Grandpa had stirred.

An astute chronicler of turn-of-the century yachting, Vince Gilpin authored a now classic tale “The Good Little Ship,” published in 1920. The book lavished praise on a gaff-ketch named Presto, designed by friend and fellow South Florida pioneer Ralph Middleton Munroe. For Gilpin, Presto embodied the ideal coastal cruiser, a spirited sailer adept at plying thin-water estuaries and yet still able to keep her feet in a Gulf Stream norther. In his book, Gilpin instilled the Presto with almost magical qualities, and the boat has since become the archetype for what are today known as Presto-type sharpies.

If you live on the East Coast, chances are there’s a Presto devotee within driving distance, quietly being consumed by wood chips and an obsession to recapture the essence of “the good little ship.”

You could count Walter Schulz, founder of Shannon Yachts, among them. His Shoalsailer 35, with external ballast and a fixed keel that draws just 30 inches, diverts radically from Munroe’s model (Presto had a centerboard and carried a hefty load of internal ballast), but Schulz will readily admit that Presto inspired his mission. In fact, the deepest connection between Presto and the Shoalsailer is not the design, but rather the spirit in which they were created. Munroe was never afraid to experiment or challenge accepted notions (oddball proas are among his 57 designs). As Gilpin relates in the Munroe autobiography that he co-wrote, “The Commodore’s Story,” the designer had an intense curiosity that carried over into nearly every aspect of his life.

It’s encouraging to see that, even today, when the bottom line weighs heavily upon every design decision, iconoclastic ideas can still flourish. The Shoalsailer 35 won’t appeal to everyone, and our test of Hull No. 2 revealed what we think are shortcomings that shouldn’t exist on a $350,000-plus boat. But for the incurable gunkholer it’s a good little ship, and I bet that somewhere beyond that great horizon, Vince Gilpin and Commodore Munroe are sharing a toast to men like Walter Schulz ... and the boldness of their ideas.

 

-Darrell Nicholson, Editor

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