|Article by Lon Robinson |
In the 1940's, Bill Buchan Sr. set out to design and build a yacht to satisfy the family man that wanted one boat for both winning races and extended cruising in the Pacific Northwest. Thus began an innovative series of boats that eventually evolved into the Buchan 37. Even after four decades these legendary boats are still proving to be race worthy and cruising sound.
In the 1920s and 1930s the ideal racing sailboat for Northwest waters was a sleek 6-Meter or an 8-Meter providing an exciting wet ride with minimal freeboard and lots of sail area. To the well-heeled northwest yachtsman, a 39-foot R-boat, like Sir Tom or the Pirate, by Ted Geary might be the ideal, locally designed race boat. The performance of those elegant racing machines was outstanding. When they were on a beat to weather they sailed "in-the-groove", and required just fingertip pressure on the helm. Even cruising sailboats designed for the yachtsman in that time period tended to have long slender hulls like 8-Meter or 10-Meter boats.
After World War II the combination racing/cruising designs were becoming more popular as the meter boat's production nearly stopped. These newer designs still had slender hulls, which would perform well, but extra beam was added to provide suitable berths and cruising accommodations. This change made cruising with the family more likely. These newer boats provided a more sea-kindly ride, were a little drier on deck, and had room below to relax. Sailing was becoming more of an active, whole family affair. As Seattle in the 1950's was considered the boating capital of the world, it became the perfect place for new designs to emerge. The challenge was to satisfy the performance racer and the family man that wanted one boat for both winning races and for extended cruising in the Pacific Northwest.
Early Buchan Designs
Bill Buchan Sr. was a legendary figure in Northwest sailing history. He had many years of experience in building small sailboats and was always restless when not designing, planning, or building another sailboat. In the mid-1940s he decided to design a 39-footer with racing sailboat lines which would also be a good family cruising sailboat. This boat took him two years to build in his spare time. She had a 9.5 foot beam and a 5.5 foot draft. This was a good comfortable cruising boat, which he named Linda after his daughter. She performed well in strong winds, but the boat was too heavily built for racing in the light air conditions often found on Northwest waters.
Bill Sr.'s next design effort was to be a lighter and faster boat for racing in medium and light air. He designed this new slender 38-footer with lines like a 6-Meter, or an R-Boat with long, graceful overhangs. This boat had a very narrow 7.33-foot beam and a 5.5-foot draft. It was completed in a little over a year and was launched in 1948. He named the boat Heather and put on a tall, modern rig, making it somewhat overpowered. As he expected, since Heather was not heavy, she was very fast in light air but still needed a series of modifications. First more lead, because she was too tender in a blow. Later an engine was added as he kept modifying Heather and experimenting with her.
She was still fast in light air. He won races with his boat, but the rating was higher than he wanted. So, motivated by racing performance, Bill Sr. asked the club measurer how to improve his rating. The club measurer told him that Heather had too little freeboard and that alone pushed the rating up higher. After some pondering, Bill Sr. decided there was an easy way to fix the problem.
In his straightforward approach, he simply cut off the entire deck with a skill saw. Then he "sistered" (raised and extended) each rib a foot or so higher, then added some new planks and re-installed the deck. It is a story that is hard to believe in this day of production fiberglass sailing machines.
I just happened to be there when Bill Sr. was working on Heather in the early 50s. He had her hauled out at the Fisher Marina on Lake Washington just north of Madison Park. I watched with amazement when the deck was being removed with great gusto. After the job was finished Bill Sr.'s CCA rating was lowered due to the higher freeboard, and Heather's speed did not suffer one bit. Bill Sr. was always ingenious in solving his problems.
His next boat design was to be a more conservative racing/cruising boat, but also of light construction for good performance. Bill Sr. was always economical with his materials and one to save a little where possible. During the late 1950's, he received a beautiful Alaska yellow cedar log from his son Bill Jr.'s, father-in-law Carl Sahlin. It was cut into 40-foot planking for Bill Sr.'s new racing/cruising sailboat. In the days of wooden sailboats the yellow cedar was a prime choice for easily worked, relatively rot-resistant planking. Using this excellent wood for full-length planks, Bill Sr. designed and built a fine, slender boat called Thistle, which was 38.5 feet long. She had a comfortable cabin for cruising and a tall rig suitable for racing in the Northwest.
Thistle was launched in1957 and was light and fast in both medium and light air. Bill Sr. raced Thistle very successfully in the 1960 Swiftsure and placed 3rd Overall. That was a great performance for Bill Sr.'s latest "home-built" project.
Buchan 40 Design
Friends who wanted a similar high performance racing/cruising sailboat admired the competitive Thistle design. In 1959 the Buchan Boat Co. was formed by Bill Sr. and son John to go into sailboat production. They revised the Thistle basic design to be slightly longer, 40-foot version with additional beam, but still a sleek hull. This became the very successful Buchan 40, of which eight were built in the time period of 1959 to 1961. Four of these were built in their boat yard by the Madison Park dock (for Bob Brain, Fain Sutter, Bill Whipple, as well as the first Mara for Bill Sr). Four more were then built in a shipyard in the Houghton-Kirkland area (for Alan Buchan, Harvard Palmer, John Ellis, and Fred Danz). These proved very popular in the CCA races in that time period. In the 1961 Swiftsure, Bill Buchan Sr. raced his new Buchan 40 and placed 2nd in A Class.
After building eight of these sleek Buchan 40 boats, Bill Sr. was still not satisfied with the boat's rating under the CCA rules. In those days design modifications were not too difficult for an inventive family like the Buchans. A major adaptation to squeeze out a "good rating" was required in order to beat the competition, Bob Regan in his fast Kettenburg 40, Thetis. Dick Gilbert, the club's CCA measurer, told Bill Sr. that the Buchan 40 was too narrow and sleek to get a "proper rating". Bill Sr. thought for a while and decided that he would take the original framing jig for the Buchan 40s and modify it for a new boat with better race performance.
Buchan 37 is Born
Bill Sr. and his wife Irene were going to go cruising for a while so Bill Sr. told his partner, son John, to just modify the old jig a bit, fatten it up and shorten it at the same time. That should fix the jig, and give us a new boat with a much better rating. Now John was on his own. He had been working with his dad for some time on the Buchan 40s, but this was really different. John took on the job of fixing that rating problem in a big way. The Buchan 40 jig was revised extensively to build a new 37 footer with a better CCA rating.
John modified the old jig in 1961 after they moved the jig back to the Madison Park site. He altered the entire jig to make it beamier in the mid-sections, adding about six inches on each side. The Buchan 40s were overly full in the bow sections, so John cut away eight inches on both sides in order to make it a smoother and finer bow entry for the new boat. He then removed three feet at the transom by going to a reverse transom, and shortened the overall length to 37 feet. In the center of the boat a little more freeboard was added so the sheer line was nearly straight from bow to stern.
When Bill Sr. returned he could hardly believe what he saw! John's handiwork on the old jig was truly amazing. Bill Sr. who was not one to mince words, could be heard across the bay. It was too late to turn back, so build it they did. They built the new 37-footer from this jig in the summer of 1961 and it was launched in 1962 at the Madison Park site. A few days before it was launched, I was over at their workshop to watch the completion of the new Buchan boat I had heard about. There it was — the prototype Buchan 37 was in the process of being born. Bill Sr. said to me, "Lonnie, would you like to buy this one; it would not be too expensive. How about $12 thousand for a completed boat ready to go." It was a good buy in those days, since a Kettenburg 40 was about $20 thousand at that time. I replied, "Bill, I would certainly like to, I am without a boat now, but I haven't got that kind of money."
When the boat was finished it sat in Lake Washington for a while, with no buyers in sight. That summer Bill Sr. and his wife Irene went cruising to the Canadian Gulf Islands in their Buchan 40, Mara. Before they left, Bill Sr. said to John, "Take the new boat and go cruising if you want."
John and his wife Pat cruised to Canada with the new boat. While at Silva Bay in Canada, they decided to tag along on a race with some Canadian boats racing across the Straits of Georgia to Vancouver. It turned out that the "fat little boat" was surprisingly fast. Before long they were in front as they approached the harbor of Vancouver.
Bill Jr. was at Vancouver at the time for some Starboat races. He recalls seeing John in front with the new 37-footer and its identifying blue mainsail as they came into view. The new 37-footer showed surprising speed compared to the other boats racing that day.
No one expected the new 37-footer to be so fast. Bill Sr. was astounded at its performance. He thought that the short, fat 37 foot boat would be a slow "dog" — certainly not as fast as his sleek Buchan 40s! Bill Sr. said to himself, "Enough of that — I will race that new boat with its good rating — it goes like thunder!" He named the new boat Thunder. It was now his favorite boat.
The new 37-footer, Thunder, was first raced in a regatta by Bill Sr. in the 1963 PIYA in Canada. And it showed outstanding speed against the other boats in the regatta. Thunder raced the following year in the 1964 Swiftsure, however, they did not finish the race. They decided to retire after some planking damage on the boat due to heavy seas near Neah Bay caused by large swells from the Pacific.
In the following year Bill Sr. hit the jackpot. In the 1965 Swiftsure race, a total of 136 miles from Victoria, out and around the Swiftsure Lightship (15 miles out in the Pacific) and back to Victoria, Bill Sr. won the race "hands down" — First Place Overall! On corrected elapsed time for the race Thunder was 18 minutes ahead of the next boat. The prototype Buchan 37, Thunder, was a huge success.
After crossing the finish line, delicious Scotch whiskey flowed freely on Thunder. Bill Sr. always said "Don't waste your money on expensive Scotch whiskey, if it is Scotch it has to be good." Bill Sr. was not one to waste his money. It always pleased Bill Sr. to have his "home-made" boats defeat the fancy, expensive racing boats.
Along about 1950 Bill Sr. put together a short summary of his early boat building and sailing experiences. He tells about his first experience in building a small 15 foot sailboat on the front porch of his house when he and Irene were just married and before their children were born. That boat cost all of $27.50 to build, which was a lot of money in the Depression times. In those days you could buy a milkshake and a hamburger at Bartells for all of 20 cents. He writes that they had more fun with that boat than any boat they ever owned!
This summary was written 15 years after the 15 footer, when, at that point, they had three children ages 5, 9 and 14. The family now required more like a 38-foot boat for family cruising and racing. Bill Sr. writes "I don't think anybody can deny that we are about the sailingest family there is!" The Buchan Sailing Dynasty had just begun, in which each generation has had their share of World Class performances.
Fiberglass Production Buchan 37s
A few years earlier, fiberglass boats were becoming an important part of the sailing world. In late 1962 Bill Sr. decided that he would join the new trend and construct fiberglass molded sailboats. This was just after launching Thunder in that year. Son John used the same modified jig for the 37-footer to build a precision plug boat in preparation for the fiberglass production Buchan 37s. The plug boat was built during the winter of 1962 and spring of 1963. It was made of 3/4 inch red cedar planking, edge nailed and glued, making a very smooth plug. The plug boat was then used to make a strong mold for the production boats which were initially built in the shipyard at Houghton-Kirkland. The later Buchan 37s were built in their own Buchan Boat Co. production facility in the Totem Lake area of Kirkland.
The first fiberglass Buchan 37 was built in the summer of 1963 for Phil and Sam Peoples. It was named Salute. Phil completed the interior and the rigging for the boat at his dock in front of his Lake Washington home. Phil's new boat proved her speed in her first important showing, winning First Place in the 1964 Vashon Island race. She was light and fast just as Bill Sr. had predicted.
I remember racing in Salute with Phil in his first Swiftsure in 1965. That was a wild ride, at times surfing downhill over huge seas with a full spinnaker, but we didn't broach once! Once I went below and found water over the cabin floor! "Big Trouble, we are taking on water!" I called to Phil who was on the helm. A moment later I tasted it — it was FRESH water. Phil's water tank had cracked and broken loose in the forward cabin where he had made a poor bond from the tank to the fiberglass hull — so we were not sinking after all! Most of the early owners of fiberglass boats knew very little about the critical details necessary to make a proper bond to cured fiberglass.
After Salute the Buchan 37 orders from friends came in thick and fast. First came the number one hull, Phil Peoples, BB-602 Salute (the BB was for a CCA class designation at that time in the Northwest and is now replaced with a "9" before the number), then came BB-604 for Beaman Brockway; BB-606 Vamose for Bill Lieberman; BB-608 Big Mir for Bryan Mahon; BB-610 Fugitive for Fran LeSourd; BB-612 Pursuit for Don Fleming, BB-614 Thrust for Bill Barnard; BB-618 Gamin in August 1965 for Lon Robinson (now sail number 9618); BB-620 for Earl Miller; BB-622 for John and Charles Day; BB-700 GiGi for Carl Sahlin; BB-800 Mara for Bill Buchan Jr. (now 9800); and on and on, until about 50 hulls were made from that same fiberglass mold. These Buchan 37 hulls went to various places on the Pacific Coast including Hawaii.
The new Buchan 37 boats were beginning to make sailing history. The Buchan family had a big year in 1967at the Swiftsure. Bill Jr. came in First Overall in his new red fiberglass Buchan 37, Mara, named for his daughter. Brother John came in Fifth Overall in his Warrior, the original cedar plug hull for the Buchan 37 which had been finished now as a full sailboat. And Bill Sr. came in Seventh Overall in Thunder, the wooden prototype Buchan 37. As the competitive sailing fleet soon found out, it is hard to keep ahead of the Buchan family in a sailboat. The Buchan 37s became a familiar sight at the front of the racing fleets.
Bill Jr.'s Mara currently sail number 9800 is still sailing and has been winning races for many years, skippered by Bob Liston of the Corinthian Yacht Club. My own Buchan 37, Gamin sail number 9618, has also been sailing and winning races, and was awarded "Boat of the Year" at the Seattle Yacht Club in 1980.
The Buchan 37 although heavy by today's standards, still sails quite well in light air and is very sea-kindly in big seas at the Swiftsure. My son, Larry, and I have sailed Gamin in 30 Swiftsure races with the same two co-skippers and same boat, and that may be a record. We have made all the possible mistakes in the Swiftsure, but have learned to avoid the obvious earlier mistakes and stay flexible. We completed 14 Swiftsure races going out and around the Lightship for the 136 mile race and in 1979 we were Second Overall. There was often very light air out in the Pacific, so we then switched to the shorter Swiftsure Flattery races going out to the entrance to the Straits and back for a 100 mile race. We completed 14 of the Flattery races, often First, Second, or Third in class for those races.
Buchan 37 Design Summary
The construction details for the Buchan 37 were never completely documented. However, when Gamin was being built in August 1965, my son and I made many measurements on the mold and on the major bulkheads. These were made at the shipyard in Kirkland where the early Buchan 37s were produced. I did some "reverse engineering" with all of our measurements to produce some reasonably accurate Buchan 37 lines.
The deck, cockpit and house for Gamin and the later boats were made of fiberglass from a mold planned by Bill Sr. and fabricated by Charles and John Day.
The hull with deck installed, as we received it from Bill Sr., was empty except for major bulkheads. A Grey Marine 4-91 gas engine also had been installed, as was the interior lead ballast of 5500 lbs. The same Gray 4-91 engine is still in Gamin and is very functional with over 6000 hours of running time on it.
The interior layouts on the Buchan 37's were adapted and planned by the owners; no two were exactly alike. Each owner had his own idea of what was most convenient in the way of a layout in the cabin interior.
Gamin's interior layout was designed, with Robinson "family consultation", using some plywood mock-ups to check out the galley details. The layout was rather conventional with two bunks in the forward cabin. The head was midships on the starboard side, with a closed-in hanging locker just opposite. In the main cabin the dinette was on the starboard side with a table that dropped down to make two rather small berths. Opposite that on the port side was a full bunk with a long bookshelf above. The galley was on the starboard side with a stove and oven built-in, and a large ice box and sink just aft of that. A large quarter berth was opposite on the port side.
Gene Waddams fabricated the interior according to the various detail plans that were made as the work progressed. We used teak extensively on the interior to avoid the cold look of some fiberglass finishes.
The rig for Gamin was designed following the prototype Buchan 37, Bill Sr.'s Thunder. The spruce mast was 47 feet tall and stepped on heavy floor frames, glassed to the hull. Later Buchan 37's often used 50 foot aluminum masts made from heavy aluminum drainage pipe and compressed to a suitable oval shape with hydraulic rams.
Our light wooden mast didn't last too long. We were dismasted on our first Swiftsure race in 1971 along with six other boats (including John Buchan's Warrior and Bruce Hedrick's Six Pack ) in very heavy conditions. Gamin was then refitted with a strong 47-foot aluminum production mast which has since proved adequate.
The fore-and-aft trim on a Buchan 37 is a critical factor for best boat speed. There is a mold line just 4 1/2 inches above the nominal 27.2 foot waterline for a Buchan 37 weighing 12,800 pounds. The mold line had been carefully scribed into the fiberglass mold so that line could represent the upper edge of the boot top when finally painted on a completed boat. That reference was the way Thunder had been trimmed as verified with a color slide, which I had made years ago.
On Gamin we installed a very sensitive bubble level fore-and-aft, which we used to tell when we were exactly on our lines, parallel to the original mold line. Too often Buchan 37s had been sailed stern down which is slow going to weather and in light air.
The bow section lines show a rather full bow, which is good for lifting when plunging into a heavy sea. However, the full bow sections cause somewhat more drag when going through a small choppy sea. The stern section lines show a very flat run aft which has some advantages under spinnaker runs and allows some surfing on large seas.
When going to windward, heeled over from 15 to 20 degrees, the quarter wave is very small and the drag is minimal. Since it is a full length keel with a rudder attached to the aft end, it is not as close-winded as the more modern fin keel designs with aft rudders. The full keel, although not a high lift configuration, makes for a very forgiving, sea-kindly hull in messy, heavy seas as are often found in the middle of the Straits of Juan de Fuca in Swiftsure races.
The Buchan 37 does not like to be pinched to weather and it makes no sense to pinch up with a fin keel competitor. We find that coming off a few degrees will make up with a better VMG (progress to weather), and the Buchan 37 will perform better.
Buchan 37 Epilogue
At this time, many of the Buchan 37s have retired from racing; however, they still make a very effective cruising sailboat. I have found out that one of the earlier fiberglass boats, which at one time had belonged to Bill Sr., is now in the process of being refurbished and rebuilt with a new interior. It is the Buchan 37, MacDuff, which is now owned by Ray Booth. This is a confirmation that those fiberglass hulls were and are strong, solid hulls. And to the best of my knowledge none have ever experienced the delamination problems that plagued so many boats of that era.
MacDuff will now join Mara, Gamin and other Buchan 37s who carry on Bill Buchan Sr.'s sailing legacy to the sailors of the Pacific Northwest.