How an Anonymously Created Racing Class was a Pioneer of Sailboat Design, Nearly Vanished in Obscurity, and was Rediscovered as a Burgess Masterpiece 74 years Later.

Burgess had just designed his 3rd America’s Cup champion in 1937 when his entry won the YOD Class design contest. This contest was ostensibly to create the ultimate sailboat for yacht club fleet racing.

But at its heart the YOD design contest was a passionate “build-local” campaign. The world was four years into the Great Depression and New England sailors wanted to give New England boat yards the work of building their yacht club racing fleets.

The sailors behind the YOD class had been dismayed that a recently formed racing class, the 33′ International One Design (IOD), had rules stipulating that every one of its hulls must be built in Norway. The first fleet of 25 Norwegian built IODs were delivered to the NYC Yacht Club in December of 1936, and the YOD Association announced its design contest soon after. They promoted it with a flurry of media coverage and three prestigious America’s Cup yacht designers as judges: Starling Burgess, L. Francis Herreshoff, and Frank Paine.

Then in a bold behind the scenes move, organizers also secretly hired one of the judges, W. Starling Burgess, to enter the contest. His final, edited blueprints for were accepted by the YOD committee and sent to the boat builder before the contest deadline had even passed and the other entries had been turned in.

Yes, the YOD design contest was rigged, and the organizers were bitterly criticized in private. But Burgess’ involvement was so well hushed it was all but forgotten over the next 74 years.

No formulas or rules were required for this design, which was a novelty for that era. Starling Burgess was free to create a masterpiece in the Yankee One Design class, and he gave everyday sailors a racing boat with the light touch and responsiveness of an America’s Cup yacht.

Y14 CONTESSA, Y33 LOTSWIFE, Y28 HAPHAZARD, and an unidentified Yankee race in Sippican Harbor, Buzzards Bay 1956
photo by Norman Fortier, courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Designer W. Starling Burgess called the Yankee One Design his “labor of love” because he put his heart into desiging this class despite knowing that he’d receive little money and no recognition for his revolutionary sailboat.

Burgess created the YOD racing class right after his collaboration with Olin Stephens on the extraordinary J-class yacht RANGER, winner of the 1937 America’s Cup. You can see echoes of RANGER in the Yankee’s innovative bow. RANGER’S forward overhang looks like a Yankee bursting upwards out of the water. 

The Yankee’s bow was a milestone in sailboat design because Burgess was finally able to show the world what the front of a high performance sailboat should look like. We’re used to seeing relatively plumb bows on racing boats, but in 1937 this was revolutionary.

Burgess was able to create this performance driven design because the YOD contest didn’t require him to use the “Universal Rule” (which along with its predecessor the Seawanhaka Rule had been generating large overhangs on racing yachts since 1887).

With no artificial contstraints governing the Yankee’s hull shape, Burgess could focus on what makes a boat fast and seaworthy. He also didn’t have a client asking for traditional aesthetics. For instance, a year earlier when yachtsman Cornelius Shields commissioned the 33′ International One Design Class, he’d asked his designer/builder to base the IOD design on the elegant six meter yacht SAGA, forward overhang and all.

Sailors were so used to seeing long graceful overhangs on racing boats that they incorrectly assumed overhangs made a boat go faster. But Burgess knew better. Forward overhang on a sailboat this size will slap against chop (ask an “R-boat” sailor). Burgess gave the Yankee an almost plumb bow, one that cuts through waves instead of trying to rise above them.

He designed a remarkable racing boat. On a long tack, close hauled in a good wind, the Yankee will continue to accelerate past its theoretical hull speed and ride up onto its bow wave. Yes, this keelboat will plane. When that happens, it feels like the boat has broken free of the water as it gently rotates and hums, like a pipe sliding in a lubricated sleeve.

The Yankee’s helm is so balanced that when it’s planing you need only the light touch of a finger to steady the vibrating tiller. You can let go briefly and watch the boat sail itself at full speed.

The concave sides of the Yankee bow was another innovation. It not only helps the bow slice through the water, this shape works exceptionally well sideways, when the boat is heeling.

No matter how fast it’s going, when the Yankee settles in and finds its power it’s typically heeling enough that the leeward side is acting as the bottom. Viewed at this angle, the long flat side with the concave bow makes sense as the bottom of a planing vessel, an extraordinary innovation for 1937.

The trouble with innovation is that at first, nobody has ever seen anything like it before. When the YOD model and drawings were presented at the July 1937 Edgartown Regatta, New England yachtsmen scoffed at of the looks of it. No one trusted that bow.

A frustrated Burgess couldn’t promote his new class because the design contest he’d won was supposed to be anonymous. Even worse, he was actually advertised as one of the three contest judges. All three judges wrote a magazine article reviewing the entries, and while reviewing his copy before publication, Burgess privately quipped, “God help me if it ever leaks out who designed No. 22.” [The winning entry.]But it was no secret in the boatyards who had designed the Yankee class. Burgess visited the Bath Ironworks boatshop weekly to check up on the construction of Y1 YANKEE, just as he had done with RANGER a few months before.

And then September 9, 1937, Y1 YANKEE was launched and a few hours later raced and won by miles. (See yachting magazines)

The yachting magazines raved about the new racing class and reported that 7 New England yacht clubs were organizing YOD fleets.

The very first order of 8 Yankees came from the prestigious Beverly Yacht Club, the same club that was started by Burgess’ great grandfather.

The Beverly Yacht Club hired the quintessentially New England Quincy Adams Yard to build its fleet of 8 boats.

Title: Boat building at Quincy Adams Yard in Germantown
Photographer: Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967

Unfortunately, however, two other yacht clubs that had talked about buying fleets of Yankees purchased fleets of Norwegian built International One Design sailboats instead.

Other New England yacht clubs put their Yankee One Design fleet orders on hold, citing the economy.

Burgess personally kept track of how many Yankees were built, and he noted with disappointment that in 1939 only one Yankee was built in Toronto.

Then during World War II the boatyards all switched over to wartime production  and made navy ships instead of recreational vessels.

When World War II ended, the boatyards went back to building racing yachts again.

The Quincy Adams Yacht Yard built 8 Yankees at once, and delivered them to the Nantucket Yacht Club in 1946.

From 1949 – 1968 the Stone Boatyard in Alameda, CA built Yankees that were raced in the San Francisco Bay.

Starting in 1950, a fleet was built in Ohio for the Cleveland Yacht Club.

Condsidered ultra-light displacement boats in 1937, Yankees were designed with no engine, no plumbing, no elecrical systems. There’s no galley, and most people can’t stand up in the cabin.

But since they were designed for fleet racing and the crew would spend nights on board during regattas, each Yankee was required to have two bunks, a cabinet, and a toilet (no holding tank). Crew members also slept on the cockpit sole (floor) or a hammock under the boom.

Earlier Yankees were built especially lightly, and some were raced so hard their frames broke. A sailor on Y27 reported the great irony of breaking 27 frames in a single glorious race on Buzzard Bay in the early 1950s. Y36 VENTURE broke 9 frames in one especially rough crossing of San Francisco Bay.

Too many broken frames made the YOD fleets notoriously expensive to maintain. The Massachusetts yacht clubs phased out their Yankees by the late 1950s.

Many of the Yankees from the Massachusetts clubs were shipped north to Lake Erie and Lake Champlain where those fleets raced for about another dozen years.

Whenever a fleet disbanded and the Yankees stopped racing against each other, some would keep competing in local PHRF races (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet). Y42 FLOTSAM and Y21 SIROCCO are still racing now.

Some of the Yankees with broken frames have been rebuilt. In a series of two big projects, Y40 TARFON got new frames and a new fiberglass deck, though unfornately for the reframers, not in that order. Y40 TARFON has been in excellent condition in the Pacific NW for decades now.

When Y21 SIROCCO was rebuilt it took 15 years, but the boat was returned to excellent condition after spending 17 years in a field. Y21 SIROCCO is now racing in the Mediteranean.

An important thing about this class is that Yankees are not expected (or encouraged) to be restored to the original specifications. Rebuilds will often significantly strengthen a boat and typically end frame breakage.

The two most recent Yankees have slightly thicker frames, which are either laminated (Y42) or square steambent (Y43), and Y43 also has longtitudinal stringers. As a result, Y42 FLOTSAM, and Y43 GEMINI have not had any frames break, and have been in excellent condition since they were buit, in 1963, and 2010, respectively.  

Despite the dramatic photos, Yankees aren’t scary to sail. They feel solidly powerful, and what looks like a brutal pounding from shore is an exhilarating good time onboard a Yankee because the boat is slicing through whitecaps like a hot knife through butter.

In the dramatic 1969 photo above, Y36 VENTURE crosses the finish line, winning a 1969 race in the San Francisco Bay. That’s the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

In the 2010 photo below, the same boat, Y36 VENTURE, is in the process of being “retired,” and leans against a hillside at the same angle it often sailed. This photo was taken from the maststep, looking aft. With VENTURE’S decks, bulkheads and furniture removed, you can see the how the long, flat side of the boat is shaped like a planing bottom.

Ideally, when a Yankee One Design sailboat is retired its parts get used in the restoration of another Yankee, like when SUMMER GIRL’s cabin went onto Y21 SIROCCO.

Sometimes it makes more sense to build a new boat than to restore an old one. When Y36 VENTURE was retired in 2010, its owner commissioned the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding to loft and build Y43 GEMINI, reusing VENTURE’s lead keel.

In this particular Yankee, all the wood is new to Y43 GEMINI (circa 2010), but the lead keel and bronze hardware are from Y36 VENTURE (circa 1949). About half of a Yankee’s displacement is in its lead ballast, so this particular boat is almost equally Y36 and Y43, measured by displacement. Some sailors insist this boat is Y36. The DMV and insurance company argue that it’s Y43. That’s why it’s named after the Gemini twins – it’s both.

In 1968 after the original Yankee One Design Association disbanded, no one maintained the boat roster for 30 years, and owners lost touch with each other. The YOD Association’s last act was to donate the YOD plans to the Mystic Museum where they were filed under “designer unknown” for about 40 years.

1970 to 2000 were dark years for the class. When the fleets disbanded the boats scattered. Fiberglass transformed the boating world with a maintenance free mentally. Then as wooden boats aged, those with pedigrees got restored most often.  A daysailer by Herreshoff, Alden, or Burgess would be routinely saved, while a sailboat of an unknown design would be considered less of an “investment.” It is thought that the majority of Yankees were cut up during this period, when the designer was unknown.

Then with only a handful of these boats still sailing, the class was revived in 2001 when the YOD directory was put online and the owners got in touch again. A 2011 WoodenBoat Magazine story definitively proved that Starling Burgess had designed the class.  The class history is still being pieced back together. As more and more Yankee One Design sailors have shared their stories, this is what we’ve figured out:

39 Yankees were built.

9 are still sailing.

5 are under restoration, their conditions vary.

3 of the Yankees that still exist have lost track of their identity.

9 have definitely been retired, which means they were cut up.

16 YOD sailboats are missing. 3 of them are actually the 3 boats that have lost their identities. 

The great mystery is what happened to the other 13 Yankees.  Could any still be around? Most are nearly 80 years old, which is the lifespan of a wooden boat that hasn’t been properly maintained.

But a well maintained wooden boat can theoretically last forever. Some of the older Yankees like Y29 WESTWARD HO and Y19 DAWN were treasured and exquisitely maintained for decades. It’s entirely possible that some of the missing Yankees have likewise been cherished. Maybe their current owners know they’re sailing a boat designed by Starling Burgess. Or maybe not. Maybe they just love the way their bsails, and that’s been enough to make them want to take care of it.  That’s precisely how the 14 remaining Yankees survived decades of obscurity, and that’s why it’s possible there are more.

Yankee One Design sailboats in good condition are highly sought after, and for half a century they have been routinely shipped long distances when changing owners. Some are extremely well travelled.

For example, Y21 SIROCCO was built and raced in Massachusetts in the 1940s then shipped to Cleveland for more racing in in the 1960s. In 1978 SIROCCO was trucked to Port Townsend, WA where the boat rebuilt and raced for decades. Then in 2013 SIROCCO was sold again and sent by container ship to France, where she remains in excellent condition, racing in the Mediteranean.

Some Yankees have been in the same family for decades.  Charlie Steigerwald has owned Y19 DAWN (pictured above and below) on and off since 1956.

This pioneer of high performance yacht design is also well loved as a family boat. If you don’t raise the jib, the Yankee stays flat and becomes a wonderful sailing dingy that even a three year old can drive.