Hess’s Bristol Channel Cutter
"Go small, go simple, but go now"
This tiny voyaging boat (the living embodiment of the compelling mantra, “Go small, go simple, but go now”) has a pedigree as salty and seamanlike as any voyaging boat built today.
The 28-foot Lyle Hess-designed, Sam L. Morse-built Bristol Channel Cutter has been around for nearly a quarter of a century, crossing oceans and knocking off 150-mile days in the trades, riding out storms with aplomb, and carrying its crews safely and happily to countless backwaters of the world. The grandmother of the BCC, 24-foot gaff-rigged Renegade, also designed by Hess, won the Newport to Ensenada Race twice in a row in the 1950s. Her spiritual aunts, 24-foot Seraffyn (1969 to 1980) and 29-foot Taleisin (1983 to the present), both also from the Hess’s board and from similar models, logged many tens of thousands of blue water miles. These included an 11-year circumnavigation for Seraffyn and some 40,000 miles and five passages of the Tasman Sea for Taleisin through 1994. (For more on Lyle Hess and cutter designs, read “Falmouth Cutter 34” and “Pilot Cutters: A Lasting Appeal“.)
A BCC was first overall in the 1978 Newport to Ensenada Race and first in class in the 1979 running. A BCC named Xiphias logged a 13-year, two-ocean, 50,000-mile odyssey, during the 1980s and 1990s. It sailed 3,150 nautical miles from Dana Point, California, to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, in 22 days, 10 hours, averaging 140 miles per day, with a best day’s run of 180 miles, on a 26’3′ waterline. So why, after nearly 25 years and 111 BCCs (work on hull number 112 has been started), do so many people conjure visions of fine furniture or say, “cute” or “must be slow at the mention of Bristol Channel Cutter?”
The literature of voyaging may not have helped. In his Best Boats To Build Or Buy, published in 1981, Ferenc Mate’s discussion of the Bristol Channel Cutter was entitled, “One For the Eyes,” suggesting that “others are for the sea.” In his The World’s Best Boats, Mate wrote: ” … the Bristol Channel Cutter and the Falmouth Cutter (also designed by Hess) are the most beautiful 28- and 22-foot fiberglass boats in the world.” Fine furniture? One sailing newsletter actually called the BCC “a piece of furniture that you hope your children will cherish when you pass on.”
Cute? Well, they are cute, evoking images of the Owl and the Pussycat in their pea-green boat. “It’s the boy-in-a-treehouse thing,” says Mike Pearson, editor of BCC News, the newsletter for BCC sailors. “Everything you need is right there.” And slow? The conventional marketing wisdom has us believing that old-fashioned, traditional, full-keel and cute are synonymous with slow.
Far more eloquent in describing the true nature and capabilities of the Bristol Channel Cutter are such provocative reports in recent editions of BCC News as “Lori Lawson and Carl Henger are now wintering in Espevaer, Norway, with Bijou No. 68 … They head to France and the Med next season. Perhaps they will catch up with the Asmussens aboard Sea Dream No. 71, which sailed across to France last year.” More important that we consider that Bijou departed Chesapeake Bay in Spring 1996 and sailed to England by way of Bermuda and the Azores, and sat in Plymouth remarking aloud to each other that we were really here, as if still not accepting it.
The BCC has made countless such pinch-me types of dreams possible by defying the stereotypes, by contradicting the formulas, the ratios, the numbers. “She’s a very spiritual boat,” says Michael Pearson (soulmate of Metaphora No. 99) who, in preparation for his own long trek over the horizon, sailed aboard a friend’s BCC from California to Hawaii. “I feel that Lyle had a sincere desire to create an able offshore boat with close ties to its English forebears,” he adds. “The spirituality is an aftereffect of this. When you live with a BCC for awhile, you notice that the little things make their presence known just so. For example, from the double, you can lean up and look out the portlight, look out, and see what’s going on. The boat has that Swiss Army Knife kind of feel; everything you need is right there in a small package.”
Evolution of the BCC
Those English forebears from which the BCC derives are the pilot cutters, Itchen Ferry smacks and Falmouth quay punts of 19th century England. Of the Falmouth quay punt, legendary yacht designer and sailor Uffa Fox wrote: “The Falmouth quay punts are without a doubt weatherly vessels, for as they were designed as handmaidens to the sailing ships calling at Falmouth for orders, they had to brave the wind and sea, summer and winter, between the ship and the quay, and when without a job, they went seeking a ship down channel.”
These workboats were characterized by heavy displacement, wineglass sections, hard bilges, long waterlines and tall rigs so that they could carry cargo, if need be, and sail swiftly on all points of sail and in a variety of English Channel conditions. Competition among the 24- to 32-foot pilot boats was intense, and job of escorting the commercial vessel on the horizon into the harbor went to the swiftest and most seaworthy. This, then, is the bloodline of the Bristol Channel Cutter. Traditional, yes. Slow? Hardly.
Birth of the BCC:
Fast-forward a century, to the carefree 1950s of the 20th century. As the story goes, a friend of Lyle Hess named Hale Field asked Lyle to design him a small, traditional boat that would cross oceans. Having harbored a profound admiration and respect for tiny pilots, punts and smacks of 19th century England, Lyle presented Field with the plans for the 28-foot BCC. Concerned about construction expense, Field requested a scaled-down version. Hess countered with a gaff-rigged 24-footer with a 22-foot-6-inch waterline, which became Renegade, two-time winner of the Newport to Ensenada race. In the 1960s, Renegade caught the eye of Larry Pardey, who asked Hess to draw a marconi-rigged version for him to build of wood, plank-on-frame. Thus was the 24-foot Seraffyn conceived.
Sam Morse espoused the lines of the Bristol Channel Cutter in the 1970s for his dream of establishing a boatbuilding company, and in 1975 hung out a shingle in Costa Mesa, Calif., for Sam L. Morse Co. The design was fast, beautiful, traditional, he thought, and would stand out among the proliferation of plastic boats being crafted in great numbers at that time. In 1992, just before the deep recession, Sam Morse sold the company to a Lyle Hess/BCC zealot named George Hylkema, who hired one Roger Olson, fresh from a world cruise aboard a BCC called Xyphias ( the same Xyphias that logged the scorching 180-mile day while bound for the Marquesas. Olson returned home filled with ideas on how to improve the BCC and the 22-foot Falmouth Cutter, and went to work without a salary. In 1995, he bought the company, and the two Lyle Hess designs have been in able, loving hands ever since.
What immediately sets the BCC apart from most stock boats is the absence of overhangs. In fact, Ferenc Mat called her a 34-footer without overhangs, which is a good point, for with her generous 10-foot beam (less than 3:1 beam-to-length ratio) and full keel, she’s incredibly spacious below, with great below-the-waterline cargo capacity. Her total 22 inches of overhangs provides a long waterline, which her working predecessors used for good advantage, not only for speed, but also for cargo capacity. The Lathrops, aboard There You Are No. 102, reportedly stowed 2,000 pounds of books “for entertainment prior to a world cruise.”
Also distinctive is her tumblehome, which is pronounced at the transom. This provides buoyancy when the boat heels and, combined with her hard bilges, enables the boat to stand up to a remarkable amount of sail when the breeze comes up. Key to her ultimate stiffness (her form stability) is the 23-degree angle from horizontal (or the surface of the water) of her quarter-beam buttock at the transom. When heeling up to 20, the BCC will be tender; then the 10-foot beam, the flat sections aft and buoyancy from the tumblehome come into play and the boat stiffens dramatically. “When you’re at that point your rail is under,” says Mike Pearson, “When you see water coming through the bulwarks scuppers more than half the time (about 22 degrees of heel) it’s time to consider reefing.
Her speed and windward performance come from the flat run and maximum beam aft combined with a fine entry and long waterline for her LOA.
The long, full keel creates a sweet-tracking passagemaker that heaves-to well and careens easily for maintenance and repairs without expensive haulouts and where Travel-lifts and cranes are nonexistent. The full keel begins with a near-plumb stem that leads gradually to maximum draft beneath the rudder. This creates the ideal surface to present to rocks, reefs and marine mammals, encouraging the BCCs to ride up and over them, rather than be stopped dead in their tracks. Being stopped short not only causes an immediate whiplash sort of damage to rig and hull, but also stops momentum and tends to leave the boats high and dry. If the BCC were to get hung up on a reef, the hull would be protected by pre-cast totally resin-encapsulated lead ballast backed up beneath by 1-inch of mat and roving, the thickest section of the hull. The large outboard rudder is protected from sudden hits by the deeper full keel, and can be easily removed to prevent it from further damage and also to service it.
The design of the hull and full keel allows heavy weight to be stored below the waterline for further stability. The 32-gallon fuel tank is under the cockpit sole, and the 70-gallon water tank rests on the ballast on the centerline well below the waterline, where they enhance the stability of the boats by adding to the ballast. A new option will position roughly 100 gallons of water in four tanks, all well below the waterline: 50 gallons in two tanks over the ballast and 50 gallons in two tanks deep in the sump aft.
Hull No. 111 has been spec’d for the 100-gallon arrangement, which should be a boon for ocean passagemaking. Aside from providing potable water for long passages, the 100-gallon option is, in essence, a form of static water-ballast. “This could be great,” says Sam L. Morse Co. owner Roger Olson, “However, this might make her stern-heavy. We just don’t know. But we’ll find out with the new boat.” The polyethylene water tanks are easily accessed and removed for routine maintenance beneath them. On passage, 300 feet of chain can be hauled aft and stowed low in the shower sump just forward of the mast to keep the center of gravity low.
The BCC has a sawn-counter stern, which Eric Hiscock preferred because of the maximum buoyancy aft and deck and stowage space the design created for a given waterline length. This was the type of transom chosen for the Hiscock’s 30-foot Wanderer III, which has circumnavigated several times under various owners, and it has proven over the years to lift naturally to following seas. Also, by widening the transom and adding some reverse curve to the garboards, Lyle Hess was able to minimize deadrise, increase initial stability and flatten the floors.
In the same Costa Mesa, Calif. complex as Sam L. Morse Co. is Crystaliner, for decades builders of such stout, high-quality fiberglass hulls as those for the now defunct Westsail line and for small West Coast life guard and harbor patrol vessels. Once completed, the solid fiberglass bare hulls are hauled over to the Morse yard, where shipwrights Dick McComb (21 years with Morse) and Tommie Whisler (18 years) work with new owners on custom and semi-custom wrinkles to the standard design. Dick and Tommie have worked for all three owners of the yard, and their devotion to the company and to the BCC is manifested in the many innovative, and exquisitely crafted, variations in the standard layout.
For the first five years (up to Hull No. 26), Sam L. Morse Co. sold bare hulls to be finished off by owners. While many of these turned out beautifully (the owner of Hull No. 1 wrote: “Ours is an owner-finished boat to a very high standard,” some were disasters, and in the early 1980s, Sam Morse (deciding that these home-builts were detrimental to the reputation of the yard and the BCC) began building yard-finished boats only. Today, Dick and Tommie move bulkheads aft to create more space in the peak for a new owner’s specific needs, and modify joinery to accommodate different berth arrangements. “They really know what can be done with the interiors of these boats, says Mike Pearson, “and they’re really good at working with the customers.
The description, “a 34-foot boat without the overhangs,” really comes into focus when you go below. Below, she has the living area of boats much larger than 28 feet LOA, and there is 6-fee-1-inch of headroom in the main cabin. Sam L. Morse offers a 6-feet-6-inch headroom option. The plan below is so seamanlike that you find yourself expelling a sigh of relief as you view it. There are three good sea berths: the settee to starboard, the 6-foot-6-inch pilot berth to port and the 6-foot-6-inch starboard quarter-berth. Perhaps four if you consider the port settee beneath the pilot berth while on the starboard tack. A drop-leaf table is amidships, just aft of the mast between the settees. The pilot berth slides out to create a 50-inch double berth for use in port. There is excellent stowage and locker space close by the starboard settee and the quarter-berth. Ash ceiling strips and the solid-teak cabin sole give a warm feeling to the accommodation and add insulation and ventilation to the outer skin to boot.
Just forward of the starboard settee is a small fiddled countertop with starboard-settee-berth footwell beneath it (“a great place to stow personal items,” says Mike Pearson), to which can be fastened a small Force 10-type cabin heater. One BCC owner has run ducting from the heater exhaust down close to the cabin sole where a fan disperses it. Mike plans to mount his heater down low, just port of the mast on the face of the settee, where heat generated can do the most good.
An optional athwartships double is made possible by cleats and slats on the settee facings, along which the slats are stowed when not in use.
Tom Walker and his wife entertained another couple, both over 6 feet tall, on a weeklong 300-mile cruise aboard Aloha No. 95, with all the food, provisions and clothing needed, “and there was still space left over, and we’re still friends,” he reports.
Forward Cabin and Peak:
Forward of the main cabin, amidships, is a shower pan and head, with the sail bin and chain locker forward of that, and a rope locker way forward in the peak. The shower curtain is hung around the inside of the scuttle hatch for maximum ventilation. Because so much emphasis is placed on privacy, most heads are enclosed and claustrophobic, especially on tiny boats. The BCC has an open head amidships that consumes far less space than an enclosed head. One advantage of this configuration is that this space becomes convertible and versatile, a real asset on a tiny passagemaker. Thus, the head/shower area is also the chain locker, sail locker, workbench, hanging and stowage lockers, and stowage area for such voyaging gear as awning, oars, tools, fishing rods and sewing machine. Additionally, the open head/shower design allows it to dry out quickly after use. The standard layout has a workbench, or single berth when extended, to port of the shower/head and two hanging lockers to starboard. A space-saving bi-fold door that opens forward and to starboard into the head is optional.
Immediately below the companionway, is the shallow, U-shaped galley to port, and the chart table, ice box under, to starboard, just forward of the quarter-berth. The galley’s position under the companionway hatch is ideal, and the two opening ports over the range and sink put it over the top in terms of ventilation. A hinged and fiddled counter/cutting board swings up from the side of the chart table/ice box, attaching to the sink counter for additional galley space while in port, or during benign days at sea when a big galley production is possible and when no one is likely to have to go forward. Drawers or bins are positioned below. Spacious lockers to contain plates, bowls, glasses and cups are to port, outboard of the galley, and a large storage bin with lift-up cover is under the counter just aft of the range.
BCC owners generally give perfect scores for ventilation. This is because the ventilation is superb, with six 7-inch bronze opening ports, skylight and scuttle hatch that hinge in two directions to catch the breeze, and the companionway hatch to encourage airflow. A pair of Dorade boxes with four-inch cowl vents is optional.
Deck and cockpit:
The sealed marine-plywood decks (gel-coated with stout non-skid) of the BCC are, pure and simply, seamanlike. A narrow coachroof allows wide side decks — as wide as 2 feet in some places — so moving fore and aft is easy. Seven-and-a-half-inch bulwarks and 28-inch-high, double-walled, stainless-steel stanchions and lifelines make moving about on deck even easier and more secure. A 1-inch gap beneath the bulwarks allows water to drain off the decks almost as quickly as it comes on. Stout handrails run nearly the full length of the coachroof and the scuttle hatch. Add jacklines to this mix and you have a deck on which it would be very difficult to get into any serious trouble.
Dinghy stowage is a challenge on many larger boats, but the BCC can actually carry two 7-foot-4-inch dinghies on deck. “For most of us, dinghy storage is not an option; it’s a necessity,” says Mike Pearson. “You can stow one on the coachroof and one over the scuttle hatch; I prefer mine over the scuttle hatch. A 9-foot dinghy can fit on the foredeck, but it covers the bitts.”
Sam L. Morse Co. builds a 7-foot-4-inch fiberglass lapstrake rowing and sailing dinghy called the Cherub that is ideal for both the BCC and the Falmouth Cutter. With a 4-foot-4-inch beam, it is shaped like a pumpkinseed, has flotation and boasts a large cargo capacity for such a tiny boat. The 7-foot Hess-designed Fatty Knees, which Tom Walker has chosen for Aloha, also fits well on the BCC deck.
The cockpit is small ( 3′ x 3′ x 16′), little more than a foot well, but this is good, for it allows a maximum of 700 pounds of seawater to collect in it when it’s filled. Inch-and-a-half scuppers will drain the full cockpit in a couple of minutes. In the meantime, even the full cockpit won’t drag down the stern more than a couple of inches because of the full sections aft. Between the companionway and the cockpit is a broad bridge-deck and a vertical section of the cabin below the hatchboards that separates the cockpit from the companionway and potential ingress of green water below.
“If you want a boat for world cruising, you have to have a generous sail area,” says Mike Pearson. “Over the course of a voyage, winds will average well under 15 knots, and in light air a boat needs to be able to get out of its own way. Close to 680 square feet of sail can be spread by the BCC’s versatile cutter rig: 263 in the main, a maximum of 297 in the roller-furling jib, and 123 in the staysail. “I like the cutter rig, especially in San Francisco Bay,” says Wayne Edney, skipper of Odyssey No. 81. “On any given summer day, we can expect no wind, some wind and gale-force wind. In the morning we start out with all sails up. When the land heats up, it sucks the cold air off the ocean and we get 28 to 30 knots of wind. We roll in the jib, and sail with the staysail and main; then take in one reef, then two, in the main. That takes care of it.”
The owner of BCC No. 1, built in October 1976, who completed the subscriber survey, wrote: “This 28-foot boat with bowsprit and boomkin carries the rig of a 36-foot boat. The BCC will outsail boats 10 feet longer in any breeze over 15 knots. With a longest offshore passage of 500 miles, this BCC owner says of her rig: “It is a traditional rig with oversized rigging … and it is durable and bulletproof. In 30-plus years of racing, I have seen an incredible amount of high-tech gear blow up.”
The low-aspect aluminum mast is tapered at the top to reduce weight and windage aloft. Double spreaders add beef to the rig, which is stayed by 1×19 Sailbrite stainless-steel wire rope with chrome-plated bronze swaged terminals. The weather helm that was common to early BCCs has been corrected by reducing mast rake from 17 to 4 inches.
The bowsprit effectively increases the BCC’s J measurement, thus adding sail area to the plan. It also would be a great spot from which to fly an asymmetrical spinnaker. Tom Walker has a large cruising chute for light-air downwind work, but says, “For moderate to heavy air, the normal sails are all you need off the wind. The bowsprit provides neat access to the quay when Med-moored. Roller-furling is the headsail of choice on the bowsprit because of the ease of dousing and setting. A hank-on jib with a downhaul can be rigged, and access to the forward end of the sprit is made possible by whisker stays or sprit netting.” Including bowsprit and boomkin, the BCC measures about 37 feet. “This is the length you have to consider when looking for a slip,” says Walker.
A very seamanlike piece of equipment that covers a multitude of functions. Most importantly, the boom and furled mainsail can be lashed to it in heavy weather. Additionally, it’s a great spot on which to lean when taking star and sun sights or when working your fishing lines. Some owners have mounted autopilot brackets and fishing reels on the gallows; others have used it to support a cockpit awning.
“The BCC has a big-boat feel in a small boat,” says Wayne Edney. The full-keel BCC’s 14,000-pound displacement on a 26-foot waterline gives her a high Waterline/Displacement ratio of 347, characteristic of small, traditional, sailboats meant to go to sea — for which a lot of displacement is squeezed into a short waterline. While this figure equates to obvious cargo-carrying ability, it might also have indicated a boat that doesn’t sail well. However, her high Sail Area/Displacement ratio of 18.5 and Lyle Hess’s ingenious reduction of wetted surface on a traditional underbody combine to allow the BCC to sail fast and efficiently in most conditions with full voyaging cargo.
Wayne tells of a day on the bay when he was sailing in company with Tycho and Kathy Horning’s Penguin No. 79, which does not have a roller-furling jib. As Penguin, a half-mile ahead, headed for the Golden Gate in a rising wind, Tycho removed the hank-on jib from the bowsprit and sailed under staysail and main, while Wayne rolled in a little of his jib and decided to close on Penguin. Odyssey cut the distance by half, and Wayne saw “victory in his grasp,” until the wind reached 20 knots and Penguin, with her main and tiny staysail flying, walked away from Odyssey with all sails set. The lesson: There comes a time to shorten sail to get the most out of the BCC. “Now, the first time it crosses my mind to reef, I reef,” says Wayne.
The usual reefing sequence, from full main, full jib and staysail, seems to be: (1) tuck(s) in jib, full main and staysail, (2) jib dropped (or rolled), main and staysail, (3) single-reefed main and staysail, (4) double-reefed main and staysail, (5) double-reefed main and storm jib, (6) staysail or storm jib alone (over 40 knots). In 40-knot squalls, Tom Linskey wrote of “carrying on under staysail alone with his BCC Freelance” and, between squalls unrolling about 6 feet of jib, “just the clew radials, and even that tiny flag of sail was enough to stop us from wallowing in the seas and start us powering through them again.”
Tom Walker says that his Aloha sails well in 30 knots with staysail and double-reefed main. “It’s quite comfortable with that combination, he says. “She doesn’t heel excessively, everything’s balanced, and she points well. Going to windward in high winds and square waves, he’ll motor-sail to give the boat more drive and to charge the batteries.”
“Once you get the BCC going, it has so much mass, it just moves on through,” Wayne Edney says. “We know how to tweak the BCC, and once we caught up with and passed a J/30 in light air.” Tom Linskey also extolled the light-air merits of his BCC Freelance as she sailed to the Marquesas: “We are seeing the graphic importance of light-air performance, a quality largely lost by many cruisers who fall back on their motors below six knots,” he wrote in Sail magazine. “Any barge can sail in 20 knots of breeze … ”
Tom Walker says his Aloha “tracks like a freight train.” Once you get on-course and sails are trimmed, you can just about forget steering. It will stay on the course you set for long periods without touching the tiller. “This is what you want for a blue water boat. I have an Autohelm 2000, but I sometimes forget to hook it up.”
On/off the wind:
The BCC tacks through 95- to 100-degrees, depending upon the owner’s respective abilities to tweak the cutter rig. The boats are known to be quite weatherly, with minimal leeway reported by their owners. Before Roger Olson became involved with Sam L. Morse Co., he taped from the South Pacific: “I have done lots of windward sailing and I’m still surprised how well she points to windward. As long as the seas aren’t too big, I can point 35 off the wind and make decent headway.” Off the wind she thrives, as witnessed by the succession of efficient trade-wind voyages logged by numerous BCCs. “The boat can easily make 150 miles per day in the trades with working sails only,” Olson added. “I have made many 170-mile days, and some slightly higher.”
The BCC News and the Sam L. Morse Co. flyers are laced with letters from BCC crews from the Indian Ocean, Bahamas, South Pacific, Caroline Islands, Honduras, New Zealand, South America, Mexico, Hawaii, England, Alaska, Norway, France … the list seems endless — and most eloquent as to the capabilities of these boats. These are notes back to home base filled with excitement, dreams fulfilled and dreams pursued, and reports of sights that boggled minds. From Maggie in the Bahamas: “In September, we celebrated two years aboard. It has been the best two years of my life. We’re having more fun with almost every day.”
What more do you have to know? Maybe the price: Base price, new and ready to sail, is $141,038, FOB Costa Mesa, California. According to Mike Pearson of BCC News, asking price for a 7- or 8-year-old Sam Morse-built BCC will be about $90,000. Lowest prices, for older, generally home-finished boats, will be in the $60,000 to $75,000 range. Some of the early boats had 8-horsepower Volvo diesels installed, with which the BCC was underpowered in head seas and strong currents.
BCC No. 111 is under construction as a company boat. “It’s mine; I’m not selling it,” says Sam L. Morse president Roger Olson. BCC No. 111 will be filled with innovations, like additional water tankage below the engine and fiberglass cockpit coamings for more stowage and seating. BCC will be used for tests and trials of new concepts before they become BCC options. Yeah, right, Roger. “Plan B,” according to Mike Pearson, “is that BCC No. 111 will carry Roger back to the seven seas.”
Bristol Channel Cutter
|SA||673 sq. ft.|