Yachting Is an Adventure

Even after more than 80 years of life, the schooner When and If still draws more eyes than modern-day vessels.

Steve Haefele illustration
“Power or sail, yachting at its best is an adventure—always planned but never a sure thing.” Steve Haefele

“How many yachts built these days will live as long and look as good?” one of my millennial boys asked. Eighty feet length overall and more than 80 years of age, the schooner When and If still drew more eyeballs than the modern, Euro-styled supersled parked next to it. Andy Warhol came to mind.

My holiday gift to the family was a Christmas Eve sunset sail aboard the schooner. John Alden designed it for then-Colonel George S. Patton to sail around the world when the war was over—if he survived. Patton died before fulfilling his dream, but When and If lived on for many years in the loving care of my wife Nelia’s extended family.

Alden attended MIT and apprenticed with the great naval architects of the day, but it was adventure that drew him to schooners. When a fishing schooner was stuck in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after the 23-man crew quarantined with smallpox, Alden and a crew of four brought the vessel back to Boston in a daring winter passage. Afterward, he returned to his drawing board and reinvented the schooner as a globe-gobbling performance yacht that a small crew could master.

We were welcomed aboard When and If by its three-person crew. The schooner’s 24-year-old captain eased the octogenarian out of its slip, and we headed offshore. While I’d spent a career in yacht design and studied Alden’s work, I was schooled by the enthusiastic young crew when I mentioned another classic tall ship in the harbor. “She’s not original, not even a replica,” the first mate said. “Just a high-tech impersonation.”

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When and If’s laundry is not a blend of Kevlar-reinforced mylar unfurled from a carbon-fiber stick by computer-driven hydraulics. Even so, all 1,770 square feet were set from the wooden mast and spars in little more than a minute. The vessel’s bottom and topsides are not a resin-infused, oven-baked, honeycomb-filled sandwich. And yet, the oak keel and bronze-fastened double-planked mahogany over black locust frames are as stout as any high-tech melange. There is no joystick or computer-management system.Instead, this yacht is sailed.

Alden inspired the generation of yacht designers that inspired me. It often seems these days that this genetic trail has gone cold and that the design—not the adventure—has become the point of it all. A sales pal suggested recently that today’s yachts will be viewed in the future as art “like a Warhol.” I’m a fan of the artist, but you can’t sail a soup can.

In little more than an hour, we were miles offshore in a 15-knot breeze. As the sea slid past the vessel’s rail, the crew and my boys understood the moment. The sun dipped below the horizon, and I was transported back to my younger days.

These are the moments that make yachting special. Power or sail, yachting at its best is an adventure—always planned but never a sure thing. It turned out to be a perfect Christmas Eve.

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