Wings & Water: Old-School Cool

  • Bill Ando

“I am like an alcoholic who cannot put his bottle out of his life. With me I cannot not sail.” —E.B. White

When Donald Tofias entered Cornell University in 1965, his freshman English professor handed him a copy of The Elements of Style, the English writing guide written by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Tofias was so impressed by the book that years later, when he and his father were running Julius Tofias & Co., a commercial real estate development firm, he gave each new employee a copy of the manual. “Most people never learn how to write. It stuck with me my whole life,” Tofias says of the book. “It’s all about nice, clean, sparse, elegant writing.”

Tofias uses similar adjectives—classic, elegant, and beautiful—when talking about his W-Class yachts, five sailboats (a pair of matching 76-foot vessels and three similar 46-footers) that he commissioned. Tofias, founder of the W-Class Yacht Co. in Waltham, Mass., wants to revive the popularity of big-boat, one-design racing. This form of competition was popular in the early 20th century, when sailboats of equal size and design, such as the New York–class yachts designed by Nathanael Herreshoff, raced against each other. Tofias hopes the W-Class yachts will lead the one-design revival.

His affection for The Elements of Style is not Tofias’ only connection to White. Coincidentally, Tofias attended Cornell University, the same school as the Charlotte’s Web author, and commissioned Joel White, a naval architect in Brooklin, Maine, to design the W-Class yachts. Joel was E.B. White’s son.

Tofias met Joel White in 1994 when he hired the architect to design a new rig and keel for Christmas, his 1931 50-foot oak-framed, carvel-planked cutter. Tofias liked White’s work and presented the one-design racing idea to him.

Fiberglass and other modern composites have made sailboats lighter and faster, while the desire for more comfortable accommodations has changed hull designs. But Tofias still preferred wooden boats and the racing traditions they recalled. He explained to White that he wanted a day racer with a classic look above the water and a modern underbody tuned for high performance. Once he discussed the concept with Tofias, White needed only two weeks to design the W-Class yacht. “The design was always in his head,” says Tofias. “He just needed somebody like me to call him up and say, ‘It’s time to design the boat.’ ”

Tofias first encountered the White family’s work while he was in high school. As a senior taking advanced placement English at Newton South High School in Massachusetts, Tofias had to read all the books of one author and write a thesis on the writer’s work. Tofias did not think he had the patience or attention to read so much. “Looking back, I probably had ADD,” he jokes.

He expressed his concerns to his teacher, and his teacher suggested that he read the New Yorker essays of E.B. White. Tofias visited the library, read White’s essays, and was hooked. Tofias cannot recall what he wrote in his thesis, but he remembers enjoying White’s stories about New England, life on his farm, and, of course, sailing. Tofias, who learned to sail when he was 4 years old, bought his first sailboat at age 12, and has owned a dozen vessels. He loves setting the sails and feeling a tiller in his hand, and the author, as Tofias learned from reading everything that White ever wrote, shared the same affinity. “He loved the water, but he was not a particularly good sailor,” says Tofias. “But he loved messing around with boats.”

While E.B. was not a master yachtsman, Joel became a skilled sailor and designer. For Tofias’ W-Class yacht, he designed a bulbed fin keel and a spade rudder. Tofias wanted the boats to be cold-molded using renewable cedar and fir, a process that would encapsulate the wood in epoxy and fiberglass and prevent the hull from rotting.

White’s main goal, though, was aesthetic perfection. “He was excited to finally get a commission where the first goal was beauty and elegance and the second was speed,” says Steve White, Joel’s son and owner of the Brooklin Boat Yard.

Once Joel completed the design, Tofias got more family members involved. He hired Steve White to build one of the 76-footers and commissioned Taylor Allen, Joel’s son-in-law and owner of the Rockport Marine boatyard, to build the other 76-foot yacht.

After 11 months of construction, the Brooklin Boat Yard completed the first boat on July 23, 1998. Tofias named the boat Wild Horses after his love of horses and the music of the Rolling Stones. Two months later, Rockport Marine finished White Wings, named after its designer and Pegasus, the mythical flying horse.

Sadly, Tofias’ dream was White’s last design. Joel died of cancer in December 1997 as Wild Horses’ hull was being turned (hulls are built upside down, then turned right-side up when completed). Even in the weeks leading to his death, White was fine-tuning details on Wild Horses’ navigation station. “He saw the shape of the hull in the fall of 1997, but he never saw the boat turned over,” says Tofias. “He was the kind of guy who was always in good spirits. He never showed anybody he was in pain. As much as he could, he kept working through the entire illness.”

White’s final design may have been his finest. Above the waterline, both boats feature cambered teak decks, varnished cabin sides, cherry interiors, and wheels 6 feet in diameter. The salon galley and navigation station are centered amidships for weight distribution, and the bunks are just forward of the carbon-fiber mast.

Wild Horses and White Wings have competed in more than 160 races in the Caribbean, in the Mediterranean, and along the U.S. East Coast, mostly in the Spirit of Tradition class (for boats 25 years and newer). Less than six weeks after her launching, Wild Horses won back-to-back races by sweeping the Camden Classic Yacht Regatta and the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta. Both boats can sail as fast as 14 knots.

Tofias and other proponents of one-design racing say the absence of handicap ratings allows it to remain pure, matching crew against crew. Most modern races pit boats of different designs and sizes against each other, requiring organizers to devise formulas and handicaps to level the field. “Sometimes they don’t even tell you what the formula is,” says Tofias. “With one-design, the first boat that goes across the line is the winner. There are no computers, no analysis, no subjective judgments that go into determining the facets of a handicap winner. A winner is a winner.”

Wild Horses and White Wings are for sale ($3.5 million each), and Tofias’ hope is for buyers to race the yachts, although they are also fit for weekend cruises. To encourage racing, the W-Class Yacht Co. will provide owners with a captain and crew so they do not have to spend time finding and hiring people to run the yacht. “We will find the crew, fit out the boat, make the entry, book the flights, and see that you appear at the next regatta,” says Tofias.

One criticism Tofias has heard about the 76-foot W-Class yacht is that the boat is too large to race without a professional crew. Tofias commissioned Steve White and Bob Stephens, a naval architect, to design a smaller, friendlier version, and the W-46 was born. Zebra and Equus were launched in July and September 2000, while Arion was launched in June 2001. The smaller boats have the same modern underbodies and classic topside looks of the 76-foot W-Class yachts, but they are easier to sail. “We listened to the people who were on the big boat and loved the look,” says Tofias, “but they wanted something they could handle without a professional crew.”

Rick Bourke, a Greenwich, Conn., resident, fits that description. He had been looking for a yacht for three years when he met Tofias in Nantucket and boarded Wild Horses. He liked the yacht but told Tofias that it was too much boat. Tofias mentioned the 46-footer, and within five minutes, Bourke gave Tofias his asking price. Zebra is now docked in the bay behind Bourke’s house in Seal Harbor, Maine. “I wanted a boat with a classic look, but a day sailer big enough to not get wet and be comfortable in the cockpit,” says Bourke. “It’s like a priceless antique. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Tofias hopes that by 2020, one-design racing will be as popular as it was in 1920. He would like to build a fleet of W-Class yachts, ranging from 35 feet to 160 feet, to race all over the world. He says the W-Class yachts have a timeless design that embraces the history of classic sailboats, but they also embody the inspiration of a father-son duo—E.B., the father who affirmed Tofias’ love for sailing, and Joel, the son who shaped Tofias’ dream into reality. “I think Joel would be very pleased,” says Tofias. “We were able to conceive this project, execute it, and not only build these yachts, but race them.”

Bill Ando is a sailor and writer. He raced aboard White Wings shortly after its launch.

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