Requiem for a Brown Owl
By Joel Rogers and Peter Bruckner
Sea Lass – what a wonderful name for a boat. It combines the classic ship’s gender with a youthful calling: a bit audacious, playful and aware. For, naturally, she is Scots-built. There is a marvelous photograph of her launching in the summer of 1930 into the waters of Gare Loch, deep within the Firth of Clyde, on the West Coast of Scotland. She looks to be rushing to the sea.
Ninety summers later, the Sea Lass lies on the hard in Port Townsend’s Boat Haven Marina stripped of her engines, tanks, appointments, rudder, propeller and shaft; even the portholes have been removed. Nonetheless, Sea Lass is still strikingly beautiful and, for these waters, unique.
I first saw her in the yard back in September, 2016, someone’s lost dream, on the blocks in space Y-238. With an unusual big windowed wheelhouse and a long, sharp bow, I knew she was different – not from here. I could see on the bow where the brass lettering spelling “Sea Lass” had been removed, leaving a pale, varnished imprint of another time. Below the ghosted lettering was a faded fluorescent-orange sticker with the words: “Any attempt to remove this vessel as secured will result in the Port of Port Townsend filing charges of BURGLARY / THEFT / CRIMINAL TRESSPASS or other crimes.” I stood back, wondered about her story, took my pictures and posted them to my site. Four years later, I got an e-mail from someone wanting to purchase some pictures of Sea Lass.
His name is Peter Bruckner, a Horizon Air pilot, active in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, 34 years-old, living in Seattle and married with a two year-old daughter. Once in phone contact, I was really curious about Peter’s interest in Sea Lass, a boat I’d nearly forgotten about. Turns out, despite Peter’s present career, he had spent much of his growing up as a volunteer at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats.
“Around 2000, the Center was about the only place you could rent a sailboat, wood or otherwise” Peter related. “The real good deal though, was to volunteer. Three hours of volunteer time got you a free hour on the water. It was a culture of work hard, play hard. So I was, most weekend days, down there doing all sorts of things.”
Peter went on to fly jets but still followed the Wooden Boat Forum ( http://forum.woodenboat.com/ ), and periodically the local Craigslist. “I like to window shop, mostly. I’ve only bought one (boat) myself; that’s probably enough. But just looking is okay, right?”
Peter continues: “I saw something in Port Townsend. Then I ended up on the Port’s website. Then, there it was, in a picture online: a proud bow sticking out of a tent with the faded words Sea Lass. Not the most compelling name, I remember thinking. (Her Scottish roots were unknown at the time.) But (she had) compelling lines from what I could see. I had no appreciation for her scale at the time, and did not until I finally went to see her with you.”
We met at Boat Haven Marina and found the Sea Lass housed in its covered tent. We peeked in here and there and were shaken by the deconstruction. I learned Peter had done a considerable amount of research on the life of Sea Lass: the listing of 15 or 16 different owners, how it came to America, why it was now in this condition and the tantalizing possibility that this ‘little ship’ took part in rescuing soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II. We talked about co-writing the story of Sea Lass for the “On the Hard” column to which Peter readily agreed. We had no idea, as we parted, that that day, June 3, was the ninth day of Operation Dynamo, the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk exactly eighty years ago.
Sea Lass is a “Brown Owl” class motor yacht, so named for the first one of many 42′, 47′, and 52′ yachts built before the war by the James A Silvers yard in Rosneath, Scotland. She is made of winter-felled English Oak for the stem and keel and the stem and stern knees. The lower tie beams for the saloon deck are Red Pine (Norway Pine). Pitch Pine (Southern Yellow Pine) was used for the planking and stringers. The deck beams are dry Larch and the decking was originally 1 1/2″ Jeffery or Northern Yellow Pine and later replaced with Teak.
The complexity of the construction is startling. Thanks to Peter’s diligence, I received a copy of Motor Yacht Building written by Sea Lass’s marine architect John Bain. He described the materials he used to build his “Silvers” as is the nickname for the James A. Silver Ltd. built yachts: “Planking: Pitch Pine single skin finishing 1 5/8″ thick (1 11/12″ when worked), securely fastened to frames, stem and stern post of boat with 3 1/2″ naval brass nails. Width of planks to be graduated to suit the form of the boat. Planking to be fitted close inside and mouthed for caulking outside. To be double caulked with spun cotton and seams filled with white lead putty.”
Sea Lass has a length of 52′, a beam of 11.5′ and a draft of 4.75′. Her Thames tonnage was 28 tons. She has a plumb bow that drops straight before curving evenly to the keel and aft, a beautiful canoe stern, that both minimizes resistance at slow speeds and provides reserve buoyancy to reduce pitch in a sea. She was also equipped with steadying sails to further enhance her sea keeping: ketch rigged on two masts with “tabernacles” or hinges so the Sea Lass could navigate the calmer waters and low bridges of the inland rivers and canals.
The boat is called a “raised deck” cruiser meaning the forward deck is higher, running back to the wheelhouse before dropping 1.5′ to the main deck. This makes for better sea keeping for what the Brown Owl class of Silver yachts had in common was a claimed penchant for rough weather. Bain boasts about the “Brown Owl” seagoing type “breasting the tide rips of the Mull, rounded The Lizard when the spindrift was going over the colliers’ smokestacks, or ran for Lowestoft, salt encrusted from the caprice of the North Sea.” In keeping with the British Isles maritime tradition, the Sea Lass had her spoked wheel and controls both inside the “Deck Saloon” and outside just aft of the high-windowed saloon. Over time and refits, a small settee, like a pew, remains standing just behind the topside controls, weather-beaten evidence of wet nights and instinctive ducking when the seas came aboard.
Below decks, from the bow, the original boat layout includes the forepeak crews-quarters with a head, then an enclosed galley that runs across ship. The main saloon had an “L” shaped settee and a tiled Simpson Lawrence solid-fuel fireplace. The woodwork was most likely French polished Walnut from the teak floor to 4.6′ with a white painted finish to the remaining ship’s side and overhead. Aft of that, beneath the deck saloon/wheelhouse, lies the engine room with the then original twin Gleniffer petrol-paraffin engines (cruising speed 7 knots). Then there’s a midships cabin with two more berths and in the stern, the master cabin, with two berths, a small settee and a second head with a 4′-6′-2′ bathtub. This was 1930s sea-going comfort. As John Bain put it: “Provided one had the time and the leisure, there is no reason why a ‘Brown Owl’ cruiser should not be used as a permanent home afloat.”
A list of all Scot-built boats, including Sea Lass, is found on a website by the Caledonian Maritime Research Trust. Peter found this along with a string of links that came in what I call “the e-mail”. Link by link, I began to read about what Peter unearthed in his search. As he put it: “Two hours became ten. I switched to a laptop for better efficiency and down the rabbit hole I went. The first night I quit about two a.m..”
Towards the end of the e-mail came the stateside owners: “Without knowing it, I found a beautiful photo of her under (Matthew) Moeller’s stewardship. Bristol and floating proudly on smooth inter-coastal water. I also found a brief registry entry for her. From there I gleaned the terms Brown Owl and Silvers. In the proper context these proved to be powerful search terms. I found the link to her birthing yard and remnants of the Silvers cult following. Largely comprised of wealthy British expats, there was a whole Armada of well-kept Silvers living out their golden years down in the Med….in places like Corfu.”
“Sadly, a lot of these fan sites had dropped off the web and I had to painstakingly stitch the pieces together using my new favorite cyber tool, the Wayback engine. Using this, I even found Mr. Moeller’s own personal site. And he did have one page dedicated to Sea Lass.”
“It was there I learned of her somewhat irresolute adventures during Operation Dynamo. And as a military man myself, my fascination was renewed. I had known of the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk in concept, but in an age where the last WWII vets are moving on (we just lost my wife’s grandfather, Private Renville, a 98-year-old Purple Heart recipient, last week), this precious link to the Greatest Generation and their boats was a treat.”
Dunkirk is one of World War II’s greatest stories. It was not a victory, but a symbol, as it is sometimes referred to as “The Miracle of Dunkirk.” The British Expeditionary Force was sent to France in September 1939, eventually comprising 435,000 men. By mid-May, in the face of the German Blitzkrieg, the army was retreating towards the Channel to Dunkirk. For ten days, in increasing numbers, at least 800 private yachts, fishing boats, river steamers, even barges gathered at the ports near Dover and Ramsgate to make the crossing to France on routes of 39, 55 and 87 nautical miles as designated by the Royal Navy. Together with the British and French Navies and larger commercial vessels, a total of 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers evacuated to England to fight again.
So was the Sea Lass one of the ‘Little Ships’? Peter’s sleuthing turned up a number of lists of Little Ships and Sea Lass is not represented. But Peter had found Matthew Moeller and Lanita Grice, the owners who bought Sea Lass once she was shipped to the Pacific Northwest. They had taken John Bain’s “permanent home afloat” advice and lived aboard Sea Lass in a small Seattle marina between the Aurora and Fremont Bridges from 2005 to 2014.
Moeller’s Sea Lass page and an over-the-phone interview with him offer a set of additional clues to the Dunkirk mystery. From an excerpt of an article on Sea Lass in the 1987 English publication Classic Boat Magazine, author Alex McMullen states: “Although there is a small bronze plaque in the pilot house that claims Sea Lass was involved with Operation Dynamo, the current owners have not been able to substantiate that claim. Two other Silver Brown Owls, the Wairakei (the original 42 ft. Brown Owl) and another 52-footer, the Wairakei II, are on the List of Little Ships of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, but there is no mention of Sea Lass either on this list or in any literature on the evacuation read to date.”
But Moeller states: “The chance of her being one of them is pretty good. There’s a chance of her being there. Not everybody responded to the survey. We know she was in the area where they pulled the boats from. And the owner at the time was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy Reserve.”
So it remains a mystery. And now Sea Lass is to be broken up. Peter did contact the last steward of Sea Lass who lamented: “The idea was great, but once the boat was opened up, it turned out way beyond the initial estimate, triple of what I could afford. We had to let her go.”
As will we, Sea Lass, as will we.
Peter’s copy of John Bain’s book: Motor Yacht Building was initially published under the auspices of James A. Silver LTD. The reprint of same is from Coach House Publications, Isle of Wight,1995.
Information on the ships of Dunkirk and a definitive list of ‘little ships’ came from The Ships that Saved an Army by Russell Plummer, Patrick Stephens Limited, Northhamptonshire, England, 1990.
The magazine article noted in the text is titled: “Sea Lass: Alex McMullen describes a superb Jas Silver motor cruiser” by Alex McMullen in Classic Boat No.4, Autumn 1987. Benn Consumer Publications, LTD. Pg. 14-18.