With all the nostalgia of yesteryear the Bristol Channel Cutter 28, introduced in 1975, represents a pinnacle of ruggedness and practicality while retaining respectable performance. Few boats can take the abuse of extended voyaging as well as the Bristol Channel Cutter and I guess it’s become something of a Lyle Hess masterpiece.
Late designer Lyle Hess achieved somewhat of a cult following among a select group of small boat adventurers. In particular his designs were popularized by Lin and Larry Pardey and their series of cruising books. Hess is probably best known for Lin and Larry’s 24 foot Seraffyn and their subsequent 29 foot Teleisin. And really when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the Bristol Channel Cutter was created in answer to sailors wanting a “Pardey” yacht.
Bad puns aside, among the endearing features for the long distance sailor are huge stowage, a sensible layout and a proven track record. Besides Serrafyn and Teleisin’s well known 40,000 mile circumnavigation and five passages of the potentially treacherous Tasman Sea, a Bristol Channel Cutter was first in the Newport to Ensenada Race of 1978, and first in class in 1979. And in the 1980-1990s Roger Olson sailed his Bristol Channel Cutter Xiphias 50,000 miles over a thirteen year two-ocean odyssey.
Upon first glance the sheer size of the bowsprit is noticeable, together with a bumpkin, the boat can carry an immense amount of canvas for her displacement. A peek under her waterline reveals lines that look conservative and traditional. There’s the familiar wineglass section profiles and a full keel that’s missing the popular forefoot cutaway that many designers employ to improve nimbleness and reduce drag. Yet on closer inspection performance tweaks can be found. A fine bow entry coupled with maximum beam quite far aft is good for close windedness and flat sections with minimal deadrise aft aid righting efforts when heeled over under sail.
The Bristol Channel Cutter’s layout has been thoughtfully designed to the minute details, we hear even the smallest of owner modifications will have ramifications elsewhere. Fitting for this kind of sailboat, don’t expect staterooms designed for time on anchor – all berths are seagoing. There’s four of them – two settees, a pilot berth, and the all important quarter berth. Stowage is abundant and everywhere. In short a long distance voyager’s dream.
So the story goes, a friend of Lyle Hess asked for a small traditional boat that would cross oceans. To that commission, Hess presented his interpretation of the pilot boat designs which had proven themselves in the 19th century. These workboats were heavy in displacement, long in waterline with wineglass sections and hard bilges. Their rigs carried lots of canvas, they’d lug a lot of cargo, and could sail fast on all points of sail.
Hess’ initial design was a 28 footer, which then was scaled down to a gaff-rigged 24 foot design to mitigate his friend’s concern over construction cost. This boat became Renegade of Newport, launched in 1950. By the 1960s the Renegade caught the interest of Larry Pardey. Upon request Hess drew up plans for a marconi-rigged version for carvel wood construction. This boat became Seraffyn which launched in 1968.
Through the magic of books and articles written by the Pardeys, an interest in small boat voyaging emerged with the famous Pardey tagline “go small, go simple, go now”. It drew attention to Hess’ work and Hess answered this interest by designing the 28 foot Bristol Channel Cutter, for construction in fiberglass by the Sam L. Morse Company. The Bristol Channel Cutter 28 launched in 1975.
In 1992, before a recession, Morse sold the company he founded to a Hess fan named George Hylkema, who hired Roger Olson, fresh from his 50,000 mile world cruise onboard Xyphias brimming with ideas to improve the boat. Olson bought the business in 1995 before selling the company only three years later in December 1998 to the fourth and final owner, Sumio Oya.
By 2007, Sam L. Morse Company was struggling to be viable. Its classic boats were in less demand and profits tended to be found in building much larger vessels. New mass production technologies from other manufacturers made it harder to compete. After the completion of its 126th hull, Cape George Marine Works was given the molds along with the right to build both the Bristol Channel Cutter and the Falmouth Cutter 22. For Sumio Oya, it was important to protect the quality and reputation of the boat so upon selecting Cape George to carry on the name, the deal involved no money apart from the cost of relocating the molds which was paid by Cape George. Before closing, Sam L. Morse Company did consider the opportunity to build a larger Hess boat but in the end there was not enough capital to launch the project.
The company continued operation through to August 2008 helping Cape George build two more Bristol Channel Cutters before finally shutting down, leaving Cape George to carry on availability. Since then Cape George rolled out an additional hull in January 2011.
Beyond the 129 American boats it is estimated between 30-45 hulls were built in a Canadian yard called Channel Cutter Yachts located in Vancouver, BC. These were bootleg versions for which no design royalties were paid. From what we hear the Canadian boats were also built to a very high standard.
» Bristol Channel Cutter / Falmouth Cutter Owners website, information, images and discussions.
» Lyle Hess: A Profile by Chuck Malseed, a historic look at his work, Cruising World Magazine Feb, 1977.
» The Bristol Channel Cutter 28 on the official Cape George Marine Works website.
» Bristol Channel Cutter Review by Jack Horner, BoatUS.com
» Bristol Channel Cutter Review, Boats.com, Aug 2000
» A vintage video tribute to the Bristol Channel Cutter including construction details.