A pretty blue sloop came around the corner of a sandy islet and into the bay where we were anchored recently. Jamie and I watched it from the cockpit: just admiring the lines, enjoying an afternoon of sun sparkling on water. We were lost in that reverie that a lovely boat can pull you into, not thinking about it much, when a shout and a wave came from the side decks. We knew this boat? Wait a minute, we KNEW this boat! It was Kathleen and George Hill on Kalalau, hailing from Port Townsend- our home waters- last met in Mexico, back in 2009.
We caught up quickly, and made plans for what would be the first of many gatherings during the coming couple of weeks we shared in the harbor. Their arrival added a new facet to good times. Besides catching up and telling stories, how many people do you know who can recite all six stanzas of Derelict (also known as “15 men on a dead man’s chest”) from memory, behind flickering firelight, to a wide-eyed circle of children, on Halloween no less? Right. Neither can I. It’s just one of George’s
George and Kathleen have decided that the lure of grandchildren is greater than the lure of the horizon, and are closing this cruising chapter of their lives: Kalalau is for sale. As cruisers, I think we tend to have more personal relationship with our floating homes. The prospect of selling Kalalau precipitated storytelling, of her own history and of their adventures sailing her, as we passed time together over a couple of weeks in that beautiful bay.
The story of Kalalau unfolded gradually, over beach bonfires and cockpit sundowners. She was built by Laurie Dowsett, who commissioned Bill Lapworth for the design and was her sole owner before the Hills. An ocean sailor and competitive racer, Dowsett owned a rigging shop in Honolulu: this is his dream boat, the boat built to benefit from his years of experience to be sea kindly with an eye to performance.
One of the first things that make Kalalau remarkable is that she’s built of Burmese teak. I don’t mean “Burmese teak” as it’s referred to today, a generic reference to any non-plantation teak. This is old-growth boat building gold, hand-picked by Dowsett from logging camps in Burma. He watched as elephants brought the logs down the river to float to Rangoon, where they were shipped to Hong Kong to be milled and dried. There is simply no way a boat can be built like this today. Even then, it took patience: Dowsett waited for three years before the boards had air-drying to moisture levels that were right to begin construction.
Three years is a long time to sit around waiting for boards to dry. Dowsett used that waiting period to source quality fittings and materials and bring them to Hong Kong, as well as refine the design with Bill Lapworth. At 43 feet, Kalalau’s design is rooted in Lapworth’s popular Cal 40. Dowsett wasn’t just looking for speed, though, he wanted a boat that would allow comfortable living for extended cruising. Everything was beefed up, from the rigging size to the thickness of the hull planking and the number of frames.
How he accomplished the quality of interior living space with a few tweaks to Lapworth’s design are what I found most remarkable. With monohulls, the older you get, the more cave-like they tend to be below deck. Smaller ports, and fewer of them, mean less sunlight in the main cabins. It doesn’t help that they’re usually wood. That’s beautiful, but doesn’t lighten up a cabin the way the glossy white gelcoat in newer plastic boats does. Kalalau is the first traditional mono I’ve seen that avoids this so cleanly. The salon and master cabin are full of natural light, and layout accommodates this without the awkward looking (my nice way of saying ugly) high freeboard used as a crutch in newer boats. The natural light is tremendous, and you can gaze at the anchorage while setting on the settee. I have to pop up the companionway for that kind of view!
The port designs that facilitate this are unique. Besides bringing in a lot of light, they allow tremendous airflow- and can stay open in wet conditions when we’d have to button up Totem. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, maybe, but it is HOT in the tropics- and if you can have big windows, and keep them open, even when it’s raining? Tropical cruising gold! There’s a subset of cruisers who have air conditioning. And…well, yeah, this is the way it should be done. George said the design concept was borrowed from Portuguese ships. They open inward, hinging along the bottom; a wooden wedge holds them firmly in place. They are recessed in a manner that means anything but crazy sideways rain stays outside, while the air comes in. Want to close them? The wedges are removed, port closed, and the wedge slid back in their slots- holding it perfectly in place. The combination of function and simplicity is brilliant.
There’s more to the story of Kalalau’s care under Dowsett, and it kind of defies belief, but it’s true: like the fact that for the years he kept it in the Pacific Northwest, when the summer was over he stored Kalalau in a temperature-controlled warehouse that he purchased for the purpose… removing all moving rigging each year, and replacing it again for the next sailing season. Who does that?
Over the next couple of weeks, we shared a lot of stories around a beach bonfires, or over sundowners in the cockpit. Winding down six years of living aboard and cruising brought out the reflective view of favorite places and unforgettable experiences- like the time they were pinned in a harbor in New Zealand, surrounded by a pod of whales who seemed to be boisterously celebrating the return of better weather.
I think about the path we have wound, and it follows similar priorities to those of George and Kathleen: seeking the culturally or geographically interesting places, the less visited corners. Their stories of the adventures in Tonga, of being part of a multi-day celebration of dancing and feasting in the Solomon Islands, of dodging hurricanes in Australia- they are rich, and will always stay with them. There are very few other people we know who we share our friendship with the amazing families on Mal in Ninigo, Papua New Guinea, but the Kalalau crew is among them. In the four year interval between Mexico and Malaysia, it’s almost surprising that the first time we’ve in the same place again.
We all think our boats are special, but after hearing the stories and spending time on Kalalau during those days together, I feel a touch of the same bittersweet emotions at the prospect of selling their cruising home that George and Kathleen must feel. It’s not an asset, it’s the beautiful home of tremendous provenance that has carried them safely through seas of memories. It’s hard not to wonder: who will this be passed to? Who picks up this history and takes it forward? I don’t know, but I hope we share many anchorages with the pretty blue-hulled Kalalau again.
For the curious, Kalalu is listed here.
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