Ben Seaborn is a legendary name in Pacific Northwest (USA) sailing circles. Son of a Northwest shipwright and yard foreman. He designed his first yacht at age 17, the 54’ Circe which won the 1934 Swiftsure Race and brought him serious notice. He became good friends with Norman Blanchard Jr. and during the depression years, worked at their family yard while taking Engineering courses at the University of Washington.
In 1938 Seaborn was hired by the Boeing Corporation to design a fast chase boat for the Boeing 314 Flying Boats (the Pan American Clippers). He stayed on with Boeing into 1941 soaking up engineering methods and working on various facility layouts including the design of a B-17 (bomber) production line.
Also in 1938 he designed a 25’ racer/cruiser of which the Blanchard Boat Company built three. Seattle sailor Keith Fisken purchased one and was so impressed by the performance that he quickly ordered a second Seaborn boat, this time a 31’ vessel, he named Romp II. That boat proved to be the most successful race boat of Ben’s prewar designs.
Completed by the Blanchards in 1939 and considered very fast, Romp II didn’t really hit her stride until the late 1950s and 1960s when she was campaigned by Bill Baillargeon under the name of Mistral. The boat won overall in the 1966 and 1968 Swiftsure races - the smallest boat ever to have done so.
Two other prewar Seaborn designed and Blanchard built boats helped solidify Ben’s reputation. Nautilus I and sistership Sunda compiled impressive racing records from 1939 into the 1950s. Ben modified the traditional full keel on this design, placing the lead forward in an aft-tapering teardrop shape. Sunda traveled south to become a feature in Southern California ocean racing, completing over 28 runnings of the San Diego to Ensenada race.
Ben’s last prewar design was the 62’yawl Neoga II which did much to confirm his talents as a large vessel designer.
During the prewar buildup, Seaborn became part of the Henry Kaiser “brain trust” charged with designing ships and ship yards the cranked out the Liberty shipes at astonishing rates. Near the war’s end, he traveled to Montreal, Canada to study British “Corvette” design. Corvette’s had proven to be the superior destroyer design of the war and the U.S. Navy copy was the "Knot" class Liberty type ship.
Seaborn stayed on with Kaiser after the war, leaving California in 1946 to move back to Seattle as a part of Kaiser’s Permanente Steamship company until 1948 when he took jobs full or part-time for Seattle engineering firms, squeezing yacht design out a home office during his “spare” time.
Back in Seattle, he recieved a commision from Harbine Monroe for a new 45' racer. The boat, Nautilus II, proved fast from the moment of launching, winning the 1948 Swiftsure race for Monroe by beating the big yawl Dorade. With that prestigious victory, Harbine became a Seaborn patron, commissioning a total of four boats from Ben’s drafting table, Nautilus I, II, III, and IV.
In that same 1946 year, another 46’ Seaborn sister ship, Nootka (later Kate II) came down the Blanchard ways. During 1948 he drew the lines for the 42’ Stormy Weather, a variation of the pre-war “Blanchard 42’s.” Stormy Weather reflected improvements to Ben’s 1937 Tola design to better meet contemporary CCA rules. Yachting magazine noted that Stormy Weather was “...a smart and comfortable cruising sloop . . . lively in light to moderate weather.”
Bob Perry has written that Stormy Weather was “very much in the style of the early Sparkman and Stephens and Rhodes boats. Except for his final design, the 80’ Tatoosh, Stormy Weather was the last “traditional” sailboat Ben Seaborn designed.
In 1948 Ben designed a radical trial horse to test new directions. He named it Twinkle possibily as a play on a hot California boat of time named Sparkle. The first independent construction for Martin Monson, a master shipwright for both the Grandy and Blanchard yards, Twinkle proved revolutionary. Seaborn hoped that she would be the first of a new class of “Seaborn 30’s.” That never happened, probably because Twinkle was, at best, a minimalist cruising vessel. The “Twinkle” class proved (after some adjustments) to be very fast. A true lightweight in the twilight age of displacement. Variations of Twinkle’s features appeared in every subsequent Seaborn design.
Seaborn published an article in the March 1950 Pacific Motor Boat magazine entitled “Modern Trends in Cruising Sail Boats.” His words confirm his movement away from displacement craft. In 1953, he designed the Seafair class with the cruising amenities Twinkle lacked. The first 32’ Seafair, Romp, became the Seaborn family boat. The Monson yard built 13 Seafairs, a respectable wooden boat production run.
In between Twinkle and Romp, Seaborn designed the first of several Blanchard built 40’ “Swiftsure Class” boats. The Swiftsure class boats dominated Seattle racing for several years.
Five years later, a big white sloop pulled alongside the Orcas Island docks, not far from the ferry landing. Dick Philbrick tied the boat off and headed up toward the Orcas Hotel. Midway he met the dockmaster, a friend not much given to sailboats. The dockmaster took a long look at Dick’s new boat and loudly proclaimed, “Well, goddamn, I see they finally got smart and stuck a mast in a Chris Craft!” So began the life of Sea Fever, the 51’ racer/cruiser that may have been Seaborn’s finest effort. There was indeed a link between Chris Craft and Sea Fever.
Three Seattle sailors, partners in a Chris motoryacht, began to talk about their ideal sailboat. Dick Philbrick, Otis Lamson and Benjamin Gardner really liked the bright open cabin of the Chris. They had all spent time aboard racer/cruisers in the Northwest gloom and they wanted no more of dark, claustrophobic cabins. They also wanted a performance sailboat, having cut their teeth racing Stars, 110s and Flatties (Geary 18s).
Furthermore, the Partners wanted boat speed - especially under power. Frequent calm days are a part of Northwest cruising and the partners appreciated the ability of their Chris Craft to get around at 10 plus knots.
They knew of the 50’ Legend, a Wendall Caulkins designed yacht tearing up the Southern California race circuit and reputed to motor at 9 knots. The partners flew south to look at this flush deck Hawaii race winner. While they liked Legend a lot, they thought they might as well talk with Bill Lapworth since they were in the area. After listening to their parameters, Lapworth said sure, he could design such a boat, but he really felt they should go back to Seattle and contact Ben Seaborn. Then, Lapworth pointed out, you’ll not only get a cutting edge racer/cruiser, you’ll get one designed by a man who understands Northwest conditions. Plus, Lapworth said, you might not realize it, but Seaborn is on the cutting edge of modern lightweight design.
The partners returned to Seattle and commissioned Ben to design their boat. Otis Lamson, an engineer by profession, contributed significantly to the boat’s mechanical systems, not the last time that collaboration would improve a Seaborn design.
The project quickly became the buzz of the Seattle yachting community. Roger Schuemann, a fellow Seattle YC member, wanted the same boat with a cruising orientation. A contract was struck with the Vic Franck boat yard to build two boats for $45,000 each. Both were to be 53’ loa, 12’7” beam, draft 8’7” and displace just under 32,000 lbs. In the end, Schuemann’s boat, Helene, was heavier due to traditional plank on frame construction.
Sea Fever, on the other hand, was one of the first lightweight “cold molded,” large yachts constructed in the Northwest. Perhaps “semi cold molded” is a more appropriate description for 1&1/4 by 2&1/4” coved mahogany strips were glued and edge nailed over light oak framing to create a “seamless” Sea Fever fair hull. That hull remains strong and true today and Dick Philbrick figures that the boat is overbuilt and possibility could have been constructed with even lighter framings.
The keel is one piece of 48’ x 18” Alaskan yellow cedar. Steel floors stiffen the hull (recently replaced with epoxy/wood units) and support a hollow steel fin keel, one that is lead filled and complete with a trim tab.
Sea Fever’s speed was everything the partners wanted. In all the long distance Puget Sound races as well as two TransPacs (to Hawaii), Sea Fever always placed well and often won her class.
The world lost a great Naval Architect much too early when in 1960 Ben took his own life; his remains are interred at Wright Crematory and Columbariam, Seattle, WA
Based on an article that appeared in Wooden Boat Magazine volume 148 June 1999 by Steve Bunnell, and reproduced with the permission of Steve Bunnell.