An 80-year-old survivor of the great age of sailing yachts
A wooden boat, like a historic home, is in a constant state of restoration. At 80 years, Meridian is certainly old, but she has “good bones,” as preservationists say, a phrase even more aptly applied to the product of a great age of American yacht design and construction.
“She’s had a lot of owners over the years, and some of them have made some pretty dumb changes,” Sean Johnston, Meridian’s latest owner, said. “We’ve stripped her down to the frames inside and we’re bringing her back to her original configuration — with a few modern conveniences.”
Meridian was designed by William Atkin and launched in 1938 from the renowned builders Joel Johnson & Sons in Connecticut. Atkin was a prolific designer who published a new design in Motor Boating magazine each month in the 1930s, with drawings showing sail plans and general hull lines and layout. Detailed builder’s plans could be ordered by mail at reasonable prices.
Most of Atkin’s designs were for smaller sailing skiffs or dories to fill a demand from boaters of modest means in these Depression years, but some were for larger, ocean-going sailing yachts.
Meridian has a “sparred length” of 41 feet, including the bowsprit extending forward over her spoon bow, and the bumpkin aft that receives the sheet of the mizzen sail. She draws 5 feet of water, with a full keel extending aft to the rudder, pierced for the propeller.
She is rigged as a yawl, with a mainmast close to the center and a much smaller mizzen mast stepped aft of the steering station. A forestaysail leads from the mainmast to the bow, and a larger jib to the end of the bowsprit. It’s a fully evolved rig of the 1930s. In a strong wind, it can be snugged down to staysail and mizzen, maintaining balance and manageability. In moderate weather, the full sail plan of jib, staysail, main and mizzen will drive her at racing speeds.
This is a boat that might be capable of long ocean passages, even of taking a family around the world, though that’s a dream not much indulged these days, and not by Johnston.
“We’ll use her for day sailing and short cruising in the Gulf,” Johnston said. “Right now though, we’re more into it for the project.”
Johnston is a filmmaker and specialist in “motion graphics,” producing training and promotional products for a variety of businesses in the Houston area. He also is adept at computer-aided design, which he has applied to the Meridian project, producing drawings to guide the work.
“My wife and I are both artists and we appreciate the artistry that went into the construction of this boat,” Johnston said.
The main transition in yacht building after World War II was the advent of fiberglass, which produced hulls of relatively simple construction. Once the techniques were perfected, durability far exceeded the expected lifespan of wooden boats like Meridian. The tradeoff, aficionados would say, was in the artistry that went into their building and fitting out.
The “bones” of a wooden yacht are the white oak frames, or ribs, which make real the shapes drawn by the designer. Over, or outside of them, the planking, in this case of cedar, is laid to make the outer skin of the vessel. Inside, the ceiling is laid, not just to provide the finished space within but to complete the structural sandwich that is the vessel’s strength.
Cedar is one of those woods that is nearly impervious to rot; white oak is not. Some of Meridian’s frames had to be bolstered or replaced. To get at them, the mahogany ceiling and trim had to be carefully removed.
“The work on the hull was done in a local yard and now my wife and I are rebuilding the interior,” Johnston said.
In her long life, Meridian has had several names and homeports.
“We bought her in Miami, from a guy who bought her in 2010 in Southern California,” Johnston said. She was known there as Destiny, a name suited to her work in various rehabilitation programs.
From Florida, they took her to her new home in Kemah under power through the Intracoastal Waterway. The power was an aging gasoline engine from the 1960s, but had to be scrapped when she got there.
“We’re going to power her with an electric motor,” Johnston said.
“It’s so much quieter, and we can remove the old gasoline tanks on deck and put a bank of batteries low in the hold, where the weight will do more good.”
Johnston is just a caretaker of the boat, he said.
‘I’ll do my best by her when she’s in my hands and pass her along stronger than when I found her.”