Recensione: The legacy of Philip Rhodes

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The legacy of Philip Rhodes Sponsored by Good Old Boat Magazine

A pioneering designer of many early production fiberglass sailboats by Ben Stavis

Philip Rhodes stands over a set of plans at his Lexington Avenue office in New York City.

Philip L. Rhodes (1895 -1974) was one of the most distinguished yacht designers of the past century. Indicative of his importance, in February 2005 he and Olin Stephens became the first two yacht designers inducted into the North American Boat Designers Hall of Fame at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

A brilliant designer whose boats were beautiful, fast, seaworthy, and comfortable, Phil Rhodes was active for 50 years -- from 1920 to 1970. And he was prolific; a listing of his yacht designs totals 386, most of which are sailboats.

Phil was a graduate of MIT's program in naval architecture and marine engineering (1918), so he had unusually strong academic credentials. Moreover, he was active on professional committees that reached into the boating world. These included the Motor Boat and Yacht Advisory Panel of the U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine Council, the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), and the Measurement Rule Committee of the Cruising Club of America (CCA).

Over the decades the list of people who worked in his office and later became distinguished designers or boating industry professionals in their own right, is its own hall of fame: Frederick Bates, R. P. Cook, Roger Cook, Richard Davis, Henry Devereaux, Mark Ellis, Weston Farmer, Ralph Jackson, Charles Jannace, Francis Kinney, Roger Long, Al Mason, James McCurdy, Joseph Reinhardt, Olin Stephens, Robert Steward, William Tripp, Bob Wallstrom, Winthrop Warner, and Charles Wittholz. It is easy to see why Phil Rhodes' influence was so pervasive.

Born on the river

Philip Rhodes was born in 1895 in Southern Ohio. From childhood he was enchanted by boats on the Ohio River: paddlewheelers, barges, and speedboats. His father was a manufacturer of wooden wheels, wagons, and carriages. After his father died his mother married a master carpenter. So Phil learned from an early age about crafting wood.

"In those days, among his clients, a yacht seems to have been more for racing and adventure at sea."

He designed and built his first hydrofoil speedboat at the age of 18 and soon was publishing articles in Motor Boating magazine. He graduated from high school in 1914 and from MIT in 1918, largely converted to the challenge of designing sailboats. His first job was a training position for naval construction at the Boston Navy Yard, followed by a job at the American Shipbuilding Company on Lake Erie, where he helped build ore carriers and became a practical shipfitter. His later design work was strengthened by his understanding of shipbuilding techniques.

But sailboats were his love. His first sailboat design was a prizewinner in Motor Boating's Ideal Series in 1919. He married his high-school sweetheart, Mary Jones, in 1920. Around 1925 he set up his own office in New York, and in 1932 he became associated with Cox & Stevens, a prestigious yacht- and commercial-design firm. In 1935 the head designer died, and Phil succeeded him as chief designer.

A diverse portfolio

Over the course of his career Phil designed sailboats of all types, for all kinds of sailing needs. He introduced countless sailors to the water with his small boats, such as the 11-foot Penguin and the Rhodes 19. His coastal and ocean-racing boats, generally in the 40- to 70-foot range, were always serious competitors. A Rhodes-designed gaff cutter, Skal, was second in the 1931 transatlantic race (which was won by Olin Stephens' Dorade ). Kirawan , a 53-foot Rhodes sloop, won the Bermuda Race on her first outing in 1936 against fierce headwinds.

Her sistership, Senta , carried her owner on a world-cruise from 1969 to 1980. His 12-Meter, Weatherly , won the America's Cup in 1962. In 2000, a 40-year-old Rhodes 41 won the Bermuda Race, and Bengalore , a wooden cutter designed by Rhodes in 1928, was second.

His narrow one-design club racers (33 to 36 feet) are quick and agile. His family cruising boats (26 to 50 feet) are prized for their beautiful lines, comfort, and sailing ability. His trailersailer, the Rhodes 22, is popular on inland lakes. And his large ketches and motorsailers in the 70- to 150-foot range carry their owners and guests in style and comfort as they circle the Atlantic from the Caribbean to Maine to the Mediterranean and back. His range is amply illustrated by two consecutive designs in 1966 -- a 122-foot three-master for a Rockefeller and a 12-foot aluminum sailing dinghy for mass production.

Phil designed a wide range of hull forms. Early in his career, he emulated Colin Archer's double-ended boats. One of these 1930 designs was converted into fiberglass in 1970 as the Traveller 32. When Alden schooners were popular in the 1930s, Phil designed schooners. When Baltimore clients liked the bugeye ketch, he designed elegant ones, not unlike the beautiful CHERUBINI 44. He had no problem drawing clipper bows when clients liked them. Phil also designed light-displacement, fin-keel boats in 1932, 1944, 1946, and 1957 -- all before the Cal 40 made fin keels popular.

While working for Phil Rhodes, Charles Wittholz drew the lines of this 9-foot Dyer Dhow, one of the most popular sailing dinghies of all time.

One of his major contributions was the shoal-draft, keel-centerboard form. Phil developed this hull form in 1932 and used it often through the 1960s in his custom-designed racers and cruisers in the 40- to 55-foot range. They were a little beamier than his normal designs, to increase form stability, but are still narrow by contemporary standards. Of course they had a bit less draft. This configuration gave them less wetted surface area, so they were fast as well as roomier below. Phil's famous 1955 transatlantic race winner, Carina II , was a superb example of this hull form. These keel-centerboard designs were the inspiration for the famous centerboarder, Finisterre , designed by Olin Stephens for Carleton Mitchell, who had asked Olin to make Finisterre similar to his previous Rhodes-designed centerboarder, Caribbee .

In shaping hulls, Phil was eager to test small-scale models. As a child, he had tested models of hulls in an Ohio canal. When the Stevens Institute of Technology's tank testing facility was built in 1935, he began using it immediately. His test boat was Narada. Her design was highly praised, and her test data provided the standards by which other performance-prediction methods were gauged.

Thoughtfully designed

Phil was thoughtful in designing accommodations. Whether on a 26- or a 76-footer, he designed cockpits, bunks, lockers, passageways, doors, and lockers that were ergonomically sensible. He was also creative and experimental. On different designs he tried putting the galley forward, midships, aft, and along one side opposite a dinette. On some boats he located the main cabin near the back of the boat. He had several ways of creating a real aft owner's cabin in moderately sized boats.

Apart from those boats with the dinette that converts to a double berth, exceedingly few Rhodes boats have a double berth. No matter how large and elegant the cabins, even if they were double cabins, they had two (distantly) separated beds, and not very wide ones at that. On his boats in the 70- to more than 100-foot range, there is room for a bathtub in the owner's cabin and two narrow bunks ... almost 20 feet apart. On Copperhead , he came close to having a near double berth, but deliberately made it narrower and put in a "stowage bin" instead.

Obviously the constraint was not space. According to Charles Jannace, a draftsman in Phil's office in the 1950s and '60s, the reason for the absence of double beds was simple: clients didn't ask for them. In those days, among his clients, a yacht seems to have been more for racing and adventure at sea. It wasn't the place for family togetherness or marital bliss. Phil designed boats for sailing, with narrow, secure berths at sea.

While each design was individually developed, when one looks at his overall output of designs, the connections between boats are clear. Each design is an iteration of a previous work. When Phil designed a keel boat, sooner or later the design would be tweaked into a centerboarder. This is clear in the pairs of keel and centerboard 33-foot, 42-foot, and 45-foot designs. Phil himself pointed out the connections between his designs when he wrote to a prospective client that a 45-foot centerboarder was essentially a smaller version of the 53-foot centerboarder, Carina II .

One also can see a recurring pattern in interior layouts. For example, in the 45-foot Olsching , drawn in 1953, Phil drew a dinette on one side of the boat and a linear galley on the other. This approach shows up in a late 1950s boat, in the 1963 Reliant, and in the Rhodes 22.

While most Bounty IIs were rigged as sloops, a few were yawls, such as hull #37, Tiara , above left, built in 1959, and long a familiar sight in Hawaiian waters. The 33-foot Rhodes-designed Swiftsure, above right, launched in 1958, was commissioned by Brian Acworth, who founded Seafarer Yachts in Huntington, Long Island; he had the boat built by G. DeVries Lentsch in Amsterdam, Holland. I have unique evidence of this continuity. The owner of Piera , a beautifully restored sistership of Olsching , visited my boat, a Rhodes Reliant. He examined my dinette table and spotted a specially fabricated hinge that enables the table to drop. His boat, built about a decade earlier on a different continent, had exactly the same hinge.

All of Phil's designs follow a set of underlying design principles. The boats are beautifully shaped and proportioned. The Rhodes sheerline is distinctive, rising to a fairly high bow, dropping aft of amidships, and rising modestly to the stern. Medium overhangs give the bow and the stern plenty of buoyancy and increase the waterline under sail. The construction was strong. He did not cut corners.

Phil wanted his boats to be driven hard in Gulf Stream storms, and he used large safety factors to cover the unpredictable stresses of driving into headseas as well as the realities of long-term deterioration of materials. For these reasons a surprising number of old wooden Rhodes boats, as well as 30- to 40-year-old fiberglass boats, are still in commission.

Compared to more modern boats the Rhodes hulls are narrow and heavy with slack bilges. They have less interior volume than the flat, wide, modern boats. Yet the Rhodes boats have a much more comfortable motion. They roll more slowly and pound less. Expressed mathematically, their comfort ratio is very high. People accustomed to modern, lightweight saucer hulls are astounded by the difference when they get on a classic Rhodes.

Pioneer in fiberglass

Windward is a 36-foot cutter designed in 1928. In this boat Phil Rhodes pretty much defined the hull shape that he used for the next 40 years -- gorgeous sheerline and moderate, balanced ends. A sistership built in 1937 is still sailing.

Phil Rhodes played a crucial role in the transition from the wooden era into the fiberglass era. In the mid-1950s, as Dan Spurr has chronicled in his book, Heart of Glass , dozens of individual and corporate boatbuilders and navies in the United States and Europe were experimenting with fiberglass. Dinghies, skiffs, and daysailers were being successfully built of the new material.

In 1948 the Cape Cod Shipbuilding Company of Warham, Massachusetts, started producing the Rhodes 18 in fiberglass. The next year, Palmer Scott of New Bedford, Massachusetts, built the Rhodes-designed Wood ***** in fiberglass. And that same year Bill Dyer's shop, called the Anchorage, in Warren, Rhode Island, commenced fiberglass production of the 9-foot Dyer Dhow, also a Rhodes design (though drawn by his draftsman Charles Wittholz).

Larger, auxiliary sailboats were next. In 1951 Dyer launched the 42-foot fiberglass ketch, Arion , and in 1955 a group of yacht club members in Oregon started building the 34-foot Chinook class. Phil was clearly involved in the earliest fiberglass experiments.

For his own initiation into large fiberglass boats, Phil found the perfect collaborator in Fred Coleman. In 1939, Phil had drawn the Bounty class (39 feet) for Fred, a Sausalito, California, builder who had pioneered inexpensive mass-production techniques in wood. Fiberglass had even more potential for mass production, so in 1956 Phil drew up the enlarged 41-foot Bounty II in fiberglass for Fred. Fred also asked William Garden, another naval architect, to provide structural details, such as the layup and tooling, including the deck mold -- sort of getting a "second opinion."

At this earliest stage of the fiberglass revolution, the ultimate strength of fiberglass was not fully understood. Phil figured that fiberglass was at least as strong as wood so wood scantlings would be sufficient. On this basis, the first boat was massively overbuilt. When the Bounty II showed in the New York Boat Show in January 1957, it was evident that this top designer trusted fiberglass. The fiberglass era for large sailboats had begun. The Bounty II molds were later used to make the slightly revised and very popular Pearson Rhodes 41.


A number of other fiberglass auxiliary sailboats popular in the United States actually were built in Europe. In 1958, Brian Acworth, an Englishman living in Long Island, New York, set up Seafarer Yachts in Huntington. He asked Phil to design a 33-foot centerboarder for fiberglass production, which he called the Swiftsure. Brian had her built by G. DeVries Lentsch in Amsterdam, Holland, a major yacht builder in wood and steel, obviously eager to start in fiberglass. At about the same time, George Walton, a Maryland yacht broker, commissioned Phil to design a narrower, keel version of the Swiftsure to be called the Chesapeake 32. She was built by Danboats and Sanderson in Denmark.

The 49-foot Thunderhead , designed in 1961, had an unusual interior. Her main cabin, with table and two berths, is aft. Amidships are the head, galley, chart table, and additional berths for the off-watch crew. A large cabin forward would be a particularly comfortable owner's cabin in port. Access to the cabin is through a companionway from the cabintop.

These four Rhodes designs were among the very first fiberglass boats in mass production (Bounty II was the first series-produced auxiliary sailboat in fiberglass) and provided a large portion of the early testing and demonstration that fiberglass was suitable for building medium-sized sailboats. They also demonstrated that fiberglass hulls could be made thinner, though more flexible, thereby necessitating internal bulkheads and stringers to make the fiberglass structures sufficiently rigid. The original idea of making spars for the Bounty II of fiberglass was scrapped; fiberglass was too flexible. In fact, after Bounty II, scantlings for some of Rhodes' designs were not as heavy or strong. The first few Chesapeake 32s suffered from oilcanning and had to be reinforced with longitudinal stringers.

The 39-foot wooden, pre-war Bounty was updated after the war as the 40-foot Bounty II. Launched in 1956, it was the first series-built fiberglass auxiliary sailboat. The design predates fin keels, spade rudders, and short overhangs. Phil Rhodes was noted for drawing beautiful sheerlines. The next year, 1959, Phil designed the Ranger, a 28-footer, also for Seafarer. By then several other ground-breaking fiberglass boats were launched -- the 25-foot New Horizon, designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built by Ray Greene; the 28-foot Pearson Triton, designed by Carl Alberg; and the Bill Tripp-designed, Hinckley-built Bermuda 40.

In 1960, industry standards for fiberglass production were published in The Marine Design Manual for Fiberglass Reinforced Plastics , written by the naval architecture firm of Gibbs & Cox. Now many designers and builders felt they could build fiberglass boats to established standards. The field blossomed with boats and designers, and Phil remained an active contributor to the fiberglass boat revolution. He designed the Meridian (26 feet), Vanguard (32 feet 6 inches), Reliant (41 feet), Tempest (23 feet), and Outlaw (26 feet). He also designed the popular micro-cruiser, the Rhodes 22, in 1968, as he approached the end of his career. That boat is still in production by General Boats of Edenton, North Carolina (see the article in Good Old Boat , May 2005).

The Reliant (1963) exposed Phil to some of the new risks of the new materials -- piracy. The Reliant, a unique three-cabin layout in a 41-foot boat, was brokered by Lion Yachts in Connecticut and built by Cheoy Lee in Hong Kong. Phil was dismayed when he discovered that Cheoy Lee was soon marketing a virtual sistership, the Offshore 40. The plug used to make the Reliant mold had been altered slightly, the deck mold was mirrored, and iron ballast replaced lead ballast. Phil considered litigation but ultimately decided that only the lawyers would benefit from that approach. Similarly, a Danboat 33 appeared that obviously was based on his Chesapeake 32 design.

These experiences soured Phil. He designed no more large boats for offshore fiberglass production. As a result, no centerboarders larger than the 33-foot Swiftsure were built in fiberglass. They exist now only as rare, treasured wooden boats, some of which have been restored to pristine condition.

Phil was never any company's "house designer," but he worked very closely with a number of builders. For Palmer Scott, a fellow MIT graduate, he designed eight boats. Bill Dyer's Anchorage commissioned eight designs. These two builders did some of the earliest experimental work with small fiberglass boats and must have given Phil confidence to take on the much larger Bounty II. Other clients included the South Coast Boat Building Company of Long Beach, California, which purchased nine designs, and Brian Acworth got five designs for Seafarer Yachts. Many individual clients purchased more than one design from him.

Commercial craft

Phil's design work ranged well beyond sailboats. He continued his early interest in motorboats and designed several large ones. More importantly, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his administrative activities expanded at Cox & Stevens, and he had more responsibility for commercial and military work. When World War II broke out, the military portion of the firm's work skyrocketed. For a while Phil had 498 men under his direction, working on myriad aspects of a two-ocean war that required fighting ships, troop movements, and supplies.

The Rhodes 77 was a large centerboarder drawing only 6 feet 6 inches with the board up. She has a nicely divided rig. The interior provided three double cabins for the owner and guests aft of the deckhouse. Forward was space for a crew of three. A 97-foot stretched version had larger cabins and space for a crew of six (skipper, mate, cook, steward, engineer, and deckhand).

After the war, in 1947, Cox & Stevens was renamed Philip L. Rhodes Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and continued to do a great deal of commercial and military work. Phil designed many boats for the U.S. Navy, including 172-foot wooden ocean minesweepers in the 1950s. He designed a fleet of police boats for New York Harbor. These won the praise of policemen for speed, stability, and comfort. He also penned garbage and sewage barges for New York City as well as cargo vessels, fireboats, dredges, and steam-turbo-propelled vessels for service on the Yangtze River. In short, if it could float, he could design it.

Work and play

Given these very broad professional obligations, the yacht-design section had its own leadership and staff. Phil discussed plans with clients and settled the basic parameters for new designs, but converting these ideas into drawings was the job of his talented staff. For many years Jim McCurdy was the head of the yacht-design section and had major responsibility for overseeing the drawings and engineering calculations. From 1952 to 1966 Phil's son, Bodie Rhodes, who in 1952 had earned a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the University of Michigan, was one of several designers in the office. Another son, Dan, was involved in brokerage.

For all his brilliance as a designer, Phil was not a profoundly expert sailor. He sailed in three Bermuda Races, was in many other races, and certainly was a fine sailor, but he was hardly a world-class tactician or helmsman. His personal boat was the 25-foot, light-displacement Nixie, designed in 1933, deliberately a modest boat for a modest person raising three children during the years of the Great Depression.

Carina II , a 53-foot centerboarder and big sister to Olsching , was designed in 1955 and immediately after launching won the 1955 transatlantic race. She continued winning for the next decade. Sadly, she deteriorated and sank at a mooring, damaged beyond restoration, in 2004. Later, in 1957, he owned a 52-foot aluminum twin-screw diesel express cruiser, adapted from a design to service offshore oil drilling rigs. The boat was used for weekend cruising as well as for hosting clients and guests and for observing America's Cup trials.

By the late 1960s Phil had slowed down. In 1966 Jim McCurdy and Bodie Rhodes formally left the Rhodes office and established their own company, McCurdy and Rhodes, in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. The last sailboat from the Philip Rhodes office was dated 1970. After that he continued to work in his office, did some commercial work, and continued to correspond with owners of his yachts, advise them, and share their adventures of racing or circumnavigation. He died in 1974, a year after Mary, his wife of 53 years.

The 41-foot Reliant had a breakthrough interior design in 1963. She offered three separate two-person cabins. This unique layout was accomplished by an offset companionway a few feet forward of the bridge deck, providing access directly to the main cabin and leaving the aft cabin private. The dinette/double bunk to port and linear galley to starboard saved enough space so there could be a comfortable forward cabin with a sink, hanging locker, and other lockers.

Post ******

Phil's yacht archives, with hundreds of designs, were donated to the Mystic Seaport Museum, where they remain accessible to the public. The design files that the Mystic Seaport has are labeled "for research only," but they are wonderfully detailed plans for construction. The Reliant file, for example, has 25 sheets, including construction specifications for both wood and fiberglass, plans for wood or aluminum spars, and alternative layouts.

There are many small sheets with plans showing exactly how to make mast hardware -- tangs, special fittings, and chainplates -- how many bolt holes, what diameter, and where to place them. They specify exactly how to position the top hole and how much metal must surround the hole. The aerodynamic shape and orientation of spreaders is also shown. Whatever affected the structural integrity of hull or rig was carefully specified and not left to the whim of builders.

The McCurdy and Rhodes company continued for about 30 years, obviously rooted in the Philip Rhodes yacht tradition but adapting to new ideas of design. They continued to provide designs for Seafarer Yachts. In the late 1990s, both Jim McCurdy and Bodie Rhodes died. Jim McCurdy's son, Ian, continues the corporate name and family tradition.

The Meridian was designed in 1961 and built of fiberglass. She is Phil Rhodes' pocket cruiser, only 25 feet long, sleeping four with 6 feet of headroom. With a full keel and jaunty sheerline, she is a little sister in the Rhodes family. Olsching is a 45-foot centerboarder, designed in 1953. Several were built from her plans. They have been highly competitive racers and very comfortable cruisers. Sisterships are in Nantucket, England, and Australia. Skal , 48 feet overall, was designed in 1930, primarily as a seagoing cruiser, but she also was fast. In the 1930 Bermuda Race she finished 11th out of 42 and weathered an 80-knot blow on her return. The next year she competed in the transatlantic race. Dorade became famous for winning that race, but Skal did very well, coming in second. She is currently undergoing a complete restoration in France.

More information

An excellent collection of Phil Rhodes designs is Richard Henderson's book, Philip L. Rhodes and his Yacht Designs, 1981, with additional printings in 1993. This book is now out of print and hard to locate. The simple way to get it is to ask a library to order it from inter-library loan. Occasionally it shows up in the used-book market at a high price.

On the web, check Ben Stavis' website which can be considered an updating of Richard Henderson's book with photos and links for many Rhodes boats. The site includes photos of major restoration projects of classic Rhodes boats.

Plans for most of the original Rhodes designs are available at nominal prices from the Mystic Seaport Ship Plans Collection http://www.mystic , , phone 860-572-5360.

Author's bio

For the last 41 years Ben Stavis has been sailing, maintaining, repairing, upgrading, and restoring the 41-foot Rhodes Reliant, Astarte, that his father bought new in 1964. He maintains websites about the Rhodes Reliant/Offshore 40 and about Philip Rhodes. For more, go to .

For further reading . . .

Dan Spurr's book, Heart of Glass , about the history of fiberglass boatbuilding, was an instant success with good old sailors when released in 2000. This book is available at shelf.html or by calling 763-420-8923.

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