The Swift
Excerpts from "More Good Boats"

Length on deck: 70 feet 5 inches
Length on waterline: 59 feet 4 inches
Beam: 18 feet 3 inches
Draft: 9 feet
Sail area: 5,166 square feet
Designer: Howard I. Chapelle



The Deptford Dock, London, must have been an exciting place to work in, say, the year 1783. Deptford was one of the docks into which the Admiralty would bring, for scrutinv and measurement, worthy, foreign-built vessels that had fallen into its hands. So the men who worked there had paraded before their very eyes some of the finest examples of naval architecture the world could produce.

It is thanks to this British practice of measuring foreign vessels whenever the opportunity presented itself that the plans of many notable craft, including many American-built vessels, have survived.

Into the Deptford Dock in the year mentioned came a fine, little, American-built brig to be examined and have her lines taken off. She was a Baltimore Clipper type that was manned by a crew of 40 and carried- ten three-pounder carriage guns. Her original name is unknown, but the Admiralty renamed her the Swift.

Howard I. Chapelle described her as follows in his book The Search for Speed Under Sail:

The Swift was originally designed for a fast sailing vessel, as is obvious in her plans. She had fine ends, much drag to the keel, a very raking curved-stem rabbet, raking post, square-tuck transom stern, and moderate sheer. Her midsection was formed by sharply rising, straight floor, and a high and easy bilge carried up to the sheer to form some tumblehome. Her quarterback buttock became straight as it approached its intersection with the after load line, then slightly reversed as it approached the transom. The load line, just abaft the stem rabbet, showed a slight hollow, when projected in the half-breadth plan.

This vessel was very well built and finished. On her stern she had a carved panel showing three fleur-de-lis and two partial wreaths. Her quarter badges had false windows and formal carvings.

Mr. Chapelle implied that the Swift was probably no great sail carrier when he commented on her probable performance: "She should have been a fast sailer, at least in light and moderate weather when she could carry sail." The Admiralty evidently felt the same way about her, for when they fitted her out for service, they decreased her sail area and increased her ballast. The sail plan shows her as rigged when she came into the dock, presumably as the Americans had rigged her when she was built in 1778. She would perhaps be more properly termed a brigantine than a brig,, for she set no main course, but she was generally referred to as a brig.

This fine, little brig vanished long ago, of course, but she was recreated as a topsail schooner by

William Albert Robinson in 1938. Robinson had considerable seagoing experience under his belt. He had sailed around the world in the 32-foot Alden ketch- Svaap, and later had sailed her from New York out to the Galapagos Islands. He had also sailed his own big brigantine, the Florence C Robinson.

Mr. Robinson put together a building yard at Ipswich, Massachusetts, in August, 1937, to build ocean cruising vessels based on traditional craft, not out of sentiment, but because he believed they would make the best vessels for the purpose. He obtained the services of Howard Chapelle to make his research on traditional craft available and to design the cruising vessels to be built and help supervise their construction.

The first vessel turned out by the new yard ,was the topsail schooner Swift, a somewhat smaller and simpler -version of the brig Swift.

In creating the new Swift. Mr. Chapelle changed the basic lines of the original vessel but little. While the brig Swift had some hollow to her sections forward, the schooner Swift has none; all her hollow is aft. The schooner has moderate lines throughout; she is without extremes, though by modern standards she does have a deep forefoot and a long, straight keel. Her tumblehome and wineglass sections aft are particularly handsome.

The brig Swift measured 85 feet 9 inches long on deck, with a waterline length of 74 feet 4 inches, a beam of 20 feet 10 inches, and a draft of 9 feet 6 inches. The schooner has comparable dimensions of 70 feet 5 inches, 59 feet 4 inches, 18 feet 3 inches, and 9 feet.

At Mr. Robinson's yard, the Swift was built by Essex Countv shipwrights, men who had worked on such famous vessels as the great Gloucester racing fisherman Gertrude L. Thebaud. It took a year to build the Swift. All of her fittings and ironwork were made at the yard of Norway iron, and Mr. Robinson still has half a hundred detailed pencil drawings of all this nice work.

The brig Swift spread 5,320 square feet of sail, not counting the square spritsail set under the bowsprit. The sail area of the schooner Swift is 5,166 square feet, of which 3,488 square feet is in her fore-and-aft sails, with the remaining 1,678 square feet in her fore Course and fore topsail. Her fore course and gaff foresail would probably not generally be set at the same time. In her four lower fore-and-aft sails, the schooner sets an area of 2,331 square feet. The fore course is the biggest sail in the ship at 1,100 square feet; her mainsail has 945 square feet.

Although the Swift's topsail schooner rig is far simpler than the brig rig of her ancestor, she still looks grandiose today. She has plenty of sail area, to be sure, but a relatively low center of effort bv today's standards, especially when shortened down to her lower sails. This is a vital feature in a vessel whose hull does not emphasize sail-carrying power.

In any event, the topsail schooner rig is certainly handsome and has much versatility. She could jog in heavy weather under foresail and forestavsail, or foresail alone, but to work to windward in a hard chance she would go best with forestavsail, foresail, and mainsail, all reefed. Her long foreyards give her a generous spread of squaresails for chasing away before the wind.

Note that the leeches of her mainsail and main topsail make a straight line. The main topsail sets on a yard and thus would be handled from the deck, but the vessel's shrouds are still rattled down fore and aft. Her big main topmast staysail (610 square feet) would be a great sail on a reach. Note the footropes on the main boom to facilitate getting at the reefing gear outboard.

She has nine sails, set on 14 spars, steadied by 29 pieces of standing rigging, and controlled by 50 pieces of running rigging, not counting outhauls, reef earings, lazy jacks and various and sundry Spanish burtons, handy billies, and come-alongs.

On deck, the Swift has deep bulwarks. There is a high break from the main deck to the quarterdeck in which there are windows openings into the great cabin. Her wheel is at the break of the quarterdeck and just forward of it is a stout and decorative binnacle built up of wood to house the steering compass and to stand and lean against. On the, port side of the helm, the quarterdeck is extended forward in a rectangular hood that gives headroom over a stairway below; the flat top of this hood is used for an on-deck chart table.

She has plenty of open space on deck, particularly around the foot of the mainmast and on the quarterdeck, though some of this would undoubtedly be taken up by her small boats.

Four skylights flank the forward deckhouse, and there are 11 deck lights scattered around the main and quarter decks.

There are wells in the deck leading down to the entrance in the after side of the forward deckhouse and to the entrance to the great cabin at the break of the quarterdeck on the starboard side. In the deckhouse well, big boxes flank the entryway, that to starboard being an ice chest, and that to port a locker.

Up forward there is an anchor windlass at the bowsprit heel. She has winch heads mounted on the pin rails at the foot of both masts.

Two small boats were specially designed and built for the Swift, a 15-foot shallop and a 13 foot gig. The latter was rigged with a standing lugsail up in the eyes of her and a little leg o'-mutton mizzen set on a mast stepped just inboard of the transom and sheeted to a long pole boomkin. These are real ship's boats entirely in keeping with the vessel.

The accommodations possible in a 70-foot hull with a great cabin in the stern seem nearly limitless. The Swift has her galley in the sunken deckhouse forward, a big fo'c's'le for three people, a double stateroom forward, a big saloon with two berths tucked away outboard, and a sumptuous stateroom aft with a huge bed in gimbals and its own bathroom, these last reminiscent of the master's quarters in the whaling bark Cliarles W. Morgan, but even more spacious and convenient. Then there is the great cabin in the stern.

She has a notable amount of desk and table space throughout, many big lockers and, in fact, plenty of room for up to nine people for a lengthy voyage.

The engine is under the great cabin sole, with a trunk from the engine room to the deck entered by a hatch at the break of the quarterdeck. She has a three-bladed, solid wheel, off center to port. The fuel tanks are outboard in wav of the after stateroom. There is a huge water tank beneath the galley.

Willim A. Robinson was well satisfied with the vessel he, Howard Chapelle, and his Essex shipwrights had created. He wrote of her performance:

The Swift proved under sail to be all that her famous predecessors were-fast, able, comfortable and, above all, safe. She requires almost no steering, none at all on the wind. She has a very easy motion and is sure in stays. She takes a comfortable angle of heel and holds it steadily, slipping through the water without fuss. She sails as close to the wind as can be expected of any cruising schooner, and with her large squaresails she should make great passages in the trades. Under average conditions at sea she will hold her own with the abler of modern schooners, and when it blows she will be sailing comfortably long after most of them are hove to.

These words were written, to be sure, after some stability problems with the vessel had been solved. Trials showed her to be much more tender than anticipated, and the weight of her upper spars and

fittings was reduced considerably.

Regarding the Swift's later career, Robbie wrote me from his home in Tahiti:

I sold her to the Cagney brothers, William and James, and she was in numerous Hollywood films. She was later un-rigged, masts lifted out, and was taken through a highway bridge in California to a lagoon where she was re-rigged and put on display as the last privateer, or some such nonsense. Later she reversed the process and spent years as a charter boat in California. I had frequent communications from the new owners. Recently someone sent me newspaper clips indicating that the Swift is now engaged in some research project. She is apparently still sound, the salting process we used a success. Also involved in her longevity is the fact that she was completely "trunnel" fastened (locust tree-nails) so there were no fastenings to corrode or plugs to leak and start soft places.

The Swift is a fascinating vessel with many features that mark her as a true ship: her complicated bow, with figurehead, head rails, hawse holes, trailboards, broad, built-up headpiece outside the stem, catheads, bowsprit, jib boom, and martingale, with their stays and guys; her galley deckhouse with its rectangular windows; her carved badges on her quarter windows and her square windows in the broad transom; her well-raked masts crossing a couple of yards; her deadeyes and lanyards, set up to outboard channels for the shrouds; and her salmon-colored topsides with their broad, black wales.

It was interesting to note that when William A. Robinson perfected his ultimate ocean cruising vessel after World War II, he stuck to square rig but went to a somewhat less romantic but probably somewhat more utilitarian vessel, at least in terms of the size of crew required, in the 70-foot brigantine Varua, whose plans were drawn for him by two of the greatest designers of the recent past, W. Starling Burgess and L. Francis Herreshoff. The Varua has proven to be a highly successful cruising vessel, and she is still going strong. But the Varua is another story, one reserved for the next chapter.