A Second Wind for Circe III, or Pass the Sledgehammer, Honey

A rash of tough love clears the way for the rebirth of a family’s classic cruiser

Circe.jpg

David and Susan Woolsey and a friend, Cliff Clarke, take Circe III for a sunrise sail on Biscayne Bay.© Billy Black

Susan Woolsey doesn’t seem like a boat wrecker. Slender and unassuming, with brown hair and green eyes, she looks as though she should be posing in a Lands’ End catalog or teaching yoga at the YMCA. But one day she decided that there was only one way to effect the restoration that faced her: from scratch.

In 1992, Susan quit work to dedicate more time to Circe III, the battle-scarred Morgan 41 her father-in-law had given to her and her husband, David, shortly before their wedding three years earlier. Each day she spent 10 hours crawling around the hot cabin, repairing what she could, quietly cursing what she couldn’t. And each day, the couple’s plan for a one-year sailing sabbatical in the Caribbean seemed to slip out of reach. Though tempted to give up, she didn’t. And in a way, she couldn’t.

Shortly after they started dating, in 1987, David had taken Susan sailing aboard Circe III. To Susan, this was just another, rather dilapidated, boat. Until she went below. It was then that she recognized it as the boat she’d sailed on as a child, when Circe III had belonged to her uncle.

"When we eventually got married, we realized we couldn’t part with her," Susan says. "There were too many memories attached to her."

The origins of the Morgan 41--a full-keeled centerboard sloop--go back to 1962, when the 40-foot yawl Paper Tiger steamrolled the competition in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit for the second consecutive year. Three years later, a slightly narrower sloop version of Paper Tiger named Sabre finished the series a close second. Their creator, an unheralded designer from Florida by the name of Charley Morgan, had come up with a formula of beam, ballast, and sail that would stand as a benchmark under the Cruising Club of America handicapping formula. Morgan Yachts, the company he founded in 1965, went on to produce some 10,000 boats before being sold to Catalina in 1984, and Charley’s designs ran the gamut--from the Out Island 41 cruising icon to the lovely 12-Meter Heritage he built for the America’s Cup trials in 1970. Out of them all, Charley still has a special affection for the Morgan 41, in which he set out to combine the best features of the two boats that helped launch his career.

"The idea was to get a really nice family cruiser/racer that was all the yacht a person needed to own," says Charley about his centerboarder, which draws four feet two inches with the board up. "They were meant to compete under the CCA or take a family to the far reaches of the Caribbean, which is why we leaned toward the side of stability rather than sail area. I’ve always liked shoal draft for cruising. You want a margin of safety in unfamiliar waters, and you want to be able to tuck into all the little nooks and crannies, not be stuck out in an open roadstead."

Some 400 Morgan 41s were built between 1967 and 1972. Circe III was among several sold as bare-hull kits. The owners bought the hull and deck; the rest was up to them. Circe III’s first owner was John Catechi, Susan’s uncle, who finished the boat in 1968 with a group of friends in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Led by Chuck Reed, a skilled racer and shipwright, the crew from Cocoa Beach had high expectations for the boat, and she didn’t let them down. Circe III excelled on the circuit, consistently placing high and winning her class one year in the race from St. Petersburg to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

When the new International Offshore Rule took effect, the Morgan 41 lost most of its handicap advantages. In 1972, Catechi sold Circe III to Dean Woolsey, David’s father, and as the years passed, she evolved into a cruiser, taking the family on several trips to the Bahamas and as far south as Grenada.

"She was sailed hard year after year, and maintenance was pretty lax," David says. "My father’s philosophy was ’Let’s slap duct tape on whatever’s broke and go sailing.’ Somehow, she survived."

When David went to medical school in the 1980s, the boat was sailed less and was in dire need of a major refit. As it had with many old raceboats past their prime, the story of Circe III could have ended then. Bulkheads held only token attachment to the hull, the mast step groaned, and two decades of grime caked the bilge. An engine-room fire in 1992 withered what was left of the wiring. But some boats refuse to die. And some owners just can’t bear to sell a piece of their past.

The Resurrection
Not long after Susan decided to plow all her time into the boat, she could see she was getting nowhere. Each attempt at repair revealed a more serious problem. She decided finally that there was only one way to go.

With borrowed tools, she began ripping out the interior, the same shelves and lockers her uncle and his friends had labored over 24 years earlier. By sunset, the interior of their boat was in splinters. She broke the news to David that evening.

"Today, I learned how to use a new tool," she began casually. "It’s called a sledgehammer. Oh, and I learned to use another tool, too. It’s called a crowbar."

During the three and a half years that followed, Susan proved to be just as skilled at rebuilding Circe III as she had been at tearing her apart. With guidance from local professionals, she and David turned a bare hull into one of Biscayne Bay’s finest custom-fitted cruising boats. Susan carried out the bulk of the work, which involved everything from tabbing in new bulkheads to laminating knees and crossbeams.

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| Circe's gleaming saloon reflects Susan's skills: initially designing the new interior and finally varnishing the brightwork.* * *|

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One of the most ambitious projects she and David tackled required rebuilding the hull/deck joint. Gone are the old through-bolts and crumbling bedding compound. The joint is now seamless--bonded on the inside with fiberglass cloth and epoxy. A fiberglass grid, similar to the steel skeleton found in Sabre, ended the unnerving hull flexing in heavy seas.

"People often ask us if we’d do it again," David says. "Honestly, I’m not sure. We’re incredibly happy with the boat, but I still tell people to think twice before they pick up a sledgehammer."

Although the Caribbean dream still lingers, the Woolseys have shifted their focus closer to home. Circe III annually sees an extended trip to the Bahamas and plenty of time on Biscayne Bay. Shade, good ventilation, refrigeration (including a freezer for fresh fish), and ample storage capacity are high priorities. Creative use of space provides a niche for every necessity and access to all essential systems. The arrangement allows the Woolseys to keep Circe III fully stocked for an extended cruise, yet have a clean and uncluttered boat that’s ready for a daysail at the drop of a hat.

"For a while, we thought about just selling her and getting a new boat," David says, "but we realized that, aside from our emotional attachment to Circe III, this was exactly the kind of sailboat that we wanted."

Darrell Nicholson is CW associate editor.