If you’ve ever spent time in Santa Barbara, California, you’ve probably been exposed to the work of a local architect named Ken Miner, whose homes and buildings have left an indelible mark on the bucolic city. Unfortunately, and ironically, few people have gazed upon Miner’s true masterpiece, which for the better part of the last three decades has come to existence in a small, rudimentary boatshed attached to his home on the outskirts of town.
Strangely enough, the renowned Southern California architect didn’t design this work of art—that credit belongs to a different artist, one named Lyle Hess. But it was Ken Miner who took a set of Hess’s lines plans, and with his own hands, plank-by-plank, nail-by-nail, lovingly made it his own. The result, which when I visited last spring was rapidly coming to fruition, is a beautiful sailboat called Morning Star, a sister-ship to Lin and Larry Pardey’s 29’6″ Taleisin.
“I’m basically building a replica as closely as I can,” Miner said during a break in his labors. “I have a lot of faith in my hands.”
Take one look at Morning Star and it’s quite evident that his faith is not misplaced.
Miner took a circuitous route in his path to becoming a truly accomplished boatbuilder. When he was around 14, he crafted a little outrigger with a Snipe sail, and says, “That’s when the virus started on me.” But once his career was in full swing, he rarely sailed. “My office was three blocks from the ocean and I probably wasn’t down at the harbor for six or eight years.” But one day, on a whim, he wandered down to the seashore for lunch and saw a Hess-designed, 22-foot Falmouth Cutter sitting on a trailer.
“I thought to myself, that’s the kind of boat I’d like to own,” he said. “The virus blossomed again.”
A five-year partnership on a Cheoy Lee Frisco Flyer that “was basically a basket case” when purchased gave him the opportunity “to see if I liked working on wood boats.” It turned out that a) he did and b) he was darn good at it. Some twenty-five years ago, he considered buying a fiberglass Bristol Channel Cutter and fitting it out, but then made the plunge and instead bought the plans to build from scratch.
“Not building a boat before, I didn’t know what difficulties to expect, but I’ve found the boat relatively easy to build,” he said. “I didn’t have to steam anything. I think that’s probably a reflection of (Hess) having been a boat builder. He designed a boat that was manageable without a lot of extra torturing of the wood.”
That’s not to say he didn’t have help. He consulted with Hess, who passed away at the ripe old age of 90 back in 2002, by phone at least “30 or 40 times.” He only met Hess in person once, when he attended a lecture by the Pardeys in Newport Beach. That night, he was armed with a copy of Larry Pardey’s book, Details of Classic Boat Construction—“It was a handbook for me,” said Miner—which he brought with him to have inscribed.
Miner recalls the meeting: “I gave it to Larry and he said, ‘It looks like you’re using this book. What are you building?’ I told him, ‘the same boat you built.’” The Pardeys later visited Miner at his home and they became friends and mentors. At a party one night much later, Larry paid Miner the ultimate compliment when he told the gathering, “There’s only one problem with Ken’s boat. His is better than ours.”
“Well, flattery goes a long way, but I’d seen their boat,” said Miner. “When they launched it, I went to a wood boat festival (where Taleisin was on display) and took about three rolls of pictures. Other than my plans and Larry’s book, that’s been my go-to for information.”
It’s been said that the journey is often the destination, and that certainly could be true of the building of Morning Star.
“I’m really a neophyte at sailing,” said Miner. “We only sailed that Cheoy Lee for afternoon sails. When I bought the plans twenty-five years ago, the idea was that my wife and I would build a boat and sail around the world.”
Miner laughs. “Now I hope to finish it and make it to Santa Cruz island!”