We are four souls aboard Elysium sailing up Maryland’s Eastern Bay in late June. Four incarnate souls, that is, but more if you count the Cherubini relatives-the uncles, the grandparents, the ancestors from a mistier Florentine past-whose own migration to the Elysian Fields can’t keep them off the water with us on this tempestuous Chesapeake day.
Dave and Joanie Ballard know a thing or two about the Cherubinis, this family of designers and craftsmen, this family whose roots are so intertwined with Old World artistry and up-to-the minute technology in media that range from pianos to automobiles, from aircraft to pleasure boats. The Ballards also know something about how objects of lasting art can become part of the glue that binds a family together through the years. In 1984, Dave’s dad bought the Cherubini 44 Sunshyner. For more than two decades, Dave and his brothers and their families sailed that boat together. Then, in the fall of 2006, when Ballard felt Sunshyner’s time for a thorough refit had come, he contacted the folks at the newly reorganized Cherubini Yachts in Delran, New Jersey. After several conversations and one overnight ponder, Ballard arranged a trade and commissioned the yard to create a new 44 along the lines of the old. Elysium was launched last April.
“One of the reasons we built this boat was for our kids,” says Ballard, 59, who retired this year from a career in home construction. “I know it’ll change our lives. It already has.”
The Art and the Science
On this June weekend, the Ballards and I are sailing aboard Elysium with Dave Cherubini. (His family’s name is pronounced with an initial “k” sound.) At 42, he’s the president of Cherubini Yachts and our living link to the clan that played such a leading role in America’s early composite-boatbuilding industry. But don’t let his executive title fool you: Dave Cherubini is a craftsman in his heart and his soul and his hands. He was 13 back in 1979 when he first went to work at the Cherubini Boat Company that his uncles John and Frit founded. Like most of his cousins and siblings, Dave reckons he was fired half a dozen times over the years; whenever that happened, he’d go build and restore pianos, often with his dad, Richard.
But these days, Cherubini’s full attention is on boats. Ask him about virtually any detail aboard Elysium, and before long he’s waxing rhapsodic. “The interior of this boat is built mostly out of one tree,” he says of Elysium’s Honduran-mahogany joinery. “One tree that we had for a long, long time.”
He points out the coamings at the base of the cabin house. “See this? This was all done by hand. You can see that there were two boards, but it was the same tree. One board was early in the tree. It was a little pithier than the other board, where the old growth was stronger by the limbs and where the photosynthesis happened, where it carried the nutrients, and they got trapped in the tighter grains. What we did was we resawed the planks, then book-matched them, brought them back over, then split the sides.”
Ask him about virtually any detail-about the hull’s laminate schedule, say, or the deck construction, or about the 44’s design history or the particular improvements featured in this boat-and you’ll soon understand that here’s a company president who knows his product to its finest details.
Elysium, hull number 34 of the Cherubini 44 line, is built of hand-laid fiberglass in Derakane vinyl-epoxy resin, all carefully squeegeed out for an optimal fiber-to-resin ratio. In fact, this hull came in 10 percent under the 6,000 pounds of previous polyester-resin 44s, allowing Cherubini to reallocate almost 600 pounds directly into ballast. A web of unidirectional fiberglass takes the rig loads amidships. A watertight bulkhead protects against a breach or any leaks around the bow thruster. In the laminate under the cockpit, more than 100 square feet of copper foil provides counterpoise should the Ballards decide later to install a single-sideband radio.
Elysium’s deck is built of AA marine-grade fir and okoume plywood, overlaid with heavy E-glass. It’s vacuum bagged and infused with epoxy. In places where deck hardware is installed, Cherubini added G-10 Garolite bolsters to facilitate bedding and to prevent water from wicking into the plywood. The deck is bolted to a massive sheer clamp that’s integral to the hull.
“The decks were always done this way, with deck beams and carlins and real through-bolted cabin sides,” says Cherubini, “because that’s what Frit wanted. He knew the boat could withstand 30 tons of water pressure anywhere. And that’s pretty much how it’s been. Every boat is still sailing.”
That said, materials have evolved since Dave’s Uncle Frit was building boats in the 1980s. Looking to the future, Dave took a mold from Elysium and built the deck of the next 44 from Corecell foam-thus removing 200 pounds from the structure and 1,500 hours from the roughly 10,000 labor hours that, on average, have gone into building previous 44s. With that in mind, he estimates the basic sailaway price of a new 44 at $960,000.
The Cherubini 44’s interior is agreeable and reassuring in a way that few contemporary yachts are. True, the boat’s 11-foot-6-inch beam doesn’t afford the volume for the aft cabin with queen-size island berth of so many of its peers in today’s 40-something category, but the tradeoff is a traditionally laid out saloon, beautifully suited to the human form, that never leaves you more than an arm’s length away from a robust handhold or from a secure place to plant your hip when the boat is under way. And as for the way the 44 sails-well, we’ll get to that.
From Elysium’s structure to the more nuanced aesthetic experience her owners and guests will enjoy over time, Cherubini exhibits uncommon care. “When you’re sitting down here,” he says, “you’re engulfed by a color value that’s going to set the mode of your day.” He points out the satin-varnished mahogany, then the white-painted raised-panel bulkhead. “We made that color and sheen,” he says. “When you’re on the ocean, everything’s glare, glare, glitzing glare. But when you come down here, you want to be here. So we softened everything.”
Details abound the closer you look. Take the main-saloon table: Its joints are all blind-splined; the sockets it sits in are mounted flush in the sole to prevent stubbed toes if the table’s ever removed, say, for racing. Now notice the spirits locker: The spaces are fitted to accommodate bottles of the Ballards’ preferred libations, exactly.
Having spent much of his career sailing and restoring older boats, including other 44s, Cherubini redesigned Elysium’s interior and mechanical spaces so that everything-engine, air-conditioning, genset, tanks-can be removed through the hatches for easier, less costly maintenance down the line. The engine has two feet of working space on the service side; its oil drip pan comes out for easy cleaning.
“This boat is perfect,” says the photographer John Bildahl after looking into Elysium’s deepest corners.
“God is perfect,” Dave Cherubini replies. “But thank you.”
The End of Everything
Any adult who’s grown and evolved and taken on daunting responsibilities probably knows what it’s like to experience a clarifying epiphany along the way. Dave Cherubini does. His epiphany came in October 2003. In a Dumpster.
The storied legacy of the Cherubini brothers-the generation of Dave’s father and uncles-has been amply told in other places. (Visit www.cherubiniyachts.com to read a good selection.) In brief, John Cherubini’s design credits include the early Hunters from 25 to 54 feet; Hunter’s Child, the ultra-light-displacement boat aboard which Warren Luhrs won the monohull class in the 1984 OSTAR race; the Mainship 34 trawler; and a host of other successful production and one-off boats. Racing cars fascinated John, and he spent the 1960s designing aircraft for Boeing. In each of these media, he had an uncanny knack for translating his imagination onto the page. When it came to boats, his brother, Frit, had the uncanny knack for translating John’s drawings into three-dimensional wood and metal and fiberglass. From the mid-1970s and all through the 1980s, the Cherubini Boat Company flourished, earning praise from sailors and critics and training the next generation of Cherubini cousins.
But in 1990, with Frit having retired and John having died seven years earlier, the company foundered, a victim of the federal luxury tax that decimated American boatbuilding. In its place, beginning in the mid-1990s, the Independence Cherubini Company-founded by Frit’s son, Lee, and a partner-built trawlers and the occasional sailboat. (See “Old-World Innovation,” February 2001.) For several years, Independence employed other members of the Cherubini clan, including Dave for a time.
By 2003, that company, too, was nearing its end, and all the Cherubinis had moved on to other things. Meanwhile, Dave was at work restoring boats and pianos at a small shop he kept on the Delaware River. But he still had his own boat stored at the Independence yard. Sometime that fall he noticed that Independence had gone quiet-too quiet.
“This isn’t good,” he said to himself. So he hired a hauler to help retrieve his boat before it got tangled in bankruptcy or receivership disputes. There, on that October day, he went looking for a bit of cribbing or blocking to help with the move. And that’s when Dave Cherubini came to the big junction buoy in his life. The two channels it separated could hardly have diverged more.
“I went to the Dumpster,” Dave says, “and I saw templates, old templates of things. Of the 44 and the 48. Cockpit-coaming shapes and caprail shapes and things, you know, that we made as kids.”
He describes how he felt at that moment: “It broke my heart. I’m just standing there thinking this is the end-of everything my family had done in America. Everything that everybody lived and died for is getting ready to be hauled away and tossed in a landfill. Just because it was a bad marriage of business. And economy. And circumstances.”
Cherubini saved the templates, but he didn’t decide then and there to revive the family business. He wasn’t ready for that. Still, people starting goading him to do something about it. “See that place over there?” one friend said. “Only you could put that back together.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he’d say. “I could never do that. The whole corporation couldn’t do it.”
But one thing led to another. When the folks at the Independence Cherubini Company stopped returning calls, the more persistent suitors found Dave. One of them was Chris O’Flinn. He wanted to buy White Hawk, the first Cherubini 44, from her original owner-but only if he could hire a Cherubini to restore her. Next came a call from Rob Turkewitz, in South Carolina, asking whether Dave knew anything about another 44 called First Light.
“This can’t be happening!” Dave remembers thinking. “It was like God with his big golden mallet was slapping me in the head, saying, ‘You’ve got to do this.'”
By January 2004-with a whole lot of help from family and friends-he’d done it. He’d filed his business name with New Jersey’s secretary of state. Negotiated the purchase of the yard. Sorted out the insurance. Created an accurate, trackable business plan. Hired a company to work through environmental issues. Purchased rights to build a 20-foot Eric Sponberg runabout. And secured a couple of contracts to restore a pair of the 44s his family had created.
And so begins the next chapter of Cherubini boatbuilding in America.
What It’s All About
Elysium shoulders her way purposefully up the Miles River as Dave spins his yarns for the Ballards and me. In just three hours, we’ve been through the calms and squalls that make the Chesapeake in summer so famous. The wind blasts from zero to 30 out of a black electric sky; the V.H.F. radio says it’s blowing 60 down around Point Lookout. But eventually all of that passes, and a gentle southwesterly fills in to carry us on to St. Michaels and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where we’ll tie up alongside one of the traditional bugeye ketches that John Cherubini so admired. Indeed, the bugeyes were among his several inspirations for the 44.
“I’d had the boat’s concept in mind since the late 1940s and did dozens of drawings through the years,” John Cherubini said in a 1978 Cruising World interview. “I’d draw on anything that lay flat and didn’t move-plasterboard, cardboard boxes, paper towels. I even scribed on Formica at times.”
After years of working it out, John finally finished the design for the 44 in 1971. “It had been like having a mirage in mind all that time, and finally the appropriate dream took shape on paper.” This boat, he said, was his favorite of all his creations.
It’s easy to see why. For as much as we love to court novelty and innovation, some of the best things in this life are timeless. John Cherubini in his own life worked both sides of that dilemma, even seemed to glory in it, and we today are the happier for his not having surrendered too easily to either side. Elysium under full sail plants her ample tumblehome into the river, settles in at a moderate heel, and gathers speed with a seakindly deliberateness. She communicates power, comfort, and performance all at once. Yes, her displacement-to-length ratio of 208 may be higher than today’s average, but that only means she’s less prone to accelerate and decelerate in every gust and wave. While other boats pitch in the bay’s chop, Elysium’s motion is all forward-driving speed. Her sail area of more than 1,100 square feet keeps her moving in all but the lightest zephyrs. Indeed, her sister Silhouette won the 2007 Marion-Bermuda race, beating 71 other boats. You can imagine arriving at the end of a long, fast ocean passage like that feeling rested and cared for by this boat.
That’s the moment Dave and Joanie Ballard look forward to, when they’ll sail to the Caribbean next year with Dave’s brother, Tom, and arrive in the Virgin Islands aboard this boat that’s at once so new and yet so familiar to them.
As for Dave Cherubini, he’s doing exactly what he wants to be doing right now. “I’m a simple guy,” he says. “I can live in a van or a truck; I don’t care. Because our success is within our day. At the end of our lives, it’s what we left behind-something that somebody else is going to appreciate. It’s about what we can do. I’m just telling you. That’s the truth of it.”
Tim Murphy is a Cruising World editor at large, a 2009 Boat of the Year judge, and an independent book editor living in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. His most recent book project is Divide or Conquer: How Great Teams Turn Conflict Into Strength by Diana McLain Smith (Penguin/Portfolio).
Cherubini 44 Mark II
LOA 50′ 0″ (15.24 m.)
LOD 44′ 2″ (13.46 m.)
LWL 40′ 0″ (12.19 m.)
Beam 11′ 6″ (3.51 m.)
Draft 4′ 10″ (1.47 m.)
Sail Area 1,138 sq. ft. (106 sq. m.)
Ballast 12,000 lb. (5,443 kg.)
Displacement 29,800 lb. (13,517 kg.)
Water 135 or 200 gal. (510 or 757 l.)
Fuel 75 or 125 gal. (284 or 473 l.)
Mast Height 55′ 0″ (16.76 m.)
Engine 75-hp. Yanmar
Designer John Cherubini