A bit more about the 15s


To the Editor:

The article on the Vineyard Haven Fifteens by the Van Ripers in the 8/09 Times tells the story of this locally treasured class as well as documentary evidence can. Perhaps they would not mind a few additions from the fading memory of one of the 1937 crew of Flying Dutchman (#7), who also crewed on Sobraon (#24) and Seabiscuit (#12).

The Fifteens were ideal for youngsters’ afternoon racing. Self-bailing cockpits prevented swamping, and lead keels minimized knockdowns. For long-distance races or for casual cruising they unfortunately offered older sailors discomfort and a lack of privacy or accessible storage space.

Racing the first 12 boats involved a lot of off-course work. Cotton sails had to be hosed and dried after every race, bottoms scrubbed often, even the forepeak sponged dry. Neglect of any detail could mean a lost race. Synthetics later made life easier. The second 12 boats had conventional open cockpits, because in Lake St. Claire’s fresh water, they floated too low for self-bailing; more comfortable in light airs, but lots of pump and bucket work in a blow.

The racing was not always intense. Dying breezes and head tides often brought boats into informal gam sessions, where usually friendly teenage wit flourished. The sailors came to know each other well, and developed a sort of class camaraderie. All agreed that Fifteens were superior to other types.

Looking back, the 1930s seem a halcyon moment before WWII. The young Fifteen sailors went to other craft on distant waters; some returned to find the class still racing, albeit with new hands on the tillers. The passing years brought low-maintenance, no-rot fiberglass. New designs have come to dominate the Vineyard sail-racing scene, as SailMV re-invigorates the traditional spirit….while a few of the oldies still decorate the harbor of their origin, silent witnesses to the past.

Ave atque vale, Vineyard Haven Fifteen.

W.R. Deeble

West Tisbury