She was born in the mind of master boatbuilder Erford Burt and built on the shores of Vineyard Haven Harbor. She has a long, sleek hull with a tall spruce mast above and a thousand-pound lead keel below. She is the Vineyard Haven Fifteen, a proud part of the Island’s maritime history, still going strong after nearly 80 years.
Mr. Burt designed the Fifteen specifically for Vineyard waters. He based the lines on a class of boat built for Long Island Sound, reducing the size of the rig and adding a heavier keel to fit the high winds and choppy seas Vineyard sailors faced. The Fifteen was fifteen feet at the water line (the source of its name) and twenty-one feet from bow to stern: small enough for teenagers to learn on, but big enough to challenge adults.
The first Fifteen, named Silverheels, was launched in the summer of 1934. She was a prototype, designed to generate interest among potential buyers, and she did. Two years later, in the summer of 1936, five more boats were launched and the class was born. They raced as a class that summer, under the direction of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, and kept on racing for decades. By 1938 there were 12, by 1940 there 24, and by the early 1950s there were more than 35, with a dozen or more coming to the line on race days. Fleet racing ended in 1979, just nine years after the 50 and final boat, Tyche, was launched in 1970.
Soon after they were introduced in Vineyard Haven, the Fifteens caught the eye of visitors from Michigan, who saw them race at the Edgartown Regatta. Henry Ford (better known for other transportation ventures) bought ten boats, numbers 13 through 22, and had them shipped by train to Grosse Pointe Yacht Club on Lake St. Clair, Michigan. Individual Fifteens made their way to owners from New York to Maine, but the bulk of the fleet has always remained around the Island.
The Vineyard Haven fleet, in its heyday from 1945 to 1975, competed far beyond its home harbor, however. Fifteens raced to Edgartown each July to compete in the Edgartown Regatta, and sailed through the Elizabeth Islands on long-distance races. Convoyed by motorboats, they sailed to regattas in Falmouth, Nantucket, and even New Bedford. Harry B. Duane once single-handed his beloved Fifteen, Andiamo, completely around the Island, just to demonstrate that it could be done.
The first 37 boats were constructed with wooden hulls, with the last of them launched in the mid-1950s. Tom Hale, the new owner of the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard at that time, began to produce fiberglass-hulled Fifteens in 1964, in an effort to expand the class. He provided the owners of wooden Fifteens with the option of buying a fiberglass hull at a discounted rate if they had the spars, keel, and fittings from their old wooden boat removed and used on the new hull. Toby Condliffe’s wooden-hulled Seabiscuit (#12), was taken apart to build Citation (#42), and Tony Van Riper bought the aging Silkie (#5), which became Tyche (#50).
Over the years, the Fifteen fleet has gradually been diminished by losses. Vitesse (#4) was wrecked during Hurricane Carol in 1954. Flying Dutchman (#7) sank off the Middleground Shoal in 1968. Others, especially the older wooden boats, simply wore out. The transom of Panthea (#11) and a bow timber from Irish Gal (#2) are on display in the lobby of the Black Dog Tavern, part of owner Bob Douglas’s tribute to the class.
Today, 78 years after Silverheels first touched water, a half-dozen Fifteens are still active. Kanga (#8), Sea Yah (#32), Antelope (#36), Ariel (#37), Misty (#47), and Tyche (#50) have all been seen in Vineyard Haven Harbor within the last decade, and Pleiades (#39) is moored on the Cape. Even So Long (#6), launched in 1936 and one of the original fleet, was moored off Owen Park as recently as 2003. She is now in storage, awaiting her next launching, as are Hellcat (#24), Wideawake (#30), Dervish (#38), and Andiamo (#44).Anyone interested in seeing a Fifteen up close can visit Bob Douglas’s recently opened Black Dog Boat Museum, which can be accessed from white shell path that runs between the tavern and the bakery. When you walk into the museum, immediately to your left, the white wooden boat next to the wall is Wideawake. Or you can look out at the harbor, where a mainsail marked with the letters “VH” will signal a Fifteen under sail, carrying on a tradition more three quarters of a century old.
A. Bowdoin Van Riper and Katharine P. Van Riper are third- and fourth-generation Fifteen sailors, proud owners of Tyche, and creators of The Vineyard Fifteen Website (www.vineyardfifteen15.net).