The Amazing Crescent Boat

Tim Moran – Mid American Shore Report

Great Lakes Sailor – November / December 1988

By any measure of the 1950’s, when advertising men sought the “WOW factor,” Dick Hill’s back-yard project was a hit.

“Swing an axe on it and you’ll be lucky to make a dent,” raved one article.

“Plastic boat won’t rot!” said another.

The year was 1953;  the place, a Dearborn, MI, driveway (euphemistically called “The Dearborn Navy Yard”) where a major leap in boat evolution was underway.img2301

There are moments in time when our quiet earth, placidly spinning on its axis and plodding around the sun at 19 miles per second, should pause and tremble at what lies in store for it.  The day a few fish crawled out of the primordial ooze for a little sunbathing, for instance.  Or the day a certain American president decided to finance the Civil War by declaring a tax on income.

Certainly, there should have been pause the day a man from DuPont came to Dearborn to investigate what Dick Hill had done with all the “Vibrin” resin he’d been ordering.  It was a start of a fresh era in sailboat construction;  Hill was building the “Crescent”, a one-design racing / cruising full keel sailboat, from a new material.  Fiberglass.

PIONEER PROJECT

It wasn’t necessarily the first fiberglass boat.  It wasn’t absolutely, documentably proven to be the first full-keel fiberglass vessel.  It might have been, though.  The boat was certainly new to everybody who saw it or smelled it while it was being built.

“We had one neighbor, who was an engineer, who came over.  He thought some sort of weird thing was going on because he smelled it; he thought it might be rocket fuel,” says Hill’s wife, Martha.

“Everything in the house, in the basement and whatever, was stuck together with fiberglass.”

For Martha, marriage to Dick meant an interesting life.  Hill was an artist, a skilled craftsman, and a relentless inventor who worked for Ford Motor Co. as a modeler in the styling department.

“All the artists worked for the auto companies;  it was a way to earn a living while you supported your work,” says Martha.

Ford had put some new modeling material into the hands of its staff.  The plastic stuff and glass cloth came with a catalyst, was workable and dried very hard.  It was supposed to be made into cars.  But Hill looked at it and saw boats.  He saw one boat, anyway, made in a mold, reproduceable any number of times.

Hill first had made a model of the boat he hoped to build, constructing a plaster mold and building it in one-quarter scale.  The sloop, christened with a bottle of soda pop, made its maiden voyage on ponds behind the Ford engineering complex in Dearborn.

The boat sailed beautifully, and over the course of months served as the test bed for several different suits of sails and three different suits of sails and three different mast and rigging arrangements.  Hill had neither the time nor money to loft full-size lines, build a plug, and then build a mold, though.  He had obtained the wooden hull of a 24-foot racing sloop belonging to Dr. Lyndon Babcock.  It was a good basic design, fast though the water, with excellent sea keeping qualities.  The hull was hauled into Hill’s driveway, and a crew of plasterers quickly clustered around it.

“It was tons of plaster they put on it to make the mold, just tons.  We had to wax and wax it inside.  It took night after night of waxing,” Martha recalls.

Several layers of fiberglass and resin were put in next.  The Dearborn neighborhood shared in the first whiffs of what the boatyard of the future would smell like.  DuPont sent its man down to check things out – its Vibrin product was so new that Hills’s orders formed a significant percentage of the nationwide demand for the resin.

Eventually the hull was completed, with thicknesses measuring as much as three-quarters of an inch in some places and a huge lead keel weighing 1,200 pounds.  The glass alone in the boat weighs 1,340 lb.

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“It’s a tough boat.  It’ll last forever, that’s what the man from DuPont said when he came down,” says Martha Hill. 

The Crescent popped out of the mold just as planned, a bright, trendy, gleaming 1950s peacock blue with white rails.  With deck added, the boat was hauled down to the Ford Rouge Complex, where a large crane lowered it into Great Lakes waters.

Named to honor Crescent Sail Yacht Club, the Crescent class was born, with Hull No. 1 bearing the name We Do Tu.

That’s for “We Do Have a Good Time,” explains Martha.

LASTING LEGACY

Today, large flotillas of fiberglass one-designs crowd the waters around south-eastern Michigan, not knowing or caring that they owe much of their success to Hill’s early experiment.  Among the Etchells, the Cals, the Stars and the Flying Scots and Lightnings, though, you can still see the Crescents out frolicking on the waves.

Crescents are easily recognized.  They’re a long, low sloop with a virtually flat foredeck, the mast stepped on the deck just in front of the cabin, and a large mainsail that speaks of the heyday of huge rigs.

Crescents are old-time sailing machines, designed with the idea that getting wet is part of the race.  Even their characteristic round hatches, one on foredeck and one for the motor well in the stern, give the look of a rugged vehicle, sort of a U-boat feel.

You crouch in a Crescent cabin.  There is no quarter berth / V-berth interior.  Inside, there is space someplace to put bedding down.  When they were brand new, though, they were the ultimate in new camper-cruiser design.  Hill’s family certainly took extended cruises to Port Huron; newspapermen flocked to the pier.

With the ‘50s dedication to miracles of technology, they duly reported that everything on the boat was made of fiberglass.  It was almost true; the mast indeed was fiberglass.  Hill’s family called it “the wet noodle,” and it was soon replaced with a stiffer spar.img2311

They sailed in overnight races.  They sailed against the one-design fleets on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie and pulled horizon jobs on them.  They sailed a Grosse Ile-to-Put-In-Bay race and finished well.

Crescents were trailerable in a day when boat trailers weren’t commonplace.  Hill had a friend who cobbled together four-wheel trailers from old Cadillac and Ford Model A frames.

“We had a Ford car and we trailered the boat on a Cadillac.  We trailered it to Miami for a boat show, and went in one of their races down there,” says Martha.

Miami folks liked the boat as an ocean racer.  Everybody liked it, but fiberglass was so new that few were willing to put up money for a Crescent.  Hill had built another boat in his back yard for his partner, William Mitchell, but it took three years before the next Crescent was launched.  New molds were made – the original plaster was getting soggy – and Abbott Industries took over production; in 1956 two boats were made; 1957 saw five boats; 1958 brought two more.

“Every time we sold a boat, it cost us money,” remembers Martha.  “Fiberglass molds cost $8,000 to build.  Some boats were sold for just the cost of materials.  Dick would say, “Well, just look at all those people having fun – that’s my payment.”

Custom-Flex, a Toledo boatyard now out of business, took over production in the mid-1960s.  Their idea was to make the Crescent a Midget Ocean Racer with a self-bailing cockpit and other design improvements.  Custom-Flex built new molds and sold a grand total of about 10 boats.  The rush of other boatmakers to fiberglass had produced new designs, lighter boats featuring dagger keels and more cabin space.

Production of the Crescent ended in 1976.  The molds, owned by the class, sit outdoors, unused.  Crescents themselves, however, have continued to be updated.  Rigging has remained up-to-the-minute, within certain class limitations.  Equipment on many of the boats includes surplus aircraft gyrocompasses, but that’s about the only bow the class makes to high-tech.  Dick Hill’s basic vision is still sailing unchanged, and still doing well.

“Toward the end of my Crescent career, we annihilated the Morgan 27s going upwind,” says 17-year Crescent veteran Peter Fortune.

CAMARADERIE

It’s spelled out many ways: “Har, Har, Hajra”; “Huj, Huj, Huja”; and “Hoy, Hoy, Hara”.

Spelling doesn’t really count in this case, though.  The words are the rallying cry of the Crescent fleet.  I first heard them, ironically, at the Crescent Sail Yacht Club regatta, an all-fleets race.  There were the race committee members, prim and proper; there were the big boats finishing fast.  Suddenly, there was an army of little boats with this weird pirate cry going up from them.

The yell was originated by Charles Kerestes (prononounced “Kar-eh-stash”), a Hungarian émigré who claimed a cavalry background.  Keresztes also claimed hull no. 3, was an artist and possesses a  magnetic personality. 

He brought with him a lighthearted elan and complete dedication to the class.  Crescent parties soon became famous; after every race, the boats would raft together out on the lake while crews celebrated victories and losses.

At one Bay Week, the Crescent crew managed to pack 33 people on a single boat for a bacchanal.  There was always a guitar someplace.  For some reason, the bulk of the fleet was made up of art people, liberals, radicals, near counter-culture.

“I don’t know how these things develop.  Someone’s sailing and they have friends and go out and crew, and they like it and go out to buy a boat,” says Peter Fortune.

The fleet drew new members attracted by the camaraderie and the all-out racing their boats offered.

“There were always a lot of women involved in the class.  Most people sailed with their wives or girlfriends on the boat as part of the crew, and that was unusual,” says Fortune.

“The greatest attribute, as long as I can remember, is it was always significantly a class.  It was a group of people one recognized, always with a significant social component.  To this day I have a lot of close friends I developed in the class.”

Crescents became the gateway to racing for many of Detroit’s better sailors.  Fortune is one example.  Initially a Crescent crewman, he bought a Crescent in 1971 and raced it until 1986, when he brought an Express 27.  He’s now a top contender in that fleet.

Don Criner, who became a Crescent owner in 1961, is well-known for skippering Gerry Murphey’s Golden Dazy to victory in the 1975 Canada’s Cup.

“We had a party for the fleet, and at one point somebody said, “Everybody that has ever raced on a Crescent, please stand up.”  About 200 people stood up,” says Stephen Hume.

Hume, proprietor of the “Goatyard Boatyard” in Detroit, has been known as “the Crescent Man” in recent years.  The fleet stores many of its boats at his yard.  Though Hume rarely finishes first in races, his dedication to the boats is deep.  Hume cobbled together his first Crescent from a damaged hull totaled by an insurance company and spare parts given by the rest of the Crescent fleet.  He sailed the boat to the Bahamas one winter, living on it for more than a third of a year.

The boat hit a reef and sank, but Hume raised it and brought it back.  He still sails the boat today.

“They are a small big boat, or a big small boat.  I like the idea, also, that it was made as a poor man’s boat,” says Hume.

AT THE HELM

Jim Powell was another Crescent devotee.  Manager of Detroit’s historical Pewabic Pottery, Powell was a potter and clay sculptor whose sailing prowess was well-known in the fleet.

Powell would hold a permanent place in the fleet’s history for his ability alone but for the fact that Powell made good what many old sailors have said they wanted –  he died at the tiller at the finish line of the race.

“They were finishing the race, and Ralph Richards said he noticed Jim’s boat was going in a different direction than he would have chosen.  It was a stormy day, though, and the crew were busy with the sails.

“They almost hit the committee boat.  All of a sudden someone looked and grabbed the tiller.  Jim was gone,” says Martha Hill.

Death also claimed Dick Hill, who died of throat cancer in 1975.  Charles Keresztes died in the winter of 1987.  Crescent ranks filled in, not to replace the original sparkplugs of the fleet, but to continue their dedication.  The class works hard to help one another maintain boats; it also works to keep boats from being sold to non-racers, and to keep boats active and in the water.

At the yacht clubs around Detroit, to be a Crescent sailor is to be a fanatic.  The fleet is acknowledged as the oldest active class racing on Lake St. Clair.  The class is known for good sportsmanship, and for being fun.  Its demise is continually predicted, and just as continually evaded.

“When I bought my boat, I was concerned about the class lasting.  That was 17 years ago, and I worried about it all the time,” says Fortune.

Perhaps it’s the family-like dedication of the fleet to having a good time.  In Martha Hill’s apartment, a miniature Crescent fleet sails atop a bookcase.  The boats are always jockeying for position as sailors visit.  It’s easy to tell the last visitor by which boat is in the lead.

Probably, though, it’s the durability of Dick Hill’s radical vision of what a new material could do for sailing.

“Swing an axe on it, and you’ll be lucky to make a dent,” said the newspaper clipping.  For the Crescent, they were right.

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