Colin Archer and the Viking Tradition

How the 150-Year Old Norway Pilot Boat Became the World’s #1 Offshore Design

Pride in the Norse seafaring tradition is kept alive in the Pacific Northwest by immigrants from the Nordic countries and is visible in many forms. In Seattle for example, we have the statue of Leif Ericsson, the Viking chief who led the attempt to colonize the New World, on the Seattle waterfront at Shilshole Marina. In the center of Ballard, just a few blocks from the offices of NW Yachting, is the Nordic Heritage Museum with four typical wooden open boats on display.

Historically, Ballard was the traditional center of the northwest’s Scandinavian seafaring community.

Many other north-west cities also celebrate their Scandinavian immigrant connection, including Petersburg, Alaska, Astoria, Oregon where a daily paper was published in Finnish until the 1920s, and Poulsbo, Washington where Norwegian was the primary language into the 1930s. It’s worth noting that between 1825 and 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to North America-about one-third of Norway’s entire population! Many of them sought out waterfront communities where they became respected boat builders and fishermen. The working craft they built naturally reflected the Nordic tradition. The yachting world was less open to this influence until a fascinating change of fortune.

Today, sailors from the Nordic countries are active in professonal racing, the best-known sponsors being Ericsson the cell-phone maker and Volvo–the organizer of the premier round-the-world race (formerly the Whitbread). These big sponsors seem to prefer crewed races that rely on team work, and have always placed high in the Volvo race, so Nordic sailors have not made an impact on short-handed sailing. In addition, modesty is still considered a virtue by sportsmen from this region, so it’s unlikely that many Americans can name even one current top sailor. Even the top boatbuilders like Halberg-Rassy keep a low profile, reckonging their boats’ quality speaks for itself.

So ironically, the best- known Scandinavian in the world of offshore boat design and building is probably Colin Archer–a man with a Scottish name who worked in the late 1800s! Unless you have an interest in traditional sailboats, or the evolution of yacht design, you may never have heard his name, but I guarantee that you could find a yacht based on his designs in any marina in the northwest. Even tied to the dock, this distinctive heavy displacement double-ended sailboat looks as if it could handle bad more weather better than most crews!

Any boat of this type is universally referred to as a Colin Archer because he was the naval architect and builder who single-handedly made this type almost as famous as the Viking longship. I can’t think of any other example of a man’s name being so firmly connected to a type of boat! This is all the more remarkable because his original designs were actually 19th century work boats, built strictly for short trips close to shore, with no thought given to accommodation. The fact that Archer’s pilot boats and his later rescue cutters could successfully operate off the Norwegian coast and maneuver alongside ships in winter gales (with canvas sails and a gaff rig) has convinced generations of yachtsmen that this is the “most seaworthy boat in the world.”

Colin Archer and the Legendary Norwegian Pilot Boat

While yachts grew increasingly elaborate and expensive in Britain and the Netherlands in the 1700s and 1800s, in Scandinavia, religion, climate and society dictated that boats (and life in general) could not be so frivolously. Like the Lutheran churches, they should be simple and functional. Into this isolated culture came the Scottish family whose name would make Norwegian work boats famous around the world. The elder Archer was a timber merchant in Perth who took the unusual step of moving his large family to Norway in 1825. Colin Archer was born on the family estate at Tolderodden near Larvik, south-east of Oslo in 1832.

As a young man, he lived some years in Australia where he built up a big farm together with his brother, James. He returned to Norway in 1861 economically independent and proceeded to set himself up in business as a boat designer and builder, although he apparently had no formal training! He started his career building yachts in the popular style called “seilskøyte” (sail-cutter). This was a traditional seaworthy double-ender, usually with one mast, but sometimes with two. In 1867 he built the Maggie for his own use, and she remained in the Archer family for many years.

The Seilskøyteklubben Colin Archer (Colin Archer Sailing Club) in Oslo keeps the tradition of early Norwegian yachts alive. I received an e-mail reply from one member, Are Qvale (a system developer) who is the owner of Venus, which he proudly tells me was “built in 1889 by Colin Archer in Larvik. It is 12,60 m long, Width 3,60 m Depth 1,90 m displacement 17 tonnes, sail area 117 sq m.” (Photos of Venus taken by Sigurd Dale in SSCA spring regatta 2006)

The Archer Boatyard in Larvik

Besides fishing boats, a second line of commercial work for Norwegian yards was pilot boats. Until the 1850s, most of these were un-decked hulls that often filled up and sank. In the early 1800s, the first attempt to improve the pilot boat was made by a ship’s officer named Peder Sølling. He developed a seaworthy craft based on an English fishing boat, but it was too expensive for the poorer pilot stations and was too heavy to be rowed in calm weather.

In 1868, a big regatta for pilot boats was held in Stavanger with the goal of encouraging improvements in design. The Hvaler mackerel boat stood out among the 195 entries. It had a wide beam, rounded ends, a straight keel, and flared topsides. By the time of the next regatta, at Jomfruland in 1873, Colin Archer had accepted the challenge to design a better pilot boat. He began by improving the Hvaler boat, and won first place. The pilots took delivery of some of these boats and soon Archer soon began receiving suggestions.

He realized that clinker planking was more vulnerable to damage, so he changed to carvel, heavily-framed and trunnel-fastened. As he received more orders, he was able to experiment more–gradually slimming the bows, increasing the displacement to give standing headroom, and moving the ballast down to the keel. These changes gave it more ability to work in bad weather, heave-to comfortably, and stand the pounding when coming alongside large sailing ships. These boats came in any length the owner wanted, but the offshore model was standardized at 47′.

The first was called Minnie. The pilots praised this version for it’s maneuverability and seaworthiness, but Archer was not satisfied. A year later he built an improved version called the Thor. This design became the model for a long line of pilot boats that served along the Norwegian coast all the way to the Arctic Circle. By the 1880s, the pilots had learned to trust Archer’s innovations. Based on his experience with sail cutters, he changed the sprit rig to gaff and moved the mast aft and added a second headsail. This was a rig that could be handled by the apprentice after the pilot had transferred to the ship. The compact rig and heavy hull were not built for speed. They were at their best hove-to in a gale, waiting for a ship, when the tendency to surf on steep waves would be downright hazardous.

From 1876 Colin Archer built all his ships according to the ‘wave line principle,’ the theory developed by the British engineer John Scott Russell. According to this theory there are two kinds of waves when a vessel moves through the water, one at the bow and one at the back of the ship. To reduce the resistance, the ship should be built to conform to these two types of waves. This is one of several hydrodynamic concepts that were formulated in the Victorian era and employed by yacht designers–another is the “metacentric shelf” theory used by Harrison Butler. It may have been coincidental, but they resulted in excellent hull shapes, although they are now considered more of a design guide than real science.

The Polar Exporation Ship Fram

By 1890, Archer’s Larvik shipyard was considered to be one of the best in the country for building seaworthy vessels of all sizes. This reputation brought Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian explorer, to Larvik to discuss the construction of a unique vessel: the 127′ polar ship ship Fram (“forward” in Norwegian). Nansen awarded the contract to Archer to build this three-masted schooner with a 220 hp steam engine. It was to be only the second purpose-built polar ship–all the rest were conversions of whalers, sealers etc.. The propeller was two-bladed and could be fixed in the vertical position so that it was protected by the rudder post. (Losing a propeller bade was a common mishap when working in ice.) Among its special features, the rudder and propeller could be lifted into two wells inside the stern for complete protection from the ice.

The main difference between the Fram and the typical converted whaler was that rather than try to resist the pressure of the pack ice in winter, the Fram, would instead slide above the ice by virtue of its rounded hull. Nansen specified a hull “round and slippery as an eel,” but Archer took no chances, the Fram would also be prodigiously strong. The keel was made from two pieces of American elm fourteen inches square, the frames were 20″ wide Italian oak, grown to shape and obtained by Archer from the Norwegian navy where they had been seasoning for nearly 30 years, the stem and stern were assembled from 4′ of juniper-doweled oak. There were three layers of planking on the closely spaced frames, first three inch planks, then four inch planks and then an outer layer of greenheart sheathing–the result was a hull almost a foot thick! Inside the frames, an inner skin of 4″ pitch pine was added plus about 450 white pine deck knees. Finally, iron straps were wrapped around the hull at the bow and stern and through-bolted.

When it was launched in 1890, it was clear that the Fram was not a handsome ship: the ends were blunt and looked almost identical, the strange rounded bottom without any keel projecting would not be any use to windward, but it could escape the grip of the ice. Nonetheless, it was a masterpiece: the strongest wooden vessel ever built, and became one of the most famous ships in the world, capable of sailing and drifting the closest to the north and the south poles.

The Fram successfully carried the Nansen close to the North Pole in 1893 and spent almost three years locked into the ice. In 1910 it delivered Roald Amundsen to the edge of the Antarctic pack ice from where he won the battle with Scott to the South Pole. (The perils of using normal hull shapes was demonstrated In 1912, when Shackleton’s ship the Endurance was famously overwhelmed and sunk by the pack ice in the Antarctic.)

The Fram’s breakthrough design brought fame to the small nation of Norway at a time when bigger and more powerful countries were trying to be first to the poles. It is now preserved in the Fram Museum on Bygdøy, Oslo, Norway. Today all icebreakers, including the USCG ships stationed in Seattle, are designed to be able to rise up onto the ice.

The Rescue Cutter

In many European countries, the organization of a life-saving service for mariners was undertaken as a charitable work. The Norwegian Society for Rescue at Sea (Norsk Selskab til Skibbrudnes Redning) was founded in July 1891. (Information on this association is not available in English–but for comparison, Britain has the well-established charity called the “Royal National Lifeboat” Institute that was founded in 1824. It is still run on donations and all the craft at its 230 stations are called “lifeboats” and named after donors.)

The new organization approached Archer to support the charity by designing a sturdy sailing “redningskoite” (rescue-cutter). It was based on the pilot boat–and many of the dimensions appear to be interchangeable. It was a 47′ double-ender with heavy displacement, a long keel with 7 tons of iron ballast, three watertight compartments, and the signature Scandinavian (canoe) stern. The beam was over 16′, draft 7′, displacement 35 tons. The great beam and flare made it stable for easy boarding, with a continuous deck and small house that could withstand waves crashing onboard.

Mainsail, mizzen, staysail, jib and a topsail of very heavy canvas made a total of 1200 square feet of sail area. Its features were all aimed at survival and utility in violent short seas and the ability to tow (under sail) fishing vessels that had lost their rigs, so it was under-canvassed in pleasant weather. At the launch in late July 1893, the ship was named after its designer, ‘RS1 Colin Archer.’

It became the prototype for every rescue cutter built in Norway for the next 30 years. When Colin Archer died in 1921 at the age of 89, he had built over 200 ships, 70 yachts, 60 pilot boats, 14 rescue cutters and 72 other vessels. In the 1930s, the redningskoite class was replaced with a motorized boat. After 40 years of service, the rescue cutter retired with an impressive record: it had saved 67 ships and 236 people, as well as assisting 1522 vessels.

Redningskoite 1 Found in US and Restored in Oslo

In 1961, the RS1 Colin Archer was found in America in a terrible condition after many years in private hands. It was brought back to Norway, and became a scout group’s boat for some years, but was finally acquired in 1972 by the Norwegian Maritime Museum. A year later, the museum concluded a long-term agreement with the Colin Archer Sailing Club to restore and maintain it in sailing condition.

The hull was comprehensively overhauled in 1977. Knut and Gunn von Trepka took over the day-to-day responsibility, and have devoted very much time to operating the boat as a living museum. The interior was refurbished and restored to its original colors in 1993 with financial support from the Norwegian marine engineering company Kværner. This historical boat is still afloat and sailing.

The Scandinavian Double Ender Revived in the 20th Century

By the 1920s, the sport of yachting had seen several theories of design come and go. There was the narrow beam/long overhang style demanded by the International handicap rule, or the wildly contrasting types used by the earliest circumnavigators: Joshua Slocum’s Spray with its wide beam and shallow draft or Captain Voss’ Tilikum–built up from a dugout canoe.

There was really no connection between any of those disparate types. Every great sailor, it seemed, had chosen a totally different kind of boat. (A closer look at their writings suggests they were less interested in the design than the cost or the availability.) But as we all know, you soon come to appreciate whatever qualities your own boat possesses. There were enough theories on what constituted the “ideal cruiser” to keep the boating journalists busy. (Maybe things haven’t changed that much!) The accepted theory was that when the vessel was hit by a braking wave, it was parted by the V of the stern and passed harmlessly by on both sides.

If you open an old magazine from the 1950s or earlier, you will notice how many of these ideal designs were reviewed every month. Before computer design and fiberglass mass production, numerous talented designers competed for the custom-building market by turning out a never-ending stream of beautiful hand-drawn plans. Many of them were depicted as home-builder projects, as this was considered the best way to make boating accessible to the typical reader.

But to my eyes, they look like they really required professional skills to build…so it’s hard to see how this arrangement managed to provide employment for so many designers, builders and journalists. Did readers actually show up at their local boatyard clutching the latest issue of a boating magazine? However it worked, one designer took full advantage of the system and built a career around it.

William Atkin (1882-1962) Yacht Designer and Journalist

William “Bill” Atkin had a remarkable life in boating. During World War I, he served as editor of Yachting magazine for three years–quite an achievement for a young boat builder with little publishing experience. It was something that he evidently enjoyed, for he became deeply involved with marine publishing. Over 40 years, Atkin produced 873 designs, many of them motorboats, and for many years cranked out a design per month (!) to fulfil various publishing commitments.

After the war ended, he joined the staff of Motor Boat as technical editor, beginning a happy association with editor William Nutting, for whom he designed the ketch Typhoon, in 1920. Typhoon measured 45′ on deck, and was intended to demonstrate Atkin’s and Nutting’s concepts for a faster boat, as her proportions were unusual with “a fine bow that could almost be described as ‘all entrance’ clear back to amidships.” She had a very straight run and an unusually broad transom, thus completely breaking with any traditional notion of “balance” between the forward and after shapes of the hull. (This was an approach that didn’t catch on for another 80 years and is now proven to be the fastest!)

Nutting didn’t waste any time in testing his new boat, and Typhoon was blessed with strong fair winds and made a fast trans-Atlantic passage from Baddeck, Nova Scotia to Cowes, England, covering the 2,777 nautical miles in 22 days, 1 hour, and 22 minutes. The boat was praised by the marine press, but ironically Atkin never tried this approach again. Virtually all of his subsequent designs were given a “balanced” hull form in which the after body was not much fuller than the forebody, as was commonly accepted to be desirable for good motion and seaworthiness.

The Typhoon was soon forgotten and in 1923, Nutting, took a ship to Norway and fell in love with the traditional double-ended sailing cutters. He returned with the plans for Archer’s 47-foot pilot boat, and asked Atkin to scale them down to 32′ long with an 11′ beam and refine the shape to look a little more yacht-like. Unfortunately, Nutting decided not to wait for his design to be built, returned to Norway and purchased a yacht of similar type.

On the way home from Norway, Nutting and his crew were lost without a trace. This had a major impact on Atkin, who often referred to the loss in his writings. But he completed the design that Nutting had commissioned, and in the spring of 1925, three sister ships were built to the design. They were named Freya, Valgerda, and Eric, and it was the latter that became the class name. Atkin added a 37 footer he called Ingrid and continued to work with the concept for the rest of his life, often calling them his “Atkin-Archer” boats.

It would be wrong to think he had any particular attachment to those particular designs. I found it intriguing that he produced several more double-enders with narrower beam that he thought would be better performers. The gaff sloop Vixen measured 34′ 7″ overall with a beam of 10 ft. and draft 5 ft., displacement about 26,000 lbs, while the slender Bermudian sloop Fram is 39′ overall, 10′ 2″ beam; 5 feet 6 inches draft, displacement 27,500 lbs. It appears that he also used almost exactly the same hull shape as the Eric but with a transom-stern for several other successful boats. (Atkins’ amazing output can be viewed on the web at

Ironically, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Erics begin to win many admirers, a decade after Atkin died. (His son John continued the business until 1999.) In the interim, many other Archer-type boats would help to build the double-ender mystique. In the 1930s, the Norwegian Erling Tambs, published his popular book The Cruise of the Teddy about his voyages in two big Colin Archers. (He was born in Larvik, where Archer’s boat yard was located.) The book became a best-seller and made a powerful impression on many armchair sailors during the Depression.

In the same period, Joseph Hanna produced a design for a 30′ double-ended cruiser that he called “the Tahiti ketch.” This was a magnificent piece of salesmanship and launched a thousand dreams of running away to the South Seas–in a salty double-ender, of course. However, Hanna credited the Greek sponge boats in Florida as his main influence, proving that Scandinavians didn’t have a monopoly on double-enders!

The idea of the seaworthy double-ender even spread to Argentina, where Manuel Campos designed a 31 footer for Vito Dumas, who circled the southern hemisphere alone in 1941. In the inaugural Sydney-Hobart in 1945, a 35′ double-ender named Rani was given little chance of even completing the course, but it arrived in first place after a storm-wracked crossing of the Bass Strait. In 1963, three Norwegian brothers Lars, Trygve and Magnus Halvorsen, who had already been very successful in racing, designed and built a new 39′ double-ender and proceeded to win the 638-mile classic on handicap three years in a row!

In the 1960s, an Eric was built in teak for a group of young British merchant navy officers based in SE Asia. One of them was Robin Knox-Johnston, who later sailed the Suhaili around the world non-stop in 312 days. Bernard Moitessier’s steel Joshua was also a similar shape and carried him twice around Cape Horn in the 1960s. This really put Archer-inspired boats back on the yachting map.

But this was also the time of the fiberglass revolution! People wanted their yachts to look “modern,” and double enders began to be viewed as relics of the past. It probably would have stayed like that if the character/wooden boat craze had not gotten started, perhaps inspired by the hippies’ organic, do-it-yourself spiri. After decades of being laughed at by knowledgeable sailors, bowsprits, clipper bows and taff rails were back in vogue, and some fiberglass hulls even displayed fake plank seams!

The Westsail: No Matter who Designed it, it’s Still a Colin Archer!

In the mid-1960s, Larry Kendall of Costa Mesa, CA commissioned naval architect W.I.B. “Bill” Crealock to take the lines of the 32′ Atkin and convert them for fiberglass construction. The design became the Kendall 32. But after several years of production, Kendall’s operation failed and, at a bankruptcy auction, the tooling was sold to Snider and Lynne Vick. The Vicks asked Crealock for a new trunk cabin and the Westsail 32 was born. With a slogan of “Westsail the World” and a marketing campaign geared to swaying palm trees and white sand beaches, the boat was introduced to an unsuspecting public in 1971.

The Westsail 32 measured 32′ on deck, 27′ 6″ LWL, with a beam of 11′ and a draft of 5′. Displacement is 20,000 lbs. The overall length was 39′ with a bowsprit and boomkin included. A secure bulwark protected the crew and there were high lifelines. The cockpit was very small with large freeing ports. The 20,000 lbs displacement gave an enormous interior volume that provided perhaps the largest and most livable interior of any 32 footer.

Over the next ten years, more than 800 Westsails were built. The hulls were laminated from 24 alternating, hand-laid layers of fiberglass woven roving and chopped strand mat in polyester resin The result was a very strong structure at the penalty of considerable weight. About half were sold complete, while the rest went out the door in various stages of completion.

Thus was borne the bullet-proof Westsail 32–the first fiberglass boat for serious blue water cruising.

No boat has inspired more dreams of sailing to faraway places! Indeed, it became the quintessential ocean cruiser in the public eye. Derided as heavy, slow and wet by racers, with many being bought by posers and wannabes, the Westsails have proven to be enduring boats with an admirable cruising record. Their fans called them “the best boat for the worst weather” and hundreds are still sailing the seven seas.

Speed was never high on the list of the Colin Archer’s attributes, but then Portland delivery skipper Dave King cleaned up the underwater shape of his Saraband, and seriously raced it in the Pacific Cup in 1990 with a good crew. He surprised everyone by winning the handicap trophy. He explained to me that his technique was to get the boat up to waterline speed of 7-8 knots, and keep it there round the clock!

As I finished this story, I was vaguely aware that I had seen a double ender at the Port of Astoria boatyard not far from my home, so stopped by there to see if it was worth photographing. To my surprise, there were three Colin Archer types within a few yards, and they were constructed of wood, concrete and fiberglass. I think that is as good a proof as any that these boats turn up everywhere and appeal to every kind of builder and owner. It seems that the older it gets, the more this timeless design appears to be growing in popularity–not bad for a 150-year old Norwegian workboat!


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Cruising, Nautical History, Sailors & Yachts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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