John Whelan: Down To The Sea In Ships

“Somewhere beyond the sea

Somewhere waiting for me

It’s far beyond the stars

It’s near beyond the moon

I know without a doubt

My heart will be leading me there soon.”


“Beyond the Sea” was a big hit for Bobby Darin in 1959. The lyrics were by Jack Lawrence and the music was from a 1945 French song “La Mer” written by Charles Trenet. Fishing, boat building and intercoastal commerce weighed heavily in Chatham in the 18th and 19th centuries. So many captains of clipper ships came from Chatham. It is therefore significant that Chatham was the home of F. Spaulding Dunbar, an iconic naval architect of the 20th century. Originally from Mansfield, Dunbar summered in Chatham with his parents each year. While in Chatham, Spaulding spent much of his time in boats or around boats. A brilliant student, he graduated from high school at 15. After a year of prep school, he entered MIT at 16. Four years later, he was one of the youngest graduates. His first jobs were as crew on a steamship and next on a 217-foot clipper. He learned a great deal about ships and sailing and piloting in those early positions. He then signed on with a naval architect in Boston. The job was short-lived as the firm went bankrupt in the Great Depression. 

While at the Boston firm, Spaulding was assigned as the overseer in the construction of a 52-foot ketch. As the ketch neared completion, Spaulding married Doris Earle and settled in Chatham. Their home, which is at the base of Eliphamets Lane, was designed by Spaulding and was built like a boat with many nautical features inside and out. The boat yard went together piece by piece. The large framed building had been a hanger from the Chatham Naval Air Station in Chathamport. The Air Station was primarily a blimp base and was active from 1917 to 1922. The hanger was moved and reconstructed in 1936, and later a quonset hut and a marine railway were installed. Spaulding Dunbar’s main focus was on designing boats, so as time went on, more and more of the boatyard’s day-to-day decisions fell to Doris.

And design he did. Spaulding was one of the founders of the Stage Harbor Yacht Club and the club needed a class of small sloops for instruction and racing. His first design was the Corsair. Twenty feet long with lots of sail, the Corsair was often hard to keep upright. The current commodore of Stage Harbor Yacht Club, Drew Carlson, owns Corsair #2, one of the surviving Corsairs. It is beautifully restored and sleek and fast, but only sailors with skills like Drew can handle such a craft.

Next was the 15.5-foot Catabout. The Catabout was easy to sail and proved very popular. Many of this handsome class still can be found in Chatham waters. The Catabout and the 17-foot Whistler were the mainstays of the Stage Harbor fleet until fiberglass hulls became popular in the '60s. John Hutchinson, who lives on Silverleaf Avenue, owns Whistler #6.

Another Dunbar design was the 24.5-foot Monomoy which was Spaulding Dunbar’s alternative to the Wianno Senior. Orleans Selectman Alan McClennen has restored one of the very few Monomoys that were built and he continues to sail it in Pleasant Bay. The Monomoy is a beautifully-designed sailboat.

World War II caused many changes for Dunbar. He was invited to work on the design of a boat that would become the PT boat. The Navy needed a boat with high speed that could travel in shallow waters. The PT boat was used extensively in World War II, particularly in the Pacific. It was an important boat for the U.S. Navy.

At the same time, the Quimby plywood company in Maine was developing a marine plywood that could be used for powerboats. Utilizing that plywood, Spaulding designed the Bristol line of boats. The smaller Bristols came in 13-, 16- and 19-foot lengths with the 16-footer being the most popular. The 16-foot Bristol was a big seller and a great number of them could be found in Stage Harbor and Pleasant Bay.

Spaulding also designed a 22-foot bass boat for Bristol. The story is that he traded the design for the Bristol for his own 22-footer. The Surf Bird was fast and beautiful, and Spaulding was often seen heading out to Nantucket Sound in the Surf Bird.

Perhaps the most famous Dunbar design was the Ocean Pearl, which was built for fellow Mill Pond resident Seward Johnson. The Ocean Pearl was actually the second boat Spaulding designed for Mr. Johnson. The first, Sea Goose, was 43 feet long and drew only three feet. The very small draft was due to the use of twin centerboards as opposed to a keel. It was a radical idea for cruising boats at the time. The Sea Goose proved to be a wonderful sailboat and Spaulding and Seward sailed it successfully from Maine to Cuba. The Ocean Pearl was 62.5 feet and was built in the Netherlands with extensive use of teak and the finest hardware.

One of the most unique of Dunbar’s boats was his own 26-foot ketch, Little Dipper. It was beautiful and fast and encompassed most of his design features developed over a lifetime.

Spaulding and Doris had three children. The oldest, Bart lives in Newport, R.I. and owns and manages Bowen's Wharf. He and his wife, Lisa Lewis, are very involved in civic affairs and charity in Newport. Each summer, Bart and some Chatham friends sail off to Europe in Silver Apple, which was also designed by his father. Bart and the Silver Apple have sailed all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

Bart’s sister, Fran, lives in California. Fran left Chatham in 2006 after many years here. She told me a great story about sailing across the Atlantic, being in the middle of the ocean and climbing the mast and jumping into the ocean as the sailboat continued on. There was a long rope attached to the stern and she would grab it and pull herself back to the boat and then do it again. Few of us have ever had such an adventure. The youngest child was Dede who died in 2007.

I benefitted from a lot of help on this article and I owe thanks to Wayne Gould, who loaned me his copy of Wooden Boat from 2001 which had a lengthy article on Spaulding Dunbar. Also thanks to Bart and Fran Dunbar and to Alan McClennen, Drew Carlson and John Hutchinson.

In 2013, the Atwood House honored the achievements of Spaulding Dunbar with an exhibit entitled “Wood, Water and Wind, the Genius of Chatham’s F. Spaulding Dunbar.” His boats were beautiful and his designs revolutionary. Dunbar died in 1991 at 85, and he was honored by a flotilla of boats that scattered his ashes in Nantucket Sound. His legacy goes on somewhere “Beyond the Sea” as his boats continue to ply the waters of Chatham and Cape Cod.