Text and photographs by Tyler Fields
First Light Boatworks of Chatham, Massachusetts, began operating in the same building where boats have been designed and built since the 1930s, first by the legendary Spaulding Dunbar and later by Pease Brothers Boat Works. Once a naval blimp hangar before World War II, the shop is a Cape Cod boatbuilding icon. It’s hard enough to create a new business, but it’s harder still when you have to fill the sizable shoes of those before you. But, that’s not really First Light’s style. The crew didn’t set out to continue the past or fill history’s shoes. Actually, they ditched the shoes altogether, picked up a couple straw hats, and started building boats—a lot of boats.
One of those boats would be a stout, double-ended ketch developed from sketches by First Light’s owners, Woody Metzger and Jim Donovan. Working with her future owner, they developed a boat meeting the owners’ rather minimal set of requirements: a simple, double-ended day boat between 30′ and 40′ LOA for shorthanded sailing between the Cape and its surrounding islands. They should leave all of the unnecessary electronics and galley equipment ashore and focus on designing a beautiful boat that, according to the owners, “shouldn’t spill the wine.”
The sketches ended with a 34′ ketch with clear inspiration pulled from Metzger’s Danish roots. This new boat would be strong, powerful, and by no means delicate in shape. For these reasons, the boat was named EMPRESS OF BLANDINGS. While the moniker sounds rather regal, the Empress is actually a fictional pig from the P.G. Wodehouse Blandings Castle series of books. The sow is a beloved and award-winning animal for her impressively large size and snorting beauty.
While not designed for winning races, EMPRESS’s hull has proven to be quick through even light air with admirable seaworthiness when the wind picks up. The ketch was built of Atlantic white cedar planks on steam-bent white oak frames. EMPRESS’s centerline structure was built of angelique, laminated Douglas-fir stems, and purpleheart floor timbers. The decks are a sandwich of Atlantic white cedar visible in the cabin overhead, bare teak on top, and okoume plywood in between. Her cabin sides, coaming, and caprail are all of varnished teak.
EMPRESS OF BLANDINGS was launched on First Light’s marine railway in 2018 with a party befitting royalty. After the band departed and the ice sculpture had melted, EMPRESS made her way home to Nantucket, where she has since made a name for herself on the island—including earning some hardware during the 2019 Opera House Cup. Trophies are just one more part of her story she shares with that lovable literary pig.
Tucked into cabinetry above the galley sink lives the bare minimum of electronics. The DC panel is limited to lights, a freshwater pump, the VHF radio, and bilge pumps. Two additional 12-volt outlets were added in the name of extravagance and luxury. From these outlets, the owners can charge the custom Torqeedo electric outboard motor for the cedar-and-oak tender, PRINCIPESSA, which First Light designed and built. The little tender has a Viking-inspired, hand-carved, teak dragon figurehead with port and starboard running lights for eyes. The tiller? It’s the tail, of course.
A quick glance at EMPRESS’s interior shows the simple elegance required by the design brief. There is little to clutter her generous space below. However, the details and final touches make her special. A notable example is the copper sink tucked away in the enclosed head. At first, you might mistake it for an off-the-shelf unit, but upon closer look, the sink is a near match to the shape of EMPRESS’s hull. First Light designed the sink and provided a plug from which John Bassett, of Airtech in Chatham, produced the custom piece. The hand-made sink is finished off with copper fittings and pipes matching its style.
Companionway and Saloon
From the spacious cockpit, one goes below on a curved set of companionway steps, under which is additional access to the four-cylinder Yanmar diesel; the steps also have built-in storage drawers. The interior is built of Atlantic white cedar and is finished with a satin varnish. Large overhead hatches and cabin ports allow ample natural light and make for a very welcoming space. From the companionway looking forward, the enclosed head is to starboard and a galley sink and counter to port. The galley is minimal, except for a copper sink and faucet. Below the varnished countertop are additional storage drawers for basics.
The deckbeams are of laminated sapele and fit to a wana sheer clamp. They are satin-varnished like the rest of the interior. The V-matched bottom layer of the deck has the same varnish, and its light color beautifully contrasts with the dark red of the beams and timber.
A Riot of Curves
Straight lines were not part of the plan when designing the interior of EMPRESS. Each surface below is curved, including countertops and drawer faces. The forward bulkhead is made of ¾″ laminate, faced with ¼″ Atlantic white cedar and trimmed in laminated teak. The bottom of the bulkhead creates a small footwell forward of the mast. Generous berths are to both port and starboard in the main cabin and continue forward to a traditional V-berth at the bow. There are only three lighting fixtures, two on the forward bulkhead and a single, larger one above the galley.
Spars, Hardware, and Sails
The spars are of Sitka spruce, with traditional bronze hardware by Port Townsend (Washington) Foundry and J.M. Reineck & Son of Hull, Massachusetts. Jeremy Buck of Buck Welding and Machine in Chatham custom-fabricated additional bronze hardware, including the maststeps, the gammon iron, and the mizzen traveler. Traditional meets modern with bronze winches from Harken and double-braid running rigging from R&W Rope. All sails and sail covers were made by Sperry Sails in Marion, Massachusetts.
The varnished teak caprail and custom-bronze hardware are a natural fit for EMPRESS. So are the varnished elm blocks from Ording Blockmakers in Holland. The hardware made by Buck provides ample strength. The glued-down teak deck is sprung, mostly, but planks were sawn where needed for the tight radius aft. The First Light crew took great care when installing the teak deck and fit the centerline joints without an additional kingplank. Why? Why not? Remember, it’s the same crew that made the dragon....
Steering is by an Edson Marine bronze wheel, trimmed in teak by Bob Fuller of South Shore Boat Works of Hanson, Massachusetts. The classic-looking, polished-bronze pedestal, also by Edson, houses the electric throttle control for EMPRESS’s Yanmar and is topped with a compass—the only navigational tool in the cockpit. Her wraparound seat cushions were made by Sperry Sails, as were the cushions belowdecks and a Sunbrella bimini top that shades the cockpit.
EMPRESS OF BLANDINGS’s design is an evolution of Danish coastal workboats. This is most evident in the elegant stern, which evokes Denmark’s well-known spidsgatters and K. Aage Nielsen’s series of elegant double-ended hulls.
Tyler Fields grew up in Oregon, where his passion for photography and wooden workboats of the Pacific Northwest developed. After graduating from Oregon State University and moving to Massachusetts, he has been photographing classic yachts both in the shop and on the water.