May / June 2019

The Design Legacy of Ed Burnett

A search for perfection

Ed Burnett’s 59' schooner AMELIA was launched by MB Yachts in Dorset, England, in 2007. Burnett, who died at 43 in 2015, cited American designers as among his influences but wrote that AMELIA has features that “could be attributed to either side of the ocean.” His designs often drew inspiration from traditional types, but in his relatively short career he achieved his own distinctive style.

It’s a balmy summer’s evening when I visit yacht designer Ed Burnett’s parents, Adrie and Jeremy, at their former captain’s house overlooking Falmouth Harbour, Cornwall, in southwestern England. I’ve barely sat down when Jeremy asks if I want to see his son’s first-ever design. “It’s hanging in the hall,” he says with evident pride. It is a 54' gaff-rigged ketch with a plumb stem and what looks like a lute stern, which is typical of some English traditional craft. The boat is meticulously drawn, with reefpoints on the main and mizzen sails, ratlines on the shrouds, a large bowsprit net, and anchors forward and aft. In the top right-hand corner, a heavily amended table of specifications reads:

“Name Beethoven, Depth 4½ feet, Rig Ketch, legth 54½ feet, wate 19 tuns, back mast 27 feet, fruntmast 43 feet, bowsport 24 feet, sturnsprit 5 feet...” At the bottom of the page, the drawing is signed: “Edward Burnett, 7 years old, Fryday December 7th 1979.”

This, then, is the first yacht design by one of Britain’s most successful contemporary yacht designers, the boy who would become a man who would create a range of traditional yet modern yachts in his own distinctive style—boats that would daysail locally but also cross the Atlantic, others that would train young sailors and even lead the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant down the River Thames in 2012. It’s an impressive legacy, created in a relatively short space of time before his untimely death in 2015 at the age of 43. And it all started here, on this piece of paper, nearly 40 years ago.

Burnett’s parents met in West Africa, where his father worked for the United Africa Company (a branch of Unilever) and his mother was a Dutch-American teaching French with the Peace Corps. Burnett’s older brother, Bill, was born in Sierra Leone, but Adrie headed to Ashford, Kent, to give birth to Ed in 1972, and the family moved permanently back to England later that year. From the outset, weekends and holidays meant only one thing: sailing, starting with an Alan Buchanan–designed East Anglian based in Burnham-on-Crouch, with the infant Ed nestled in the forecastle. By the time the family moved to Falmouth in 1975, they had a 26' Essex working boat, followed by a Buchanan-designed Viking 31, and then a 28' Albert Strange yawl. For two decades, Jeremy owned an outfitting company, West Country Chandlers, and the family met many of the boating personalities who passed through this iconic port, including Eric and Susan Hiscock, Lin and Larry Pardey, and Tim and Pauline Carr. It was a deep immersion into the boating world, and Ed absolutely lapped it up.

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