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Restoring the mighty Volante

Published on September 21st, 2021

Volante is an 1887 Sandbagger sailboat which was renovated in the 1960s by J.D. MacRae’s dad and his friend. Now she needs a proper restoration to be saved and sailing for the next 100 years, and J.D. intends to carry on the family tradition. Here is his story:

In 1886, when Minnetonka Yacht Club was just four years old, Hazen Burton went with his son Ward to Boston, where they met an old friend J. Malcomb Forbes. Forbes introduced them to America’s Cup designer Ned Burgess and asked his Boatworks to design a state-of-the-art sandbagger sailboat. They designed the boat, which Boston’s Lawley and Sons then built.

Volante was delivered in 1887 to Lake Minnetonka and rigged by Excelsior’s Captain Dyer. Volante soon became a nearly undefeatable club racer. She is 20-feet long and 10-feet wide. Her original bowsprit was 20-feet long, and she had a 7-feet long boom-sprit, meaning her waterline total rig length was 47-feet. She had a crew of eleven where each crew member was in charge of two 50-pound sandbags to shift back and forth as ballast.

In the early 1900s, shifting ballast was outlawed, and Volantes rig was severely cut back to make her manageable without using sandbag ballast. Her bowsprit was shortened to just seven feet, and the boom-sprit was eliminated. The mast was reduced over 50%, leaving a much smaller sail plan.

In 1963 my dad, Jim, and his good friend Maurice (Moki) Lizee approached Ward Burton, the son of Hazen and the designer of the Onawa (which is considered the first sailboat to go over the water), the boat that started the Scow sailboats.

Just a week before Ward passed, my dad agreed to the hard bargain. Ward demanded $1 for Volante. I was a very little kid, and remember the day we picked her up, there leaning against the Burton boathouse was a fat bathtub-looking thing full of leaves and nuts.

“This was the treasure my dad was so excited about,” I thought to myself. Yes, this was the first of many times I questioned my dad’s sanity. Then we opened the Burton boathouse. Oh my goodness, here was the true treasure trove.

Boats were hanging from the rafters, Onawa, Northern Light Iceboat, several Iceboats brought from New York, canoes, and spars. All were shining in high gloss varnish; the smell of varnished wood was unforgettable.

The second time I questioned my dad’s sanity was him passing on all these treasures when offered by Ward. They came for the nut-filled rotting boat outside. “Yea, whatever, dad.”

Dad and Moke dug through spars pulling out many possible masts, gaffs, and bowsprits. There was no way to tell what was Volantes, Onawas, or some past boat long gone.

My childhood consisted of working on this crazy project. They steamed oak “C” Scow ribs from Johnson Boat Works; my job was to climb in the bow and hold a wrench on the nut as dad used a brace and bit to drive the bolts through the original cypress planks and the new oak ribs.

Now understand, no one was cheaper in all the yacht club than Jim MacRae, and the wrench I used might have been older than the boat, and I am sure the brace and bit were.

I think it took seven years or so to renovate the boat. I call it a renovation as the structure was very undersized. The amount of “Get rot” was in the gallons, and the construction was good, but still the skill level of 2×4 building.

Despite all obstacles, we launched her in the late 60s with all the old boat guys around. Tom Maple and Brad Robinson are two that stand out in my mind as we used the MYC crane to launch her.

Within minutes, the water rose above the floorboards, and then the water came flowing out of the centerboard box. A couple of minutes after this, the deck was level with the surface of the lake.

Dad and Moki seemed undeterred; this was the plan. Volante would spend a week submerged, soaking up water and swelling the planks shut. It turns out this was a yearly event, sink her and pump her out a week later. They got it so just a small automatic bilge pump did the trick.

Allen Lizee and I spent countless nights taking our friends out for night sails, most often ending when the sun came up. Our parents had parties with their friends. The cockpit seats ten easily, and we often sailed with fourteen aboard.

The round cockpit had a wooden bench around the rear and sides. The centerboard had a lovely mahogany gimbaled table for drinks and snacks. All the blocks are either wood or brass, and the fittings are mostly original, with the side stays in what dad and Moki figured were the downsized rig.

There are also fittings for what is believed to be a Cat rig she once carried. Gordy Bowers made the sails out of old used A scow sails. The spars are varnished spruce.

Volante remained viable until the 1990s. My dad died when he was in his early 60s, and without my dad, I think Moke lost some interest. Alan and Moki Lizee kept her up best they could, launched her for the MYCs 125th birthday when she took members out for a sail. That was the last time she was in the water. Alan took ownership when Moke died, and he hoped to get her sailing again, but the work needed is significant.

Last year I asked Alan to transfer ownership to my family with the plan of restoring her. My goal is to rebuild her structure; this required steaming 2”x3” white oak ribs that will go from the keel up the sides to sister into the original ribs that remain solid above the waterline. One goal of the restoration is to make the starboard and port sides have the same shape.

The boat sat on her side for so many years next to the Burton boathouse that flattened the hull. I will build jigs for each rib and steam a pair of them to install. Once the ribs are in place, they will be shaped and faired to fit the planking.

I plan on replacing the planks below the waterline, which first requires removing all the bolts, nails, and screws from the structure and then steaming, shaping, and placing the new planks. The planks will be cypress like the original, with a 1/8” gap between planks to allow for swelling.

The bottom will then be faired; the gaps in the planks are backed with cotton backer and caulked. The bottom will be primed and painted with eco-friendly anti-fouling paint.

I plan to replace the transom. We believe there’s been three transoms on her, the original 2” thick white oak and two plywood. I plan on making a mahogany or white oak transom.

Once the structure and hull are complete, I can start putting a new bench and floor into the boat. The spars are good to go, as are the essential components. The last significant expenditure will be having sails made. The 50-year-old sails are blown out and so full that the boat quickly becomes overpowered.

I hope to have the mainsail with a functioning cunningham, outhaul, and boom vang. I believe these items will allow the gaffe to open and lose power while keeping the boat driving. The jib runs across a cable on the deck; I am thinking through a possible way to move this cable so the sail can be fattened for heavy wind. These are rigging items I plan to work through with some friends.

I started the project this summer at my house in Deephaven, MN, but I cannot finish the job without your help. I am looking to raise a minimum of $40,000, preferably $60,000, to lease a heated shop for the boat and tools.

This is an extensive restoration. I expect this to take two or three years of dedicated work. The amount of money raised will determine where the work is done. At this point, the plan is to create a boathouse-type pipe structure with 2” insulation and then a tarp to seal it off from the elements. This shelter should allow me to work on the boat ten months out of the year.

If I raise enough money, I could look for small lease space for my shop and the Volante. I can also have layout space for steaming and such. A heated shop, of course, would be ideal, but quite a bit more money than the minimum needs.

For further updates and donations, click here.

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