You know you’ve nailed the start of a race when, after just one tack, you’re crossing the rest of the fleet’s bows. That’s a familiar story for Chris Maas and his brother, Alex, when they race Slipper, a tantalizingly elegant and wickedly fast 27-foot wood-and-carbon daysailer that Chris designed and built.
Yet, she is far more than what meets the eye and the boat speed. Maas, 65, a retired boatbuilder from Seattle who now makes his home in Washington’s San Juan Islands, did not just conceive a fleet little boat with modern features that include a lifting keel, retractable electric auxiliary propulsion, and high-aspect-ratio appendages. He also made a statement about respectful and efficient use of finite resources by employing sources including driftwood, a neighbor’s felled cedar tree, recycled materials, and repurposed gear—all as a reminder that greenhouse gas emissions don’t just emanate from tailpipes but are inherent to the production process.
After a lifetime in the boatbuilding business—which has only now begun to make focused progress toward using more sustainable materials and processes—this consummate bargain hunter with a slight propensity to hoarding has put his new perspective into action in some clever and eminently practical ways in creating Slipper, including her repurposed Star rig and sails.
“As I’ve gotten older and have seen how many resources I used to build my boats through the years, it’s a little bit appalling, so philosophically I’m coming around to the idea that there’s a lot of good equipment out there,” Maas says. “It’s either just languishing in somebody’s basement or backyard or it’s going to go to the dump.”
To create Slipper, Maas drew on all of his experience, from building open-water rowing shells, fast dinghies like International Canoes (he won the 2011 Worlds in that class), or foiling Moths, coupled with inspiration from East Coast daysailers meant for short or singlehanded sailing (think Herreshoff Alerion). Unencumbered by the yoke of class rules, stifling cost control, and rigid production processes, he cut cedar strips for the hull construction from a driftwood log. He built the bulkheads from the wood of a cedar tree a neighbor had cut down.
He used surplus 200g carbon cloth from Seattle-based Boeing to sheathe the hull and bulkheads, and to reinforce critical areas, such as around the keel.
For effect, he overlaid the transom with a thin veneer of gorgeously textured Honduras mahogany, a leftover from a 1950s boatbuilding project. He made Slipper’s neatly curved tiller from a piece of Douglas fir that once was coated in creosote and supported an old water tank. He built the narrow keel fin from a core of Douglas fir wrapped in carbon fiber to support a 380-pound bulb, which he cast from surplus lead ingots in a self-built concrete mold.
Recycle, reuse, repurpose was also the mantra for the rig—a Star mast that had broken at deck level. Rendered useless for racing, it still was viable for Slipper, so Maas got it donated, including all standing and running rigging. He stepped it on deck and shortened the main in the Star sail wardrobe (also gifted) to raise the boom, so guests in the cockpit wouldn’t have to duck.
“A Star rig is a lovely thing, beautifully engineered and built and optimized by top sailors for, I don’t know, 100 years,” Maas says. “[It’s] very tunable. Like jewelry, just tiny wires. I counted 13 separate ones to keep it up. It’s a little scary.”
Sailing in the San Juan Islands in the summer can be tricky. Often the breeze fails to materialize, so getting around in these current-prone waters requires horsepower. Slipper’s fully retractable electric outboard, another recycled piece of kit that Maas adapted for the purpose, lives in the starboard half of the small cuddy cabin, producing little noise, no exhaust, and no smelly bilge water laced with outboard oil or gasoline. In fact, Maas sometimes uses the portside of the cuddy—a tight space normally occupied by the spinnaker bag—as a makeshift bunk, simply by spreading out a Thermarest sleeping pad.
Maas converted a 3.3-hp Mercury outboard to electric years ago. Using the same solid-state controller as it does today, this electric motor powered a kid’s go-kart, then a minibike before getting promoted to Slipper’s auxiliary propulsion on its third tour of duty.
And “fully retractable” is to be taken verbatim: The motor’s lower unit has a piece of the hull attached to the bottom, which, when the motor is hauled up, seamlessly closes off the hull, a tidy trick that helps with light-air performance.
That performance was on full display in a light-air Yellow Island Race, a wooden-boat regatta in the San Juans. With the first tack after the start, the 27-footer crossed all the other bows and stretched the lead, though the bigger boats started to chase her down as the breeze freshened. Still, it took a tactical error by Slipper’s crew, who rounded Jones Island too tightly and got stuck in the wind shadow for a while, to allow the 49-foot, schooner-rigged sled Sir Isaac to close the gap and eventually pass.
Slipper crossed the finish line in second and corrected to third overall behind Sir Isaac and the 1934 Luders-designed 6-Meter Challenge, the eventual race winner. Ever the competitor, Maas would have liked to be first across the line, but it was still a fine showing for a 27-foot daysailer designed for ease and comfort, which carries an astronomical PHRF rating because of her advanced features, light weight, and high sail-area-to-displacement ratio.
“Epic,” is how Todd Twigg, a fellow sailor from neighboring Lopez Island, called his experience crewing on Slipper. “No words can fully describe the dreamlike sensations sailing her or seeing her sailed.”
Twigg’s enthusiasm was still echoing in my mind when I finally got the change to go for a spin with Maas on Slipper, leaving his dock under electric power and gaining open water in just a few moments. Without needing another hand, Maas hoisted the main, unfurled the jib, shut off the motor, and retracted it. Slipper picked up speed and dipped her leeward rail as guests reclined on the ergonomically shaped cockpit benches with a comfortable height, depth, and backrest angle, all things that folks of a certain age notice.
With the mainsheet run all the way aft and the control lines forward on the cabintop, there was nothing to get hit by or hung up on, no hiking straps, no tiller extension or trapeze wires.
“I see these guys on Melges 24s and it looks so unfun how they’re hanging over that lifeline, just awful,” Maas chuckles. “So, this was my answer. You’re sitting in the boat, you put your arm over the coaming as you steer and have a pleasant sail.”
Light air could not stop Slipper from charging through Lopez Pass, which is notorious for its strong currents. However, just as we emerged on the east side, the breeze shut off and the boat started to drift as the narrow foils lost the flow they needed to work effectively. Maas was about to deploy the motor, but the breeze sprang up from the opposite direction, which Slipper instantly converted into forward motion, so the foils regained their grip, the boat gained steerage and took us back into Reeds Bay and Slipper’s dock, where she lives during the summer months.
I was suitably impressed and yes, smitten.
Slipper isn’t just a fast and fun boat to sail with good looks to spare, but one that seemingly manages to square the circle of combining desirable attributes with the almost exclusive use of recycled materials and repurposed equipment.
While this might be a long way off for industrial manufacturing, she provides inspiration to think about a better, more efficient, and less harmful approach to boatbuilding, a trend that is beginning to gain traction. With world population trending up and availability of resources headed in the opposite direction, all against the backdrop of climate change, this sustainability-focused element of her pedigree might well eclipse the growing collection of hardware on her trophy shelf.
Hull material: Cedar wood, carbon fiber, and epoxy
Designer/Builder: Chris Maas
Draft (keel up/down): 14”/7’
Displacement: 1,300 lbs
Sail area (up/downwind): 280/474 sq ft
Dieter Loibner is editor-at-large at Professional Boatbuilder magazine and an occasional contributor to SAIL.