Dickerson Sailboat

Not far from Chesapeake Bay, among tall pines and cornfields and dark meandering creeks, on the edge of woods and marshes, is a small quiet backwater with wild geese and wild swans and the modest wharves and buildings of Dickerson Boatbuilders. It was near here, forty years ago, that Bill Dickerson went out in his back yard, dug a hole in the ground beside the small vegetable garden, melted down some lead and poured a keel, and with that he got himself started building sailboats, setting a standard and philosophy that Dickerson Boatbuilders has followed ever since. it was best said by the name of a bugeye ketch of which he built four dozen back in the 1950's. Her name was Simplissima.

Simplicity was deeply rooted in the Chesapeake, in the crabmen and the oysterman who work in simple, well built craft through winter blows and summer squalls, who need their boats not as fancy yachts but good sturdy craft that won't sink beneath their feet. The Dickerson boats, like the workboats around them, were designed and built simply and well and, because of that combination, have gathered a following almost religiously devout, second on this continent only to the zealots of Henry Hinckley. One of the most fervent I happened to encounter while I lay on an operating table getting stitches in my head to close up the gash of a falling pipe wrench. He was the the surgeon doing the sewing. When he found out that I was working on this book, he immediately plunged into accolades about a Dickerson 35 he once owned, and talked nearly non-stop for an hour, during which he inserted a total of three stitches. My Granny, may she rest in peace, could have needleworked up a whole table cloth in less time, but of course the sweet dear hadn't owned a Dickerson.

He'd just walk around the yard until he found a piece of something - an old rod or a piece of bolt - and wham, in she went and that sir, would be the finishing touch.

Anyway, the ruggedness of Dickerson boats became so well known and respected that the US Navy hired Bill to build them some patrol boats. He still continued building fine wood sailing craft at very reasonable cost, and his boats, from the early 26 and 32 to the later 35, gathered a great Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound following, whose devout members still meet in associations and regattas every sailing season.

Bill Dickerson retired almost twenty years ago, yet the tradition goes on, and in a much improved fashion. Don Griffin, who is tall and slow spoken and laughs a good gravely laugh and who's as good a story teller as you could ask for to pass a foggy winter evening with, has owned various Dickersons for twenty-three years now, and has been part owner of the company for some time, tells the best stories of Bill Dickerson, whom everyone, even his wife, called "Dick."

"Dick used to live down there at Church Creek outside of Cambridge, and a guy named Ted Graves, a retired naval architect from Boston, lived across the way from him, as did Howard Chapelle, who wrote the book on boatbuilding and was curator of the watercraft section of the Smithsonian. Ernie Tucker, who was a retired designer, lived nearby too. So there were all these geezers who knew more about boat- building than most people have a right to. Well, Ted Graves and Ernie Tucker ended up doing the designs, and Chapelle did the kibitzing and Dick built all the boats.

"Dick was always practical, a simple guy. You know those big samson posts of his with that pin through it, well in the old days he would finish off these boats good and sturdy, but he just couldn't bring himself to spend good money on the pin that went through the damned post. He'd just walk around the yard until he found a piece of something-an old rod or a piece of bolt-and wham, in she went and that sir, would be the finishing touch. "Then when he retired, he built himself this beautiful wood sailboat, just for him and his wife to sail, all varnished - the transom, the house, masts, everything, all brightwork. It was gorgeous. Well, he took it across to the Bahamas, and he told me, 'One day I was out there doing the bright work, sanding her all down getting ready to varnish, and I look up and there were all these guys sitting in their cockpits drinking gin and tonic. Well, I said, the hell with this. I threw down the sandpaper and went out and bought two gallons of white paint and I painted that sonofabitch from the mast- head to the waterline. Wham! That goddam boat turned white just like she hit a blizzard.'

"I just wandered into his yard one day, I didn't even know it was there. A friend of mine took me, and we found the place, which wasn't easy cause there weren't any signs, down a back road somewhere, and I just stood there all day fascinated, watching these guys strip plank a hull. Well Dick came up and he says to me, 'What kind of a layout do you want? What kind of headroom? We'll build it for you.'

"So, back in '63 1 bought a brand new 35-foot ketch from Dick for $10,500. I thought that was a hell of a buy. Even in those days, don't forget, a boat used to cost about a thousand dollars a foot, and here I was with a 3 5 rooter for eleven thousand, with sails, the works. I mean they were simple, simple boats, the interior all plywood. Solid, but simple. Now, they did vary a lot because Dick would come out one morning and say to himself, 'What the hell is that cabinet doing there?' and that would be the end of that piece, plus he had a bunch of pretty good old carpenters there who'd pretty much do what the customer wanted, so you'd never get two boats that actually looked the same.

"And you know. There are still a lot of guys building boats around here, crab boats and oyster boats; the backyard boat business is flourishing. A lot of the good workboats are still built out of wood."

Dickerson 37

Dickerson switched to fiberglass boats in the early seventies but the real "new" era of Dickerson began with a 37 rooter designed by George Hazen, a Princeton and MIT whiz kid, who helped develop the use of computers to analyze flow patterns around a hull. He grew up sailing on his father's Dickerson 35 on the Chesapeake, so who else could possibly have been a better choice?

George designed the 37 rooter with a very modern underbody, but the classically pretty sheer, the overhangs, and all around deck and house purity remained. Overall the boat is so cleanly designed that there isn't a single hump or line or ridge anywhere that could be removed. She still looks completely clean and pure just like Bill Dickerson would have wanted it.

The first 37 was launched in '81 after three years in development, followed in '82 by the new 50 rooter, and strangely enough a Bruce Farr-designed 37-foot SORC racer which proceeded to win nearly every race she entered in her first season, including the Annapolis-Newport race, as well as taking 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the Annapolis Yacht Club's summer regatta.

Dickerson 37

Dickerson Boatbuilders was doing well. Then came the slowdown of '84, the strong dollar which made European boats a good deal in this country, and some high expenditures for dredging out the basin and building new piers, Dickerson skidded onto hard times. But now Dennis Blaeuer, a solid business thinker with a background of good Swiss business sense and hard work, and a great tradition and good boats, has become the major owner of the company, and has begun the slow and cautious process of modernizing Dickersons, which was among the last on this continent still doing "stick" building. Now, like most others-Hinckley and Alden among them-they are assembling sections of the cabinetry outside the boat and then fitting and bonding them into place as separate units. Cabinet assembly outside the hull is infinitely more comfortable because there is more space, air and light, resulting in a better and more economical job.

So the company seems in fine hands indeed, and with the management they now have and craftsmen so abundant all around the Chesapeake, Dickerson should go on building good strong simple boats another forty years.

But back to the cruiser for which Dickerson is famous. The draft of the new 3 7 has been intelligently kept to a moderate 4 foot 6 inches, a shoalness mandatory in the Chesapeake and certainly much needed on the East Coast where the best and most beautiful places have shoal waters, forbidden to 6- and 7-foot deep fin keels. The skeg was kept for steering and tracking stability while the wetted surface was kept to a low sail area/wetted surface ratio of 2.73. The displacement was made a moderate 15,950 pounds, resulting in a sail area/displacement ratio of 17.1, and that means she'll be a very decent light air sailer.

The rig is available in a multitude of choices from sloop to cutter to ketch, although the single mast rig with its 2 1/2-foot taller mast (hence longer leading edge on the headsail) will certainly outperform the ketch going to windward and in light air.

Great service was done by George when he developed a computer-aided program to predict the boat's performance in various conditions. Without going into great detail, let me say that his Technical Performance Studies, which are available to owners, will tell them exactly how well their boat performs at different wind angles and different wind velocities. This will leave out much of the guesswork that most of us mortals spend years indulging in, trying to figure out how to sail our boats most efficiently. In other words you can have your boat sailing to its maximum potential after a few long outings.

The construction of the 37 is as straightforward as her design. The hull is balsa cored (which after all is said and done will prove to be the best and most long-lasting core material), or Airex cored, if the owner wishes. The deck is cored as well, and attached by the usual flange-and-through-bolt system using 5200 bedding compound. With a son you actually get a double seal, for the cap and rubrail form a second bedded barrier against leaks.

The bulkheads are stripped of surface veneer and bonded to both hull and deck, and that's as good as you can get. Extra rigidity is gained by bonding all berth tops and cabinetry, including the knees, to the hull, making for a strong, solid, single unit.

The seacocks are normal high-quality bronze with the coring material removed around the through-hull and replaced by fiberglass.

The mast was traditionally stepped on deck but has cently been moved down to the keel.

The deck on the 37 comes in two versions: center or aft cockpit, and although I would always choose the latter, I must admit that the center cockpit creates a first rate aft cabin. Besides, Dickerson has kept the cockpit very wisely deck level making the boat look very handsome, instead of building it up to create more room below.

The decks of the aft cockpit version are extremely broad and clean. The shrouds are inboard for sheeting the genny tight, thus improving windward performance.

All the epoxy-coated aluminum portlights open-a derful thing during sultry East Coast summers-and there are a couple of good-sized dorade vents to help out.

Oh, before I forget-the 37 has a fine 4-inch by 4-inch samson post rooted in the bow which not only looks great with the molding that it fits through, but also works much better than cleats, which tend to work loose eventually and leak.

Belowdecks, the boat looks like a true old wood boat with white bulkheads and cabinetry and varnished teak trim. Physically the layout is very simple yet remarkably well thought out. The large double quarter berth is a good 2 feet farther forward than in most boats, so it's very airy and very easy to get into. One of the nicest touches in Dickersons and one of the most intelligent ones in any boat I have seen, is found here. As I have moaned about in the past, most quarterberths are unventilated tombs in which the air becomes unbreathable within minutes. On a hot summer evening, the thing is a sauna. Dickerson has solved the problem by having the foot of the berth extend into the opening of a cockpit locker so that you can leave the locker lid slightly ajar even in a rainstorm, and the berth will still be perfectly ventilated. To keep out mosquitoes and other biting critters, a nicely framed mosquito screen fits into the opening. You other builders read and heed.

The Formica-covered cabinsides look clean and airy and are easy to maintain. The large fiberglass engine pan is well bonded down and the engine has good-sized bedlogs. The plumbing is good, with solid brass joints and elbows instead of hoses bent to the verge of cracking or collapsing, something one sees far too often in poorly constructed boats. The engine is very well insulated from both the cabin and the cockpit so you won't go deaf when running under power.

This book is still in print and can be purchased at at a 30% discount at Amazon.com

Ferenc Mate
Other Mate books available are:
  • Shipshape
  • From A Barehull

  • One interesting aspect of the engine is that it is reversed with a V drive. This is a bit more complicated than normal but allows you good access to the most critical part of the engine, namely the linkage to the transmission. The linkage is most likely to fail because of neglect, which is normally caused by inaccessibility. I use the word "critical" without exaggeration, for the linkage usually fails going from reverse to forward or vice versa, a thing you normally do in a cluttered harbor to keep from smashing into things. A well-serviced linkage will keep you from becoming your marina's demolition-derby champion.

    So, in all, the Dickersons are very good indeed, with many important touches, like the pair of long grabrails that run the length of the salon to keep you from being tossed about helplessly in a seaway. You won't find a lot of bits and pieces to look at, but what is there is beautifully done. If you love to cruise the shallow southwest coast and the Bahamas, in a good coastal cruiser, that is fine and simple with lines that warm your heart, then you can do no better than to amble down to the boatyard on the creek, and see if the folks down there would build you a good sailboat, just like old Dick used to.

    REPRINTED FROM WORLD'S BEST SAILBOATS BY FERENC MATE

     

    Back to Top