Cass is a Holman & Pye design from the early 1970s, whose build was a remarkable labour of love stretching over 20 years. Nigel Sharp reports
I used to do a lot of skydiving,” Simon Mitchell told me. “While you’re still in the aircraft you have options but, once you leave the door, gravity takes over and you hope you make a safe landing at the bottom. But you can’t guarantee it.”
He likens the process of completing Cass, his blue-hulled 40-footer, to “financial skydiving”. But while with skydiving it’s the landing that’s tricky and the falling that’s supposed to be fun, in Cass’s launch, although the process might have been painful, the end result is, as Mitchell puts it, “an extraordinary statement of craftsmanship which needs to be told.”
In the early 1990s, house builder-turned-boatbuilder Barry Cass was keen to buy a 1968 Holman & Pye design called Negomi (later renamed Cerinthe) but another buyer got there first. He instead decided he’d build another Holman & Pye boat, from a design originally conceived as a fast family cruiser for the Walker family to self-build.
The Walkers did so in Ayrshire, completing their yacht in 1975 and naming her Saboo. Cass was to begin his build at the other end of the country: putting up a purpose-built shed on some friend’s land just outside Truro, Cornwall, and work on the yacht started in 1998.
For the first couple of years, Cass employed a local boatbuilder, who carried out the majority of the work on the hull. But from then on he was working largely single-handedly, and unsurprisingly progress was slow. Cass took a great deal of care in meticulously sourcing the best quality timber and other materials, and occasionally recruited friends to help with specific jobs like riveting, but also spent long periods of time away from the project doing paid work. By the early part of 2012, he decided that he’d had enough and that it was time to look for someone else to complete the project.
At that point the boat consisted of a 4½ tonne lead keel; a complete hull with an iroko centreline, agba strip planking and laminated oak frames; iroko and cast bronze floors; beam shelf, deck beams and carlins in Douglas fir; and a ply sub-deck.
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The partially-built yacht was put up for sale with Peter Gregson at Wooden Ships. Some discussions with a potential client led to drawings for an alternative gaff yawl rig being commissioned, as a replacement for the Holman & Pye-designed masthead Bermudan yawl rig on Saboo, but nothing further came of it.
However, in 2015 Simon Mitchell, a former Royal Navy pilot who now runs an aviation company flying VIPs and heads of state in helicopters around the world, was looking for a boat to buy, having previously owned the 1911 Paine Clark double-ender Lora. Repeatedly browsing the Wooden Ships’ website he couldn’t help thinking Cass’s boat would be a good project for the right person but that person wasn’t him – the timing just wasn’t right for his career.
Out of retirement
Then in early 2016 Mitchell went to see the boat with his old friend David Bentley, who’d recently retired after working as part of the management team at Pendennis Shipyard for over 25 years. Bentley could see the partial yacht had been well built so far, and Mitchell realised the boat represented a “once in a lifetime opportunity to do something really special,” even though, he admitted, “I had no idea how I was going to pay for it or how it was going to work out.”
But Mitchell did have two key factors on his side. The boat could stay in its custom shed until completed, and he had two highly experienced boatbuilders who were happy to work on the boat: Bentley himself and Nick Byatt, another recently retired long-term Pendennis manager.
Neither, however, had used their tools professionally for about 30 years, though Bentley recalls that it all “came back quite quickly”. Initially they planned to work on the boat for a couple of days a week, though they ended up doing four or five, and they also occasionally brought in other former Pendennis colleagues.
Deck construction was completed with the addition of the coachroof. This was made up of teak coamings, laminated meranti deck beams, Douglas fir planking with ply laid over it and then sheathed in epoxy fibreglass. It was done to the same design as Saboo but with the addition of a traditional skylight. “I had one on Lora and loved it,” said Mitchell, who got hands-on with the coachroof construction.
The cockpit was enlarged slightly compared to the original design with the seat margins in teak, and planking in agba that had been salvaged from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal on which Mitchell had served for a couple of years and which was scrapped in 2011.
When it came to the interior, Mitchell says he was “really keen to ensure that we looked at everything that makes a boat work as a good sea boat. In particular I wanted a good wet locker, well thought-out stowage areas, and good access everywhere to make sure everything could be maintained.”
Bentley and Byatt spent many hours mocking up each area of the yacht and it was here that their wealth of experience really came into its own. The result is, from aft: a galley to port in a snug seaworthy space outboard of a fore-and-aft half-height bulkhead; a chart table to starboard; a pilot berth and settee/berth each side of the saloon; a heads compartment; and a forepeak with a berth offset to starboard and an infill to port to make it into a double. The internal joinery is in European oak with white painted bulkheads and utile soles.
Around the time that Mitchell took on the project, Jack Gifford established his own marine design studio in Falmouth and Mitchell became his first client. One of Gifford’s first jobs was to help specify the engine, a 45hp Yanmar 4JH45, and design the engine beds. “Getting this massive lump down in the tuck of the bilge took a bit of thinking,” Gifford recalls.
The boat is also equipped with a Mastervolt management system and inverter; an HEM watermaker; a Leesan electric toilet; fuel, fresh water and black water tanks by Henderson Plastics; a Webasto warm air heater, with one of the outlets in the wet locker; and LED lights throughout, including inside most of the lockers.
Sit back and relax
Mitchell was particularly keen that the deck fittings and rig should both look aesthetically pleasing and be simple to use, so that the boat was suitable for short-handed, even occasionally single-handed, sailing. “I wanted a boat on which people don’t have to help unless they want to,” he explained.
This resulted in a slightly enlarged cockpit with the mainsheet track moved aft of it; and a single-masted fractional cutter rig with swept-back spreaders and no running backstays, a foretriangle height and overall sail area about the same as Saboo, and a mast height almost 2m taller.
By coincidence, Gifford also knew Saboo’s owner, who was able to give him invaluable information regarding his boat’s behaviour under sail in various conditions, and this helped him develop the new sail plan.
Mitchell and Gifford specified Antal for most of the proprietary deck fittings, Facnor Flat Deck furlers for the headsails, Eurospars for the spars and Penrose Sailmakers for the sails.
Meanwhile the custom deck fittings such as the stanchion bases (all of them different to match the changing angle of the toerail), the stem head fitting and winch plinths were produced by another former Pendennis Shipyard employee, Sam Coltman, and by local fabricator Sandy Creadon at Seaweld.
Just as preparations were being made to launch the boat, the first Covid lockdown saw the yacht literally put under wraps. When eventually launched at the end of June 2020 she was christened Cass, “in appreciation of Barry’s ingenuity and dedication,” said Mitchell.
The result is hugely pleasing. “I knew she’d sail well but wasn’t prepared for just how good a sea boat she is,” Mitchell told me before we took her for a day cruise, “she sails brilliantly.”
“She seems quite slippery,” adds Gifford, “The fully battened main gives her a lot of power off the wind: when you bear away she really takes off.”
Mitchell freely explains that Cass cost him considerably more than he was expecting, but he was determined to do the boat justice.
“Repeatedly it was a question of having the guts to do what was right for the boat and resist the temptation to save money,” he said, “and now I keep seeing things which remind me of that and make me happy about the decisions I made.”
LOA: 13.10m / 42ft 5in
LWL: 9.14m / 30ft 0in
Beam: 3.58m / 11ft 9in
Draught: 1.90m / 6ft 3in
Displacement: 12.2 tonnes
Sail area: 108.8m2 / 1,270ft2
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