FIREFLY, formerly ROBIN, represents a turning point in the development of the CCA cruiser/racer. Ted Hood drew her lines in 1961, during a watershed period in yacht design.
In Hood's opinion at the time, the best way to develop the newer, more severely shaped underwater lines in a 45' centerboarder was to use steel construction. "Fiberglass was pretty much untried in big boats" he says. "But alloy materials were proven. Frans Maas in Holland had been building big steel sailboats (Northern Light for example) and was getting some beautiful results. We needed sharp cutaways and fairly radical bilges and garboard areas, and steel was strong and relatively light way to go." Hence the original Little Harbor 45's, the "steel Robins," were born.
The first boat in the series, christened Robin in 1961, went on to great success in the SORC of 1962 with Hood himself at the helm. It became clear, however, that there was room for improvement, and so there followed two more generations.
Firefly (1963, the second design in the series) was a development project - a collaboration between the Hood team and her Dutch builder. "We had such a good relationship with the yard by then," says Ted, "that we could tell them to adjust the rake of the stem or add some waterline or change the accommodation plan, and we'd do some sketches and the boat would grow from there. This was the nice thing about the alloy process, the way you could make modifications so easily."
The second steel Robin was longer by a foot, the result of stretching her bow to accommodate a bigger headsail. Additionally, she was slightly heavier than her predecessor, and somewhat deeper of draft (with her board up, she draws almost six feet, rather than the first boat's 5'4"). Three boats were built using the second-generation design, all of them at the celebrated Maas yard in Breskens. Two were yawls, one for Ted Hood (now the subject of this article) and the other for Pete DuPont. The third was a tall-rigged sloop for Bus Mosbacher.
Of the three sail plans, Hood himself has little or no apparent preference. "The sloop was fast, but maybe not so adaptable offshore," he says. "The two yawls were different in that one (Pete's) was taller-rigged, with double spreaders. Mine was shorter, with a single spreader setup. The ocean rig, we called it." Whichever rig, Hood supplied plenty of power. In fact, Firefly has not fewer than 15 bags of sails in addition to her working compliment.
"One of the things we liked so much about the steel construction," says Hood, "is that it made such a stiff boat. And by that I mean not just stiff in a breeze, but stiff structurally. With the relatively deep keel and all its interior web-framing right up beyond the mast step, along with the big centerboard trunk, you could really pump up the backstay tension and put a lot of stress on the rig and not worry you were going to lose anything to the boat. With the oversized headsails we carried then, that was important."
The system of construction developed right along with the boats themselves. The first generation was plated in mild steel. To add stiffness without adding too much weight, the next generation used Corten alloy. This nickel-rich blend has a tensile modulus almost double that of mild steel, and many times that of aluminum. In addition, Corten is somewhat less prone to corrosion.
Firefly's hull was surveyed in 1996 for plating dimensions and presence of corrosion. (Note: Surveys have been performed at regular intervals, the most recent being 2010). It appears all these years have been good to her, as the dozens of plating-thickness measurements done on both sides below the waterline reveal exactly the builder's original specifications. Interior framing has been maintained through the years, and much of it retains the thick epoxy coating applied by the Maas yard, as does internal plating surfaces. There are no integral tanks, which means no spots for condensation to gather (both water and fuel tanks are stainless steel, and mounted above the hull framing). Neither are there any fore-and-aft structural members above the keel/centerboard webs. Instead the boat is framed as a wooden one would be - that is, with heavy steel angles serving as true "ribs" and welded every fifteen inches along the entire length.
Under past and present ownership, Firefly has been maintained carefully. Her recent survey was followed in 1996, 97, 98, 99, 00, 001 (and lately 2009-2010) by various coatings and re-coatings of interior framing. Indeed, it is true that you can almost "eat out of the bilge." When her new engine was installed in '99 (a Westerbeke 63C diesel), all mounts and framing below were found to be in fine condition. Nevertheless, as long as they were exposed, they were taken down to bright steel and thickly primed and painted with epoxy product.
Outside hull surfaces have been similarly cared for. In 1991, Firefly's hull below the waterline was stripped of its original fiberglass sheathing and taken down to bright metal (little or no rust was reported by the yard). Then it was coated with sixteen layers of color-coded WEST System epoxy containing a high-density zinc filler. To this day, there has been no deterioration of this surface, no bubbling or lifting from beneath, and adhesion remains excellent. (Note: In 2003, the bottom paint was taken down to expose the WEST surface, and five coats of Interprotect 2000 were applied, followed by two coats of bottom paint).
It bears noting that Firefly carries no steel above her deck line. Instead, heavy Corten flanges welded to her sheer serve to support her thick Bruynzeel teak plywood decks and white oak deck beams. Toerail and cabin structure serve to strengthen the upperworks fore and aft, and heavy teak plywood bulkheads provide athwartships integrity. Cabin sides are solid teak, and the coach roof is one-piece molded teak ply which is 1 1/4" thick at the mast. Decks and cabin top are sheathed in epoxy/fiberglass with a non-slip texture. (Note: In 2009-2011, decks were completely refinished in Awlgrip. All deck hatches were rebuilt, including the companionway; rudder and centerboard were removed and rebuilt, c/b trunk was stripped, sounded and blasted, recoated in epoxy; tanks were removed, hull framing inspected, cleaned and re-coated in thick epoxy).
THE INSIDE STORY:
There were at least two variations in interior arrangement in the second generation steel Robins. Firefly's is perhaps the most classic, with a full double stateroom all the way forward, a large head with shower to port and just abaft the stateroom (with two generous hanging lockers opposite) and a spacious main accommodation amdiships. This main cabin has settees port and starboard, a centerline dining table of varnished teak, and no fewer than four excellent sea berths far enough outboard of the living spaces so as to be almost separate staterooms themselves. This is what almost thirteen feet of beam makes possible.
All the way aft in the main spaces and to port, just abaft the refrigeration compartment, is a navigation table with enough space to lay out a full-sized chart, above which are electronics shelves and brackets (including the present array of radar, GPS, depthsounder, speed log and VHF). To starboard, opposite the nav space and separated from it by the main companionway, is the compact and seaworthy galley. Countertops are all properly clad in stainless steel, and cabinetry is ample enough to carry all the implements of a true home at sea. The stove/oven is a three-burner propane model by Luke, whose systems have been recently renewed. Refrigeration is supplied by a Grunert fridge/freezer, the compressor for which is located just abaft the engine to port, and accessed from the cockpit locker space. (Reefer system rebuilt 2010).
Firefly’s appointments speak of Dutch-built quality. Everything from door and cabinet hinges and latches to the flitches of teak and selection of paint announce that this is a custom boat, not a processed run-of-the-line model. Most important, however, is the way all the accommodations work of a piece when offshore on a passage. Here is where the four comfortable, dry pilot berths really make sense. In addition, the 200 gallons of fresh water and the 19 gallon hot water heater enable the foc’s’l gang to have showers before turning in.
Firefly’s crew has taken many deep-water cruises when conditions have sent the watch below to sit by the radar while the Raymarine autopilot (rebuilt and upgraded, 2001) steered the seas. Some of those times, if they were lucky, a fine stew was in the oven and the ship’s lamp glowed warmly, taking off the chill. A turn topside every so often throughout a rainy, windy night was all that was necessary.
Because of her efficient sail plan, Firefly is the perfect single or short-hander. Roller furling jib and slab-reefed main allow quick response to any deterioration of the weather. Her autopilot is capable of steering her in any sort of sea condition, freeing the crew to work actively on deck, or, as mentioned, go below for warmth and comfort.
Winches are oversized, permitting one man to sheet home whatever headsail is appropriate for the conditions. Firefly’s standard cruising jib is a high-cut number-two, with some 15% of overlap. Light-to-moderate airs might demand the much larger Hood-built “Windward Reacher, “ and perhaps the workhorse mizzen staysail. Three spinnakers are in Firefly’s lockers: a 1.5 oz offshore chute, a .75 oz broad-shouldered North racing chute, and a narrow-topped Dacron storm sail (“Flanker”) used for reaching or in downwind conditions exceeding 30 knots. The Flanker, though clearly made for extreme sailing, actually works handsomely as an all-purpose cruising spinnaker. Because of its relatively flat cut, it may be tacked at the bow and sheeted aft like a reaching chute.
Firefly is a fast boat, even by modern standards. It is not rare to see a steady nine knots of speed under sail when passagemaking in normal conditions. Hard to weather in 20 knots of true wind, her lee rail is just beginning to get damp. Reefing for comfort seems appropriate at about 25. And all this time, it’s eight knots and charging through the chop. On a beat back from Maine in typical offshore conditions, one might crack off so that the number-two stands five or six inches off the lee spreader. In that state of trim, Firefly handles the head-sea beautifully, with spray dusting only the forward third of deck.
The foregoing, of course, is cruising. While racing, it’s more sail in bigger wind, and the speeds rise along with the need for crew. An owner of a sistership has reported thirteen knots surfing with a chute in 30 knots of wind during a transatlantic race.
As briefly mentioned, Firefly has undergone a comprehensive refit from 2009 to 2011. Propulsion systems have been renewed and improved; hull appendages have been sandblasted and refinished; centerboard trunk and interior framing in the middlebody have been vetted and cleaned, blasted, primed and refinished heavily in epoxy; tanks have been removed, steam-cleaned, pressure tested and re-installed; propane system has been re-worked with new aluminum deck-mounted tanks in a teak box; all spars (original to the Hood Company except for the Hall main boom) have been stripped, refinished, primed and Awlgripped; decks have been stripped and Awlgripped; hull has been refinished. Recent surveys have shown all to be in excellent condition.
Firefly, as a CCA-vintage vessel has many of the attributes seen as important in a long-distance voyaging sailboat. She is long-keeled, easy to steer, has a compact rig for short-handing, and is roomy as a house and stiff as a church. Her steel construction means she will be strong enough to resist accidental groundings, and that she will be readily repaired if such mishaps do occur. After all, it is not always easy to find a good fiberglass man in the outer reaches of Fiji or the Hebrides or the golden coast of Turkey (or, for that matter, in the Bahamas or Grenadines). But is it usually possible to find a welder and a source of sheet steel for repairs.
And, as Ted Hood saw almost 50 years ago, her hefty displacement makes for a smooth motion and powerful sail-carrying abilities. She is safe, strong and roomy.