Photos by Billy Black
Return to Glory
The author is tasked with restoring a treasured Huckins to prior beauty, while upgrading her to cruise into the 21st century.
The colorful history of American yachting is peppered with significant and innovative boats, from the presidential yacht Sequoia to Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar and Richard Bertram’s first Moppie. One yachtbuilder at the forefront of innovation was Frank Pembroke Huckins, creator of the PT boat design that JFK famously piloted in World War II. The precursor to the PT boat was a Huckins named Avocette III. She’s the oldest Huckins on the water today, and it was my job to help bring her back to life.
The story of Avocette III began in 1931 when she was displayed at the New York Boat Show at Grand Central. New York yachtsman Fred Voges set his eyes on her at that show when he was 30 years old. Frank Huckins set her price at $27,000, but the savvy Voges bought her at the show for $17,000, in the middle of the Great Depression.
Voges counted many famous guests aboard Avocette III in her early days, including Ginger Rogers. According to the book Huckins: The Living Legend, Voges kept the boat in pristine condition for 50 years. Voges was Commodore of the Port Washington Yacht Club in New York from 1943-44 while he owned the boat. In an odd historical coincidence, I was Commodore of the Port Washington Yacht Club in Wisconsin from 2018-19 while redesigning the boat.
In 1980, Voges sold the boat for just $20,000. She quickly fell on hard times, sitting in storage at City Island, New York. Damaged by fire, she was rescued and restored piece-by-piece by Jerry Bass of Florham Park, New Jersey, in the late 1980s. That was the first time the boat was saved, but a quarter-century later she’d once again fallen on hard times.
Fast forward to January 2016, when Bill Morong of Yachting Solutions in Rockport, Maine, called and asked if I would be interested in helping bring this classic yacht back to life. With a passionate owner in place, the project was ready to go. Yachting Solutions had restored another Huckins, Northern Spy, a few years prior and in the course of the restoration had converted the boat from having an engine room just forward of amidships—like so many vessels from the early days of power boating—to a pod-powered boat with engines at the transom.
Thus began the remarkable opportunity to reimagine Avocette III for the 21st century. Yachting Solutions has carved out a niche restoring boats with a “resto-mod” flair, keeping the essential styling of the original vessel but dialing up the appeal with highly custom touches. The owner wanted a unique yacht and was on board with making major alterations to Avocette III to prep her for a new era. This would include moving the engine room aft 22 feet and applying Art Deco highlights just in time for her 90th birthday.
Before the project began, we discussed the merits of giving Avocette III such a drastic overhaul with the owner and the builder. This would require moving the fuel tanks from the transom to where the engine room had been before. This move came with the distinct advantage of placing the liquid loads much closer to the boat’s center of buoyancy so the trim would not be affected by full or near-empty tanks. The former engine room space would also provide room to carry many of the modern conveniences which were not yet imagined in 1931, including a gyrostabilizer.
Avocette’s hull was hogged, so the shipwrights at Yachting Solutions carefully straightened her. After that, we laser-scanned the hull and turned 1.2 billion points in a digital cloud into usable 3D surfaces in a computer model which were accurate to within 2 millimeters over the length of the boat. My office has designed boats for Huckins before, so Huckins owner Buddy Purcell was happy to share the original hull lines from 1931 for reference as we went about transforming Avocette III.
With any new design or refit like this, we undertake a detailed weight study where we identify, position and assign an accurate weight to every individual component in the boat. This spreadsheet runs to more than 1,200 lines for a boat of this size, and it gives us a high degree of confidence on what the boat is going to weigh in various load conditions and, just as importantly, where the boat’s center of gravity is located.
We undertook the weight study early in the process before finalizing the hull shape. Since this was an existing boat, many items were being added. Modern things like a stabilizer and air conditioning add weight that the original hull was never designed to carry.
With the owner’s wish list tallied, we knew we needed to add a few thousand pounds of buoyancy to the hull’s underwater volume to carry the new boat’s increased weight. And with more power than ever before, the boat’s top speed was calculated at 37 knots, much faster than Avocette III had ever gone previously. We needed to refine the shape of the hull bottom for these higher speeds, and re-engineer the hull structure to support higher loads.
The first step in changing the bottom was to add just over 2 inches in depth to the hull, effectively adding a few thousand pounds worth of buoyancy. Secondly, we made the hull bottom surface more efficient, eliminating a slight warp in the bottom by analyzing the waterline curves. The straighter the contours, the more efficient the hull bottom is at planing speeds, all other things being equal.
Once the hull shape itself was optimized for a heavier, faster boat, we turned our attention to re-engineering the hull structure. The original wood hull was built using the traditional plank-on-frame method, meaning thousands of wood screws fastened hundreds of thin planks with thousands of feet of seams that could potentially leak. We don’t build wooden boats that way anymore. The modern method of building wooden hulls is by cold-molding, which is a confusing term. The builder doesn’t create a mold and lay up a hull like one would for a fiberglass boat. Cold-molded hulls are built with large sheets of marine plywood epoxied together in multiple layers. In the case of Avoette III, the hull bottom consists of four layers of quarter-inch-thick wood plies, all epoxied together for immense strength with very few seams (and no screws).
We spent months with the owner to reimagine the interior arrangement. Everything was on the table during this remarkable project, so we replaced the original stuffy main salon with a bright, airy galley which includes a center island and a sunroof. The owners can now begin the day with coffee under an open sunroof and end the evening with a glass of wine under the stars. This is just one example of the many innovative ideas that went into an old boat. You’d never know it from such a casual look, but the boat actually has two helm stations; a hidden helm can be found at the forward end of the galley under a wooden lid.
The aft cabin originally housed twin berths, a head and a galley near the transom. With detailed input from the owner, we transformed these three spaces into two—a luxurious full-beam head all the way aft and an elegant salon with a lounge, two chairs and a safe, Art Deco-inspired fireplace. The lounge easily converts to a double berth for romantic fireside evenings at anchor.
Older yachts are typically narrower than today’s vessels, but even with her slender 11-foot, 1-inch beam, the salon is remarkably spacious with a wide sole. And while it was critical that we maintain the original boat’s exterior look, we added a couple of extra inches of headroom for her tall owner. This added height is carefully hidden in a slightly higher sheerline, and with fractions of an inch added to the various cabin sides. The increased headroom in the aft salon gives the interior a more spacious feel.
Designing the interior furniture and other joinery gave us an opportunity to make a cohesive statement between the boat’s past and present. While the original Avocette III was launched in 1931, she was light on the Art Deco details that prevailed in that time period. The owner wanted to pay homage to the era but not overload the boat. So we went with the theme of “Art Deco echo,” a subtle nod to the period. Details like the repurposed fireplace set a foundation that is amplified by other elements, which together reverberate in unison throughout the boat.
One of the biggest changes to the exterior of the yacht was to the side windows. The original boat had twice as many cabin windows in the profile, giving it an architectural but quite busy look. While we didn’t change the overall window layout, we replaced the span of windows with half as many, but they are twice as long. The change in window shape makes the interior more airy and gives the boat another “resto-mod” element.
Providing natural ventilation in this resto-mod alteration became a challenge, as the long, narrow windows do not open. We searched the window vendors around the world for an opening port that would be truly frameless from the outside. We contemplated developing a custom opening window, but the units we found from Bomar were ideal and CE certified. The final look is perfect—just a glass-to-glass shut line which blends seamlessly.
One of the biggest challenges in moving the engine room 20 feet and filling the boat with more horsepower was getting enough air moving through the engine room to keep the machinery cool. On the original Avocette III, the smaller engines didn’t need as much air as the IPS engines do. Small deck cowls took in sufficient engine air, and I doubt there was much attention paid to the temperature as it related to engine performance back in 1931.
With high-horsepower engines under the aft deck, it was difficult to fit air vents on the hullsides at the point of lowest freeboard and highest splash. And there’s no cabin structure aft to hide air boxes. What to do?
Design challenges drive innovative solutions, and this was no exception. We proposed an on-deck air plenum which was integrated entirely into the wide step connecting the aft deck and the sun lounge. This did a number of good things. Moving the air intakes inboard virtually eliminates salt spray from even touching the intake grates. The intake is higher than the hullsides, further removing it from seawater. And it disappears into the step so it doesn’t disrupt the classic lines of the original boat. It works great, and it looks great.
The elegant mast solved another design challenge. We needed to mount all the necessary electronics aloft, but we didn’t want to emphasize them. Badges on the antennae were removed, and the bodies were painted black. Then the antennas were mounted atop what looks like a mahogany mast. In reality, the mast is welded aluminum, hollow to conceal the cables and hinged at the deck to easily drop down should the boat be transported by truck for seasonal relocations, as desired. The faux woodgrain paint is simply indistinguishable from the real wood found all around the mast.
One final paint detail is particularly resto-mod. While most traditional yachts adhere slavishly to the gold cove stripe below the sheer, we took the opportunity to do something unique. My friend Ray Drea is the vice president and chief stylist at Harley-Davidson, and a world-class painter. Ray flew to Maine from Milwaukee to hand paint the cove stripe in red against the glossy black hull. It’s cool, and it makes for a great conversation piece.
After three years of work, Avocette III has been given a second chance at life thanks to the passion and support of her owner, as well as the skill of the crew at Yachting Solutions. The boat is different now, to be sure, but better in many ways. I hope Frank Pembroke Huckins, her original builder, and Fred Voges, her owner of 50 years, would approve of what we’ve done to the boat. I’d like to think they would.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.