Sailing – March 2002

Rhodes 19 – A daysailer and one-design racer that is still actively raced

There are not many boats with a history spanning half a century that can honestly claim to be both a family daysailer and an exciting one-design racer. The venerable Lightning is one; the Rhodes 19 another.

With close to 4,000 boats built—more than 3,700 is the best guess, not counting early variations of the boat or its Mariner 19 sistership, which was built on the same hull but with a bigger cruising cabin—the Rhodes 19 is one of the most successful production sailboats ever designed. In its heyday in the 1960s, the Rhodes 19 was considered a breakthrough design and introduced many people to the sport of sailing. Interest flagged in the late 1970s due in part to a raft of newer designs with a more modern look. But today the Rhodes’ classic good looks are helping to fuel a resurgence in the class. Among other things, a dedicated builder has continued production of both new boats and parts for older models. A strong class association supports and promotes the boat with the kind of cheerful bonhomie that attracts serious racers and new sailors alike.

When we decided to do a retrofit of a Rhodes 19, the only question was: Why didn’t we do one sooner?

With a history as long as that of the Rhodes 19, it’s hard to pick a decade, much less an age and used-boat sale price, to refit. The first Rhodes 19s were called Hurricanes and were decidedly less modern than their newer fiberglass cousins. The boat was originally created by Philip Rhodes for Allied Aviation, which wanted a new dinghy with a round-bilged molded plywood hull. The new boat had wooden spars and a moderate sailplan, plus an overall size and weight similar to the Lightning. Also like the Lightning, the Hurricane had a small covered foredeck and no cuddy cabin.

The next iteration of the Rhodes 19 hull came as a club racer for the Southern Massachusetts Yacht Racing Association, with a ballasted keel instead of a centerboard, a low cuddy cabin, aluminum spars and built-in flotation.

sailing_mag_diagramThe first fiberglass versions of this 19-foot Rhodes design were built by the Marscot company of Edgarton, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, and in the late 1950s George O’Day took over, building the majority of the Rhodes 19s and Mariner 19s that are on the water today.

When O’Day gave up the rights to the Rhodes 19, a company called Rebel Industries, later renamed Spindrift, built a handful of the boats and then passed the torch to a Rhodes 19 owner named Stuart Scharaga, who bought the molds, founded a company called Stuart Marine and continues to build Rhodes 19s and Mariners to this day.

Scharaga recruited naval architect Jim Taylor to help redesign the Rhodes to make it stronger, stiffer and easier to build, creating a more modern design with an integrated cockpit and deck that fits into the hull without the need for ribs. Stuart Marine is extremely helpful in supporting owners of O’Day boats with a wide range of reasonably priced parts, a luxury that most owners of 40-year-old boats can only dream about.

In selecting a retrofit candidate, we went with an old O’Day boat, simply because there are so many more of them on the market. These boats come in all kinds of conditions, from $100 junkers to immaculately maintained 40-year-old beauties that still have lovely paint and varnish. Recent championship events have demonstrated that both the older O’Days and the newer Stuart boats are equally capable of winning races.

We also decided to go with a keelboat type since we’d like to be able to do some racing. All the builders from O’Day on have offered both keel and centerboard versions. But while both models are popular, the active one-design racing scene is all keelboats. The centerboard version draws just 10 inches when retracted and would be especially attractive for sailing in thin-water areas and ramp launching. In fact, if it were not for our wish to race we might seriously consider the centerboard version for this flexibility. Both are equally trailerable, although the fixed-keel version is about 300 pounds heavier, despite the 150 pounds of internal ballast in the centerboarder. Ultimately, we settled for a boat built in in the late 1960s. It came with a trailer and cost $4,000.

The most important problem to look for in a Rhodes 19 is soft ribs. The older Rhodes 19 hull is basically an empty fiberglass shell with a partial deck, boxed-in seats and floorboards supported by wooden cross-timbers or “ribs.” As originally installed, the ribs in the back half of the boat don’t do much more than hold up the floorboards. But the ribs on either side of the keel (or the centerboard pivot pin in the centerboard version) are an integral part of the structure of the boat, and any softening of these frames can lead to major damage. The ribs in the forward part of the boat help to keep the maststep and the king plank in place, and help to stiffen the bows.

Because the original ribs were made of white oak, they were quite susceptible to rot. And the way the ribs run athwartships naturally traps water between them in the bilge. The inevitable result is that an older boat is likely to have had at least some rib damage. Many used boats have already had some or all of their ribs replaced at some time, usually with oak. On occasion you will find boats with more expensive and more rot-resistant (but heavy) mahogany, glassed marine plywood, western red cedar, or even pressure-treated pine.

Our boat already had the keel and forward ribs replaced with white oak fully wrapped in glass and resin and then taped to the hull along their full length. The pros at Winthrop Marine, partners Joe Duplin and Greg Dolan, advised that a boat with ribs replaced in this fashion should be left alone until the ribs need fixing again. But they said we should go ahead and replace the original cockpit ribs, which had deteriorated to a sad state. That meant replacing all the existing ribs aft of the keel with built-up beams made from Core-Cell foam wrapped in biaxial glass (heavier cloth near the keel and lighter toward the stern) and epoxy, taped to the hull along their full length. The structural foam is much lighter than oak, completely impervious to water and easier to work with to boot. A full rib job would cost $3,000, but Winthrop quoted a “half-rib job” at $1,500, an expense that was well worth our not having to do the glass work ourselves.

According to Duplin a boat owner who wanted to do the job himself would need a 4-by-8-foot sheet of structural closed cell foam to cut to size and then epoxy into 2-inch-thick laminate beams. Using an old rib as a template, the foam can be easily cut and sanded. Winthrop would supply ready-made glassed foam beams, Dolan said, if not for the fact that there is so much variation in the shape and installation points of the original beams. It is for this reason that many Rhodes 19 owners do not recommend using the ready-cut oak floor timber kit from Stuart Marine. Although it is a tremendous bargain at $275, it often requires substantial recutting and reshaping. Still, a sailor with the tools and skills to do the necessary modifications might find the Stuart kit a good starting place. Note too that Stuart Marine will install these same ribs for $495 at it factory shop in Rockland, Maine, so a straight oak-for-oak replacement can be had for $770.

The second major problem with keel-model O’Day Rhodes 19s is the keel. Rather than being installed at the factory, many boats were shipped to dealers with the keels off, and the care with which the keels were installed often left much to be desired. There are plenty of examples of keels put on too far forward or too far aft, off to one side or the other, out of plumb, or worse yet at an angle other than straight ahead. The effect on performance can be considerable. The only solution is to remove and re-install the keel in the proper position, which is beyond the skills (and tools) of most owners, so it is well worth the effort to check the keel installation before buying. Figure on $3,500 for a top-notch job that will give you a perfect keel, properly faired into the hull, that should outlast the rest of the boat.

Another common problem with the old Rhodes 19 keels, though not as critical as the first, is that they were made as a rather rough iron casting, and while the thin chord shape works well, it ends in blunt leading and trailing edges that are not especially fast. The irregular metal surface also needs—at a minimum—both priming to keep it from rusting and fairing to fill the voids. A pro would grind the metal down to a good foil with sharp leading and trailing edges, then encase it in fiberglass and epoxy, refair it, paint it with an epoxy overcoat and polish it smooth. We, however, had neither the time nor the patience, so we compromised by sanding, wire-brushing and cleaning the iron keel, then immediately sealing it with an epoxy-based metal primer, which is much tougher and longer-lasting than an ordinary zinc chromate metal primer. After that we filled the many pits and gouges in the still rough surface with fairing compound, sanded it moderately smooth when set, and then re-primed any metal surfaces exposed by sanding.

At this point the keel was already smoother than when delivered from the factory. But we decided to make it better still by building the keel up enough to smooth it out and to build sharper leading and trailing edges. This was done with more fairing compound and layers of ordinary epoxy, resulting in a slightly thicker keel with a longer chord than one built on a ground-down casting. With no glass to reinforce it, the fairing (especially the knife-thin trailing edge) would not be terribly resistant to damage. But we figured that this was a Rhodes 19, not an America’s Cup boat, and the job we did would be good enough. After several layers of epoxy, much careful sanding and a final finish of several coats of VC-Performance epoxy bottom paint, we had a very nice keel indeed. If we had intended to keep the boat in the water for any amount of time rather than dry-sailing it, we would have gone with an epoxy barrier and a bottom paint like Interlux Interprotect, Pettit Protect or West Marine Bottom Poxy.

The mast of the Rhodes 19 varied from year to year, but the basic sections are very similar. (The Rhodes 19 is anything but a design development class!) Changes in masts provided by the builders over the years have prompted the national association to accept three variations as class-legal: the earlier tapered aluminum masts with jumpers; untapered masts without jumpers; and most recently, tapered masts without jumpers. Generally, jumper struts and stays on boats this size are just plain unnecessary, and removing weight and windage aloft improves performance. Our boat already had a tapered mast, still equipped with the original jumpers, so we removed the jumper arms and shrouds without a second thought.

Project list and cost summary
1960s Rhodes 19 with trailer $4,000
Retrofit budget:
1 Structural foam-rib job $1,500
2 Epoxy or vinyl metal primer $28
3 Epoxy filling/fairing compound $72
4 Plastic buckets, spreaders, paint trays, rollers $42
5 Thinners, acetone $42
6 Marine epoxy, plus high density filler $100
7 VC-Performance epoxy finish $120
8 Standing rigging,adjustable backstay gear $500
9 Boom vang $180
10 1/8-inch Technora double-braid all-rope halyards $150
11 Builders Styrofoam sheets for flotation $12
Total refit cost $2,746
Total for boat & retrofit $6,746

The standing rigging on our retrofit was original, with tangs on the mast and signs of age at the swages; not cracks exactly, but signs of rust inside the fittings. Given that the rigging was closer to 40 than 30 years old, we decided to err on the safe side and replace it all with new 1/8-inch wire. As part of this job we installed a split-bridle adjustable 3/32-inch backstay in place of the original nonadjustable one. We spent about $500 altogether, including microblocks, line and cam-cleats for the new backstay adjuster.

Some Rhodes 19 racers disagree whether midboom sheeting (found on the Stuart Marine boats) or a bridled end-boom sheeting arrangement is better. The former version’s traveler allows the main to be pulled up to weather, which a bridle doesn’t. But the none-too-robust boom can easily be put under enough stress to break with that arrangement. In our case we took what we were given and kept the original end-boom sheeting set-up, for now at least. At the same time, we added a 16-to-1 cascade boom vang, which our boat was missing, to hold the boom down off the wind, give us a chance to vang-sheet upwind and over-stress the boom in a different way. Go figure.

In case of knockdowns and swampings, we replaced all the boat’s flotation. Unfortunately, the original Styrofoam (which is still specified by class rules) is not a closed-cell foam, and over time it can absorb a lot of water. One Rhodes owner said that the saturated foam in his boat’s seats weighed more than 100 pounds by the time he replaced it. Styrofoam is not very expensive, but it can be a pain to install.

And with that we were ready to go. Unfortunately, with our budget already exhausted sails had to wait for another day.

Beware! Many 20- to 40-year-old boats we encountered were advertised with “original” sails. If you want to bring home the silver, you can expect to spend $1,000 to $1,400 for a new main and jib, and another $700 to $800 for a spinnaker.

Now we’re ready to go. How many minutes to our start?