Genesis of a Catboat


His great-grandfather led Yarrow Thorne to the smooth, fanciful lines of a 26-foot Gil Smith catboat design. A passion for creating and sharing took over and this week Whirlwind II, a moveable ballasted re-creation (not a replica) of a late 1800s Smith design will be on display at the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport, Phase I of a design/build project to be shared with the public. Whirlwind II is meant to inspire a broad use of traditional and contemporary sensibilities in a bold but responsible style. Even in her white-washed, sparse hull, you can already see this boldness.


Yarrow Thorne can blame his obsession with a 26-foot catboat design from the late 1800s purely on a desire to re-create the past. It’s almost that simple. But he wants more purpose than that. And he wants to share what he and his team learns and creates.

His maternal great-grandfather sailed the shoal waters of Eastern Long Island, NY on a slippery, sinuous catboat named Briseis, drawn by the preeminent New York designer Gilbert M. Smith. Inspired by an 1899 photo of Edward Delafield sailing Briseis on Quantuck Bay, found in a news clipping by Mazie Cox, Yarrow’s mother, he set out to make something that no longer existed.

This weekend at Mystic Seaport and the annual Wooden Boat Show, phase one of Yarrow and his team’s ambitious dream to create a new Smith catboat will be on display as the hand-hewn hull of Whirlwind II is presented by builders Artisan Boatworks, designer Ezra Smith and naval architect Matt Smith. A three-year build, Whirlwind II is a unique opportunity to follow the complex and fascinating journey of re-creating the past while overlaying modern sensibilities for a boat that will be used and shared daily during the New England summers.


So fitting it is, too, for Yarrow to present Whirlwind II at Mystic. His paternal grandfather, Edwin Thorne, was a long-term trustee of the Seaport and captivated Yarrow with stories of his father Landon Thorne’s avant garde 1930s J Class America’s Cup racer Whirlwind. The catboat is named after that L. Francis Herreshoff designed Cup boat and Landon was also a trustee at Mystic. Like Whirlwind II, the J Class Whirlwind experimented with science and technology in a drive towards innovation.


“In the past, there were people who would go out and build a boat and go on an adventure. My grandfather and great-grandfather wanted to connect with people doing those things. In the modern world, you find these conversations less and less. Where would our sport be without these sailors?”
- Yarrow Thorne




Here at Whirlwind II’s blog, we will introduce you to the story of this compelling design and the people who contributed their skills, passion and spirit. From the ever-curious historian, to the shipwright who sawed one of the many beefy timber frames and the designers who scanned 100-year-old models and calculated the wind and wave loads on Whirlwind II’s delicately shaped hull, these characters will fold into this creation story while we update you on the progress of the project.

Our purpose: Explore the decision making process of designers, builders and artists, and inspire interest and appreciation for this community dedicated to craftsmanship, history and sailing.

Not your Ordinary Classic Boat

This is not a replica, nor an “inspired by” design. And that’s where Whirlwind II departs from anything at this year’s Wooden Boat Show. As an artist, designer and entrepreneur, Yarrow can’t just make a replica. He has poured his life into fanciful automotive creations and championed public art in the urban spaces of Providence. Creating and sharing. That’s his passion.

Now Yarrow wants to inspire and bring attention to the array of skills and people it takes to blend the past with the present. And Whirlwind II will unveil a blend of Ezra Smith’s artful hand and computer modeling, creating a strong and elegant three-dimensional, functioning sculpture: a boat.

“There are both designers and builders who feel they should ‘correct' the work of those that came before them when doing reproductions, and by doing so they often miss important details, no matter how small, that turn out to be very important to the essence and spirit of the original.” - Ezra Smith, Designer




Whirlwind II is born from the lines of Gil Smith’s personal boat Mariam, named after his wife and launched in 1897 to beat all his previously dominant designs. The boat is longer and wider than Yarrow’s great grandfather’s Briseis, to allow for more comfortable weekend overnights in the shallow bays of Southern New England.

Mariam’s dusty, hand-carved half-model, historic drawings, photographs and the perceived design and build ethos of a man who passed away almost 100 years ago were used to re-create this masterpiece. And now with computer modeling, modern systems and construction techniques, Whirlwind II will have moveable ballast with the same structural frame Gil Smith used at the turn-of-the-century but with a laminated wood skin.

This is not just building a traditional cat boat for pleasure sailing in his home waters of Narragansett Bay, RI. Yarrow and a team of designers, shipwrights, craftspeople, historians and artists are pushing the limits of design and tradition while sharing the process of creating a one-of-a-kind, useful sailboat.




Design Brief and Team at a glance

Yarrow Thorne came late to sailing in the early 2000s and aggressively chose small, high performance dinghies. His eye was later drawn to antique, fast dinghies such as the International Moth, a development class where home-builders could optimize and improve shape and systems. Looking for a daysailer and weekender with the same flair, Yarrow was reminded of Gil Smith.

Who wouldn’t be attracted to the sensuous lines of one of these catboats, designed to race but with a work-boat heritage for commercial shellfishing? But Yarrow will not be sailing Whirlwind II on the buttery flat bays of Eastern Long Island. Instead, the boat will be used in the blustery sea breezes and steep chop of Narragansett Bay.

Ezra Smith and Matt Smith were charged with marrying Yarrow’s use requirements with the ideology of Gil Smith. The result was a hull and rig profile from an 1897 Gil Smith design larger than the one sailed by Delafield.


Whirlwind II

True to 1890s cat boat:

-Hull/rig form recreated from original design
-Hand-sawn frames, traditional spacing

Departure from 1890s:
-Moveable ballast
-Laminated hull skin
-Removable shelter design