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‘Ziska’: from Whitby to Alaska

Alasdair Simpson brings us the second part of this detailed history of the remarkable story of ‘Ziska’, a Morecambe Bay Prawner who celebrates her 120th anniversary this year. Built by Crossfields of Arnside in 1903, she completed the ‘Race to Alaska’ in 2019. Read the first part of her story here.

Ziska’ reappears after the Second World War in Whitby owned by Major William McAlpine Jackson, a Bradford architect, who had been in the Royal Artillery in the War. Whitby is associated with James Cook who as well as going to Australia explored Alaska’s coastline. There are statues of James Cook overlooking the harbour in both Whitby and Victoria (British Colombia). In August 1946 ‘Ziska’ hit the national news when she had to be rescued by the Lowestoft lifeboat after her engine failed in a gale when returning from Ostend to Whitby. As the lifeboat was short handed, a Leicester lady who was holidaying in the town jumped aboard and helped in the rescue. ‘Ziska’s crew of seven included a sailing master. 

Her next owner was Graham Sherratt, who was President of the Society of Public Analysts from 1959 to 1960. He was a member of the Whitby and Royal Mersey Yacht Clubs and lived near Chester. ‘Ziska’ remained in Whitby till at least 1970. By this time she was an old boat with her owner living in a semi in Leeds rather than a mansion on the Isle of Man. By 1973 ‘Ziska’ was in Plymouth. She broke loose from her moorings in a gale and was damaged. ‘Ziska’ was uninsured. Her owner had to sell her as he could not afford to repair her. She was bought by an OGA member moving up from a smaller gaff rigged boat and sailed back to Cowes in May 1974. She was in perilous condition with water having to be pumped out every half hour to stop her from sinking, the mainsail patched with a tea towel and the boom, which was in two pieces held together by metal rods. She was laid up opposite the Folly Inn on the river above Cowes and a start made on her restoration. Inevitably enthusiasm waned and the restoration was never finished.

In November 1997 Ashley Butler, a 19 year old apprentice shipwright called in at Cowes in his 23 foot gaff rigged yacht. He came across ‘Ziska’ lying on a wharf under torn covers with a For Sale sign held on by a rusty nail. Ashley was looking for a larger classic boat which he could take to the West Indies. Next morning by chance he met the owner and exchanged his yacht for ‘Ziska’. Taking out a bank loan to transport her back to Essex, Ashley spent the next two years restoring ‘Ziska’ whilst living aboard her, working on her in the evening after finishing his day job working as the foreman at a wooden boatbuilding yard at Heybridge. Since Ashley’s restoration ‘Ziska’ has not had an engine. In 1999 Ashley Butler, now aged 21, sailed ‘Ziska’ across the Atlantic. He found ‘Ziska’ a competent sea boat, fast and weatherly, despite only having a low free board aft. She averaged 140 miles a day crossing the Atlantic. The restoration and Atlantic crossing featured in Classic Boat Magazine. Ashley then spent the next four years cruising and racing ‘Ziska’ in the West Indies and USA. 

During this time ‘Ziska’ was chartered by the explorer Tim Severin who was researching different inspirations for Robinson Crusoe, including Henry Pitman a surgeon in the Duke of Monmouth’s army who was sentenced to ten years slave labour in the West Indies by Judge Jeffries. Henry Pitman escaping from captivity in Barbados was left marooned along with 11 companions by pirates on the uninhabited Isla La Tortuga (Island of Turtles) off the Venezuelan coast. ‘Ziska’s voyage is eloquently recorded by Tim Severin in his book “In Search of Robinson Crusoe”. There is a DVD of the book. Tim describes raising the mainsail as follows “There was the piercing high pitched squeak of the wooden jaws of the gaff sliding ponderously up the mast, followed by the erratic flap and clatter of heavy canvas. When the sheets were hauled in and the mainsail exerted pressure, ‘Ziska’ groaned with the effort, then groaned again.” With Tim Severin and Ashley on’ Ziska’ was Trondur Patursson, a Faroese artist, who had crossed the Atlantic in 1976 with Tim in a currach to prove that it was possible for St Brendan to have discovered America from Ireland in the sixth century AD.

 In 2003 when she was 100 years old ‘Ziska’ took part in the Antigua Classics, winning multiple races. She was sold to an American who wanted to use her for long distance cruising. Unfortunately his job meant he did not have time to sail her.  Ashley now runs Butler & Co., one of the country’s leading wooden boatbuilders at Penpol Creek, near Falmouth, England. In 2005 ‘Ziska’ was bought by a shipwright, who had meet Ashley Butler whilst ‘Ziska’ was kept in Annapolis on Chesapeake Bay, the sailing capital of the USA. ‘Ziska’ was transported across America to Port Townsend on the far North West coast of the USA by road. The shipwright lived aboard ‘Ziska’ cruising her locally, before selling her on as he found her too small for a growing family. Port Townsend grew up as a Victorian port that went into decline as the railway never reached there. It is now a centre for boating and maritime life with a skilled workforce. There is a wooden boat building college nearby. Events include an annual wooden boat festival. It attracts people looking for alternative lifestyles. 

In 2017 ‘Ziska’ was purchased by Stanford Siver. Stanford’s involvement with boats started when he left his job on the East Coast of USA and enrolled in the North West Academy of Wooden Boatbuilding, near Port Townsend. With the help of a team of local shipwrights, Stanford spent two years restoring ‘Ziska’, before entering her to the Race2Alaska. Work included an upgraded saloon, a new mast, rigging and sails. In many ways the restoration of ‘Ziska’ could only had happened in a place like Port Townsend with a pool of talented people. Different people worked on different parts of the boat. The new mast, boom and gaff were designed and built by Patrick Mahon, a former lecturer at the Wooden Boat Building College. The 46 ½ foot long mast is part hollow and part solid made from 16 lengths of Douglas Fir held together by birds mouth type joints. Jo Abeli, a female History and Japanese graduate designed and installed the electronics. Jo learnt electronics whilst working in a boatyard. Computer drawings were used in the ‘Ziska’ restoration. ‘Ziska’ was re-launched at the end of March 2019.

The Race2Alaska is designed to showcase the latest human technology for human and wind powered boats. The Race2Alaska attracts a wide range of craft from modern foiling trimarans, finishing in just over four days to one man rowing boats. The race runs for 750 cold miles water from Port Townsend up the Canadian coast to Ketchikan in Alaska. The rules are simple no motor, no support. Founded in 1885 Ketchikan is Alaska’s oldest city, 18 years older than Ziska. It is calling point for cruise liners. It receives 153 inches of precipitation a year, including 39 inches of snow. At 116 years old ‘Ziska’ is twice the age of the state of Alaska which was created in 1959.

‘Ziska’ entered the race as ‘Team Ziska – Sail like a Luddite’. She is by far the oldest and heaviest boat to have ever entered the Race2Alaska. Her rudder alone is the same weight as the winning boat. Her crew included 16 year old Odin Smith the youngest person to take part in the race. ‘Ziska’s sea trials for race only began 3 weeks before the start. The race set off at 5am on 2 June, 2019 with 35 starters. ‘Ziska’ left harbour the night before to get a good start. She crossed the finishing line in Alaska 16 days later, 12 days behind the winning boat coming 22nd out of 25 finishers. To complete the 750 mile distance, ‘Ziska’ had to sail 1282 miles having to tack against north westerly winds. When the wind dropped the crew had to row her 12 tonnes. The general conclusion was that ‘Ziska’ performed well in strong winds, but less well in light winds. What would her builders 116 years ago in Arnside in days before the telephone and electricity had made of her achievements.

Contributed by Alasdair Simpson, Arnside Sailing Club
Read the first part of her story here.