An authentic replica makes a childhood yachting dream come true.
What particularly strikes you as you step on board Columbia is the atmosphere. Judging from the beaming owners and crew, this is clearly a much-loved yacht, and the pride that has gone into her build is obvious. It is rather difficult to believe that she is only a few months old, and not a well-restored classic.
She is as close a replica as physically possible of the original Columbia, a 141-foot wooden Gloucester fishing schooner built in the historic A. D. Story shipyard in Essex, Massachusetts, in 1923. Even today’s standard navigation stations by the wheel have been hidden away in a foldable locker, so that when at anchor, there are no clues as to her age. Only the steel of her hull is a giveaway. To someone stepping aboard for the first time, it takes a few minutes to take all this in, and this is no accident. Her owner, Brian D’Isernia, had a dream as a high school student to one day build a classic American fishing schooner. He narrowed his favourites down to only a few boats, until he finally settled on Columbia. “She was one of five famous American schooners that fished and raced against the Canadians, and the only one to produce serious competition to the famous Bluenose,” he explains. “I chose the Columbia because she was the most beautiful and considered to be the fastest of the Americans.”
Eventually, in 1997, he came across the plans for Columbia. “We went to a lot of time and effort to locate not only the standard drawings for the old Columbia, but I even went up in the archives and found the original line drawings signed by W. Starling Burgess and we followed those exactly,” says Brian. And when he says ‘we’, he doesn’t mean it figuratively. Brian is president of Eastern Shipbuilding Company, based in Panama City, Florida, a large commercial shipyard.
“This is our first attempt at a yacht, but we’re delivering a 300-foot oil field vessel every six weeks. We’re pumping them out, and this was kind of a sideline. We’ve got 1,500 people employed at the yard, and this was just a little secret we started working on.” With the help of John W. Gilbert & Associates, her original hand-drawn line plans were redrawn using computer software and building began in 2006. “This is for me and my family, she’s not for sale,” Brian says emphatically. “Everyone said: ‘We didn’t know there was a yard in the US that could build like this’, but there was no fanfare until we launched her. We do have a sister ship under construction and her hull is built, but we don’t need two of them, so we’ll sell the second one.”
Throughout the interior, nods to the original Columbia are evident everywhere. Although she wouldn’t have had a salon or engine room, the crew quarters have been designed to look identical and are housed in a traditional foc’s’le, a room in the bow forward of the mast, with six bunk beds arranged in a staggered formation along the hull. When asked about the unusual crew quarters, her captain Karl Joyner explains: “This is a replica vessel. She’s not meant to be anything else. Honestly, we haven’t had any complaints, the crew are young and they have a good time in here! Brian and Mimi are family orientated people, and there’s no feeling of separation on board, everyone just mixes together.”
This is evident in the large open-plan galley just forward of the salon, with its comfortable country kitchen atmosphere. Brian proudly points out the woodwork and inlay details, naming the woods as he goes along: tiger maple, mahogany, “and all in-house.” The salon with its calming neutral wood details and well-thought-out pops of colour offers up a range of dining possibilities, with a formal table and seating mirrored on the opposite side by an adjustable table and sofas. The coffee table can be elevated to full cocktail height, a modern addition her predecessor would certainly not have enjoyed.
The guest quarters are designed with the prevailing family atmosphere in mind. The original Columbia would have contained fish-holds and not guest cabins, so Brian and Mimi were left with a flexibility to design what would suit their needs. Four cabins sleep 12 people, with the two twins carrying fixed bunks and pullmans in the master and VIP. Brian explains: “I have 10 children and 11 grandchildren, so we needed a lot of bunks! But with the second hull we can customise the interior to an owner’s requirements, such as including a larger master cabin. For us it was not a priority, though.”
While a traditional feel might be desired on board, it is not at the expense of modern amenities: the master includes a large Jacuzzi bath. A huge skylight above the salon fills the area with natural light and allows fresh air to flow throughout the yacht. A full-size electric fireplace as well as air-conditioning and heating systems ensure she is well prepared for all cruising climates. A bow thruster, underwater lighting, state-of-the-art navigation equipment and multimedia entertainment system also set her apart from her predecessor.
The attention to historical detail on her exterior is extraordinary. Brian explains: “The blocks were built by an 86-year-old third-generation block builder from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, whose father built the blocks for Bluenose II, and whose grandfather built the blocks for Bluenose. So she’s a real little piece of history!” There are also two fish-holds on deck: “Brian specifically wanted them to keep as close to the original yacht as possible. We have chip ice-makers that fill them up,” explains Captain Joyner.
Brian’s passion for both his new yacht and her predecessor is obvious, but becomes clearer when he explains her history: “Tragically, the world never got to see the full potential of the original Columbia. She foundered in an August hurricane in 1927, along with four Canadian schooners, off Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Coincidentally, that’s in fact where I fished when I was in the industry: I spent two years off Sable Island long lining for swordfish, so there was an emotional pull for me as well.
“But obviously my circumstances were different: in those days, these boats went out to the Grand Banks and had no radar, GPS or weather reports. All they had was a compass, a barometer and a leadline. When you’re on a lee shore in a hurricane, in a boat with no engines, it’s trouble. Five schooners in that one night perished, and Columbia was one of them. One hundred and twenty five people died, 25 crew per boat, and they came from small coastal fishing villages. One village lost 25 people – there wasn’t a single family that wasn’t affected. “But she was a real fishing vessel, and that’s what she was built for. She raced in the Fishermen’s Cup, and the deal was that you had to fish. You couldn’t just sign up. If you didn’t go out and fish then you couldn’t race. I guess part of the reason we built her was to honour that time and those men. We forget that it was a very tough time. Even after those tragedies, they’d get up and go fishing again. They were survivors,” he says.
The new Columbia is to enjoy a different life in the hands of Brian and Mimi. “I’m taking her up to my 50th college reunion in May in Washington DC, up the Potomac River,” says Brian. She is set to visit the Mediterranean during the 2015 summer season as well. “My mother was born in Ireland, and since we’re planning to sail across the Atlantic, we’ve got to go there. We’ll just sail her with the family and have a good time.”