‘Aura’, 1948 Blanchard 33 foot Wooden Sloop
drawing by Bill Garden, his design #98
Reserve a Day Charter, Sailing the San Juan Islands, on the Classic Wooden Sloop, ‘Aura’, a Northwest treasure. Her classic beauty, roomy cockpit, and steady speed make her ideal for day sails in the San Juan Islands. The Aura sails from Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Designed by the great Northwest designer William Garden, she’s the fifth of nine built by the legendary Blanchard Boat Company of Seattle in the late 1940’s. Owned by Norman C. Blanchard himself for 25 years, she has always been meticulously maintained by her owners, true to the tradition of yachtsman-ship before fiberglass. She is a great sloop for day charter sailing the San Juan Islands.
Here are some photos of one of AURA”s sister ships, the last of 9 Blanchard 33s, the ill-fated Mrs. Pettibone, being built and launched in 1951:
Aura is 33 feet long on deck, and weighs six tons, with two tons in her cast iron ballast keel. Her hull is red cedar planking, over oak frames, on a backbone of fir and yellow cedar.
Aura was first owned by a well-off Arizona mining family. They decided they wanted to go yachting and made arrangements with Norman C. Blanchard, son of the founder, for one of the 33 foot sloops, then under construction on spec, which they named Aira. They owned her for five years, sailing her in the summer, and returning her to Norm Blanchard during the ‘off season.’
This family then sold Aira to Norm Blanchard (who mortgaged his house for her) with the stipulation that he change her name. Perhaps they intended to name a new boat “Aira”. Since it was considered bad luck to change a boat’s name, Norm changed it as little as possible. He describes the episode in his book of memoirs, “Knee Deep in Shavings”, in the chapter titled “How Aura got her Name”. Now named “Aura”, she was owned and enjoyed by Norm from 1952 to 1977. He then reluctantly sold her to buy a powerboat, since he and his wife were not as nimble as they used to be. Ward got to meet him in 1996. A very gracious and knowledgeable man, he died in 2009 at the age of 98, a true Northwest classic.
In the years since Norm sold her, she has had a series of good owners who have kept her in great condition. She has had new floors, frames and planking around the mast step, and aft to the engine mounts. She has also had major changes to her cockpit, with new fuel tank aft of the engine, and new water tank under the v-berth forward. Other modifications include changing to masthead rig with a shortened mast and a bowsprit, to ease the weather helm. Stanchions and lifelines with a stern pulpit were added in the 80’s.
“Aura” is a two-time winner (1997 and 1999) of the Northwest Wooden Yacht Racing Association series. The trophy is on display at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle. She won “Best Sailboat” at the 1997 Vancouver Wooden Boat Show. Aura competes every year in the Classic Mariner’s Regatta in Port Townsend, where she often finishes in the top 3 in Class B. A half-hull model of “Aura” carved by Norm C. Blanchard is in the upstairs dining room of the Seattle Yacht Club.
The noted Northwest marine architect, William Garden, then aged 28 years, drew the plans for a 33 foot sloop in 1946, early in his long and diverse career, which ended in 2011 at the age of 92. The plans were for the Blanchard Boat Company on Lake Union in Seattle. Founded by Norman J. Blanchard, an immigrant from England, after the First World War, the Blanchard Boat Company was one of many high-quality boat builders in Seattle in the days of abundant local old-growth lumber.
Blanchard built 9 boats to this design, one every six months or so. Some were fastened with bronze but most were iron fastened. B-33 #1, formerly in Blaine WA, is being renovated by experienced boat builders north of Spokane but may never see salt water again. One B-33 sailed to Hawaii and may have deteriorated there; one was built there and is probably Malia, B-33 #2, still sailing out of Haleiwa. Malia has cruised the South Pacific and the Caribbean. Of the other remaining Blanchard 33’s, only three are known to be in sailing condition, Aura, B-33 #5, Vagabond, and Skylark, #3. Vagabond is in Shilshole Marina, Skylark in Lake Union. Skylark, B-33 #3, was owned for many years by a marine carpenter, was recently purchased by the son of the man who owned her in the 60’s, and is now in very good hands. Seawind, B-33 #4, formerly of the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, is sitting well covered on a boatwright’s property near Langley, WA, waiting patiently for someone to find time to repair her. Varuna had much work done, but then was sold for very little to a neglecting owner, and left mostly abandoned on a mooring near the Orcas ferry dock until 2014, then was taken ashore, hopefully for more work, but probably to rot away unseen. Another B-33 in Tacoma was reported as sunk, and has likely been broken up. The 9th and last B-33, named Mrs. Pettibone, was built as a yawl, painted black, and was rumored to have been scuttled in Lake Washington for the insurance money. In the humble opinion of Capt. Ward Fay, if enough boaters in the Northwest had as much sense of aesthetics and maritime heritage as they have money, these beautiful wooden artifacts of a bygone age would not be in danger of being lost forever, and would be meeting annually in various shows and regattas, sought after, cherished, and perfectly maintained for generations.
One of the great things about owning Aura is her historical significance. She was built in the heyday of wooden boat building in Seattle. Few people are left who remember how it was then. Norman C. Blanchard was in the thick of it from an early age. I got to know Norm and his second wife Mary, a bit in the mid 1990’s. He was then 85 or so, and very approachable and gracious. He didn’t want to talk about the boats as much as he did the people, as befits a legendary boat salesman. His book of memoirs, ‘Knee Deep in Shavings,’ describes those days. His Dad, N.J. Blanchard, was the old-time shipwright from England, who started his own shop on Lake Union after WWI, and kept it going until he died in the early 1950’s. By that time, fiberglass boats were eclipsing wooden ones, and the old man didn’t care to change to the new production methods. Norm told me that when his Dad died, people didn’t think “little Norm” could keep the business alive, but he did as well as could be expected, doing mainly repairs rather than new boat construction. Blanchard sold out in the early 60’s, shortly afterward there was a fire at the plant, and it closed.
Norm was full of stories. When he was a kid, hanging around the boatyard, his idol was Ted Geary, the great Naval Architect then based in Seattle. Geary’s design for an R-class boat, Sir Tom, was very successful on both coasts in the 1920’s, with Geary at the helm. Norm’s Dad was part of the crew, and Norm Jr. was the little mascot. Another Blanchard-built, Geary R-boat, Pirate, can be seen today at the Center for Wooden Boats at the south end of Lake Union. Pirate has Sir Tom’s mast.
Norm was a very active young sailor. When he was courting Eunice, his wife to be, and she lived in Ballard, he would sail his Star boat there, down the Ship Canal to pick her up. One day he was running late, and the Fremont Bridge, clearance 30 feet, was lowered for car traffic, and large sailboats could not get under it. So since the wind was strong on the nose, he leaned the boat way over, and sailed to windward under the bridge. If had needed to tack directly under the bridge, the mast would have snagged it. But the Star went upwind well: with the current, Norm cleared the bridge, and zig-zagged his way up the narrow channel to meet Eunice.
Another great story was when Blanchard Boat Co. had a contract to build an Atkin Ingrid to compete in the Ingrid fleet in Los Angeles. William Atkin sent the offfset plans, and one of the lead shipwrights, an old Scot who had worked for the Fife Company in his youth, took a look at them. He pronounced the boat un-buildable according to those offsets, and that it would turn out “lumpy” and slow. He made some modifications to the plans, and the boat was built that way. When Mr. Atkin found out that his design had been adjusted, he made it clear he would have nothing to do with it, that it was not a true Ingrid. The boat went to LA, and promptly dominated the Ingrid racing. The other Ingrid racers said when all the boats were hauled out and standing in a row, it was visible why the Blanchard-built one was faster, it being a little bit sleeker.
When I met Norm and Mary a few years after I bought Aura, it was at the CWB Festival on the July 4th weekend. They invited me for lunch at the Seattle Yacht Club, where Norm had more seniority than anyone, having joined in the 1920’s when they had junior memberships. Norm was an accomplished woodcarver, and showed me the half model of Aura he had carved in the 1950’s, painted light green, with the other half models on the wall of the upstairs club restaurant. He also carved Aura’s name-board, which is still mounted on the boat.
A few days later, Norm and his old friend, a retired UW professor, accompanied me on my delivery of ‘Aura’ back to Bellingham. The plan was to get as far as La Conner, where his daughter would pick them up. We departed Lake Union early in the morning, and cleared the Locks. I remember him reassuring me as we passed under the closed railroad bridge, that there was more room over the masthead than there seemed. We got into the salt water, and it was a beautiful sunny summer day, with no wind. We motored down Puget Sound, past Everett, and into Saratoga Passage, where at last the wind came up, but it was in the wrong direction. We sailed anyway to windward, and it was very pleasant. The wind built, until the chop in the passage slowed our progress to the point that even motor-sailing we couldn’t get much more than 2 knots, so we turned downwind, and flew back to Everett. It was just as well, because it was probably the last time Norm drove a sailboat hard into the wind, getting spray on the face. He loved it, and wasn’t complaining, but I could see he was tiring. We had a nice dinner at the Anthony’s there, where his friend, being Italian, described to the waitress how he wanted his pasta ‘al dente’. Norm’s daughter came by and they drove away. He mentions the trip briefly in his book.
The next time I saw Norm was a few years later, when his book had come out, and he was signing copies. I had him sign my copy. He didn’t remember me. But I still remember him.