Sister Act: identical super yachts meet for the first time

The series of coincidences that led to these two boats sharing the same patch of water should make even the most die-hard sceptic believe in some kind of boating destiny. Despite being near-identical, just too much separates them: 30 years, two boatyards and owners from different continents. The same, but different. The dark-hulled boat is Black Knight; the white-hulled boat Kizbel. They came together for the first time ever in the Caribbean – and Boat International was there to capture the moment, which brought to an end a story that began in Boston, Massachusetts, 121 years ago.

Walter J McInnis was born in that east coast city in 1893 and as a young man found a summer job working on fishing schooners and off-season work as a draughtsman’s apprentice. He talked his way into a job at the renowned George Lawley & Son boatyard, and honed his skills designing sailing yachts, powerboats and sub chasers during WWI. The latter served him well with his own commissions, especially a 21.6 metre called Valia that became the prototype for a string of fast cruisers cum-rum-runners during Prohibition and eventually a fleet of 23.7 metre cutters ordered by the US Coast Guard to catch them.

Whether it was his famous fishing boats, sardine carriers or his fast commuter yachts, McInnis projects – by then he had formed the Eldredge-McInnis Company with partner Albert Eldredge – had a reputation for comfort, seaworthiness and up-to-date good looks. In 1966 he designed an 25.3 metre with open decks amidships, called Lion’s Whelp, which created quite a stir with its near-plumb bow and fore and aft deck houses. Two years later he adapted the design, drawing a 25 metre version with more bow flare, which was built at the Goudy & Stevens Yacht Yard in Boothbay Harbour, Maine. 

She was called Cassiar and designed as a swordfishing boat for the then president of Mellon Bank. Nine years later, in 1975, McInnis retired and donated his early designs to the Mystic Seaport Museum, Connecticut, while his son Alan McInnis hung onto all his father’s designs from 1950 onwards. 

Cassiar spent time as a research vessel and then became property of William Combs Jr, a New York Yacht Club member who renamed her Black Knight and let the Club use her as its committee boat during the famous 1983 America’s Cup, when Dennis Conner’s Liberty lost to Australia II. She was then sold to a Swedish entrepreneur who shipped her all over the world to cruise. In 2001 she hosted Princess Anne at Cowes for the America’s Cup Jubilee and in 2002 and 2003 she was the hospitality boat for Sweden’s challenge for the America’s Cup in New Zealand and committee boat for the Louis Vuitton Cup. Her captain at that time was an American named Jason Berman.

One day in 2003 Berman was polishing a 14 metre Ryco sportsfisher belonging to the children of Cassiar’s owner, at Lyford Cay in The Bahamas, when a man with three young daughters in tow asked if the boat was available for a fishing charter. “I told him I wasn’t really a working charter captain; I only took friends of the owner or their friends fishing,” Berman recalls. “He was pretty insistent and [I eventually] took him fishing.”

In fact, for the next three years the man, a British entrepreneur, had a standing reservation for fishing with Berman aboard a series of boats during his children’s spring holiday. 

“We would talk a lot about boats while he was aboard. He said he liked classic-style yachts and admired my pictures of Black Knight. Then he asked me to find him a boat, something 80 to 100 feet (24 to 30 metres) that could cruise The Bahamas and be a family boat without the need for lots of crew,” says Berman. “I went everywhere and looked at a lot of boats. Then a friend told me a sistership to my old Black Knight was for sale.”

But McInnis had never designed a sistership. And nor had Goudy & Stevens built one. This new boat had in fact been built across the Damariscotta River at Hodgdon Yachts, America’s oldest boatbuilder. In 1979, Tim Hodgdon, the fifth generation of the family, sought to expand his company’s horizons and began advertising as a builder of state-of-the-art cold-moulded projects. It wasn’t long before he had a customer. The man was from Florida and had spent considerable time and effort in an unsuccessful attempt to buy Black Knight, a design he had fallen in love with. 

Not to be denied, he did the next best thing – got hold of the boat’s original build plans from Alan McInnis and approached Hodgdon. “Since Goudy & Stevens was out of business, he asked if we would build a copy, modernising it here and there but build it the old way: double plank on steam-bent frames,” says Tim Hodgdon.

It wasn’t the sort of commission Hodgdon was expecting, but the 29-year-old yard owner accepted the contract. It became the first large yacht this new generation of Hodgdons would build, and the last plank-on-frame yacht ever to leave the yard. The yacht, Yorel, was eventually launched in 1989 after

a four-year build.

Seventeen years later, in 2006, this was the yacht Berman went to see on behalf of the British businessman. “I couldn’t believe how well maintained she was,” says Berman. “In fact I went back to see it three more times. The layout left something to be desired for a young family but it had more living space than Black Knight. Eventually I asked my client to come see the boat. He asked me, ‘Do you love it?’ I started to tell him something else but he interrupted me and asked again, ‘Do you love the boat?’ This time I clearly said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s buy it.’”

One of the first things the new owner did was change the yacht’s name to Kizbel, an amalgam of the nicknames for two of his girls. A racing dinghy is named for the third. “I was so happy to get the boat that I didn’t want to change too much too fast,” says her owner. But some changes were definitely needed. Working together with Berman and design studio Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi, the owner came up with the idea of creating a proper VIP cabin for guests, redoing a bunkroom for the girls, enlarging the master suite’s bathroom and reconfiguring the saloon as a traditional drawing room. 

The covered seating area at the stern – the caboose they call it – would get a bar and furniture to make it function as an alfresco dining area. “My top priority was to make all the seating more comfortable. It’s amazing the number of large yachts I’ve been on without a single comfortable place to sit,”

says the owner. 

Once the plans were finalised, the owner asked Hodgdon to quote on the project. “The hull was in great shape when we lifted her out,” says Hodgdon. “The new owner had great ideas. He had used it and knew what would make it better.” And to Hodgdon, the chance to improve on his first new yacht contract was a profound professional challenge.

“What surprised me was how the bronze through-hulls had degraded,” Tim says. “When we took out some of the interior to get to all of them, the area around the exhausts presented an entirely new level of concern. But we had the original drawings and there were a few guys like me on the crew who had put her together so we knew how to take her apart.” Kizbel spent five months with Hodgdon, which replaced mufflers, rebuilt the hydraulics and replumbed all the seawater systems and drainage. The yard also replaced all the lighting, chain, anchors and navigation and communication electronics.

New seating on the sundeck behind the flybridge helm station makes her different to Black Knight, as does the owner’s new cigar bar opposite the helm. On the bow, however, Hodgdon created new built-in furniture to match the arrangement of her sistership. An oversize bar in the saloon was jettisoned to make way for a better seating arrangement that converts to indoor dining with a hi-lo table, while bookcases and storage were fitted in every available nook. A small upholstered seat to starboard and a flip-up table are the only concessions to an office on a yacht meant for relaxation. 

Kizbel has more interior volume because the wheelhouse begins one frame farther forward than on Black Knight. This also translates into a larger crew space below and a bigger mess, redesigned to look like the interior of a J Class yacht. A new galley makes the most of the space, both at deck level and below the floor, where there is a clever new wine cellar. In the engine room, the original Vosper stabilisers were replaced with more powerful Naiads, and 50kW gensets were swapped for 32kW units in sound boxes with dry exhaust silencers. As well as enjoying Kizbel himself, the owner makes her available for executives of his companies and for business meetings, rather than chartering her out.

Once back in the water, there was one more job outstanding for Kizbel’s owner. Despite being effectively the same boat, Kizbel and Black Knight – twins born 30 years apart – had never met. In the spring of 2014, the schedules of the two boats coincided for the first time, and Kizbel’s owner decided to have the moment documented, the results of which are seen here for the first time. The two yachts cruised in company in The Bahamas, applying a neat bow to a story of two boats separated by decades but linked by a former draughtman’s apprentice, a single captain and an owner who fancied taking his daughters fishing.

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