Barnett Butterfly Scow: best fun per dollar on the water.

Article By Mark Suszko

I owned my first boat for a week, and never got a chance to sail it. I was thirty and freshly married. Dad had owned a leaky Lightning before I was born, but sold it when I came along, and never went back to sailing before he passed. This, it turns out, was prophetic foreshadowing.

Flash forward again to me at thirty: I wanted to try sailing but was very limited in funds. Then a retired work friend learned of my desire and offered me his scabby old wooden Sunfish, back of his yard, half-covered in brambles, lolling on a trailer that looked like it had leprosy. Observing the heavy rust and flat tires, and lacking a hitch, I declined the trailer, but gave the friend a couple of hundred and car-topped the Sunfish home to stash in a little garden shed with my ladder and mower.

It was late fall, and my plan was to spend the winter cleaning the boat up, then sailing it in the local lake in spring. My wife was several months along with our first child, and when she found the boat, she got mad; said the Sunfish was an expression of “bad priorities” for a new dad to be. Me, who’d attended more LaMaze classes than her!

Anyway, I got the ultimatum speech, and I protested that if all I did was hold the Sunfish over the winter and clean it, I could get a grand or more for it in the spring. No dice. I had a week, or she would burn it. There is no use arguing with a pregnant woman. Ever. I found a buyer quickly on Craig’s List, and even made a hundred back on my investment, but I remained cashless and boatless, except for my radio controlled models, thru raising 3 kids, until I turned 48.

In 2009, I got serious about a boat again, and this time, the wife was okay with it. The kids were teens now. We’d moved to a bigger house with a real garage, and I had more time to devote to hobbies. And it wasn’t an airplane or motorcycle, after all. So I started saving up out of my lunch money, and got a break earning some overtime on a job directing a TV event, so I had about $400 stashed by spring. My plan was to find an affordable and modest-sized boat, storable in my garage and preferably car-toppable, by the start of my summer vacation, and if I couldn’t buy one, I’d build a Puddle Duck Racer instead, during my actual 2 weeks off.

I got very close to my arbitrary deadline, when a CraigsList connection led me to a guy in Peoria who was a sort of informal boat matchmaker. For fun, and a couple of bucks, he puts boats and buyers together, and he found me a Butterfly Scow, a two-hour drive away in Bloomington, Illinois. I rented a pickup, bought some cargo straps, took along my eldest son to help load, and headed out to inspect my prize.

This is a 1977 Barnett Butterfly Scow. ‘77 was the year the original Star Wars movie first came out. So the boat was 32 years old, but I was immediately attracted to it’s lines and funky 60’s-70’s color and styling. It had been stored in this porch for three or four years, but the owner said she’d sailed it a lot, locally, before that. Before she had kids. Recurring theme, that.

A close inspection showed the toe rails were loose and badly repaired, the most common issue with these boats. We’ll get back to that in detail, later. There was a worn spot on the starboard deck where 32 seasons’ worth of sailor’s butts on starboard tack had wet-sanded the gel coat thin enough to see hints of the glass matt underneath. Also typical scratches and dings, and some cracks on the spray deflector rail, dings in the wooden daggerboard. Nothing major, just typical wear. But the hull, while dirty and scratched, looked solid. The mast parts and boom were scratched and scuffed, but straight and true. About like myself. All the parts were there, the original sail was still in great shape. I got that thrill every sailor gets when he’s about to date a new girlfriend, or acquire his first boat.

A factory- new Butterfly, sans trailer, runs around thirty-five hundred bucks today. I picked up the scow for $350, including my broker’s “finder’s fee”. I would spend half a year tracking down the title paperwork.

The Butterfly, born in the early 60’s, is only 12 feet, 2 inches long, but looks very much like a miniaturized twin of the yacht club ILYA C-Scows that are sometimes raced on Lake Springfield, where I live. I get a kick out of the resemblance, because the club’s C-scows seem to very rarely leave their trailers these days; dirty and full of old leaves, needing much work to launch and multiple expert crew to organize and maintain, they generally sit out seasons at a time, and are more like decorative flower planters than sailboats. A boat is not meant to live like that. They are built to be sailed, by people who want to sail.

The Butterfly, on the other hand, is made for spur-of-the-moment sailing fun: easy for two people to lift off a car roof at about 130 pounds, but it will haul one adult and one child, or two teens, with ease. She’s light weight, with a 2-piece aluminum mast that’s 18 feet when assembled, but shorter than the hull when traveling. All the stuff except the mast stows in the foot well easily. And, being a scow, she’s happiest slightly tipped and planing on her slippery, chine-less hull shape.

The two wooden rails on the inside of the deep foot well are not handrails, they’re TOE rails: you’re meant to stick your toes under them to balance and hold you in the boat when hiking out. They have a secondary function of being used like part of a mainsheet traveller, hooking a loop of your mainsheet around the rounded front end, to change the leverage of the system. I also use them as a place to attach an accessory bag with a lake-patrol-mandated pocket anchor and 50 feet of rope, plus a telescoping paddle.

These days, the original toe rails’ “human-retention function” is supplemented by a foot strap that runs across the sides of the boat, if you’re a serious racer, but these are not required. An original wooden tiller comes with a metal fold-out hiking extension, which most people have replaced with a more modern and more flexibly-mounted carbon extension rod. The Butterfly sports a sturdy alloy rudder with a kick-up spring action to make beaching or grounding easy. And the boat carries a substantial wooden dagger board, much like the one on a Sunfish. There is provision on the mast for a custom designed boom vang, but mine came without, and sails okay. There is no jib, but I think the boat would look good with one. Unlike a Sunfish, the rotating mast is stepped on a rounded deck-surface hardpoint and stayed with three steel cables ending in quick-connect adjustable deck fittings. The mast can be stepped or taken down by one person in just a couple of minutes. The sail uses a bolt rope running in a mast slot.

I make my living in TV production. The money for the boat came from overtime pay I accrued while directing some live TV coverage of President Obama, so at first, I was going to name the boat “Stimulus Package”. My buddies, hinting at my lack of sailing experience, suggested I name the boat “This End Up”. But the Butterfly looks fast and slippery, so I settled on “Fast- Forward”, using the graphic symbol for skipping ahead on a VCR’s remote control.

My original notion was to car-top this boat to and from the lake, but a back injury changed my plans, and while I’m saving up for a hitch and trailer, I use rented pickups or cargo vans from the nearby U-Haul to get the boat to and from the beach. She barely fits inside the cargo van with a little bit poking out the mostly-closed rear doors, which I strap tight. At about $30 a day, the UHaul option suited my schedule and wallet. It may look weird, but it works out for me. I threw together a tiny dolly from two padded mover’s dollies and a 2x4, which works great for maneuvering the boat in the garage and driveway. A little less so on a slimy concrete launching ramp.

The first day on the water, I frankly expected to completely dominate the little boat, but dinghies and their ilk have a way of teaching you your manners very quickly if you start out arrogant. I had been sailing 2-meter-sized RC model yachts for decades, and I figured this experience would be all I needed to control such a simple boat as the Butterfly. And I was right, for about five or ten very happy minutes.

The thing I had never had to learn on the radio-controlled boats was weight shifts and handing the sheets and tiller behind you when jibing or tacking. And sure enough, once I got over the excitement of sheeting-in and getting the hull up “on step”, I made to jibe, got my feet tangled in the excess mainsheet, and lost my grip on the tiller, which immediately went hard-over. In five seconds, the boat spun 180 degrees on a dime, tipped and capsized, practically ejecting me.

Butterfly Scows are easy to recover when capsized. Their hull is sealed and you can see, it rides high in the water.

diy mast head float built into sail

And I always go out with a float bag tied to the top of my mast. The bag contains an empty, sealed plastic 1-gallon bleach jug, and I consider this my boat’s “training wheels”. The mast float prevents the boat from possibly “turning turtle” and becoming upsidedown, and in the shallow waters where I sail, it keeps the mast from digging into the muddy bottom and maybe bending the mast or straining the steel cable mast stays and attachment points. So that’s one very useful and money-saving bleach bottle there, and the cordura covering bag makes it aesthetically less objectionable. If you don’t like the bleach bottle, there’s a sailcloth-covered triangular foam mast float, made specifically for the Butterfly that can be attached to the sail and it hardly shows, while giving the same capsize protection.

Anyway, freshly Butterfly-baptized and with my pride now re-set by capsizing, I hung on the daggerboard and the boat popped right back up as designed, with the foot well still dry. A kid could do it. What I didn’t expect was that the boats’ sides are high enough, and without much to grip, that I had trouble, being fat and old and out of shape, scrambling back into the righted boat on my own. I’d get part-way up, and knock the boat over again. A time or two at this and I was getting tired. What I didn’t know then was that it’s easier to re-board from the transom. All this was happening only yards from the dock, and I of course had my vest on as always, but I didn’t want to just give up, swim for the dock, and leave the boat out there. I was in a bind.

Now a lot of sailboaters may not like the PWC jet-ski folks, but I have to tell you, they are very friendly, polite, and helpful people on Lake Springfield, and one of them saw my trouble, buzzed over, took my painter in hand and gave me an ignominious yet very welcome tow back to the dock to get rested, re-organized and re-launched. I retired for the day, humbled, and vowing to study up more on how to shift weight and handle the tiller and sheet before the next time out. Also, to skip the ramp and instead launch and sail from the gravel point beach where the draft is just 4-5 feet, and I could just stand up on the bottom:-)

And the next few times out were glorious.

Now properly respectful of the tiller’s power, I was much more careful of my weight shifts and sheet-handling, and was rewarded by a very pleasant sailing experience. I’ve never gone fast or hard enough to require much hiking-out yet, but I got a few downwind runs that certainly produced whooping and cheering.