By Bernadette Bernon
From Cruising World, June, 2000
We're fortunate to be the owners of a boat that's been built by someone as meticulous, as clever, as tasteful-and as picky-as Gary Back. Ithaka, the 1992 Shearwater 39 that Douglas and I purchased from Gary and Bridgette Back last September, has given us a great deal about which to be proud since we brought her home to Newport, Rhode Island. But we can claim no credit for the achievement of this boat except for one: After seven grueling months of boat shopping, when we stepped aboard this vessel, we had the good sense to buy her on the spot.
Ithaka was constructed of fiberglass at the Nebe Boatworks in Hout Bay, South Africa, under the critical eye of Gary, who told us-imagine how this would play at any other yard-that he went to Nebe to oversee the work of the craftsmen every single day of the building process. Gary could do this because he'd just sold his family business- a large metal-furniture manufacturing company-and he wanted to enjoy the process of building the boat that would take his wife and young children on a cruising sabbatical before he started a new enterprise. Gary, a master craftsman who likes to rebuild Maseratis as a hobby, then finished the interior of the boat himself and brought his expertise in metals and systems to the task of fitting it out with an array of impressive custom stainless-steel work.
Ithaka was designed by naval architect Dudley Dix to withstand the heart-in-your-throat conditions of his home waters around the Cape of Good Hope. Dix, who's won the Cruising World design competition and is known as a successful designer of racing and cruising boats, says his inspiration is the work of Bruce King, Bob Perry, Chuck Paine, John Cherubini, and E.G. Van de Stadt. The pleasing lines of Paine and Cherubini are particularly evident in Ithaka's pretty sheer and strong tumblehome. Douglas and I, not normally traditionalists, were delighted to find that Dix also likes his boats to go fast. Underwater, Ithaka sports a sleeker underbody than one would expect from her clipper bow, rugged bowsprit, champagne-glass stern, and oval bronze ports. She weighs in at a trim 20,000 pounds, has a 6-foot draft and a 12-foot-10-inch beam, and carries a considerable sail area on her cutter rig. So far, she's been a real champ in heavy weather-steady, nimble, and fairly dry on deck.
The Backs cruised the boat for four years from South Africa across the Atlantic, up the coast of South America, through the Caribbean, and then up the coast of the United States, where they sold her to us in Annapolis. According to the old saying, the day you buy a boat and the day you sell it are the two happiest in your life, but when Gary walked away from Ithaka that last day in Annapolis, I thought his heart would break from the grief of selling a boat that had become so much a part of his life.
Since then, as Douglas and I have worked over the winter and spring to get Ithaka ready for our own departure, time and again we've discovered examples of Gary's dazzling execution of engineering ideas and his impressive installation of systems. We're also grateful to him for sharing his expertise with us via email from South Africa over the winter-although we suspect he's compelled to stay involved mostly to ensure that we don't ruin anything on the boat. So far, we seem to have met with his approval, thanks in part to our friends Phil Burton and John Dennison of Atlantic Marine Group, who've expertly done some of the more delicate upgrades.
For the first few months, Gary's idiosyncratic presence was felt everywhere on Ithaka, and often we heard his voice whenever we tried to dismantle something: "If you have to use pressure, STOP; you're not doing it right." He was always right, of course; there'd be some trick to it that we'd been slow to figure out. But now, one by one, as we finish the projects that stand between us and leaving, and especially now that aesthetic changes such as new upholstery and favorite pictures are in place, Ithaka feels like ours, and she feels like home.
Ithaka's saloon consists of a straight settee to
starboard, opposite a U-shaped settee to port, which
transforms into a double bed after lowering the table.
Two water tanks, holding 120 gallons, live under the
two outermost settees. Trimmed in Burmese teak,
bulkheads are Canadian rock maple. Red chenille
cushion covers were crafted by S&S Fabrics. Pillows
are made of favorite molas from our travels and
store fleece clothing and extra towels.
Removable headliner panels are
constructed of thin marine plywood and
securely held in place with heavy-duty
Velcro. When pulled down, there's full
access to the deck-hardware backing
plates and wiring.
A power take-off extends out from the
front of the engine compartment under
the settee in the main saloon. This
installation permits the independent and
secure mounting of an additional large
The U-shaped galley has great counter
space, owing mainly to the huge
countertop over the engine
compartment. Also, there's an
extra-deep double sink, an
refrigerator/freezer system, and a
separate "day fridge" above it.
Frankly, this is one more fridge than
anyone needs on a boat, but we
The port aft cabin holds a roomy sliding-door pantry,
a wet locker, good sea berth, the emergency tiller,
new National Airborne Technologies GPIRB at the
ready, the bolt cutters (greased, with a sock over it
to keep it lubricated!), and a foolproof sight gauge for
the 80-gallon fuel tank.
After unclamping it, the galley
countertop over the engine
compartment slides aft for easy access
to the Yanmar 35. If needed, the engine
box also can be entirely removed.
Four sturdy stainless-steel bollards are
located amidships and aft.
Rudder steps make it possible to climb
back aboard in an emergency. The rod
is part of the trim-tab self-steering
system, which we are considering
changing to a Monitor, if funds permit.
This article first appeared as a feature in the June, 2000, issue of Cruising World.