In the 1960s, few realized that the sturdy Cal 20 would revolutionize sailing by changing the way boats were raced and marketed in Western Canada. Because the shelf life of fibreglass was unknown, C20 buyers gambled that their investment wouldn’t self destruct. Skeptics joked about “the bathtub” and its predator, the dreaded Polyestermite. Some 2,000 hulls later the Cal 20 basks in its status as the VW Beetle-of-the-Sea, an “everyman’s boat,” found in marinas from Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Bellingham, Portland, through Texas to Detroit.
Like the assembly line that made the Ford car affordable, mass production put a Cal 20 helm in the hand of enthusiastic landlubbers. The late C. William (Bill) Lapworth pioneered the concept of a spacious, seaworthy, low maintenance, low cost yacht that a man and wife could sail easily. For its size, the 20-foot, flush deck boat’s 7-ft beam and large cockpit provided ample outdoor living space. The 900 pound iron-bulb keel and small working sail area made the stiff little sloop seakindly in winds up to 40 knots, a condition that became known as “Cal 20 weather.”
In 1961, the first Cal 20s trucked out of a Cosa Mesa, California factory. A visiting North Vancouver sailor saw one, and recognized its potential. G. Alastair Nairne went home and started North Vancouver’s CalGan Marine to build them under license from Jensen Marine. With sails, they cost around $3,500. The Cals caught on quickly with “woodie” one design racers. In Vancouver, Lightning and Star sailors all switched to the new class. “They came at the right time,” says former Calgan salesman Geoff Coleman. “People were hesitant to buy a boat with a lot of up-keep.” Until Calgan closed in 1979, singles, couples and families kept workers busy bonding resin and matting for some 200 Cal 20s.
CalGan used the Cal 20 as the cornerstone to build B.C.’s most productive and long lasting sailboat factory. Dealers copied proven auto industry strategies. For the first time, owners had a locally-built “line” to satisfy their desire to move up to larger, more comfortable models. The Cal 25 with its lifting hatch gave standing head room and a proper galley. At the top end of the line, the beamy flush deck Cal 28 and Cal 29 provided lots of indoor and outdoor living space.
Mass production spawned innovative marketing techniques that revolutionized the way boats were promoted. Unlike the time-intensive process of building a wooden boat, fast availability allowed dealers to incorporate racing into their marketing plans. Performance became a major marketing tool. Victoria’s gregarious salesman for the New Westminster built Shark 24, Charlie Pash, ratcheted the marketing race with creative ploys. Before one Oak Bay event, he slathered his mainsail with starch to stiffen it. This go-fast gimmick backfired when rain dissolved the paste into sticky white rivulets that dribbled onto the deck. To confuse Maple Bay regatta racers when he tacked, Pash once white-washed one side of his boat’s black hull.
Swiftsure provided a marquee proving ground where CalGan pioneered another trend: B.C.’s first “factory team,” Al Nairne, Geoff Coleman and Pacific Yachting founder Gerry Kidd campaigned their product, the Cal 20, “Heather” in the 1964 and 1965 Juan de Fuca Races. Nairne remembers, “It blew like crazy.” The solidly-built Coleman had to sit on the transom to keep the bow up. “We were planing,” recalls Al Nairne. “We had the spinnaker up, and she had a fairly flat stern that she could ride on.” From a small on board radio, they learned about their speed. “We heard the big press tug say they were alongside a Cal 20 and they had us at 14 knots,” says Nairne. “We had a rooster tail out the stern like you wouldn’t believe. It was well over the length of the boat.” Coleman remembers the 12-foot seas. “It’s a safe boat,” he says. “You can handle everything from the cockpit.”
By 1966, the Calgan factory crew was showcasing their Cal 28 in the Swiftsure Lightship Race. But a Victoria boat kept a Cal 20 in the Juan de Fuca Race for two more years. George Dufour and his wife Pat campaigned Galeneia, the first Royal Victoria Yacht Club boat to fly spinnakers centered with an emblem – one for each of them. His sported a golden Fleur de Lys on a blue background. Hers blossomed with a red Tudor Rose on a white background. In 2004, the smallest yacht that ever raced in Swiftsure became its “comeback class” when five Cal 20s entered the event’s new “Classics” inshore course.
In 1966, fifteen owners signed the Victoria Cal 20 Fleet #13 charter as a structure for their racing, cruising and social events. On many a Wednesday night, husband and wife teams argued their way around the buoys. Several female frostbite dinghy sailors switched to this stable keel boat that didn’t flip. When his family circumnavigated Vancouver Island, a Unitarian minister invented a “boom tent” with side flaps that converted his Cal 20’s long cockpit into extra berths for his two six foot sons. After they moved to Seattle and bought a larger yacht, the Evans family often cruised with their teenage son’s buddy: Bill Gates.
Over the past four decades a friendly rivalry has flourished between Vancouver Fleet #38 and Victoria – the Pacific Northwest’s only one design fleet whose membership roster boasts “boaters without borders.” San Juan Island Cal 20 sailors have served on the Fleet 13 executive committee. Several members, like Friday Harbor’s Lloyd Bacon and Jack Raub, commute for major regattas like the Royal Victoria Yacht Club’s spring THRASH and Fleet 13’s 40th Anniversary Regatta held June 3rd and 4th.
“They are a tremendously competitive fleet,” says Dragon Fly crew Nick Banks who helped Gerry Thompson’s Betelgeuse win Fleet 13’s 40th Anniversary Regatta. Fred Poustie’s Tack Dancer placed second, Colin Jackson’s Tyrannical, third and Lloyd Bacon’s Got T Run, fourth.
Over the years, these sturdy craft have maintained their popularity for RTB racing and major regattas. Cal 20 Fleet #13 [celebrated] its 40th anniversary by hosting the combined Cal 20 International Class Championships and Canadian Championships at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club.