Burl Ives Flicka "Sparrow"

By Gerry Cunningham

Small Boat Journal #55 July 1987

Buccaneer or Balladeer? Venerable actor and singer Burl lves is an experienced sailor who's convinced of the virtues of small-boat ownership, Yet his 20 foot Pacific Seacraft Flicka is as shipshape and Bristol fashion as any yacht. The boat's improvements range from rigging to electronics.

Burl Ives' Gold Plater

He flies a black Jolly Roger "to inform all parties that this boat is sailed by a renegade, and not to be messed with," he says. He is a renegade all right, and proud of it, but sailing out of the San Carlos Marina on Mexico's Sea of Cortez, Burl Ives isn't likely to encounter any boarding parties or bullion laden galleons. So, how did a, mild-mannered folk-singer like lves turn into a renegade seafaring pirate? It took no little patience on my part to find out.

I was first attracted to his boat, not knowing who her captain was, by the diminutive mizzen mast and wishbone boom on the main. Sparrow is a 20-foot Pacific Seacraft Flicka, although as Burl says, "The manufacturer refuses to recognize her now that I have 'improved' her." I could see why. She passed as I was rowing in from the mooring one day. My curiosity piqued, I searched her out along the docks, and found not only the old balladeer, actor, author, et al lounging in the cockpit with his Mexican mongrel "Mamacita," but many more technical wonders than I had observed from a distance. About the only information I got that trip was that Flicka was Norwegian for "girl." Just to prove his point, Ives sang me a snatch of song about a Flicka who wore a red scarf around her head. I planned to ask for a longer interview, but the next day both boat and captain had vanished across the waters. Months later, as I was working in the cockpit on our mooring, I saw Sparrow motoring in and raced her for the dock. The interview was most graciously granted, but after re-reading my notes I'm not sure the old pirate didn't sidetrack me from my purpose with his yarns.

Basically, Burl Ives appreciates that there are more important things in life than a 9 to 5 job, and sailing is one of them. His singing predates his sailing, but not by much. He made his singing debut at the age of four, before an assembly of Civil War veterans.

Sailing came a little later with a 12-foot centerboarder on the Hudson River. Then he moved up to a 16- footer with cuddy. He even lived on a barge for a time, but generally his progression was through sailboats of increasing length, from a 38-foot cutter to a 50-foot Bahama fisher, the Abaco Queen, which saw anti-sub duty during World War II. Ives' sailing influenced his singing to the extent of at least one Decca album called "Down to the Sea in Ships," and his writing in at least one book called Sailing on a Very Fine Day.

The boat he owned prior to Sparrow was a 43-foot Brewer design made in Taiwan out of teak. Now, why would a man of Burl lves' stature and experience trade a yacht "made like a fine piece of furniture," as he put it; for a 20- foot imitation carvel-planked fiberglass trailer boat?

His reasons were logical enough: It's hard to round up crew, good berths are difficult to find, and big boats just aren't conducive to cruising on a moment's impulse.

Ives' choice of this boat from among the many 20-foot trailer boats available reflects the seaman that he is. No Sunday sailor, he put me in my place right away when I used the term "cutter rigged ketch." "She is not a ketch," he said, "even though her mizzen mast is ahead of the rudder post. She is a yawl because her mizzen is behind the end of her waterline." (Editor's note: For other definitions, see Philip C. Bolger, 100 Small Boat Rigs, International Marine Publishing Co., 1984). "She is my number two favorite," Ives added, "because she handles like a 40-footer. I've got plenty of lead in her keel." She was remarkably roomy and uncluttered below, but this was no ordinary 20-footer we were sitting in. When Ives went from big boat to small, the rigging, fittings, and electronics all came along with, him.

SparrouJs running rigging all leads back to the cockpit. This includes the standard roller-furling jib and lves' additions of a rollerfurling staysail and a vertical roller furling mainsail with a wishbone boom. With a length of aluminum spar left from the old boom, he rigged the mizzen. He had a friend weld a stainless steel bridge over the tiller that provided a firm base for the mast step. A well-crafted boom carries the sheet-block and anchors two of the mizzen's four stays. I questioned the benefits to be gained from a mizzen with a 6 1/2-foot hoist and 2 1/2-foot boom on a 20-foot boat. "It helps to balance the helm so she sails herself without having to use the autopilot," lves said.

A teak plank bowsprit graces Sparrow's prow, and there is a pulpit with chocks for a small plow anchor. Nothing would do but stainless steel for the bowsprit's chains. Her tiller has two screw-in extensions, one normal and one extra long to reach up under the dodger.

For electronics, lves has four radios: a CB, VHF, single sideband, and a ham radio. A stereo tape deck and a depth sounder complete the high-tech electronics, all powered by three solar panels on the cabin top. To man the helm when the captain is below, there is an automatic pilot with optional wind-vane or compass inputs. An automatic bilge-pump stands ready in the unlikely event she springs a leak. The customary barometer and chronometer are supplemented by two compasses, one on each side of the cockpit so the helmsman doesn't have to cope with, parallax. lves has a radar on order and a small wind generator to help out the solar panels. When I questioned radar on a 20-footer, he pointed out that the Santa Barbara, Channel, where he also sails, carries a lot of traffic that doesn't care how large or small the opposition is.

After cruising the Bahamas, the Chesapeake, Florida, and the West Coast, in everything from that original 12-foot centerboarder to the 50-foot Abaco Queen, Ives now finds his pleasures on the Sea of Cortez in a diminutive gold plater as shipshape and Bristol fashion as any boat you'll ever see - very amenable to impulsive cruising by this renegade folk-singer.

- Gerry Cunningham , Patagonia, Arizona