The Spirit-of-Tradition Skipper: James Murphy.

Spirit of Tradition Sailing Vessel Anna, designed by Stephens Waring Yacht Design, in Maine.

Anna on an early sail in Maine. There were a LOT of details to be worked out. Photos: Alison Langley.

With Anna recently nominated by Classic Boat as one of the top Spirit-of-Tradition vessels globally, in 2018, we began to wonder, of all our designs, why her.  So we figured, we should get in touch with the professional seaman who, along with wife-engineer Amy, is in charge of sailing this lovely boat: Captain James Murphy.

Jim is unique among professional private captains. He has decades of experience in skippering modern-classic sailing boats both in Maine and the Caribbean. He has always preferred working in smaller, unique vessels like Anna, where he can share his passion for classic boats with their owners.

We sat down for a series of phone calls with Murphy, from his home in Rhode Island. Here is his perspective on Anna and what makes her so unique, edited for length and clarity.

How did you get your start as a professional skipper?

I was working in food and beverage in the Caribbean. And I got a call to work as a crew person. And I stayed in the industry ever since. I started off as an entry-level deckhand, then as delivery crew for passages. I always said yes when the phone rang.

I got my captain license in 1986.

That’s 25 years of skippering. To what do you attribute your longevity?

I was fortunate to work smaller boats with friendly captains, early on. I was given a lot of important tasks, early. I never crewed on large boats. I never worked with more than 5 crew. That way you learn how to go about your business, and you can grow.

It’s not that way any more. Boats are so desperate for crew now, that it’s easy to get hidden down below on a 300-footer somewhere. You need 25 people to run those boats. It’s a different experience coming up now.

You’ve been fortunate to captain some lovely vessels.

Thank you, that’s true. My first gig was for 4 years captaining a Swan 51. My next job was 10 years skippering White Hawk, Bruce Kings’ amazing 105 footer. My next gig was 7 years on  Sapphire, which was the same length but it was a beefier, round-the-world kind of boat.

Then I retired for a bit. And then went back to White Hawk with a second owner.

White Hawk is one of our favorite boats. What’s it like to be responsible for her?

To get on a beautiful boat like White Hawk is a great experience. It’s a great opportunity. The owners were aware of the responsibility of a big classic vessel like that. They understood the history of the boat.

You not only sail the thing, you are perpetuating it.

Spirit of Tradition Sailing Vessel Anna

Even the simplest things like running rigging and sails take real effort to ready for sea.

How did you come to be skipper of Anna?

I was doing some freelancing, filling in for captains on vacation or in between permanent skippers. I called Drew Lyman at Lyman-Morse one day to check in. And he immediately asked, if I was looking for a full-time job. He was building a boat for a good client. He is looking for a captain.

Drew connected us, who did some background checks. Then I sat down with the owner and I got a feeling for what he wanted to use the boat for. We would explore the Northeast U.S and Nova Scotia in the summer. The boat would get put away in the winter.

It was a good fit right away.

Talk about working on a newly built, custom yacht.

I had never had this kind of input before. I got some pages of the plans. I visited the yacht during the build. You look at it differently in person than on paper. And right away, Anna was clearly going to be an incredibly beautiful a boat. I would need a different mindset to get her ready for service.

The boat was brand new.

Can you describe that change in mindset of a new build over an existing boat?

Let’s see, I was concerned that we had the access we needed for all the machinery. It’s seems so mundane in the larger picture, but I can’t tell you how important three inches can be down near an engine filter for getting a wrench on that fitting. There were questions like, did we have enough space over the generator to dismantle it to service it. You want all that machinery just right, before the deck goes on, and you lose touch with it.

Does it get tense with the yard or the designers? What’s that debate like?

I never wanted say, “This can’t go here” or ” I have to have access there.” I just have my own personal approach. I’m not an engineer nor a boat builder, they spent years designing the boat before I got there.

I just wanted the basics in place. And then I tried get out of the way.

Sailing Vessel Anna

The galley, for example, can eat up a lot of the skipper’s time. Making sure all the details are as the owners need them to be.

Once those basic parts are there, what happens next in getting a new build ready?

Once we got closer to launch, the details big and small, needed for the owner’s use take over. Do you have the right spares? What about all the comforts and soft furnishings. Is the galleyware correct? There is the staging of the silverware and the paper towels. There are things like the towel racks in the head. Can they be grabbed incorrectly when you are underway, and ripped out of the boat. The list goes on.

There is the intention and then the actuality of use. That’s the constant challenge.

Those details must have been more complex in a custom boat?

It is the nature of building a custom boat. You don’t know how things are going to be. There is a certain forgiveness in you, I think. There’s always time to scratch your head. On deck, I found I had to sail Anna half a dozen times before we realized what else we might need for the boat to be sailed well.

But the process must be memorable?

Absolutely. We did a 500-mile shakedown cruise, from Maine to the Canadian provinces. We did some racing. You get used to Anna more and more. And the feeling of trimming her and how things worked. By the time we sailed into Lunenburg, in Nova Scotia, we had a pretty good hand on how she operated.

What’s some of your favorite aspect of Anna?

For me, with all the cruising and day sailing we do, it is the self-tacking jib. For a boat this size, that is unique. It makes Anna a joy to go upwind. It shocks people standing there, ready to release the old jib and grind a winch. “What do you want me to do?,” they ask.

I just say, “Wait for it.” And the boat just turns on a dime, with no effort. It’s great.

Sailing Vessel Anna

But once the details are worked out, Murphy found Anna become a powerful experience for all her sailed her.

What were some of your least favorite parts of the boat.

That’s easy. The roller furling mainsail. It took me a while to get used to it. They are little finicky. Getting it to roll the way I wanted it to reef things properly. But once I got used to it, it’s a good tool. I just prefer the traditional systems.

Do you have a great memory on Anna?

There is a clear emotional attachment to a boat like this. After all the hustle and bustle of the launch, there is a point where both my wife and I said, “Wow, we really like this boat.”

For particular days on the water,? Well, we day-sailed for 27 days out of 30 this past summer in Mahone Bay, southwest of Halifax. It’s sort of like Maine but a bit lower and flatter. Lots of little islands that are nicely protected. Every afternoon we got in some sailing, day after day.

Every sail was different. It did not get boring. You get excited about being out there every day and the owner picks up on that enthusiasm. That’s when things really sink in and fall into place.

We would just go where the wind blew. Every afternoon we spent like that.

Sailcing vessel Anna

The biggest challenge? Remembering that the boat does not belong to the skipper.

Finally, what’s your biggest word of warning to anybody who is considering following you into skippering as a career.

You never can consider the boat your own. That is the sure path to going sour with the owners. It’s surprisingly easy to do. That discretion is what you learn over time.