There’s this boat: Kalalau

16 Dec

A pretty blue sloop came around the corner of a sandy islet and into the bay where we were anchored recently. Jamie and I watched it from the cockpit: just admiring the lines, enjoying an afternoon of sun sparkling on water. We were lost in that reverie that a lovely boat can pull you into, not thinking about it much, when a shout and a wave came from the side decks. We knew this boat? Wait a minute, we KNEW this boat! It was Kathleen and George Hill on Kalalau, hailing from Port Townsend- our home waters- last met in Mexico, back in 2009.

We caught up quickly, and made plans for what would be the first of many gatherings during the coming couple of weeks we shared in the harbor. Their arrival added a new facet to good times. Besides catching up and telling stories, how many people do you know who can recite all six stanzas of Derelict (also known as “15 men on a dead man’s chest”) from memory, behind flickering firelight, to a wide-eyed circle of children, on Halloween no less? Right. Neither can I. It’s just one of George’s

George and Kathleen have decided that the lure of grandchildren is greater than the lure of the horizon, and are closing this cruising chapter of their lives: Kalalau is for sale. As cruisers, I think we tend to have more personal relationship with our floating homes. The prospect of selling Kalalau precipitated storytelling, of her own history and of their adventures sailing her, as we passed time together over a couple of weeks in that beautiful bay.

Telaga bonfires

The story of Kalalau unfolded gradually, over beach bonfires and cockpit sundowners.  She was built by Laurie Dowsett, who commissioned Bill Lapworth for the design and was her sole owner before the Hills. An ocean sailor and competitive racer, Dowsett owned a rigging shop in Honolulu: this is his dream boat, the boat built to benefit from his years of experience to be sea kindly with an eye to performance.

One of the first things that make Kalalau remarkable is that she’s built of Burmese teak. I don’t mean “Burmese teak” as it’s referred to today, a generic reference to any non-plantation teak. This is old-growth boat building gold, hand-picked by Dowsett from logging camps in Burma. He watched as elephants brought the logs down the river to float to Rangoon, where they were shipped to Hong Kong to be milled and dried. There is simply  no way a boat can be built like this today. Even then, it took patience: Dowsett waited for three years before the boards had air-drying to moisture levels that were right to begin construction.

Kalalau in Roderick Bay, Solomon Islands

Three years is a long time to sit around waiting for boards to dry. Dowsett used that waiting period to source quality fittings and materials and bring them to Hong Kong, as well as refine the design with Bill Lapworth. At 43 feet, Kalalau’s design is rooted in Lapworth’s popular Cal 40. Dowsett wasn’t just looking for speed, though, he wanted a boat that would allow comfortable living for extended cruising. Everything was beefed up, from the rigging size to the thickness of the hull planking and the number of frames.

How he accomplished the quality of interior living space with a few tweaks to Lapworth’s design are what I found most remarkable. With monohulls, the older you get, the more cave-like they tend to be below deck. Smaller ports, and fewer of them, mean less sunlight in the main cabins. It doesn’t help that they’re usually wood. That’s beautiful, but doesn’t lighten up a cabin the way the glossy white gelcoat in newer plastic boats does. Kalalau is the first traditional mono I’ve seen that avoids this so cleanly. The salon and master cabin are full of natural light, and layout accommodates this without the awkward looking (my nice way of saying ugly) high freeboard used as a crutch in newer boats. The natural light is tremendous, and you can gaze at the anchorage while setting on the settee. I have to pop up the companionway for that kind of view!

The port designs that facilitate this are unique. Besides bringing in a lot of light, they allow tremendous airflow- and can stay open in wet conditions when we’d have to button up Totem. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, maybe, but it is HOT in the tropics- and if you can have big windows, and keep them open, even when it’s raining? Tropical cruising gold! There’s a subset of cruisers who have air conditioning. And…well, yeah, this is the way it should be done. George said the design concept was borrowed from Portuguese ships. They open inward, hinging along the bottom; a wooden wedge holds them firmly in place. They are recessed in a manner that means anything but crazy sideways rain stays outside, while the air comes in. Want to close them? The wedges are removed, port closed, and the wedge slid back in their slots- holding it perfectly in place. The combination of function and simplicity is brilliant.

thanks to the Hill’s broker, Mary at LBSS, for this photo

There’s more to the story of Kalalau’s care under Dowsett, and it kind of defies belief, but it’s true: like the fact that for the years he kept it in the Pacific Northwest, when the summer was over he stored Kalalau in a temperature-controlled warehouse that he purchased for the purpose… removing all moving rigging each year, and replacing it again for the next sailing season. Who does that?

Over the next couple of weeks, we shared a lot of stories around a beach bonfires, or over sundowners in the cockpit. Winding down six years of living aboard and cruising brought out the reflective view of favorite places and unforgettable experiences- like the time they were pinned in a harbor in New Zealand, surrounded by a pod of whales who seemed to be boisterously celebrating the return of better weather.

I think about the path we have wound, and it follows similar priorities to those of George and Kathleen: seeking the culturally or geographically interesting places, the less visited corners. Their stories of the adventures in Tonga, of being part of a multi-day celebration of dancing and feasting in the Solomon Islands, of dodging hurricanes in Australia- they are rich, and will always stay with them. There are very few other people we know who we share our friendship with the amazing families on Mal in Ninigo, Papua New Guinea, but the Kalalau crew is among them. In the four year interval between Mexico and Malaysia, it’s almost surprising that the first time we’ve in the same place again.

We all think our boats are special, but after hearing the stories and spending time on Kalalau during those days together, I feel a touch of the same bittersweet emotions at the prospect of selling their cruising home that George and Kathleen must feel. It’s not an asset, it’s the beautiful home of tremendous provenance that has carried them safely through seas of memories. It’s hard not to wonder: who will this be passed to? Who picks up this history and takes it forward? I don’t know, but I hope we share many anchorages with the pretty blue-hulled Kalalau again.

For the curious, Kalalu is listed here


If you’re reading this on the SAILfeed website, you’ve just put a tip in our cup for the Totem cruising kitty. Thank you!


  1. Greg Millbank


    I am Greg Millbank of Nanaimo BC Canada. For the past 13 years or so, I have owned Evian the sister ship to Kalalau. I didn’t know she had a sister until I read this post. As mentioned, Evian was built by Chuck Ullman, of Transpac fame and father of Dave Ullman, the sailmaker. Judging by the pictures, the boats are virtually identical inside and out except Evian does not have the opening salon windows. Evian is a delightful boat in every way.

    Evian was built by Robert Newton and sons in Hong Kong (later to become Grand banks Yachts). I think she was built in 1961 0r 1962. The boat is still in excellent shape.

  2. Allan Dowsett

    My Dad was Laurie Dowsett.
    He was a great sailor, great yachtsman in every respect and a really good Dad and he built himself a great Kalalau.
    We spent many a good times on Kalalau. He would be so happy to know of the many miles under her keel since that teary day we left her at Port Townsend.
    We have so many awesome memory’s of this very seaworthy, easy to sail, easy to sleep in, always smells good gal.

    One of the building points Dad had, and he had many, was he wanted a large flat bottom keel so he could wet drydock it where there was a large change of tide. He specified a full length stainless plate approx. 8′ long x 4″ wide. It could not be found in Hong Kong at that time, so they substituted…..with BRONZE. I hope and believe Dad removed it when it got to the States; something to check George…..your asking might have just changed.

    I’ve sailed many miles and in many different types of power and sail boats. Nothing compares to the sea worthiness of Kalalau. Nothing….she is just so great to drive.

    The sister ship to her was Avion, first owned by Chuck Ullman (son is Dave Ullman…Ullman sails), built in the States around 1963-64. Chuck won transpac in 60 or 61 I believe; with the Legend. Last saw Avion in Anacortes, WA. in 2007.

    Enjoy, Kalalau like we did.
    BTW, Kalalau means wanderer in Hawaiian.
    Happy wandering!
    Allan Dowsett

  3. Pingback: Day 7 – Railay West |

  4. brian tennant

    great write up. we sailed alongside george and kathleen onboard kalalau for almost a year, we were on stella, the blue corbin in the photo of rhoderick bay , solomons,
    we were together from port villa to ko samui,kalalau proved to be a very strong and reliable vessel, adept at both light and extremely good in stronger winds.
    lovely roomy yacht, great entertaining areas, was always a pretty sight to see her coming into anchorage

  5. Peter and Elaine

    We had a great time sailiing with the Hills in Vanuatu. The boat is a delight, very easy to handle.

  6. Jane

    Having spent a little time on the Kalalau, I can vouch that it is one of the most beautiful and comfortable cruising sailboats I have experienced. I especially cherish the memory of relaxing with smoothies at sunset with Kathy and George while the Kalalau gently rocked in the waters of the Fiji Isles.

  7. Behan - s/v Totem

    Giovanni, the boat designer is William “Bill” Lapworth, famous for the Cal 40 among other designs. This was a custom design, although George mentioned there is one other that was built; I don’t know the details there.

Comments are closed.

More from the AIM Marine Group