About the Isabella

The Isabella is a wooden gaff rigged schooner modeled after the hundreds of fishing schooners that were built on Cape Ann in the early to mid 1800’s. One modification was to provide a high bulwark along the aft half of the boat to give more security to sailors on board. Also, the two deckhouses were narrowed slightly to provide wide walking room along both sides of the boat from stem to stern. She measures 38 feet on deck and features a massive bowsprit as well as aft davits.

She carries two solid wooden masts built from clear Douglas fir planks. Their wire shrouds are covered by layers of oiled wrappings-- AKA “wormed, parceled and served” to protect against the weather. Ratlines are tied on to one pair of shrouds to allow the crew to climb aloft. The booms and gaffs are also Douglas fir, finished with Tung Oil, and are fitted with sheets that allow the helmsman to turn from one tack to another with little adjustment.

The hull is constructed from hundreds of heavy oak and locust members, each carefully carved to join together in forming the artful curves and shapes of a sailing vessel. Tradition methods dictated the use of over 3,000 wooden pegs and bronze bolts to hold the wooden parts together. There is absolutely no plastic, stainless steel, chrome, or winches on the boat. There is a lot of wood: mahogany, white oak, locust, and white pine--and a lot of oil, rope, and wooden pulleys, belaying pins, dead eyes, blocks, and tackle. There are also two deckhouses. The aft one is built out of three inch sugar pine planks and has its own companionway to the engine room that houses all the mechanical and electrical equipment. The forward deckhouse is constructed out of four 20 inch wide, 1.5 inch thick mahogany planks and it gives entry to the forecastle which is entirely devoted to living and sleeping quarters.

The hull is made out of double sawn white oak ribs. Instead of being bent into shape, the ribs are cut out of large oak planks. The trick was to find large trees that were crooked, cut them into 4” thick planks and then select the best plank to make each rib section. Then the doubled rib sections are secured together with trunnels, large wooden pegs that serve as permanent nails that can never rust or come loose. Such a heavy rib skeleton can then accommodate the heavy 1.5 inch thick white oak planking. Each plank was put in the steam box until pliable and then rushed over and clamped into its place on the skeleton of oak ribs. Since the ribs are 15 “ on center, and being doubled, are 8 inches wide themselves, there is only a seven inch span between the ribs. The result is a very strong and beautifully hand-crafted vessel, weighing in at 22 tons. This traditional and rugged design makes for a much heavier boat than most modern designs and as a result the Isabella provides a uniquely solid and seaworthy feel that rides the waves with a smoothness and dignity not obtainable in lighter built boats. It would be a rare event for a mug of rum left standing on a deckhouse to be overturned and spill its contents.

The boat was crafted between September 2005 to September 2006 at the Burnham boat yard, on the Essex river, next to the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. Being built out in the open, next to the marshy back end of the river, it was only natural for the builder, Harold Burnham, to use the old-fashioned sideways launch when the boat was finally ready to hit the water. Burnham, and his “gang” of local Cape Ann craftsmen and shipwrights simply built a greased skidway under the Isabella, tilted it over on its side, and let grease, gravity, and hope carry it into the water. A video is on this website to show this rare launching which was watched by thousands of interested viewers who attended the launching ceremonies in September 2006.