There are a number of Northwest boat designs that have withstood the test of time, but few if any could rival the Minto sailing dinghy.
Because of the visual appeal of its fine lines, teak gunwales, teak seats, Sitka Spruce spars and the peculiar use of a steamship insignia on its sail, the Minto sailing dinghy always draws attention.
The little lapstrake is reported to have been “borrowed” by more builders than any other boat design known to have come out of the Northwest boating industry. And it was once cited by a Seattle policeman as the most frequently stolen dinghy in the area.
It’s no wonder that for the past 45 years, these classic skiffs have lured a loyal group of owners.
Next month, Minto fans and owners from around the Northwest will gather in Vashon Island’s Quartermaster Harbor for the annual Minto Mingle race and rendezvous. Hosted by the Three Tree Point Yacht Club, this year’s event on June 19 and 20 aims to uphold its lengthy tradition of being a lot of fun.
So how did this nine-foot sailing dinghy come to be? And why has it been such an enduring member of our local boating community?
A boat is born
As all history is an amalgamation of facts and reasoned conjecture, so is the history of the Minto sailing dinghy. Since most Minto owners were not aware they were making history at the time, those still with us today look back with a little surprise, as well as somewhat hazy recollection of their roles. However, the parts of the Minto puzzle have been pieced together.
The boat was based on a pretty lapstrake dinghy that had once been used for a 24-foot wooden sailboat named Minto. But just how that boat came to be the mold is an amazing tale of a community of boating friends from a post World War II Northwest era quickly receding from memory.
The modern Minto’s story began in Gig Harbor around 1960, when Ed Hoppen started collaborating with Heine Dole to build a small sailing dinghy out of fiberglass, but based on the timeless design of the original Minto’s wooden dinghy.
At the time, Hoppen had already successfully teamed with Seattle naval architect Ben Seaborn in the design and construction of another classic Northwest boat — the highly popular Thunderbird sailboat. If the Minto looked to the past, the Thunderbird seemed like the future. It was the first commercially built sailboat to use plywood for the hull, bulkheads, deck and cabin. Although Hoppen finished 16 complete Thunderbirds himself, he sold about 100 “build it yourself” pre-cut material kits. More than 25,000 of the plans Hoppen developed for building the Thunderbird have been sold to date.
Heine Dole was a successful naval architect who, after graduating from Stanford University with a degree in mechanical engineering, became the chief engineer at the Astoria Marine Construction Co. (AMCCO) during World War II. Having already designed and built his own 30foot cutter Chantey, on which he lived, Dole was kept very busy producing 137- foot wooden minesweepers and 47- foot tugs for the Navy, while at the same time designing an occasional custom yacht.
Dole was busy enough to sell his beloved Chantey in what he years later referred to as a weak moment. After WWII, Dole moved to Gig Harbor, opened a naval architecture office and became friends with Hoppen.
The person to whom he sold Chantey was Bob Schoen, who, after graduating from the University of Washington in 1943, took his new bride, Mary, on a honeymoon to Orcas Island — and they never left. Raising sheep on their West Sound acreage, delivering oil and logging equipment to the outer islands, charting local tides for Union Oil and starting the first commercial air service between Orcas Island and the mainland kept Bob Schoen busy. But the Schoens always had time for boating and their boating friends.
It was one of those friends, Rob Whittlesey, who purchased the 24-foot Minto and the pretty Minto RVYC skiff from their original owner. But the skiff was a little big for Whittlesey, so he traded it to Bob Schoen for a smaller one that he had purchased for Chantey.
The skiff was stored in Schoen’s barn until Dole (from whom Schoen had purchased Chantey years earlier) convinced them the skiff should be reproduced in fiberglass.
From a handful to thousands
Although the initial intent was to just build five dinghies, Hoppen quickly recognized the potential for their new little dinghy. After Hoppen produced a couple hundred Mintos, he turned the regular Minto production over to Howard “Smitty” Smith at Ranger Boats in Kent, who produced more than 1,000 Mintos before Ranger was sold in 1999.
Hoppen continued to sell an occasional blank hull to customers well into the 1980s, but most of those customer finished boats were not built to the same configuration as the Ranger Minto.
Hoppen died in 1985, and Dole and Schoen died within a month of each other in 2003. But the popularity of the little dinghy they created lives on.
The popularity the Ranger Minto experienced during the 30- year production run at Ranger Boats induced at least seven other known commercial builders from Canada to California to make use of the Minto hull design, as well as inspiring numerous backyard knock-offs – none of which have given Hoppen and Dole the credit they are due.
But why the funny steamship logo on the sails?
Well, back around 1960, Dole and Hoppen were struggling to make a connection between the name Minto and their new little sailing dinghy. They knew the original owner of the 24-foot sailboat Minto had named his new boat (and its skiff) to celebrate the tidy sum he had made from his Vancouver Mining Exchange investment in the Minto Mine. But for Dole and Hoppen, the question was, how do you relate a hole in the ground to a dinghy?
Then, in a stroke of inspiration that would forever add to the distinctiveness of the Minto sailing dinghy, as well as the confusion regarding its origins, they chose the SS Minto steamship of Upper Arrow Lake, B.C. to be the model for the toy-like sail insignia that has identified the Minto sailing dinghy ever since.
As the years have passed, several stories have arisen about the history of the boat and to explain the reason for the steamship. Some arose through romantic speculation, and some arose to obscure the origins of boats being produced by other builders. However, the real story is that the Minto sailing dinghy was the product of a common love for boating shared by longtime friends, and it is a story too good to lose.
Michael Ellis is the owner of Rich Passage Boats, which began revived production of the original Minto under the name Rich Passage Minto in 2005. You can obtain additional information about the Minto sailing dinghy and associated Minto sailing events at http://www.richpassage.com