The Shortest Harrison Butler Designed
Boat To Cross The Atlantic
Harrison Butler's Tabloid N°16 design won first prize in a Yachting Monthly design competition in 1929 for “a sailing cabin cruiser for at least two persons, 18 feet on the water line and fitted with an auxiliary engine”. Three boats are known to have been subsequently built to the design, Elgris, Ballerina and Va Danser.
Elgris was constructed by Fox & Son of Ipswich in 1933 and is still in existance all-be-it in poor condition as a restoration project in Cornwall. The date that Ballerina was built in New Zealand is not known, although she too has not strayed far from her original home, last spotted there in 2008.
A scan of an advertisement from the July 1933 edition of Yachting Monthly,
offerring Va Danser, possibly then called Bonveen, for sale
Va Danser was built in Carantec, in North Brittany in 1932. Very little is known about her except for the fact that in 1957 this tiny vessel sailed across the Atlantic. This extraordinary achievement is mentioned in several French sailors' logs and memoirs but is unappreciated by the English speaking world. Consider this; Va Danser's waterline length of 18 feet is actually less than that of the boats that in recent years have won acclaim for being rowed across the Atlantic. Charlie Pitcher's trans-atlantic solo in 2013, for example, was in a 6.5 metre boat, a little over 21 feet in length. It is debatable whether operating oars or sails is the greater challenge on such a small floating platform in the open sea..
Bernard Kohler bought Va Danser specifically to sail across the Atlantic. He was strong-willed rather than skilled, navigating without a log to measure his speed or a sextant to determine his position.
Bernard left Concarneau, Brittany, on 27th August 1957 and headed straight across the Bay of Biscay with Va Danser steering herself. After three days he was off Cape Finisterre, the north-west corner of Spain. The next two weeks were spent fighting headwinds which necessitated long periods on the helm. He recorded that “I applied my needle diligently, mending one sail whilst the other tore”. On the 15th September Va Danser sailed into La Luz, Gran Canary, where he met Jean Bluche, a fellow French sailor at the start of a circumnavigation in his boat, Chimère. Jean wrote, “Everything on Va Danser was soaking wet, Bernard's mood very low. He tried to sell Va Danser but couldn't find a buyer”.
After six weeks, Bernard had mustered the strength to continue. With Va Danser rolling heavily, but sailing herself once more, he headed south. It took him four weeks to find the trade winds but from that point on, he started clocking up 24 hour runs of almost a hundred miles. He'd left the Canary Islands on 28th October and arrived in St Lucia on 7th December: 40 days at sea.
Harrison Butler produced several designs with a waterline length (LWL) of 18 feet and, indeed, his most popular design, the Z4, has only one foot more. A few of his designs have less LWL but, even so, it seems unlikely that Bernard Kohler's crazy record will be bettered. The Bon Marché design of 1921, for example, has a LWL of 16 feet, but the only known example, Faoileag, has not been heard of since 1985. With Earth's climate change seemingly resulting in a more turbulant atmosphere of higher and more frequent strong winds, it may well be an impossible record to break.
For the voyage, Va Danser was modified with the addition of moveable panels to protect the otherwise open cockpit and provisioned with 120 litres of water. In 1957 there was, of course, no GPS and weather forecasting was more of an art than a science.
The Harrison Butler Association has no record of what has happened to Va Danser or Bernard Kohler since this epic voyage. Nor do we have a photograph of either the boat or the man. Prior to 1957 it is believed Va Danser was called Bonveen. Should any reader know more, please get in touch.
Va Danser Statistics
Built : 1932 in the North Brittany yard at Carantec
LOA : 21' 0"
LWL : 18' 0"
Beam : 7' 1"
Draught : 3' 6"
Displacement : 3.7 tons TM
Va Danser Custodians & Home Ports
Bernard Kohler (?-1957-?) Concarneau
De Kerdrel. G A Gassman (1932-?) Carantec
Va Danser Links
• None found (September 2015)
Page last updated : September 2015