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By DORAN CUSHING
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000
The long curved bow, forward canted transom and full keel below the waterline easily distinguished the 23-foot Ensign as a classic sailboat embedded with the traditional look of much larger yachts.
First built by Pearson Yachts in 1962 in Bristol, R.I., and based on the design of CarlAlberg, there were more than 1,600 Ensigns scattered across the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
But a shift in the winds of the sailing industry -- with greater emphasis on mass produced modern designs -- eventually stalled the growth of the labor-intensive Ensign.
Now, some 30-plus years after its heyday and 17 years since the last Ensign was built, the heart of Ensign country is based in the Tampa Bay area.
Zeke Durica of Dunedin fell into the business of building Ensign parts a few years ago when the mast on his boat came tumbling down -- dismasted as the sailors would say. That mishap inadvertently led Durica to seek out the tooling to make parts for this old fashioned one-design boat.
In a joint venture between the national Ensign class association and Durica's Ensign Spars, Inc., the classic boat will be built again in Dunedin with Durica serving as the coordinator of the fabrication process.
"I'm taking the position of a general contractor, using an independent builder for the hulls and decks and carpenters for the woodwork," Durica said. "I'll do more of the finishing work and customizing for each new owner."
Durica, whose career with Air Canada has spanned 28 years as a customer service agent, became a fan of one-design racing and an avid Ensign devotee in the mid 1960s after racing bigger boats in Ohio under the existing handicap rating systems.
"The first time I sailed a one-design back in 1967, I said this beats racing handicap all to hell," Durica recalled. "I bought my first Ensign in 1968 and moved to Florida in 1969 when there weren't any Ensigns racing in Florida."
As he sought out other boats in the region to form a fleet, Durica ran across opportunities to buy boats that were not being used. At the same time, he'd find buyers for the older boats.
"I'd sell it on one condition -- that they would agree to race it," he said. "That's how we built the fleet in Florida. Once we had four boats, a lot more people got interested.
"Now we're seeing a big resurgence in the class, and the association has more members than it ever had," Durica said.
The typical Ensign sailors come from one of two distinct parts of the sailing community, Durica said. They're either sailors new to the sport or have been involved with Ensigns for several decades.
"There are the beginners -- it's a perfect boat to learn to sail -- and there are the owners who have owned the boat forever and won't let it go," Durica said.
"It's very seaworthy, very forgiving, and very safe. And it can be sailed by yourself or with six people aboard."
The first three new Ensign Classic semi-custom boats will sell for $26,500 to $28,000, depending upon how they are outfitted, Durica said.
"After that, we'll know better what it will cost, but I think that's a pretty good estimate," he said. "Hopefully by March we'll have a boat that's almost completed, and we already have orders for two boats."
An older Ensign can be purchased and brought to racing speed without a huge investment.
"You can pick up a used Ensign for $4,000, spend maybe $3,000 on sails, and be very competitive," Durica said.
Durica is an organizer of the Ensign Class midwinter championships, which are scheduled for March 16-17 in Clearwater.
Seventeen boats participated in the inaugural regional event in 1999, and Durica is looking for even greater participation this season.
"We think there's going to be at least 25 boats, including 13 from out of state," Durica said.
"We don't get the sport's rock stars, but the people who raced at the nationals were very good sailors -- it's a tactical boat."
Durica isn't ready to give up his day job for the Ensign project, but his commitment to the class and the boat building venture is unabashed, having served as commodore of the national association and founder of the new Ensign business.
"I want to have fun doing this," he said.
For more information on the regional activities in the Ensign class, contact Durica, (727) 734-1837.
NATIONAL AWARD WINNERS: Manta Enterprises, Inc., of Largo and Hunter Marine Corp. of Alachua were among 12 cruising and racing sailboat builders who received 2001 boat of the year honors at the annual awards ceremony Dec. 7 in Newport, R.I.
The Manta 42 catamaran was cited with best value honors in the competition sponsored by Cruising World magazine. The more radical water ballasted Hunter HC50 design was named the best performance cruiser.
Selection of the winners was determined by a panel of judges that included noted offshore sailors, naval engineers and marine authors.
RATING CLARIFICATION: In a Dec. 12 letter from West Florida Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) president Sandy Schoenberg, sailors who have been participating in the true cruising class in regional regattas were advised of a change in the language and certification process for that classification.
The revised requirements, which have been posted on the West Florida PHRF Web site, limit the type of sail material in the class to dacron, canvas or cotton. A "cruising equipment list" must be submitted to West Florida PHRF to obtain the new rating certificate supplement.
Full details can be found at www.westfloridaphrf.org.