Joel Van Sant

The American Classic Moth Class was created by Captain Joel Van Sant of Elizabeth City, North Carolina in 1929, a year after Australian Len Morris

With an eleven foot overall length, a maximum beam of 60 inches, a minimum hull weight of 75 pounds, 72 Sq Ft sail area, and very few other restrictions, the USA Classic Moth can be a skiff, pram, scow, skinny tube, dinghy, or any combination thereof.

The first boat of its kind was built in Elizabeth City in 1929 when Captain Joel Van Sant visited while ferrying a yacht along the Intracoastal Waterway. Inspired by the calm water of the Pasquotank River, he created drawn designs for a small sailing dinghy and enlisted the help of local shipbuilders to construct one. They agreed to assist Van Sant, and his finished boat was dubbed ‘Jumping Juniper’ because of its speed. The quick, light boat soon became popular with residents along the eastern seaboard of the USA, who built their own inexpensive ones and by the 1950s and ‘60s, moth boat races abounded up and down the east coast.

The designation “moth boat” has several stories. After Van Sant painted a butterfly on the sail, a reporter from Norfolk’s Virginian Pilot remarked, “That looks like a moth. Are you calling it the moth boat?” It is said that Van Sant liked the sound of it, and the name stuck. Another story claims Van Sant named the extremely small boat the moth because of its ability to flit across the waves. Others say, because he and Saunders worked on the plans beneath a work lamp at night, the name came from the moths that fluttered close by. Which story do you believe to be true?

How is the story of the Moth Class linked to a renowned Gangster?

Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1929. The prohibition is in full swing everywhere across the USA – apart from Atlantic City of “Boardwalk Empire” fame. “Boss” Nucky Johnson runs the town, and he has effectively legalised alcohol to keep the tourists rolling into the big hotels and tourist attractions. Along the waterfront sit the bootleggers’ speedboats, powered by triple V12 engines that will allow them to dodge Coast Guard cutters and naval destroyers when they run out to the floating booze warehouses that sit outside national waters on the “rum line”.

Two groups of men met in Atlantic City that year to discuss the effects of prohibition. One was a wealthy group who stayed at a prestigious hotel  and partied in full view of the press. The other group included boatbuilders and seamen from a “gangster-ridden neighborhood…..a teeming cesspool of rumrunners, gangsters and gunslingers.”

Just a bunch of respectable businessmen having a nice time in Atlantic City in 1929; Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and friends.

The group who were strutting the boardwalk in the glare of publicity included “Scarface” Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and many of America’s other leading mobsters. They were planning the future of organised crime in the USA.

The group who talked in a rundown neighbourhood was lead by Captain Joel Van Sant. They were planning the class that became the Moth.

The inside tale of the creation of America’s Moth comes from boat designer and former Moth sailor David R Martin, who was born at the same time and place as the Moth and started sailing them as a boy. “There were about a half-dozen boat-building shops within walking distance” he told Yachting Magazine and confirmed to me by email. “Captain Joel Van Sant got the boat owners and captains together in 1929 and told them, ‘This neighborhood is full of rumrunners, gunfighting gangsters and debauchery. When these kids grow up, they’re liable to become rumrunners if we don’t stop it.” Van Sant showed the group a little boat he was in the process of building, and proposed that they start a class of similar boats to keep the local kids active and out of trouble.

Joel Van Sant III was a natural man to lead the class. A member of a family that had been boatbuilders for generations, he was a qualified ship’s master, the former trials captain for the Elizabeth City Shipyard in North Carolina, and the paid captain of the big steam yacht Siesta. Together with boatbuilder Ernie Sanders, he’d created the little boat he called Jumping Juniper while Siesta was in refit at the Elizabeth City Shipyard, to give himself something to carry aboard Siesta for pleasure sails. Perhaps the need to store the boat on Siesta, along with Van Sant’s slender frame and the fact that he was a damn good sailor who didn’t need a stable boat, was the reason why Jumping Juniper was just 11 feet long.

Dave Martin says that in order to encourage the neighbourhood kids to use their creativity, the Atlantic City group decided to create a development class instead the one designs that dominated US dinghy sailing. It fitted the local culture, for Atlantic City was a small island of development classes in a world of one designs. Perhaps it was the way the shallow and narrow waterways (“thorofares” in Atlantic City speak) wound through the city, providing plenty of waterfront space for boatbuilding. Perhaps it was the miles of sheltered waters, for development classes tend to thrive on calmer seas.

“Our neighborhood was extremely interested in advancing the art of boat design” recalls Martin. “For instance Cricket Boat sailor Adolph Apel was at the leading edge of powerboat design.” To men like these the development class was a familiar concept, and they had the skill and the tools to explore the possibilities. They found an old building to build boats in and called it Evening Star Yacht Club, because they raced in the afternoons after their working day was done. As Martin recalls, the entire neighbourhood would come down to the waterfront on those afternoons, to sail their Moths or cheer on their friends and family.

In the harsh times of the Depression, the cheap little Moth made waves with astonishing speed. Van Sant took Jumping Juniper when he went down to Florida for the fall, and the class took off there when he sailed to victory in a regatta. He went back to North Carolina, and fleets spread there. Soon there were Moth fleets from Long Island all the way south, although for some reason the class never seems to have spread further west in the USA. The first class championship was as early as 1930, and by 1937 there were Moths in ten states.  Somehow the tiny little boats soon ended up with a $2,500 first place trophy and $1500 of other prizes for the “world” championship, although competition from outside the USA seems to have been non existent until after WW2.

In its early days, the “world” open championship shared the limelight with events for juniors, teams racing and women; a symbol of its appeal as a versatile craft rather than a specialised racing machine for experts.  It’s hard to realise how big the Moth was in the USA in its heyday as a club racer for people of all skill levels.   In 1946, MotorBoating magazine claimed that the Moths had 1500 boats afloat, making it the sixth most popular class in the country.  The Moth class pioneers had certainly succeeded in their mission to get kids hooked on boats. As Martin recalls, many of the early Atlantic City Moth teenagers became leaders in boat design, although they made their names under power rather than sail. Russell Post founded the famous Egg Harbour Boat Company; Jack Leek ran President Sea Skiffs and Ocean Yachts. The Russo brothers worked at Pacemaker, while Martin himself spent many years designing powerboats for major companies. In later years, the Moth was to help launch designers like Skip Etchells (of Etchells 22 yacht fame). It was a tradition that was to extend to France, England, New Zealand and Australia in later years.