The Enduring Magic of the Sailing Yacht Witchcraft

A sailing vessel that has been bewitching sailors for 120 years.

Ask any sailor and they will tell you boats have personalities, no two are alike, and some seem to exert more influence than others over their “owners.” This is the story of a sailing yacht named Witchcraft and how she has survived for 120 years by bewitching a whole series of “owners.” 

sailing yacht Witchcraft
Witchcraft under full sail as she looks today. Photo courtesy of D. Butler 

Witchcraft was built in 1903, a product of a design by B.B. Crowninshield, well known for his racing yachts, including the 1903 America’s Cup contender Independence and the efforts of the famous George Lawley and Sons Boatyard in Boston. She measures 66 feet over all, 59 feet on deck, has a 36-and-a-half-foot waterline length, and a beam of 13 feet. Her spoon bow, low freeboard, gentle sheer, and graceful counter stern evoke the design esthetic of a long-gone era. Witchcraft was built for William B. Rogers, a member of the Kellogg family, who sailed and raced her on Lake Champlain until 1920. She was designed and built as a gaff-rigged sloop, a fast but demanding rig, requiring a large crew as was common in those days.

 In 1921 ownership of Witchcraft passed to Frank C. Sullivan for 22 years. Sullivan made many changes in the 18-year-old boat. She was re-rigged as a gaff yawl with a Bermudan mizzen. This made her balance better and required a smaller crew. Sullivan also added an auxiliary engine, mounted off center on her port side, with a three-bladed propeller and vee-shaped strut. In 1935 Sullivan replaced the smaller gaff mainsail with a Bermudan rig, while retaining the mizzen to continue her configuration as a yawl. 

In 1943 Ken and Dorothy Shaffer fell under the spell of the Witch. They bought her and sailed her from New York to Baltimore under wartime conditions. She has remained in Chesapeake waters ever since. 
In 1958 Navy Commander David S. Butler Sr., a naval aviator, was assigned to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. He and his family lived on the base. Commander Butler soon purchased the boat and kept her in the base marina. He and his two teenage sons spent many enjoyable hours sailing her on the Patuxent River and lower Chesapeake Bay. When Commander Butler was reassigned to Florida in 1960, he reluctantly had to sell the Witch.

sailing yacht Witchcraft interior
The main salon, finished in varnished oak and butternut. The locker to port of the companionway is actually the motor box. Photo by Rick Franke

Witchcraft, at this point more than 50 years old, a long life for any wooden vessel, spent 10 years, more or less, deteriorating at her moorings in Rock Creek in Pasadena. She was discovered by Captain Paul Itzel, who purchased her for $1200, moved aboard, and began a restoration that would ultimately last more than 30 years. She went back in the water in 1992, was hauled out again, and finally in 1996 was back in the water, looking as good as new. 

Captain Itzel did not like the extra rigging, including a boomkin, required for the mizzen mast. He left the mast on the rack and launched her as a Bermudan-rigged sloop. Such a history, up to this point, is extraordinary, and if it ended here, would be a great story indeed. However, the Witch, as she’s always been known to her owners, had some more magic to do.

In 2007 David Butler, Jr., son of the Commander Butler who owned the boat in the late 1950s, wanted to have some models built of the boat that he and his brother Bill enjoyed sailing with their father. He commissioned a friend, John Dodd, to locate her plans. Dodd went one better and introduced Dave to Captain Itzel who had just put the Witch up for sale. Dave purchased her and set up an arrangement with Captain Itzel to remain as captain and continue with the boat’s renovation and modernization. It took Dave three years to convince Capt. Itzel to sell and remain with the Witch as captain. This partnership lasted until Captain Itzel passed away in 2015. 

The restoration included dusting off and re-stepping the original mizzen mast, thus returning her to a yawl rig. This time it was with the Bermudian main and mizzen, a change that took place in 2018. This sail plan allows her to be handily operated by a crew of three. But, even at the ripe old age of 120, our Witch still has some magic left.

The latest person to fall under Witchcraft’s spell is Mark Wilkins, curator of maritime history at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, MD. Mark negotiated the donation of the yacht Witchcraft to the museum. 

sailing yacht Witchcraft
Witchcraft as she looked when new in 1903, a gaff rigged sloop. Photo courtesy of D. Butler 

As Mark explains, “For the museum she represents a new chapter in recreational watercraft, heretofore not represented all too well here. We have working watercraft, skipjacks, buyboats, crab scrapes; that sort of thing. So, she’s an exciting addition to our collection. We hope to use her for sail training, high end charters, maybe involve youth groups, organizations such as the Sea Scouts or Outward Bound, and anybody who may be interested in working with this vessel to learn seamanship. That’s an exciting departure for us. 

“We’ll have a web page for Witchcraft so that people can learn about her programs and participate. We just got the boat (at the end of October), so we are scrambling to get a maintenance agenda and cost estimates. The programs are growing as we speak. There is a lot to do. We have plans and an excellent survey which we have submitted to the Coast Guard to learn what changes they may require to certify her for carrying passengers.”

David Butler, Jr., who is in his early 80s, explains his decision to donate the Witch to the museum: “It was time to ether sell her or find her a good home. I like the Calvert Marine Museum because they have lots of interactive displays, rather than static exhibits. They take people out in boats and take good care of the boats that they have. I’m hoping they use her for charters, cruises, and day sails so many more people can see and enjoy her.” 

At the tender age of 120 the Witch starts a new career. One wonders what comes next.

by Capt. Rick Franke

This article was  originally published in the January 2023 issue of SpinSheet.

Learn more about charter sails aboard Witchcraft at the Calvert Maritime Museum.