By Michael Ellis

In Search of Minto

This is a story about a 9'1" sailing dinghy with a lapstrake fibreglass hull, teak gunwales, thwarts, knees and breast hook, Sitka spruce boom, and two-piece mast. It is called a Minto. It has been one of the most popular boats in the Northwest for the past 40 years, and it is hard to find a long-time NW sailor who hasn't owned or sailed a Minto at some point.

I don't remember exactly when or how my story of the Minto sailing dinghy began. However, in piecing together the past it seems to me it must have been at the Seattle Boat Show in 1979. For several months prior to the show, my father and I had been talking about the possibility of being partners in a sailboat. I had looked at an Aquarius 23 in Gig Harbor, which I thought was too small. I drove out to Southworth to take a look at a used Balboa 26, but it wasn't in great shape and we didn't pursue it. Then my dad started talking about American 25s and Buccaneer 24s, and I started to get nervous. Not that those aren't fine boats, but I was looking for something with more of a classic appearance, and with 6'2" standing room. For you see I wasn't really a sailor, but I thought I knew what one looked like.

At the 1979 Seattle Boat Show I found Ranger Boats of Kent, WA, displaying their Ranger 26 sailboat, and I fell in love. However, the cost of a new Kent Ranger 26 in 1979 was about $23,000 USD, which was around twice our sailboat budget. So I started searching for a used one while holding my dad's American and Buccaneer urges at bay. I am pretty sure I remember seeing a Ranger Minto at the show, but my focus was on the Ranger 26. I had driven past Howard Smith's Ranger Boat Company on HW99 numerous times and noticed the cute little boats he had on display, but it never occurred to me to stop. After the show we did stop at Smitty's to get another look at the Ranger 26, and I remember standing in the display room and admiring the beautiful little Minto.

 

Ranger only built about 70 Ranger 26s before shutting down its production, and since at that point they had probably only built about half, finding a used one took some time. As this was before the Internet, my searches were restricted to regular checks of the two main Seattle papers. Then, after several months of fruitless checking, my wife and I left the kids with the grandparents and took a short weekend getaway to Vancouver, BC. After taking in a Friday night movie, I got up Saturday morning and went out for some donuts and coffee, and of course a newspaper. And of course there was an ad for a Kent Ranger 26, which just so happened to be in Bellingham, which just so happened to be on our way back home, which just so happened to cut short our first weekend without the kids. So we bought our first Kent Ranger 26 in 1980, and some time in 1982 we bought a used Minto.

I bought the Minto primarily to be used as a tender for the 26. However, it came with a sailing package and I discovered how much fun they were to sail. It also became a fishing, crabbing, and crawfish-catching boat. It went on just about every family vacation that we didn't go by plane. Sometimes on top of a motorhome, sometimes on top of the car, and sometimes in a trailer, and sometimes even behind our boat. When we moved to a new house and sold our first Kent Ranger 26 in 1997, there was no question of selling the Minto. For the past eight years, it has been a common sight in Rich Passage, between Waterman Point and Bainbridge Island, serving as both a rowboat and sailboat.

 

So that was my 25-year introduction to the Minto, and until this year when I started building Mintos I hadn't been all that curious about how the boat got its name or how the boat came to be. Over the years, I had heard a number of stories about the origins of the Minto. Initially, I just assumed it originated with Ranger Boats. Then I read an article published in 48North magazine that identified Ed Hoppen, the boatbuilder who was the first builder of the Thunderbird sailboat, as also being the father of the Minto. That story told of Ed finding an old wood boat washed ashore somewhere in south Puget Sound and using the boat to make the mould for the first Minto in his Eddon Boat Yard in Gig Harbor. After that, the Minto history is pretty straightforward. At least for the history of the authorized Minto. As one of the most popular boat designs in the NW, it has been frequently pirated, both commercially and as home projects. The roots are undoubtedly Eddon, and the main trunk is Ranger, but there are numerous offshoots to the Minto sailing dinghy tree.

After building a couple hundred Eddon Mintos, Ed licensed Ranger to make the Minto in the mid-1960s. Ranger built about 1,000 Ranger Mintos until Ranger was sold in 1999 to Dave Livingston and his sons. The Livingstons decided to concentrate on powerboats, and by 2002 both Minto moulds had been sold. One went to Hal Palmer in Gig Harbor, who subsequently sold it to Ed's son, Guy Hoppen. The other mould went to Steve Metz, also of Gig Harbor, and this was the mould I used to put the Minto back into production this year as the Rich Passage Minto. As the latest in the line of Minto builders, after owning one for 23 years, I finally got interested in the Minto history.

My first step was to find out why the Minto graphic was a little steamship. I did an Internet search and discovered the steamship SS Minto, built in 1898 and used in service on Upper Arrow Lake in British Columbia until 1954. This seemed too much to be coincidence, but I wanted confirmation and an explanation. I called Ken Wheeler, who for many years was Smitty's production manager at Ranger Boats. Ken confirmed the graphic and name did come from the old steamship, and according to the story, he was told it was because Ed Hoppen had found the original wood boat lying in the weeds next to the derelict steamer. Well, that was a nice little story and with that information I wrote a nice little article for Small Craft Advisor magazine. The problem was, like other handed-down stories, it was mostly true, but not entirely so. When I contacted Guy Hoppen for confirmation, he told me his dad's friend, Heine Dole, was the person who actually found the boat, and it came from a barn on Orcas Island, not the weeds holding the old SS Minto. Guy speculated the Minto name was adopted for the dinghy because it reminded Heine and his dad of the lifeboats carried by the SS Minto, and to make the dinghy distinctive. Guy said he remembers watching Heine and his dad designing and cutting out the first little Minto steamer icon to go on the dinghy's sail.

 

I would have been satisfied with the Minto history at that point, but shortly before we left for our 2005 San Juan Island cruise in our second Kent Ranger 26, I received an e-mail from Mary Schoen, saying "you might be interested to know the wood boat used to make the original Minto mould came from my barn." Obviously this was something to be investigated. So when we were in the area we stopped to see Mary in West Sound on Orcas Island to learn more of the story, which began after Bob Schoen, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1943, and Mary married and traveled to Orcas Island for their honeymoon. Since they never left, I guess it was a long honeymoon. Bob played many roles on the island. He delivered oil and logging equipment to the outer islands, raised sheep, worked with the ferry system and Union Oil on charting local tides, and in 1947 he started the first commercial air service for Orcas Island. He also loved boating and had many friends involved in NW boating, including Heine, Ed, and a man named Rob Whittlesey, who in 1946 had purchased a 24-foot four-ton sloop built by Hugh Rodd at Canoe Cove on Vancouver Island.

 

The boat Rob purchased happened to be named after the SS Minto, and it came with a fancy skiff, which had "Minto RVYC" carved into its transom. Besides thinking the skiff was a little too fancy to be used as a dinghy, he also thought the 10-foot skiff was too long for his 24 foot sailboat. So he traded it for a shorter dinghy Bob Schoen had bought in Vancouver for $65 for his larger Chantey sailboat, and after Chantey was sold the original Minto dinghy eventually got stored in the Schoen's barn. That is where Heine, a naval architect, saw the boat and convinced Bob it would make a great boat reproduced in fibreglass, but would have to be shortened. At this point I should mention that before Rob Whittlesey sent me a photo of the original Minto skiff, everyone had remembered Ed and Heine lengthening the plug by about two feet. When I got the photo from Rob I suspected perhaps the photo was of the wrong boat. We are talking about something that occurred about 60 years ago, and those involved still living didn't realize they were engaged in creating a NW classic. However, Rob's memory was confirmed by another old friend, Terry Dalton, who was with Bob on Chantey when the trade was made.

 

Ed Hoppen died in July 1985. Bob Schoen died in March 2003, and Heine died one month later. Mary Schoen and Peggy Dole both remember Ed Hoppen's Eddon Minto #1 being destroyed, #2 going to Ed, #3 going to Chuck Ogden, #4 going to Heine, and #5 going to Bob. Mary still has #5, which she still sails in front of her home on West Sound, and she also has the last Eddon Minto built. Besides having my curiosity satisfied, the real reward in this search has been learning about and meeting some of the wonderful people behind the story, each of them owning a part of the Minto sailing dinghy history. Even though Bob Schoen was known for many achievements in his life, according to Mary he took special pleasure in having provided the wood boat that was used to make the Minto sailing dinghy.

So with the question about the origin of the Minto sailing dinghy sufficiently resolved, my next question was from where does the Minto name come? There are numerous geographic applications of the Minto name, but they all relate back to Minto village in south Scotland, near the border with England. But the use of the Minto name does not refer to the village itself, but to the persons who have carried the title of Lord Minto. At the time the SS Minto steamship was built, the Governor General of Canada was Lord Minto, Gilbert John, 4th Earl of Minto. It is assumed by the British Columbia History Museum archivist the SS Minto was named to honour Lord Minto for his recent selection as Governor General, and his previous service to Canada from 1883 to 1885 as the military secretary to the then Governor General of Canada, Lord Lansdowne. However, during his first stay in Canada, Lord Minto, who was born Gilbert John Elliot but assumed his father's title of Lord Melgund, was commonly known as just "Melgund". It gets a little confusing with given names, titles, and the names actually used by British aristocrats. Regardless, as Governor General of Canada from 1898 to 1904 and Viceroy of India from 1905 to 1910, he was known as Lord Minto and is considered in Britain's history one of its most notable diplomats and administrators.

If the BC History Museum archivist's assumption about the name relationship of the SS Minto steamship on Upper Arrow Lake is correct, then it probably also applies to the icebreaker SS Minto built in 1899 for use around Prince Edward Island to keep the shipping lanes open during the winter. If naming one boat to honour the current Governor General of Canada was good politics, then naming two should have been better. So Canada had two co-existing SS Mintos, until the icebreaker SS Minto was sold to Russia during WW I and subsequently sunk, thereupon eliminating significant opportunity for confusion. Then again, one or both of the SS Mintos could have been named for one of the three Lord Mintos that preceded Melgund in honour of him or one of his ancestors. So we will just say the SS Minto of Upper Arrow Lake was named for Lord Minto, and leave it at that. And be thankful they didn't name the steamship the SS Melgund.

So now you know why the pretty little sailing dinghy created by Heine Dole and Ed Hoppen in Gig Harbor is called a Minto. The Minto sailing dinghy is the namesake for the Minto skiff, which was the namesake for the Minto sailboat, which was the namesake for the SS Minto, which was the namesake for Lord Minto, who was himself a namesake for Minto village. So does that make the dinghy a Minto fourth removed? I think we will just continue calling it a Minto.

If you want more information about the Rich Passage Minto sailing dinghy you can go to the Rich Passage Boats, LLC website at www.richpassage.com, e-mail Mike at mike@richpassage.com, or call him at 360-769-3972.