1951–1954: Origin of Phoenix


The time, the place, and the loved one

“Never the time and the place
And the loved one all together!”
–Robert Browning 

scan0018Dr. Earle L. Reynolds, an anthropologist who had been sent to Hiroshima by the National Academy of Sciences to research the effects of the first atomic bomb on the physical growth and development of surviving Japanese children, had a dream. Inspired at the age of 17 by Joshua Slocum’s autobiography Sailing Alone Around the World, he had always wanted to build a boat and do it himself. In Vicksburg and Madison and Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the nearest bodies of water were lakes or rivers, he dreamed of sailing a deep-sea yacht around the world.

While in Hiroshima he realized that the time, the place and the loved one, which the poet Browning said never seemed to come together, might be converging for him. He found he could have a boat built to his specifications, for about one-third of what it would cost in the States, by a local shipbuilder struggling to make a living after World War II.

Even though he had never sailed anything over 18 feet and never on the ocean, Reynolds designed the sea-going vessel himself, patterning it after the Colin Archer design of rugged Norwegian fishing boats. When in doubt, he built it sturdier than necessary.

He designed it to be so well-weighted that even if it were rolled completely over, it would right itself–at least so he promised his anxious 10-year old daughter. The ballast was pig iron and it would be a double-ended ketch, 30 feet long. At this, Barbara Reynolds, Reynolds’ wife, put her foot down. “If you’re going to build a boat,” she said, “build it big enough for all of us!” So he extended a few lines on the blueprint and made it a 50-footer.

Designer/owner Dr. Reynolds with boat builder Mr. Yotsuda and two interpreters.

Reynolds found a boat builder, Mr. Yotsuda, who was living in the aftermath of the second world war “from fishing smack to oyster boat,” as Reynolds put it. But he was willing to bring Reynolds’ blueprint to life. First the keel, then the skeleton-like hull took shape.

It was appropriate that the yacht was named Phoenix of Hiroshima. The name can be attributed to Professor Yamada, who reminded Reynolds that the phoenix was a mythological bird which rises from the ashes of its own destruction and added that in oriental mythology, the phoenix appears only in time of universal peace.

As the Phoenix rose symbolically from the ashes of the city destroyed by the first atomic bomb, it also rose, over the period of a year and a half, from the small unprepossessing shipyard of Mr. Yotsuda. In those days the label “Made in Japan” was derogatory. Shops were full of cheap paper parasols, flimsy toys and tacky souvenirs. But behind the post-war trash were centuries of craftsmanship. Even then tourists could buy superbly crafted wooden boxes with hidden compartments or vases inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

It wasn’t that the Japanese couldn’t make elegant things. But they were turning out junk to keep from starving as they bridged back to solvency. Despite this, Reynolds knew that if you wanted something made, the Japanese could make it. Eventually the whole world would have to revise their opinion of the label, “Made in Japan.”

When Reynolds left Japan with his family in 1954, they entrusted their lives to Japanese craftsmanship.