Saturday, January 7, 2023

Article: The Joy of Small Boats

Now that I can no longer access the main site, I will post articles here after they have been published.  This one appeared several months ago in GOOD OLD BOAT, who asked me to write a piece for their small boat issue.  They changed the title to ‘Little Wings’.  I like mine better.  Those of you who have the good taste to have been reading me for some time will not find much new here.  In reusing old material and themes, I am in good company.  Bach did too.

The Joy of Small Boats


I have owned three great boats, and two of them were small:  CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE, an 18’ Drascombe Lugger yawl, and GANNET, an ultralight Moore 24 sloop.  The other great boat was RESURGAM, a Sparkman and Stevens designed She 36 sloop.  I have great affection for small boats, who if well designed, well built, and well sailed, can do so much more than most people believe possible.      

I made most of my second circumnavigation in CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE and my sixth in GANNET.  In both instances I choose the boats because I wanted a new and different experience of the sea.  I did not want to be like some old rock star who is forever singing the songs of his youth.  I wanted to sing new songs and I believe that CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE and GANNET and I have.

After I completed my first circumnavigation in the engineless 37’ cutter, EGREGIOUS, with only two stops via Cape Horn in 1976, I had very little money and did not know what I would do next.  Selling EGREGIOUS and the publication of STORM PASSAGE, my first book, provided some money and after a year I sought a new challenge.  I wanted a qualitatively different experience, even simpler, even closer to the sea, with even greater reliance on myself.  That the boat be inexpensive was a given.  All my boats have been.  With only 12” of freeboard and no deck, CHIDIOCK certainly brought me closer to the sea.  In fact one night between Fiji and what is now Vanuatu she hit something, probably a container, and threw me into the sea and I ended up drifting for two weeks and three hundred miles before reaching land.  

CHIDIOCK survived that as a bigger boat might not have.  Although gunnel deep in the water, she had sufficient floatation not to sink and I tied her and the inflatable together and she followed me over the reef onto Emae Island.  With new masts, sails, rudder, floorboards and oars shipped from England, she sailed again five months later and completed 15,000 more miles.

I would not go to sea in just any small boat, or just any big boat either.  For me a boat must be well built, look pretty, have clean, uncluttered lines, and sail well.  You may notice the absence of be comfortable.  In my experience no boat is comfortable in a gale, and I have the advantage of not getting sea sick.  I am glad to be writing this on a comfortable sofa in a sunny room in our condo on Hilton Head Island overlooking the Intracoastal waterway, but comfort is not a life.

Before I set out from San Diego in November of 1978 the longest open boat voyage had been made in a wooden Drascombe Lugger, so the design had been tested.  I learned that a park ranger in Anaheim, California, was selling Luggers part time using his own as the display model, so I made an appointment and one Saturday Suzanne, who was then the woman in my life, and I drove up.  We found a very pretty boat on a trailer in Rich’s driveway.  I examined her, found the quality of construction excellent, and asked if I could step on board.  Rich said yes.  I climbed up and looked around, then lay down.  There was just enough room for my shoulders beside the centerboard trunk.  I got up and said, “I’ll buy one.”   Rich said, “Great.  What are you going to do with her?”   I replied, “I’m going to sail her around the world, but we are going to Disneyland first.”  Suzanne, who is from New Zealand, had never been.  Rich cashed my check quickly.

That was in June.  In November I rowed from the marina in San Diego’s Mission Bay and set out for Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands 3,000 miles away.  We made it in thirty-four days, only a few more than several forty footers sailing at the same time.

I sailed more than 25,000 miles in CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE I and II.  The first remained in Saudi Arabia where I was jailed on suspicion of being a spy.

I must confess that I found the Drascombes a bit confining as a full time home and so I bought 36’ RESURGAM and then THE HAWKE OF TUONELA, a 37’ IOR one-tonner, and lived on board for most of the next three decades.

In 2006 I moved with Carol, my wife since 1994, to Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago on Lake Michigan.  At that time I was basing HAWKE in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands and I decided to get a second boat to sail on Lake Michigan during the northern summers.  Naturally the boat would be small and relatively inexpensive.  Checking boat listings I came across a Moore 24 for sale in Detroit.  I knew of Moore 24’s superb reputation.  The first ultralight class built in the U.S. and a 1970s design that is still winning races fifty years later.  I did not want to race, but experiencing such performance was tempting.  Unfortunately the Detroit boat sold before I could see her.  But the seed had been planted and I found another Moore for sale in Duluth, Minnesota.  I made an offer and GANNET, then GROWLER, was mine the following May.  

One of the first changes I made in addition to changing her name was to give away the two old gas outboards and replace them with an electric Torqeedo.

I kept GANNET on Lake Michigan for only two summers.  I found that having two boats and a wife was too complicated.  I also found that I did not enjoy sailing on Lake Michigan.  I am pelagic.  I like sailing oceans.  I need endless horizons.  I don’t want to set out one morning and see Michigan appear before sunset.  So I sold HAWKE, had GANNET towed to San Diego, and decided to sail her around the world.  Moore 24s have been successfully raced from San Francisco to Hawaii.  No one had gone farther than that, but I thought if 2,000 miles, why not more?

All of my boats have been stock boats.  I did not make great modifications to either CHIDIOCK or GANNET.  I did replace GANNET’s mast and boom and when doing so had the rigging increased by one size as I have on all my boats except CHIDIOCK.  Probably a good decision because GANNET’s masthead has gone into the water at least four times.  I have put the mastheads of four boats in the water, a club you don’t want to join.

Initially I planned to put a self-steering vane on GANNET, but I found that because of her ultra-light construction her transom would have to be strengthened to support a vane at a cost of more than half of what I paid for her.  I decided that I could buy a lot of tiller pilots for that amount, and I have.  I also knew that I could use sheet to tiller self-steering, which I also have.  In all I have sailed more than 50,000 miles on three different boats using sheet to tiller.

I carried some equipment on GANNET that I never had on earlier boats:  a dry suit, an emergency rudder, and a Jordan drogue.  I was glad to have them on board, but I was also glad never to have needed to use them.

I navigated on GANNET by iPhone using both iNavX and iSailor charts and apps.  I made my first two circumnavigations using a sextant and I have a plastic one on GANNET though I have not taken a sight in years.  Perhaps it is worthwhile when going offshore to know at least how to take a noon sight for latitude.

Small well built boats are capable of surviving severe weather.  Both CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE and GANNET were each in at least two 55 knot gales as recorded by official sources ashore.  CHIDIOCK with her yawl rig hove to better than any boat I have ever owned by furling the jib, lowering the main, putting the center board ¾ of the way down, tying the tiller amidship and flattening the mizzen which weather cocked the bow into the wind, so on her I hove to.  In GANNET I lay ahull.  Both boats were corks that rose over waves.  Mostly.

The most dangerous moments of GANNET’s circumnavigation did not come in gales, but on a sunny moderate trade wind day three hundred miles from Apia, Samoa.  Just after noon I was standing in the companionway, which on GANNET comes just above my waist, when my attention was caught by two 10’-12’ waves coming at right angles to the 3’-4’ wave pattern.  They were steep and close together.  As the first one hit I ducked below, sliding the companionway over me.  However, the vertical slat was not in place and not reachable.  The second wave exploded into and over us, knocking GANNET down, masthead touching foaming water.

With GANNET heeled 90┬║ I braced myself from falling and stared down at the ocean.  GANNET’s lee rail was below water.  The ocean only inches from entering the companionway.  The wave was gushing in and pressing us down.  It was a matter of whether the ocean would reach the companionway before GANNET came back up.  Time slowed to a stop.  Probably a few seconds passed.  GANNET came back up.

The other most dangerous moments of that circumnavigation came during the 55 knot gale the morning we reached New Zealand.  10’-12’ waves slammed into our starboard beam.  At age seventy I completely lost vision in my right eye, so the waves were literally blind-siding me.  I was hand steering with only a scrap of furling jib set.  Often the waves knocked me from where I was sitting on the starboard side of the cockpit to my feet where I was looking down at the ocean.  I could not leave the tiller to go below for my safety harness, so I tied a sail tie around my right wrist and the other end to the toe rail.  As long as my arm remained attached to my body, I would remain attached to GANNET.

GANNET’s other 55 knot gale came at the end of our longest nonstop passage, 6,000 miles from Darwin, Australia, to Durban, South Africa.  We lay ahull for thirty-six hours in twenty foot waves, but I never felt we were in danger.

Although I believe if you are going to cross oceans, you should be prepared to face gales, gales are not the norm.  Most days are pleasant and I spend them reading and listening to music and keeping the boat sailing well.  I do not push GANNET as hard as those who race Moores, but I try to keep her in the groove.  She accelerates faster than any other boat I have owned.  Going six or seven knots, she catches a wave or a bit more wind and instantly is doing twelve or fourteen.

When I voyage I enter what I call the monastery of the sea.  I disconnect from land.  On GANNET I carry a Yellowbrick tracking device so Carol can see where I am.  Others seem to enjoy seeing that too.  But I do not communicate with the land.  I believe that those who do, who blog every day, still have their minds ashore and are not really in the moment.

I get no weather information.  I look at the sea, I look at the sky,  I look at the barometer.  In each case I am looking for change.

The monastery of the sea has a beauty and purity and clarity that modern urban life does not.  There is no ugliness there that you do not bring with you and, particularly if you sail alone, you are completely responsible for your boat and yourself.

Our lives are as brief as a butterfly’s cough.  I believe they are redeemed by moments of joy.  I have known countless such moments sailing small boats across oceans.  I hope you know moments of joy wherever you sail.

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