by Ross Lillistone - Esk, Queensland - Australia
I remember one night from long ago, when I was sailing towards home in my fifteen-foot cruising dinghy. Where we had been I can’t remember, nor does it matter – it was the moment that sticks in my memory…
We were heading south towards Toondah Harbour, in Moreton Bay, urged on by a friendly north-easter. The mood aboard was relaxed and we had enjoyed a good day out on the wide-but-shallow waters of the bay. Ahead loomed Cassim Island, and because of the state of the tide, we had doubts about whether we could sneak over the shoals into the harbour around the western end of the island. The stakes weren’t high, so we had a go anyway.
Sure enough, our centreboard (depth sounder) sounded out its warning as it made contact with the bottom in a tattoo of five-knot clunks. Around we came to port as we hauled our wind and commenced a leg out to the east, hard on the wind, to clear the kilometre or so of shallows barring the entrance to the normal channel. The game was to stay off the shoals without having to change onto the starboard tack at any time. When I sail, I make everything a game, except when I’m frightened…
Our course was such that even close-hauled, it was touch-and-go whether we would clear the long arm of mud, rock and coral stretching out into the eastern night. At irregular intervals our partly-raised centreboard sounded out its taps, but we seemed to be holding our own – raising the board a little gave us some respite from the knocks, but resulted in more leeway – it was a delightful game!
What stands out in my memory of this event was the sense of being lifted by the combination of wind, sail, centreboard and rudder. The boat was alive, and the smooth conditions allowed me to feel every element. Being nighttime always adds to the sailing experience for me – and this was a particularly pleasant night. We were sailing towards the moon across a flat, rippled surface of dark water. As I sat on the weather rail, the boat spoke to me through the tiller and the combination of sound and movement in the hull. All the while, the wind on my face added another source of information.
Now, the above paragraphs might sound a bit overdone on the romantic side, but I’m trying to convey the deep sense of satisfaction that I gain from such circumstances. There are many other similar stories in my head, all of which are different, but all rich in simple pleasure. Some have been scary, others easy, - but all have been satisfying to my simple mind. You don’t need to spend much money to avail yourself of the same thing. Buy a second-hand wooden boat, or build one yourself – the number of dollars involved does not need to be high.
Being a wooden boat addict, I have collected a large array of satisfying boats, but the one I use most often is a 15ft 3inch by 5ft 11inch cruising dinghy designed by my late father more than thirty-five years ago. In today’s dollars, the materials for a boat such as her would cost around $1500, with an extra $1000 or so set aside for sails. Not bad value for something that can provide satisfaction, exercise and plain fun for three or four generations.
Simple rigs have great virtue. Arrive home from a trip wet, sunburned and cold, and discover just how important each minute is when getting the boat onto the trailer and un-rigged. I remember one night in Townsville when I would happily have traded money for each minute I could have saved from being attacked by mosquitos as we un-rigged the boat. When there are kids involved, a quick get-away becomes even more necessary.
We experiment constantly with different rigs, but the current arrangement is my favourite so far. It is a balanced lugsail of 115sq.ft., with a free-standing mast and an absolute minimum of shop-bought fittings. From arrival at the boat ramp in the truck, we can have the boat in the water, fully rigged, in less than seven minutes – and that is without hurry. As long as the sails are produced by a sailmaker who understands traditional rigs, these rigs will drive a boat very well indeed - including to windward.
One night I remember well, I spent four or five hours night-sailing off Mackay in the old boat mentioned in the above paragraphs. At the time, I had her rigged with a Chinese Lugsail (aka Chinese Junk rig) of 130sq.ft. We were going nowhere in particular – just enjoying the motion of the boat, the warm North Queensland breeze, and some philosophical (at least to our ears!) conversation. Lying in the bottom of the boat, I was steering by reference to the position of the sail outlined against the stars. The boat was jogging along to windward at hull-speed, driven by a rig which did not contain one piece of wire, nor one shackle, nor any stainless steel blocks, nor any winches. Everything in the entire rig could be made, or replaced, by hand. The sense of independence was profound, especially as the whole rig was incredibly cheap, strong and reliable.
In contrast, consider the “conventional” sloop rig which we see on most trailer sailers and dinghies. The rig relies on high forestay, shroud and (maybe) backstay tension to get decent performance. Usually there are a dozen or so swaged terminals or thimbles – if even one of these fails, the rig is rendered unserviceable at best, and will have gone over the side at worst. Count up the cost of all of the stainless chainplates, blocks, bolts, cam-cleats, winches, sheaves, spreaders and shackles. Then think about how long it takes to put everything up and put it away later…. No thanks - I’ll stick to the rigs which evolved over centuries of use in the fishing and commercial environments, making and fixing the bits myself.