By Ross Lillistone - Esk, Queensland - Australia


A Simple Escape Machine

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It was mid-morning as the middle-aged man sat, washing mud and sand from his feet into the self-draining outboard well on the small beachcruiser. Although it was later in the day than originally planned, he was not in any real hurry to get the job done. A comfortable seat on the aft end of the cockpit surround ensured that the water stayed outside the living area, and the sun’s vicious bite was blocked by a light-coloured boom tent slung beneath the boat’s boom, gaff, and furled sail. He felt comfortable and at ease.

After about an hour, the wind had picked up to the point where the motor was no longer needed. After it was shut down, the couple were left with the bewitching sounds  of sailing in a wooden boat – the lapping of water under the leeward chine, the tapping of reefing nettles on the taut sailcloth, and the faint gurgle of water as it ran aft past the stern transom.

Several months earlier Mike Rowe had suffered the same torture that most builders of boats go through day after day – that is, finding an answer to the eternal nautical question; ‘…which boat should I build next?’. However with this one, he thought he had it right.

Now you’d think that Mike would have an advantage in this area, because he made his living from building boats for other people. But just as the shoemaker’s children never had any shoes, Mike hadn’t built a boat for his own use in nearly a decade, and he had to face the reality that this one could well represent his last opportunity – it just had to be a good choice. Many times previously, he had told people that choosing the correct design is the most difficult part of boatbuilding - with this decision, he found himself facing the reality of his own offhand line!  

To make the decision easier, Mike adopted a strategy he had recommended to others time and time again. That is, he made a ‘wish list’. And once again following his own advice, he tried to be ruthless when listing his requirements. It is much too easy to start thinking about a boat which is larger and more expensive than is really required. Although the wish list was full of conflicting requirements and contradictions, it allowed Mike to eliminate many of the hundreds of designs which tended to float through his brain.

As he turned around from his foot washing exercise, Mike viewed the boat with satisfaction. She was small in overall length, but relatively large in capacity due in part to her length-to-breadth ratio of about 2.3:1. The inside of the boat was free from the intrusion of a centreboard case because the boat carried a long, shallow keel to provide adequate lateral resistance when under sail. Although the keel was less efficient than a centreboard in lifting the boat to windward, it allowed the floorboards to be clear and flat for comfortable sitting and for sleeping on an inflatable mattress.

It took only a few minutes for Mike and his wife to detach and roll up the boom tent. The designer of the boat had included plenty of enclosed stowage, so clutter underfoot, one of the bugbears of most small boats, was eliminated. While his companion started the small four-stroke outboard, Mike wandered forward through the open-topped cabin to retrieve the anchor. The open cuddy-cabin arrangement meant that Mike was securely supported at thigh level while devoting both hands to the business of lifting the anchor. As with the outboard, the mast stood in a self-draining well just aft of the stem, and into this space was dropped the anchor, chain, and anchor rope – no mud or sand came into the cuddy-cabin.

For an hour or so, the couple enjoyed motoring northwards along a passage between the mainland and a barrier island. Although the sound of the motor was noticeable, the throttle setting was low and the boat jogged along at her displacement speed of around five knots – not bad for a two horsepower motor pushing a third of a ton. Looking over the top of his coffee mug, Mike took in the plain, painted finish of the boat. He reflected on the need which many people feel to varnish large areas of their wooden boats. Mike appreciated the beauty of wood grain as much as anybody, but he was experienced enough to understand that a painted finish was the most sensible approach in areas of high U.V. exposure.

By about 11.30, the sea breeze made an appearance and the couple followed their familiar routine for setting sail. One person stayed at the tiller, sitting low and well protected in the cabin/cockpit combination, while the other raised the single gaff-headed sail. Once again, the open-topped cuddy-cabin provided support while the crewman raised the sail and made off the halyard in an unhurried manner. At this stage the wind was light and the boat was on a course which put her hard on the wind. Because the shallow keel was not at its best on in these conditions, Mike elected to leave the motor running to provide a little residual thrust. Although the engine was now operating at just a little above idle, the extra push made the boat point like a Twelve Metre! Motor-sailing at its best – tiny fuel consumption, high sailing performance, and the boat steadied against rolling by the big sail.

After about an hour, the wind had picked up to the point where the motor was no longer needed. After it was shut down, the couple were left with the bewitching sounds  of sailing in a wooden boat – the lapping of water under the leeward chine, the tapping of reefing nettles on the taut sailcloth, and the faint gurgle of water as it ran aft past the stern transom. Because of the relative silence, Mike and his wife were able to enjoy these sounds, along with the cries of seabirds and the distant rumble of surf on the ocean beaches on the eastern side of the barrier island. Sailing struck Mike as being the best possible example of solar power in action; wind (powered by the sun) being harnessed by man’s ingenuity, driving a boat and crew against the direction from which the wind came – magic!

The end of the day’s sailing saw the small beachcruiser snugged into one of the many mangrove creeks lining the western shoreline. Night had fallen, but the couple was well protected from dew and biting insects by the boom tent and the drapes of insect netting. A battery-powered fluorescent light allowed them to read and play musical instruments, although both of them preferred the warm light of kerosene lanterns or candles. Fear of fire led to the use of battery lights. Later on they would venture out to view the stars and satellites before retreating once again to the insect-free interior.

For three days they meandered around this coastal paradise before loading the boat onto a light trailer for the two-day trip home. Enroute, they spent another night aboard – although this time the boat sat on dry land, supported by her trailer. The boat was not as convenient as a caravan or motor-home, but she was much better than a tent and did the job quite well.

After they got home, the small boat was easy to fit into a standard garage, and she was instantly available for day-sailing. Since having completed the building of the boat, Mike thanked his lucky stars many times over that he hadn’t succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to build a bigger boat. Big boats are difficult to tow, inconvenient to shelter when not in use, expensive to build and maintain, and are usually so complex to rig that nobody feels like going for a casual day-sail.

In his wonderful book, “The Compleat Cruiser”, L. Francis Herreshoff wrote that when Weldon was selecting a design, he told the designer he wanted, “…a boat I could have peace and freedom in.” Mike Rowe felt that his little cruiser fitted that definition very well indeed.

Now, those of us who feel the need to build a simple escape machine can do the same as Mike did. We all have different needs and preferences, but a simple boat of modest size can be built for very little money. For less than the price of a ride-on mower, it is possible to build a boat which provides satisfaction and adventure for many decades. Forget the yachts of the millionaires, or time-share salespersons – build something simple and light – therein lies peace-of-mind. 

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