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by Frank Smoot - Florida - USA -

Or, How A Slow Kayak Got Me Building Fast Sailboats by "The DIY-Tri Guy"

Part One - Part Two

The real fault lies with that blasted Sunfish – which is what I later discovered they call that tippy little sailboat that everybody (but me) was already familiar with. It was a balmy spring day back in 2009, and I was out in the Gulf of Mexico in my nearly new Pungo 140 kayak.

My mission in this article is to try to explain to you how and why I made “jump to light speed” from a plain old kayak to some pretty un-plain sailboats. But don’t worry - I won’t bore you by yakking about all 30 odd boats I’ve built in the past 5 years. Instead, I’ll stick to the basic “how it happened” story, while sprinkling a rogue’s gallery of my assorted (and sometimes-bizarre) boats throughout parts One and Two this article. For example:

Now the Pungo 140 is actually a very likeable kayak, and it’s even pretty quick for being just 14’ long and plastic. And heck, my GPS said I could keep it at 6 mph for 100+ yards. So when I saw this guy a mere two football fields away from me in his little sailboat, I figured I’d paddle over for a closer look. It was such a beautiful day anyway, what with the crystal clear Florida waters and all…

Well, five minutes later I was about half again that far away from my quarry. And I gotta tell ya, that really chafed my, er, hands. So I thought to myself, “There’s definitely something wrong here.” I was paddling for all I was worth - and as best I could tell, he was not exerting any effort whatsoever! Yet with each passing moment, he pulled farther and farther away from me.

No, I never did catch him. Truth be told, I don’t think he even knew I was out there. But something in my brain told me that this “sailing” thing needed looking into. See, prior to this, I had never in my life sailed a boat. Really, I knew nothing at all about sailing. But one thing I did know now: Some small sailboats can go faster than 6 mph – lots faster - and with no apparent effort on the part of the sailor! (Which I later got to experience for myself in…)

Yep, I really wanted a quick little sailboat. Problem was, my budget was extremely tiny. But I was hard bitten by the sail-bug, so one way or another, I was gonna get a boat. My wife and I talked it over, and decided it would be best so start with something we could both sail in, but that would cost under a grand. So we found an old Laser II on Craigslist, and off we went to become sailors! (This was also where I discovered the neat little sloop rig I later put to use here…)

Couple of problems with the Laser II: For one thing, I had not a clue how to rig it. And the Owner’s Manual - which we were really lucky to get - listed about a million boat parts I’d never even heard of. Leach? Downhaul? Vang? Traveller? Ropes called “sheets?” You gotta be kidding! But we persevered, figured out how to put the pieces together, and eventually headed off to nearby (and alligator-infested) Lake Manatee.

Did I mention the real problem? A Laser II is just about the worst possible boat for two non-sailors to learn to sail in. It’s too quick, too complicated, and way too tippy. So of course, we dumped it first time out…in that gator-filled lake. Wife Laura was NOT happy, and I was pretty darn put off myself. Next step? Find a more stable boat! And as it turned out, the cheapest, quickest, easiest way to do that was to try to somehow connect our kayaks together and make a kayak-maran!

Well, it took a lot of very amateurish “engineering,” but I finally managed to cobble something together than not only floated, but was reasonably quick and very stable. Of course, it didn’t turn very well, and it wouldn’t “come about” without a struggle. It readily got stuck “in irons” (I was learning sailor-speak!) and was really wet at most any speed. But it was a start! And after several “refinements,” it was actually a halfway decent boat. So I tried my hand another one…but with less satisfying results…

Of course, I wanted something more than halfway decent. So I tried building a catamaran from scratch – my first-ever attempt at building something that would actually float. Well, “float” is more appropriate than you may think, because the darn thing ended up looking like a 4th of July parade float. It was slow, sluggish, and way too heavy. Talk about getting stuck in irons! It was more like a weather vane than a sailboat.

But it was definitely a learning experience. And from that embarrassing start, I moved on to creations that actually sailed fairly well, including this little cat. It was actually pretty quick. But as usual, it wouldn’t come about worth squat. Geez, such a long and steep learning curve…

Before long, I realized that I needed a boat I could rig and set up quickly and easily, and one where I could sit inside the hull. In short, I needed a trimaran! So it was back to kayaks, and trying to make them into trimarans instead of catamarans.

This little rig was actually a lot of fun. Although the Pungo 140 was never (ever) intended to have a sail, a rudder, or leeboards, I managed to add all three items to my little red kayak. I did the same for my wife’s blue Pungo 140, and we really started to get the hang of (and enjoy!) sailing. More refinements, more experiments, and LOTS of paddling back to the beach when things broke…

While these sailing kayak trimarans were a blast in decent weather, they were once again a very wet ride at any speed. And my GPS says I exceeded 10 mph regularly. So if I was gonna sail in cooler weather, I was definitely gonna need a drier boat. And I would definitely need better outriggers (amas) than anything I’d used up to this point. So, back to the drawing board…

To be continued tomorrow...

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