Please note : the only photograph that is my own is the title picture, everything else i have downloaded from the internet. If you own any of the rights to a photograph and would like it credited or removed just let me know.
This is one of those posts that has been in my draughts folder for ages. I tinker with it once in a while and then leave it alone again. Sharpies are one of my own peculiar enthusiasms in boats despite never having sailed one and only having seen a couple of them and they aren’t exactly common boats in this part of the world either. Their true home is mainly the eastern seaboard of the USA and from what i know mostly around Florida and the Keys and some around the Chesapeake bay.
Mention ‘sharpie’ to most boaters in the UK and most will just scratch their head, just a few might have heard of the class of racing dinghy’s on the east coast with the same name and a few might recall knowing about the Norwalk Island designs but that is about the limit. The only similar boats that i know of in europe are some similar looking craft in the Arcachon lagoon in south-west France. Despite having been to Archachon myself i don’t have any pictures of those boats either.
Firstly lets get my boat out of the way. Yachting journalists who have written magazine articles about sharpies then often go on to mention the Liberty in the same article. The Liberty does have sharpie-like features for example its shallow draught, boards and lifting rudder coupled with an unstayed rig but that’s about as far as the comparison goes. The Liberty is much more like a later design concept from the same original idea ie the Presto design with its curved hull . Sharpies are mainly flat or vee-bottomed and have a fairly tight ratio of beam to length.
Also lets take a quick look at the English Sharpies : the video below is from Nick Gates excellent series in which he restores a fine old racing sharpie. The sharpie section is from about 15 minutes in.
It was in Wells-on-sea (Norfolk) that i saw a few of these ashore in the dinghy park of the local sailing club and couldn’t initially place them because they look nothing like a modern racing dinghy . Compared with a modern boat they are long, narrow, heavy and quite ‘flat’ but with a big ballasted centerboard and a tall gunter rig.
The original boat that i have foremost in my mind is a design from 1886 and Commodore Ralph Munroe’s ‘Egret’ design. Sharpies do go back further than that design and can be traced back to very low sided oyster fishing boats for extremely shallow waters on the eastern seaboard of the US. It was Munroe’s Egret design that took the idea from a single purpose fishing craft to a multi-purpose sailing vessel and cruising yacht. The way i have the story is that Munroe actually designed Egret as both an extreme shallow draught cruising boat for himself and to deliver the local mail into the many shallow inlets in the Florida keys where he lived. The actual design he called a sharpie/libeboat.
Here are a few pictures of the original boat and some modern counterparts. To modern eyes it must seem an extreme and strange looking boat but apparently it did its 2 jobs extremely well given that it had to sail in very shallow water and regularly had to negotiate shallow breaking bars and inlets.
Herein lies a bit of a tale….almost a sea story.
Around about April 1990 i was at sea crewing aboard the old Farr maxi ‘Liverpool Enterprise’ formerly Atlantic Privateer. L.E. wasn’t at that time either in great condition as she really suffered from an almost non-existent budget nor was she a particularly happy ship although i hugely enjoyed my time with that crew. Towards the end of leg 5 of that Whitbread race i was on watch one evening as we sailed in the lee of one of the small island kays : memory has it as being Eleuthera but i could be wrong. I could distinctly smell a barbecue somewhere upwind of just for a few minutes and at that time having been living on freeze-dried slop for weeks it was an almost painful reminder that real food was just a few miles away. I seem to remember asking the skipper if we couldn’t make a quick detour for beer and a burger…..Skipper wasn’t a particularly happy camper but he appreciated the joke but did add that we need to chop the keel and the rudder both off to get anywhere near that island.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Enterprise is docked somewhere up a side channel off the main waterway in Fort Lauderdale and we the crew are working hard on trying to get the boat ready for the last stage across the Atlantic. As i said L.E. wasn’t in great condition, sailing with very old gear and sails. The sailmaker was continually repairing and re-cutting secondhand sails from other boats and at that stage i was trying to make up new bits of running rigging by end-for-ending and re-splicing but even then i realised that we desperately needed new wire for at least 2 halyards and the J3/4 sheets….L.E. still had rope and wire sheets for her genoas at that stage. One day Bob the skipper declared that he had found a source of wire that i might be able to use : it was at a secondhand boat store somewhere out of town. Bob drove us out there and we found what we needed but for some reason couldn’t drop me back at the boat but asked me if it was ok to make my own way back to the boat. Now i knew that it couldn’t be far and i am usually a fit and fast walker although a few weeks of sailing had thinned my legs out a lot so i headed off in what i thought was a direct route back towards the boat. Two things happened : first i got stopped by the police and secondly i got lost !.
Dealing with the police was a bit of a strange experience as the officer who gets out of the cruiser keeps his hand on his gun at nearly all times….but i dealt with it by being super-English and super-polite and as soon as they clocked me as one of the visiting sailors in that ‘white-bread’ race as they always called it they let me go on my way. By all all accounts they really aren’t used to people actually walking anywhere and get very suspicious of anyone who is so they had a culture shock when some 300 european and Kiwi sailors turned up who are all happy to walk a bit.
Getting lost though…..i hadn’t really noticed that the main walking problem is that the area of Fort Lauderdale i was in is heavily cut-up by the series of small canals and side waterways off what i now know is the intracoastal waterway so i kept wandering off-route into commercial and residential areas. At some point i crossed a small bridge over a waterway and looking down the channel saw something like this although not this one. By then of course on a hot day in Florida i was pretty footsore and a bit dehydrated so as soon as i found a diner i stepped in to get a drink at least and cool off. After a cool drink and multiple coffee refills the genial chef pointed me in the right direction.
Some time remind me to tell you all the story of the topless donut bar in the same area…i kid you not !
It wasn’t until after the trip after that Whitbread race that i started to take an interest in boats other than maxi race yachts. By then i was more than ‘sailed-out’ and needed a break from long distance sailing so i was back working in healthcare. That was the period where i did a whole load of wider reading about boats and what i wanted to do was put together a very different boat for my own future trips. I was by then looking for something that could get into very shallow water and settle on its own bottom. Remember that by that time what i had mainly sailed was deep draught fin keeled yachts culminating in the IOR maxi’s with their 14 and 15 foot draught. Even the ‘small’ one tonners that i sailed at the time would have 6 feet and more draught and no way of drying out level. Multihulls (notably James Wharram’s) became my initial interest as i thought that one of that range would do the job : i did eventually buy a half built Tiki 26 design. Sharpies were my main interest though but at the time there seemed to be nobody in the UK who knew anything about them and the only information i could glean came from just 2 books and a few magazine articles. Wharram’s were at least known and accessible so i went down that route rather than attempting to build something like a modified Egret design which is the one that had caught my attention.
Several years later i did come across the designs from the board of Bruce Kirby : the Norwalk Islands Sharpies and several times tried to set up a building project to do one. That kind of simple shape is probably just within my capability to not make a complete hash of but once again it was still Egret that i kept thinking of.
Egret isn’t a particularly practical design as a cruising boat : there is for example barely sitting room in the cabin and that is when sitting on the floorboards. The original design does need some major modification to become a viable crusing yacht. . There is a modified Egret design with reduced rocker , a slightly flattened sheerline and a deck-edge cabin that seems a viable development of the concept. A few years ago i almost went to see a modified Egret design for sale in Holland but other things got in the way of that idea.
I remain very enthusiastic about the sharpie idea and admit today that the little Hunter Liberty is the nearest thing that i can get to the concept without building a boat from scratch : i can just about accommodate a 16 foot boat and its trailer here and no i don’t have the space to build one…..can still dream though.
Link to Wiki page : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharpie_(boat)
The Sharpie book (Ruehl Parker) :