2 Thin…..boats 1.

Title photograph : Topsham, river Exe UK.

My new Facebook group page : https://www.facebook.com/groups/524455598277075/

The second post in the ‘thin water’ series, cruising in shallow waters and this time with a focus on some of the boats that might do the job.   It might seem contradictory to see this series of posts right next to the ocean/offshore series but the 2 sides represent the seemingly contradictory aspects of my interests in sailing.           If you will these 2 sides represent my more cohesive idea of long term cruising which is to get somewhere interesting and then getting ‘right among it’ , up close and personal with the crinkly bits of the shoreline. That will most often mean a coastal or offshore passage first which is why these boats need a reasonable amount of sailpower and stability but can then sail in thin water and take the bottom.   This side of the 2 threads is all about the line of boats that specialise in cruising around the thin crinkly, interesting  bits and have some ability to get between those places. I see the 2 opposite sides as the 2 different compromises at the level of boats i can afford that will do the job.

In this post i am going to look at what i think are the smallest viable shallow draft cruising boats that are reasonably available in the boat market without going to very unusual craft and custom builds.   As a base rule i am thinking about boats that will float in 3 feet of water or less and will dry out on the mud.  It might not be quite the case that they will sail perfectly at that draft as that is very hard to achieve….i do though know one line of boats that will do that.  In previous posts along these lines i always kept my view tight to small budget boats.  There are a few low budget boats, i own one myself, but in this series i am also including much newer, therefore much higher budget craft.  In previous posts i have set out my list of requirements and specifications for my next boat. Without going into that in great detail again the desired boat has to be a reasonable sailing boat (or one that can be improved) has to have shallow or variable draft, have the ability to get to windward in channel conditions, be beachable and have enough viable living space for a couple….and i would add 2 new things : the ergonomics will need a new look at now and i have to ‘like’ the boat.  That final point is pointing towards the fact that i just don’t like many of the same-y generic plastic bilge keel boats that have zero character.

The first 2 boats that i want to feature both come from the board of the same designer : the late David Thomas.  By chance i met David while i was involved with the BT race and worked with his wife Trudi . for several years.  Although i was still a ‘full retard’ IOR maxi sailor at the time we often spoke about the first specialist shallow draft cruising boat he designed and the one i own today.  This is of course the first version of the Hunter Liberty when it was marketed as the Liberty 22.     The boat was designed and first built in 1982 and it was a radical design for it’s day.  It’s actually a very moderate boat in size, displacement and sail area but it’s general concept and simple rig marked it out as a complete contrast to the ugly and bloated standard cruising boats of the same era and radically different to the IOR failure cruiser-racers that i sailed.

In the past some yachting journalists have referred to the boat as being a ‘Sharpie’ which is completely wrong.   The true Sharpies evolved on the US east coast as very shallow draft , flat bottomed boats.  Some later designs had a slight vee hull and very late designs had a slight arc bottom.  There are some modern Sharpie designs which i like very much, for example the Norwalk Island designs from Bruce kirby.  The Liberty hull is much more a lifeboat shape.


As a quick potted history, the first version was marketed as the Liberty 22 and had the trademark cat ketch rig and was lightly ballasted. The second version (same hull) had more internal ballast, the bilge runners were longer and heavier and the rigs strenghtened.   The last version , the Minstrel has a different rig (Gunter) which some say sails a bit better in some conditions.   The hulls of all the range are the same moulding and all of them have a centreboard, glassed-in ballast and external ballast in the form of 2 bilge runners which the boat sits on.   In terms of my requirements the hull will float in about 18 inches and can just about be manouevred on the outboard at that draft but it becomes a lot easier with a tiny bit of board and rudder down.   I prefer the liberty version for its internal layout as the cat ketch doesn’t need a compression post in the centre of the cabin.  Down below the cabin works for us as a couple although i have moved the galley as many owners have.   The heads compartment is ridiculously large and a waste of useful space….i took the sea toilet out of mine and use the whole compartment for storage.

What else can we say ?….well, the sailing qualities are mixed : light weather upwind is it’s worst aspect but it’s an absolute ghost machine in the same conditions downwind. It struggles in harder weather as it doesn’t have the ballast and sailpower.  Having said that i have had to drive mine hard both upwind and down and it’s never seriously frightened me even when i have been out in ‘too-much’ weather.  This year i got caught out in heavy weather conditions, almost a full blizzard, during my spring trip out in Lyme bay and although uncomfortable and cold the boat didn’t frighten me.

Comfortable for one , just about ok for two.


Modified galley.


I won’t go any further with this one as i guess most of you will be at least familiar with my own boat here.  There aren’t many of them on the market as of today : price-wise an older ’22’ can be picked up around the £4-5.000 mark and sometimes a bit more with a good trailer.  The later liberty 23 and Minstrel variant usually goes for another couple of thousand pounds.     I don’t have a trailer, a decent custom built one would be around £2.000 new but worth it they are easily towed and launched.  I have had a huge amount of pleasure out of the little Liberty, i fact it’s been my best all round boat experience ever and is a superb little boat for the place i live and sail.  The downside is that it just isn’t a big enough boat for our longer term plans.

At the time David Thomas designed the Liberty 22 he was mainly designing moderate cruiser racers under the IOR rule.  I sailed many of his designs…..just from memory the Sonata and Impala, the Bolero and Sigma and of course the BT challenge one-design boats.  Most of them made good club level cruiser-racers.  I was always surprised that he never designed a lifting keel variant of one of his racing hulls although i do think there is a lifting keel variant of one of the later cruising boats.

What he came back with in the 1990’s was an even more radical boat than the earlier Hunter Liberty…..the Red Fox 2000 which is a beamy (8 feet) multi-chine design with asymetric bilge-boards and is nearly all waterline length for it’s hull length.  If anything this boat is strongly reminiscent of the short and beamy mini-transat boats which were just on the edge of becoming very extreme and twitchy boats.    Nobody would use the boat for that race today although i do think it might qualify under that box rule.                 I am going to explore that whole line of race derived and shallow draft  boats in the next post in this series……here i am particularly thinking about the mini-transat derived small French boats.    On the Red Fox the hull length is only 20 feet and a few inches, and all but those last few inches are waterline length…it actually has a longer waterline than my longer Liberty thus should be faster.  It also has a much more conventional fractional rig.  It’s a heavier boat than the Liberty at around 2550 lbs and i believe just about trailerable at that beam.  I can only remember seeing one sailing once and it was going upwind well enough.

Owners photograph


I know of one youtube channel that featured this boat : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrDdn8MBgdY

I have never sailed one of these and don’t know anyone who has owned one.  The Foxwell family obviously had a great time with Rowena although i think they also moved up to a larger and more conventional boat.  A quick look around the marketplace brought up no current boats of this type for sale so i can’t comment on the price or find a local one to go and photograph.   It would be really nice to comment properly on the Red Fox’s sailing qualities and once again i feel that would need a hands-on approach to do it justice.   According to what few forum posts i can find they are ok up to about F4 but then the boxy and flat hull starts to bounce a lot.  In the Foxwell’s own video’s their boat gets quite ‘slappy’ even motoring flat in a Thames chop.

This image is i think taken from that series (not my photograph) of Rowena beached. Unlike the Liberty it doesn’t have any bilge runners so i think the hull sits on whatever surface that the boat is landed on…that might be a problem in some places i feel.  I would love to see one of these close up, i think the internal volume might be slightly higher than the liberty due to it’s much boxier shape so it should do the same job.  If i was starting out along these lines today and could work to a higher budget it’s one boat that i would take a serious look at….if i could find one.   As it happens i think it’s possible to get more boat for the likely price.  As it is i think my older Liberty does the same job as the Red Fox at (presumably) a much lower price.


Before i get to the oddball boat of today’s group i should first mention the boat in the title photograph as it was being commissioned while i was based in Topsham.  That boat is the largest of the Swallow boats designs : the Baycruiser 25 and one that i know nothing about.  I did try to get the owner to talk about it but with no success, the website says it has a lifting keel and twin rudders, carbon rig and so on.  I wouldn’t even consider a new boat of that size as i could get a lot more boat for the money and secondly , although function is less important than form i think it’s an absolute dogs dinner visually which is a shame given how good looking the smaller boats are.

Link : http://swallowyachts.com/range/bay-cruiser-25/

Today’s oddball boat is one that i have always liked in a quirky kind of way and comes from the board of a very brilliant but eccentric designer : the late Uffa Fox.  This is a just post wartime design based on an aerial dropped lifeboat and is the Fairey Atalanta.


For those visitors that are unfamiliar with these boats they were designed by the late Uffa Fox in the mid 1950’s and built from then until the mid 60’s.  The concept came almost directly from a form of lightweight air-dropped lifeboat that could be slung underneath a wartime search and rescue aircraft.  They were radical boats back then for several reasons which i will detail here and still seem right out on the edge of boat design nowadays when everything seems euro-same’y.  They are definitely odd looking boats although i must say i quite like them, the white one might be the ‘Titania’ version with more headroom aft.                Today there are few designers who have even tried to approach the same problem, the late David Thomas is one and i already own one of his designs., his Red-Fox design is the closest thing to the Atalanta today.   Uffa Fox was certainly eccentric by all accounts but he designed some fast boats including the first planing International 14 dinghy and the Flying 15.

They are a wooden boat but nothing like any other wooden boat then and now except for a few other boats from the same factory, i almost said ‘mould’ because they are a hot-moulded boat laid up from 5 layers of agba veneer but essentially built around a large and strong galvanised steel bulkhead/ring frame which just about everything is attached to.     While i think about it i just remembered that Pete’s dinghy working dinghy is from the same factory…a Fairey Duckling i think and ‘Creeksailor’s’ boat (formerly Charles Stock’s) was built from a hot-molded Fairey hull..  The next unusual thing is that they have a pair of lifting keels which takes their sailing draught from 2 feet to 7 feet.  They are light and don’t carry much sail area but will apparently plane downwind in a stiff breeze.

To my eye they are such weird looking boats that they actually look good !  All of this group of photographs i have had to borrow : mainly from the Atalanta owners website.


The accomodation layout is unusual too in that there is a double bunk in that separate aft cabin and then a small galley, navigation area and sitting area forward split by that centre cockpit. For more oddity although there is a small tiller on the rudder the actual steering in the cockpit is done with a vertical whipstaff.  Sail handling and anchoring is routinely done while standing in the round forward hatch.  I think the layout is basically designed around the main bulkhead and those 2 lifting keels which delineate the cockpit space.


The one boat that i had a look at didn’t smell at all healthy inside and had some problems with patches of its outer veneer.  Mending them can be a specialist job although many of the better ones have already been epoxy coated which seems to work for them.  This one looks nice inside although to my eye the accomodation is broken up into too-small spaces.       As with many boats of this era the better ones have had a lot of attention and most of the ones that haven’t had that are in a sorry state.  Opinion varies about how long-lasting the cold-molded hull would be, repairing the veneer does seem to be a specialist job if needed.


There are a couple of other manufacturers making shallow draft cruising boats today : Cornish Crabbers for example. Shrimpers and Crabbers are well represented on this coast and very popular : the Shrimpers even having a racing fleet.  While i always liked the Shrimper design and the later Yawl i never liked the Crabbers . It really shouldn’t be an issue but somehow sticking a gaff rig on a plastic hull just doesn’t seem right and i realise the personal bias there especially because it does often work on home built wood/epoxy designs.   This boat below is the Cornish Yawl design which i photographed on a lovely but cold morning on the Exe.   From what i know of them they are shallow draft but with a board coming through a long keel and would need legs to dry out level.  At some time i would like to do a more complete review of this design.  For today’s post i should also mention the many designs intended for home build that would fit the bill….the boats from Dudley Dix really come to mind but, once again, that’s a whole separate post intended as i get out there and do the work.



  1. The Fairey Atalanta is certainly exotic, perhaps even slightly Quixotic 😉 Another weird-and-wonderful but smaller and no less curvaceous moulded wooden boat from the same era is Laurent Giles’ plywood, Audacity 21 — all very futuristic and thin-water capable with her lifting keel. The design was derived from his earlier Sopranino, which was sailed two-up across the Atlantic in the early 1950s.


    Thanks Bill!


  2. Totally agree that thin water is the most fun. I sail a Gib’Sea 282 like this one https://photos.inautia.fr/barcosOcasion/1/6/9/3/gibsea-282-midzwaard-18771080141969675248666969554548x.jpg which has a large cast iron bulb plus centre plate. It can therefore dry out on anything – a great relief. 28 feet, including a proper double berth opens up a lot of thin water, even if is just places that dry out for an hour or so, it is a great advantage. Sails well, but leeway is the price you have to pay!


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