What the….Microcruiser.

What exactly is a micro-cruiser sailboat ?.

A sail and awe post for 2021.

Mid February 2021 : the writing mojo comes and the writing mojo goes away again.

Several years ago i was lying at anchor up in the river Lynher above Plymouth sound in my previous boat WABI’‘ the Frances 26 that i bought as an old boat and then refitted as my miniature ocean going pocket yacht.  I remember where we were anchored , in the deep water hole of ‘Dandy Hole’ and the difficulty i got into that day because i was experimenting with using fore and aft anchors that day. For those that don’t know it Dandy Hole is one of the few deep water anchorages in what is otherwise a very shallow, muddy and tidal river and is formed by a sharp bend in the river where the south going Lynher turns a full 90 degrees and flows towards it’s confluence with the Tamar . It’s an awkward place to wriggle into if you’re a bit early on the tide as i often was as there is a difficult to find kink in the actual channel just at the end of the straight section and i frequently went aground in the soft mud there for a while, usually with the strong flood gurgling around the keel.

Anyway, i started that morning with a thorough housework day, cleaning through the boat, airing out her cushions, lockers and suchlike and then i ended the morning’s work by stripping off and having a soogee wash in the cockpit myself and it was at the end of that, drying off in the cockpit that i had one of those ‘what the actual, moments’ .    Coming up the river’s north channel was the most peculiar thing i think i have ever seen actually sailing and i had no idea what it was ; what it looked like was a small green box under a small and low aspect lug rig, or similar, and i couldn’t see a driver at all except that there was maybe a head poking out of a cabin arrangement aft.  After a short while it and a more conventional small sailing boat came level with the anchorage but then both of them skimmed across the edge of the mud bank below Redshank point, bore away and disappeared upriver towards St Germans quay.        It took me a while of searching because i had nothing much to go on as a search question…..little green boat perhaps ?, ok so i tried that one and got a few images of Shoal Waters and it definitely wasn’t the late Charles Stock’s little gaffer : it turned out to be a Matt Leyden design ‘Paradox’.

I think this is/was the actual boat, photographer unknown.

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At the time i still thought of my Frances 26 as a ‘micro’ offshore and ocean going sailboat which clearly it isn’t although by modern standards it’s quite a small boat : today and after a few years owning a much smaller 22′ foot boat i would consider the Frances 26 as quite a big boat.   Just a few weeks ago for example i was walking around the boat storage area at Mylor and noticed the pretty grey Frances there and i remember thinking how tall it seemed in it’s cradle compared to how low my own boat was when it was sitting on it’s little bilge runners.    That boat, a Hunter Liberty, i did sort-of start to think of as a micro-cruiser especially as it was designed as an inshore boat and i took my one across the channel , a 100 mile crossing, on 2 occasions.  Even that boat i don’t think would make the cut as a ‘micro-cruiser’- in my mind just a small and capable cruising boat.

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What then defines a microcruiser ?

My short answer is ‘i don’t know’ and my longer answer is ‘i don’t know but i’m working on it’ !

I can say that at one time i thought of something like the late Phil Bolger’s ‘Micro’ design as being perhaps the definitive micro-cruiser but even then Bolger had designed cruising boats that were both smaller and to my eyes even stranger.    A short story here is that one time i was sat in the cockpit of a big old maxi boat reading Bolger’s book ‘Boats with an open mind’ when a smaller IOR race boat asked to come alongside for a while and i recognized one of it’s crew as being a well known, even famous, IOR yacht designer.   At some point he noticed the book, asked me what i was reading and when i showed him the cover he commented something along the lines of ‘too much to think’ which i didn’t really get at the time but i think i do now……that most designers by staying near the center line of design have much less work to do than someone like Bolger who seemingly hrew away the rule book with many of his stranger concept boats.     Iv’e nothing against Bolger and many of his quirky creations by the way ; if i had space here i would build a Chebacco design just like the one i saw in Audierne which is one of my favorite small boats of all time.

The post title photograph is the Cbebacco i saw on a mooring in Audierne outer harbour BTW.

For this post iv’e been trying to track down a Bolger Micro in the UK and at least go and see one and talk to it’s owner about how well it actually sails and how well it does it’s job…..as readers will realize though that’s still out of the question in the UK and for now.

Bolger Micro, photographer not known.

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Is it a size thing ?.

Can we define the microcruiser sailboat concept just as a matter of size ?, well possibly we can as i can think of several small sailing boats that might be defined as micro-cruisers although most of them could as easily be called something else : the late Charles Stock’s ‘Shoal Waters’ for example was definitely a miniature cruising boat although you could say that she was a cruising dinghy with some ballast and a cabin.   Most of the boats that i think of as fitting the definition are well under 20 feet in length and one solid contender is a mere 12 feet in length- most though seem to be those boats in the 14-18 foot range that either have certain features or function in a particular way : the smaller to smallest sailing boats that have some degree of cruising capability and do go out cruising including overnight stops in the boat.

A while ago i found a video clip of a 12 foot sailing dinghy, the well known ‘Mirror’ design which must have been built in garages by the hundred….rebuilt and fitted out as a miniature cruising boat with a tiny cabin/cuddy.      At about the same size and using a similar idea of chopped off bow although different in every other aspect is John Welsford’s SCAMP design also at 12 feet and with a partial shelter cuddy.  I’m not even sure if SCAMP classes as a cruising dinghy or microcruiser, maybe it doesn’t even matter that much because it definitely functions as a small cruising boat and their owners seem to have a lot of fun with them…..i’ll come back to SCAMP later.

John Welsford designed ‘SCAMP’ (modified), Howard Rice photograph i believe and Howard’s boat.

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So at this stage i think ‘we have a problem Houston‘ in that we could spend useful time trying to define what a microcruiser is and isn’t and to be honest i don’t think that adds much to the conversation about small craft as cruising boats : rather than a discussion about simply defining terms then i’d rather think about what (micro) cruising in a small craft might look like and only then see which boats fit the requirements.    I think that what we will find is that several types of small craft can function and do function either better or worse as small cruising boats and perhaps , as is often the case, more about which compromises we are prepared to make.     One thought that comes to mind straight away was to wonder if a retired racing dinghy, certainly one of the larger ones, would make , or could be made into, a viable small cruising boat ? …..and i think the answer is yes.

Going cruising in a retired race boat….it’s an Osprey by the way ,Gavin Print photograph.

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Now, i can hear an objection here and along the lines of  ‘hang on….there’s no cruising gear on that boat !’ and you might or not be right.  I for one could go cruising like that because most of my cruising gear might be packed in the 40 litre dry-sack that just came straight out of my bushcraft pack.  That’s already one form of ‘cruising’ that my future in sailing might be taking which will be a fusion of boatmanship and stealthy bushcraft style camp-craft.   Some people would call that ‘beach’ cruising and the boat type a ‘camp-cruiser’ because the boat is mainly transport for it’s crew and their gear and the camp is mainly ashore…..some i know don’t define that as ‘cruising’ and have some expectation that the crew do or can sleep and cook aboard.

So….lets set out some parameters for ‘cruising’.

1.A boat that can carry it’s normal crew, that might just be the driver, their gear and stores in their cruising ground in normal conditions and lets say, for an extended cruise and not merely a day sail : lets set the basic parameter there as a weekend at minimum and add a day for the long weekend…..that after all is what most sailors do with their boats most of the time.

Comment : in my case just as an example that would be a boat that could sail equally as well in the rivers and estuaries of the west country as it would when making a coastal passage and in ideal conditions that i would be confident enough in to undertake the 100 mile channel crossing.

2.That it should be possible to cook ‘proper’ hot meals aboard and not say just rely on snacks and ‘camp’ food…..i live exceptionally well in the field but i note that many of my fellow outdoors practitioners do not !.

Comment : in my example i would want to be able to carry all of my water and food for an extended 10 day cruise and to be able to at least prepare a hot drink at sea while sailing….once again in normal conditions.

3.That it should be possible to sleep aboard the boat in comfort and under shelter but not necasarily in a fixed cabin or bunk.   I’m going to add right here that this is where the break-point is because all of the cruising dinghy’s that i would consider myself have the space to set up a comfortable arrangement for sleeping on and any sailor should be able to rig a simple shelter……but…..i’m beginning to think that the key difference where cruising dinghy ends and microcruiser begins is that the latter is built from the outset with a permanent shelter in the form of a cuddy or cabin.   And yes i realize once again that there are boats that will fall right through the middle of that with semi-shelters like SCAMP once again with it’s miniature shelter cuddy and similarly with John Welsford’s new expedition row and sailboat LongSteps.

Comment : i think that in my next boat (If there is one) then permanent shelter would be the ‘gold standard’ ideal although i could work with a cuddy, for example, to set up my galley box underneath, or to have a quickly set up and dropped ‘soft’ shelter…..something like a semi-permanent sprayhood arrangement which could be quickly turned into an overall boat shelter.   I actually quite like the idea of having a kind of sprayhood arrangement that extends in sections say and can extend aft to cover most of the cockpit when sailing in cold/wet conditions.

4.That my absolute filter for choice of boat is now something that i can keep at home on a trailer , in the drive and will tow behind a normal car…also that i can handle the boat on and off a trailer manually.     For my situation that puts a length limit on the boat at around 17-18 feet, our drive is longer but the access in and out is an absolute be’atch !.  The weight limit is what a reasonable family car will tow and not the kind of set up i was considering with my last boat, which, while it fitted all of my requirements as a microcruiser was too big for home storage and it needed a dedicated towing vehicle and a custom built trailer.    While most cruising dinghy’s that i know of and also the larger racing dinghy’s that iv’e been looking at converting will do that , there are now also completely custom solutions that might do the job better.

Couldn’t you just love that ?.  (dinghy with a lid….Pathfinder)

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In this post i thought i would get to the point where i could start looking at specific boats and considering whether that boat would do or might do what i want, and where i really wanted to start was by going as absolutely small as possible just as a thought exercise : in reality i don’t intend to go that small , less than 14 feet say, because iv’e got the space for a larger and more capable boat and i’m less convinced about the qualities of very short sailing boats even when they are very good examples of that genre.     Thus then iv’e got a top end and weight size limit that tops out at around 18 feet but i also have a minimum size in mind below which i just don’t think the boat would have the seagoing ‘legs’ for long passages : generally speaking passage speed is mostly constrained by waterline length and to be honest i think the more of that i can get, the better.

I also want to mention a trap which i keep falling into as a thinking and writing sailor and that for me being the ‘big adventures’ one, allow me to explain :

The first boat that i wanted to feature is Kiwi John Welsford’s design SCAMP which is almost certainly a cruising dinghy and an exceptional little boat, there’s lots of them out there, their owners seem to love them and have good times with them , and they come across as a friendly bunch too.  Now, i know of one SCAMP that has sailed in the Everglades Challenge, the delightfully named ‘Fat Bottom Girl’ and another one , Howard Rice’s boat, that he built and modified to cruise and explore the far southern islands around the Magellan strait with.    I’m not going to include any of Howard’s story here because he has made a much better story of it himself and it’s an epic story that includes a desperate capsize, a swim ashore and near hypothermia.

The problem i have and the writers trap is that it would be all to easy to talk about little SCAMP and a huge adventure like Howard’s story as being a good example of the capability of that boat say and/or it’s driver.   Things like that really inspire me because i was always drawn to the ‘big adventure’ myself and i could easily write about several sailors and their small craft that have done exceptional voyages and brought back the big stories.  I like that kind of thing and in Howard’s case i’d love to talk to him about his cruising in that part of the world because iv’e been down there myself but i think that kind of thing has little relevance to the kind of sailing that i do or that most other weekend sailors do…..much more relevant now i think to write about the kind of thing i actually have done or am likely to do and to then set my boat parameters against that.

Many i think would argue that even something like the Everglades Challenge is an exceptional event and therefore maybe shouldn’t appear as one of my filters…..that i tend to look at boats that completed the EC as a kind of buyers filter !.   I disagree because many different small craft have done that event and i note that i would happily use many of them for my next venture.  In my next post’s on this topic i’m going to start looking at some actual boats……honest i will.

I want to leave this post with one thing done for my satisfaction if nothing else and that’s to create a definition of the term microcruiser that i can then work with in the next post or posts…..this having the feel of a new series developing so :

Microcruiser.    The small to smallest sailing craft that we can go on an extended cruise in , that will be a capable boat in our chosen cruising ground in normal conditions , that we can cook in, carry out gear and stores in and sleep aboard, that offers some form of shelter from the elements , that we can handle on and off a trailer and when not in use that we can keep at home.

A collection of ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ (SCAMP) John Welsford design , photographer not known.

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