Post 2 in the new Microcruisers series.
A sail and awe post for 2021.
Title picture ‘Little Boat’ , photograph courtesy of TC.
Blog time : it’s late February and a quick check over my shoulder shows me that it’s raining as usual, in fact it seems to have been raining since last October . Last night it rained so heavily in fact that we’ve got little springs bubbling out from under the back path where the gardens are so soaked that the water has nowhere else to go….the river is totally in spate just down in the valley as well. Here, i’m literally chipping away at a list of outdoor jobs, trying to get out for another squelchy walk through the woods and trying to stay motivated enough to keep at the writing every day. At home i seem to be fighting a daily battle with patches of mold and mildew inside and slippery green algae that builds up on the wood decking outside during a wet winter. On the bright side our first Daffodil of the year has flowered, there’s a few Crocuses out and hundreds of spring bulb shoots now firing through the leaf mulch so in a few weeks the cottage and garden will be transformed into a blaze of spring colour.
I have to admit that i’m really struggling with the motivation to keep writing and posting and even with being a quite solitary person , happy in my own company, that not being able to go out aside from the daily plod around the woods , is beginning to get me down a bit. One thing i really need is some sunshine !
Spring in the back garden, couple of years back.
Well, i’m not here today to talk about the garden even though i note how many of my fellow sailors are gardeners too, rather i’m here today to continue my new series about cruising in small craft : in the first post of my new series i managed to talk myself into and out of a bit of a blind alley by trying to define the term ‘microcruiser’ so in this post and subsequent posts i can get down and dirty with some actual examples.
I finished the first post with at least a useful idea, i thought, about the function and requirements i had for a small cruising boat that i could keep, maybe build and work on at home. It seems even more pertinent now that i could be either building or working on a boat at home and that would be far better for me than sitting at the computer for hours at a stretch : I begin to see that hand-work or hand-craft might well be an essential, maybe crucial, part of my life here……anyway….
Microcruiser, my definition : “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.
I guess i’ll be tinkering around with that idea for several posts to come especially when it’s been kicked around on social media sites for a while, it’ll do for now and after all it’s only a framework to work with and hang some practical posts on. My own thoughts about this are that defining terms is less useful than defining the use of the boat, the parameters of the boat and in my case working out what kind of boat shaped space i can work with at home. I find though that because i have a broad interest in the many kinds of boat that might work for me, i’m considering everything from sailing canoes through cruising dinghy’s, even old racing dinghy’s to dayboats and small multihulls and yes….even that strange class of boat called microcruisers. Somewhere in there is a boat that will do most of what i want and i note today that part of what i want is something that i can work on at home in my very own back yard boatyard next to a mostly dry workshop, the kettle and the biscuit tin.
In 2019 i spent most of the summer at sea living aboard my little 22 foot centerboard cat-ketch while i cruised around western and southern Brittany. I lived aboard full time for 110 days mostly solo except for a few weeks when my partner was with me and then once i’d sailed back across the channel and done a quick refit i continued my cruise with another month aboard in the west country. I’m glad i had that year as a kind of time-out after i stopped working for the NHS and i think of that summer as a high point of my own cruising in a small boat and successful as it was partially because i was doing it in a relatively small boat : aside from one couple i met at anchor in the Glenans archipelago in a slightly smaller boat we were always the smallest boat out there and actually cruising.
The little Liberty worked precisely because of the things that it could do and many larger boats can’t-that it could sail in shallow water , sit upright on any level surface and such like which as iv’e said before extended my cruising ground in Brittany right up to the beaches i anchored off and the many rivers and creeks i slipped into with hardly any water under the boat. I wondered then and it’s become my bench-mark since whether i could have done the same cruise in the same way in an even smaller boat – a cruising dinghy for example or what i’m starting to focus on in this series ; a microcruiser of some kind. I’m going to say both yes and no to that because i’m not so sure that i would have done my early season channel crossing in a cruising dinghy, 100 miles in a mostly open boat would have been an even more miserable experience than the outward crossing was in the Liberty but after that i can’t think of anything that i did with the Liberty that i couldn’t have done with a big dinghy. At times it might have been slightly less comfortable and we might have done parts of the cruise in a different way, i’ll talk about that a bit more later on…..but there was none of the actual sailing and little of the functional living aboard that i couldn’t have done with say a big cruising dinghy or microcruiser.
In fact, i can make a useful comparison here between 2 cruises to the same area but about 5 years apart, the first one being in my Frances 26 and the more recent one in the smaller Liberty. In my opinion it was the second cruise in the smaller boat that was the more successful in that both boats took me across the channel (the Frances was a better boat for that) both boats were good at the coastal cruising in Brittany and i went into many of the same rivers in both boats….the main difference in the cruising side being that i was able to explore much further into the rivers and estuaries with the smaller boat.
As i consider different boats today that might work for me i tend to use that second Brittany cruise as my benchmark because that encompasses most of my cruising ground, this side of the English channel and the far side, and within that cruise i did just about everything i would want to do with a small sailing craft except perhaps beach the boat and bivouac ashore. If you’re asking the obvious question ‘why not just keep the Liberty then’ and after all it was the most successful boat that iv’e had up until now it’s because i couldn’t keep that boat at home and can’t afford the combination of towing vehicle and custom trailer that the boat really needed to fulfill it’s potential with.
So, lets begin with one of the actual boats that i’m thinking about building as a home project and without having an actual example right here to play with , to try and work out if that boat would work as my potential micro-cruiser.
Boat 1. Pathfinder (John Welsford design)
Introduction ; My point of departure in choosing the Pathfinder design is the late Charles Stock’s ‘Shoal Waters‘ which was a microcruiser, in my definition, built from the hull of a sailing dinghy : at the time one of the largest dinghy hulls available. In my own project i started casting around for today’s largest dinghy hull with a similar idea in mind- start with a proven hull already made and if the boat came with a rig then all well and good. Today’s version isn’t the boat that most people would automatically think of when they think about dinghy’s for cruising, the well known Wayfarer ; instead of that i looked around for the larger and much more powerful National 18 design which would also be the practical limit for my driveway and home build or conversion project.
I continue to be inspired by Shoal Waters because Charles Stock made such a unique and successful cruising boat out of a 16 foot dinghy so i wondered if I in turn could build a similarly successful boat today. I suspect that i’m both taller, wider and heavier than the late Charles Stock so what i intended to do was give myself a bit more space all round and create a more powerful sea-kindly boat for the harder conditions which i am more likely to meet. This is important and is something that Stock himself pointed out, that his chosen cruising ground was the rivers and ports of the Thames estuary which is mostly sheltered from the UK’s prevailing wind direction and as he says himself that bad weather there leaves little effect after a couple of tides : I on the other hand cruise in the rivers of the west country but i also make coastal passages on that exposed coast and have an expectation to be able to cross the English channel from time to time. Simply put i have to sail in bigger waves, often more wind and quite frequently in a lump left-over sea with the whole fetch of the north Atlantic just upwind of me.
The basics then : Pathfinder is just about the largest cruising dinghy that John Welsford has designed and i think only his 6m Whaler is longer, after that his designs slip into small cruising boats. Pathfinder then is 17′ 3″ (5.25) in lengh, 6′ 5″ in the beam, carries 163 Sq.Ft of sail area and weighs in at 485 lbs. That’s about the largest boat all round that i could build at home with some modification to my build space and of the cruising dinghy designs that i am looking at , the one that i would be happiest with as a cruising boat in the rivers and estuaries of the west country, as a coastal passage maker and in the right conditions for the greater adventure of a channel crossing . One pertinent comment though is that unlike my previous boat i don’t see any problem with towing Pathfinder behind a normal car and not a specialized towing vehicle and simply driving down to Plymouth ferry port and waking up 12 hours later in Roscoff….there’s even 2 good slipways that i know of right there !.
As i write this piece i now have the study plans for Pathfinder spread out and my task this week is to cost up the project of building the hull and spars, at this stage i know that i don’t have the funds for the expensive bits….in this case a custom built trailer….but that’s getting ahead of myself because i also have study plans for 3 other boats to look at.
Here’s what John Welsford says about the Pathfinder design.
“I had in mind a really serious cruising dinghy. With full buoyancy, lots of storage, about the maximum size that two people could right if swamped in a hard chance, really capable in a head sea ( a weakness in almost any small boat) and capable of making some sort of progress in really nasty conditions. A boat still really well adapted to exploring an estuary with the family, cruising along a sunny coast or even just knocking around the bay while Mum and Dad have a quiet snooze on the beach, but capable of fulfilling the dreams of those who read Frank and Margaret Dyes stories with far away looks in their eyes, capable of really covering some miles, and capable of doing so in the sort of weather that will eventually catch up with every voyager.”
“This boat has a very high power to weight ratio, her extra length over the 15 ft Navigator means a lot of extra sail carrying ability and still having the fine lines necessary for speed and comfort, I really like the rig, the gaff headed main is very controllable and the extra spacing between the main and mizzen will help the boat point well. She’ll be a rocket reaching and running and I suspect that it will take a very good boat to get away from her upwind. The shape forward should mean she is a dry boat, and the big foredeck and wide side decks will help the crew to stay out of the spray, there are lots of dry storage spaces for camping gear and stores, and the swinging centreboard and rudder mean that she can be sailed into water as little as knee deep.”
In standard form Pathfinder is simply a big and powerful cruising dinghy although tantalizingly some builders have built them with a cuddy or cabin, the one below is just about the nearest thing i can find to the late Charles Stock’s boat ‘Shoal Waters’ but looks to me a more capable sea boat for the west country and Brittany.
Floats my boat, pulls my strings, squeezes my pips and so on and so forth !