Exploring microcruiser design.
Micro-cruising and micro-adventuring.
A sail and awe post for 2021.
Title photograph by Lonnie Black.
In the first of this twin post i started to try and work out how small i thought i could go with a boat somewhere along the axis of microcruiser-small cruising dinghy and starting with an observation that a humble Mirror dinghy, all 10 feet of it. was functioning as someones beach cruising over-nighter : in this section of the post i intend to explore some of the design problems and functionality problems of very small boats that i ran into last time. My main question here is ‘how micro (small) can you go and still go ‘cruising’ in some way ? and referring back to my own posts for a moment what i mean by cruising is going from A to B under sail, oars or paddle and then having the ability to cook and sleep aboard the boat if we chose to do that and/or the ability to carry the equipment with us and camp ashore.
My design blind alley last time , once i got past some very simplified ideas about length and beam , was primarily that i was still thinking in terms of conventional boats, and for me where conventional means something with a sharp bow and a relatively wide middle and stern ; think racing dinghy or mid 80’s IOR race boat. In that style of boat i think i have got to the point where i think that much below 14 feet and the basic shape stops working unless we accept a very extreme ratio of length to beam and even my very basic knowledge of boats like that informs me that they can be very cranky sailers. An example of that kind of boat is the ‘Cat’ boat from the eastern seaboard of the USA. It’s clearly true though that a boat less than 14 feet can be a perfectly viable cruiser and i’m going to look at one such boat later in this post.
I’m now starting to look at actual boat plans and iv’e got 3 sets on my desk right now, part of what i’m doing this month is looking at those designs and trying to imagine each one and how it would work in my cruising area and for my purposes – the designs i have at the moment range from 14 feet to 17 feet as that size range represents the minimum length i think that will make for a good sea-boat and then the maximum size which i can afford to build and that can live at home on the drive. Of the boats that i have study plans for one boat is around the 14 foot mark , is still a good looking and conventional kind of shape and seems to be a capable boat : that’s John Welsford’s ‘Navigator’ design by the way and depending on which day of the week we are on or what phase of the moon we are at then the 14 foot Navigator is either top of the list or still in the top 5. So far though i would still say that the 3 boats that i have study plans for are primarily conventional but ‘chunky’ cruising dinghy’s except for Walkabout which is a slimmer design and more orientated towards rowing….i like that design a lot but i can feel a gradual pull towards a design dedicated to sail first.
What i have failed to do at my stage of buying study plans is to overlook even smaller designs that might just work ; i have to recognize that iv’e worked myself into initially rejecting everything outside a tight set of parameters when in fact an even smaller and more minimal boat might work just fine…..that’s something i want to address in this post.
The excellent Steve Parke and his home built Navigator ‘Arwen’. (Steve Parke photograph)
In the first half of this post i told the story of being at anchor in my previous boat and sheltering from a series of gales there when another boater rowed past my anchorage in what looked suspiciously like an old Mirror dinghy, landed on a spit of land and set up a tarp and open fire style of camp. It was a pretty wild night although the spit he was camping on was as well sheltered as i was and to be honest iv’e camped and bivouacked in worse conditions myself. The last i saw of him the next day was when he packed his boat again and rowed off upriver towards St Germans and either the continuation of the actual Lynher or the smaller Tiddy.
Now, some might say that this isn’t ‘cruising’ because that boater didn’t sleep aboard his boat and instead made his camp and cooked ashore….personally i think that beach-cruising or camp-cruising is a completely valid practice which offers many advantages over being stuck in a small boat although to pull back a little i would add that i believe it to be advantageous to have the ability to cook and sleep aboard as well as being able to camp ashore : one of the main things i want to explore in this post is how we might make that possible and how small a boat , or space within a boat we would need to cook and sleep in. The other side of my observation that night is that it made me realize that my adventure plans were curtailed because i didn’t feel it was wise to put out to sea , early in the season , and with the swell breaking over Plymough breakwater….my observation was that the bloke in the dinghy was also having a completely valid form of adventure which some might call a ‘micro-adventure’ and that’s also something i want to chew on in this set of posts.
Before i do that though i want to quickly explore another avenue of small craft cruising that i also saw happen in yet another favourite anchorage of mine ; Ruan creek….which is actually the true Fal river above where it splits off from the Truro river.
Ok….so now you know that i was at anchor in Ruan creek except that this time it was a quiet summer evening and i’d gone in on a rising tide, in fact i paddled the Liberty up the channel just like a big canoe with one of the open canoe paddles that i used to keep on the boat. I made my dinner and i was enjoying the peace and quiet of the creek in the early evening as the tide peaked and then gently started to flow out of the creek again , i knew that i was anchored over the soft sandbank on the northern side of the channel and i figured i would get a walk along the sand when the boat settled in a couple of hours time….i was well up on the bank this time.
A small flash of colour and something like the dip and splash of a paddle caught my attention – it turned out to be a solo sea kayaker paddling up creek over by the trees of the southern foreshore. He seemed to be scouting for a landing spot and after a short while i saw him land, unpack some gear from his boat and then haul the kayak itself up into the trees, a little after that and i caught a hint of wood smoke and i could see a an occasional puff of smoke filtering through the trees. I couldn’t see any more than that because that side of the creek is densely wooded but obviously the kayaker was having a night out with his boat and making a camp or bivouac in the woods behind the foreshore…..plenty of firewood there although no fresh water as far as i could work out. Once again…..a different small craft and a different way of ‘cruising’ on the water and if you disagree with that being a form of cruising then go argue with L.Francis Herreshoff who talks about cruising canoes in at least 2 of his books about yacht design and sailboat cruising. If you’re interested in that concept then check out one of my earlier posts : https://dirtywetdog.co.uk/2019/02/11/the-princess-and-a-boat-called-roy/
Where do we go ?…….from here.
If you’re wondering where i’m going on this tack which seems to be towards other forms of small craft and increasingly away from small sailing boats then it’s all because that’s where the early history of sailboat cruising came from, at least in the UK and later in the USA with sailing canoes ; some of which were designed from the outset to sleep in. In the UK it all really started with the eastern branch of the then Royal Canoe Club which quickly became the Humber Yawl club, 2 early members of which, George Holmes and Albert Strange were pivotal in designing early canoe based sailing yawls for the more difficult tidal waters of the Dee, Mersey and Humber estuaries. While being the kind of writer/blogger who doesn’t normally reference my work then if you’re interested in this line of inquiry then please check out Tony Watt’s book ‘The Humber Yawl Club’. What seems to have happened there is that a strand of canoeing, which was extremely popular at the time due to the work of ‘Rob-Roy (John) MacGregor, met a similar strand of early cruising boats based on local working craft and an entirely new leisure activity for the new middle classes ensued. Today, the Humber Yawl Club seems to be just another generic yacht club but back then it was one of the early proving grounds for the new type of small cruising boats that derived from the sailing canoe type…..for sure there was a rapid development in size and very quickly the early canoe-yawl soon became a canoe-yacht and they are still a boat i have a lot of affection for.
Ethel. (George Holmes) from 1888…..very ‘microcruiser’ !
Back towards sailing boats…..by way of a diversion.
So….i am spending some time at this end of the water-craft based ‘cruising’ world for a couple of reasons , first because i have seriously considered a modern sailing canoe as my next boat and if not that then second, that the skills, knowledge and equipment set up from canoes and sea kayaks are directly relevant to cruising in slightly larger boats : enter the sailing microcruiser !. As it happens i have been looking at sailing canoes and i think i would enjoy paddling and sailing one in my local river but i’m much less sure about doing a coastal passage in one except for in absolutely ideal conditions which don’t happen in the west country very often : basically i need a more capable boat but i can take with me the sailing canoe and sea kayak boat camping skills. One thing i am driving at here is that i don’t expect to have a boat at the kind of size i’m thinking about that has a secure and dry cabin and permanently set up galley and berths, rather it’s more likely to be that crossover point where i can set up and cook and sleep on the boat or just as easily transfer my gear ashore and make a comfortable camp there. It doesn’t take much to be really comfortable at camp or when ‘camping’ on a boat, if i can do that with a medium sized rucksack that i can carry easily then it would be just as easy to have my boat’s gear in a kayakers drybags and a canoeists portage bag, most of the time it’s the boat that is doing the heavy lifting and it’s no bad discipline to keep the gear light and simple.
A very small sailing boat then.
Earlier in the post i added a photograph of the excellent Steve Parke and his boat Arwen, i knew of Steve through his video blog (Arwen’s meanderings) and then one time tried to chase him up the Tamar during our last sail with the Deben 2 tonner ‘Inanda’ : Steve and Arwen just kept getting away from us that day as the smaller and lighter Navigator design just picked up speed much more quickly with each puff of wind. Later still and Steve very kindly came to find me in a cloud of paint dust and muck underneath my Liberty to talk about the build, dinghy cruising and our strangely parallel lives in our careers and in the outdoors. Then, we got to talking about adventure and ‘micro-adventure’ and it was Steve who told me about an even smaller cruising dinghy that had been built and fitted out to cruise and explore parts of Patagonia around the Magellan strait…...Howard Rice and his Scamp design ‘Southern Cross’. Now, iv’e been down that way myself a few times in a Maxi yacht and i always thought it would be a fine place to go in a big rugged expedition boat – something like Skip Novac’s ‘Pelagic’ which is based down there and often takes climbers out to the Ross ice shelf further south : but cruising the Magellan in a dinghy ?……a salty sailors expression comes to mind.
Here, it would be hugely tempting to talk about Howard Rice’s dinghy expedition around the Magellan strait because , well, i’m drawn to that kind of thing and i know enough about the area to tell others what a difficult, wild and uncompromising sort of place it is. Anyway, Howard has told his own story far better than i ever could , it ends with a capsize and having to swim ashore in very cold water by the way !….and anyway i don’t want to focus on that kind of thing because it’s not what the other 99.9% of dinghy cruising is about. Howard clearly undertook that adventure for his own reasons and it stands alongside other extreme small craft adventures, at least in my own mind, but maybe says less about the chosen boat and maybe much more about the skill level and preparation of Howard himself…..like i say – go read his story in his words.
Obviously though i had to go and at least take a look at the boat and the design notes, Southern Cross is a modified version of the basic SCAMP design which i recognized when i thought back to watching some video clips of the start of the Everglades Challenge . The boat i saw, delightfully named ‘Fat Bottom Girl’ has sailed in and finished that event more than once i believe and that event is a kind-of filter for me in that if a design has done that event and done it well then it’s more likely i feel to work for what i want.
The basics then : SCAMP (stands for ‘Small craft advisory magazine project’) is a cruising dinghy which measures in a tad under 12 feet in length and 5′ 4″ in beam but notably it’s a very unusual design in that it has water ballast (173 pounds potentially) and a small cuddy just about enough to cook in and enough space on the straight-through sole to comfortably sleep in. Of note…so much to say about the design because it seems to ‘beat the rule’ in that it doesn’t have a ‘sharp’ bow above the waterline but ends in a pram bow a bit like a Mirror dinghy , it’s central space isn’t broken up by a board case, that’s off to one side, and neither is there a mast or compression post right in the way either – rather the mast is right up in the bow out of the way and rigged as a balanced lug.
I took the following piece from the Wikipedia page of the Scamp design (links to this and Howard Rice at end of post)
- Pram bow – allows for a greater beam for any given length. Don’t have to pull the forward plank ends together. More volume and therefore buoyancy forward.
- Stowage Cabin – The cuddy on SCAMP serves many purposes. The overhanging cabin top acts like a dodger and is large enough for an adult to sit athwartships out of the weather. Additionally, items in forward lockers can be accessed without water getting into storage area. Stowage cabin also houses a mast box that supports more of the mast than is possible with open boats. This in turn allows for an unstayed mast.
- Balanced Lug Rig (Lug sail) – The balanced lug rig provides a number of advantages
- Unstayed – no stays, sail can pivot all the way forward if need be increasing safety
- The part of the sail in front of the mast “balances” the pressure of the wind on the sail. When tacking it catches the wind and helps the sail pivot across. When gybing it reduces the amount of force when the boom comes across. When running downwind it keeps the center of effort closer to the centerline of the boat reducing weather helm
- Once the sail is raised, the sailor only has to manage one sheet making it easy to singlehand.
- The “off set-centerboard” is in a case that is on the starboard side of the cockpit under the seat. This provides for an unobstructed cockpit and a place to sleep when at anchor. The centerboard and the rudder are based on NACA airfoil shapes to provide lift when moving through the water.
- Skegs – Two skegs are mounted on the bottom. These provide a flatter base to support the boat above the bottom when grounding or beaching for protection and leveling.
- Buoyancy – A stock SCAMP has five separate watertight buoyancy areas, forward under the cuddy, below the floor of the cuddy, the aft area under the cockpit, and each seat.
- Water Ballast – Centrally located under the cockpit sole, a water ballast chamber holds approximately 170Lbs (77 kg) of ballast down low where it is most beneficial. This ballast can be emptied to facilitate easier rowing or trailering
John Welsford SCAMP design. (Lonnie Black photograph)
Southern Cross (modified Scamp) Howard Rice photograph.
I started this post with a simple question “how micro can you go” and at that point i thought that a length of 14 feet or thereabouts was about as small , depending on the beam also, that i would want to go. With SCAMP we obviously have a smaller, or at least measurably shorter boat although one that seems to behave like a larger one and i could well imagine both building one and cruising one . I perhaps wouldn’t cruise in the same way as i used to with my Hunter Liberty but then why would I ?….while i think that the boat would be perfectly capable of a channel crossing, that being my most extreme requirement, there shouldn’t really be any need to do that ; just stick it on a trailer and let Brittany Ferries do the hard work while i have a nice meal and a beer or 2. SCAMP teaches me a lot though, it isn’t a conventional design and maybe the first lesson is that at this size conventional features either don’t work or just get in the way and perhaps i should apply those lessons a bit further up the size range.
I like SCAMP, she makes me smile, but i don’t think i will build one because i think that one of my key parameters is to get as much waterline length in a boat as i can and still keep the boat at home. Of course i wondered if there was a larger, or at least longer version and in a way there are several other designs in John Welsford’s extensive catalogue that are either similar or use some of the same ideas. If iv’e got this right then John Welsford considers SCAMP to be one of his best designs in that it’s the one that fulfills it’s design criteria as completely as possible.
For my part i still can’t make a clear decision either one way or another , i could build a SCAMP wholly inside my little workshop and i think i would have a lot of fun with her ; i really want a larger boat most of the time though and i could definitely imagine cruising a Navigator design on my own or Pathfinder with my partner. The latter boat would be the most expensive boat for me to build and the heaviest to handle on and off a trailer but equally it would be the most capable of the designs for coastal sailing….i could really imagine continuing my round Britain voyage and/or Challenge 65 with that one. I’ll finish this post because i think iv’e already gone on for far too long and i have mostly answered my own question although my own thinking still keeps going around in circles….sometimes my own brain ‘does my head in’…if you know what i mean !