An open boat for open water.

A new series of posts….so –

And a new Facebook page too :

Blog time : it’s mid October 2021 and the days are suddenly a lot shorter – that and it’s been cool , wet and windy-wet here for days so it’s been very difficult to get any glue jobs done. Today, as i write it was warm and briefly sunny so i had a big push with the planking and got both ‘short’ planks on and the first of the full length ones on. I’ll leave the talk about the planking until next week because by then i should have a half planked boat at least and also that in this post i want to start talking about my thoughts and plans for an open boat in open water.

Many of my site visitors will be aware that i’m building my next boat to a design by Kiwi John Welsford ; in brief his ‘Pathfinder’ design which is intended as a large cruising dinghy cum dayboat. Right from the start of this project when i was thinking about which design to build i also thought a lot about my intentions for the boat – what i actually wanted to do with it and the kind of places that i wanted to sail it , those plans and intentions lay considerably outside the ‘normal’ range of a cruising dinghy ; an English channel crossing for example and/or a circumnavigation of the UK and shall we say…..possibly an ocean passage !. It’s strange to me as a sailor who has crossed oceans that what most people tend to think about when they hear the term ocean, is storms and heavy weather and not, as in my actual experience , days and days of calms and light weather.

For sure and yes, storms happen – indeed that ‘shit happens’ at sea is and should be a sailors mindset but to be just focused on the one thing does tend to leave out all of the other stuff , like for instance making way in very light or no wind. For sure also that a capsize or an overwhelming sea state in very cold water can happen even close to home. In this series of posts then i want to draw on several sources that cover the things that can and do go wrong and the everyday stuff that an open boat sailor should plan for and think about.

Stringers on and bevels started.

Where that takes me is to think about many aspects of the design and layout – whether those features help, hinder or are just neutral ; also what problems and situations i might meet that would make me consider modifications and alterations at this stage. Right now i have the boat at not quite ‘bare shell’ stage – iv’e got all of the stringers on and i’m just starting on the planking ; iv’e also been spending a lot of my break times just sitting at the boat, looking at the layout and thinking about how i’m going to do things like the ballast, buoyancy and so on. Just as an example before i get going with the kind of technical stuff that i’m working on – today i was thinking about the volume of the big open cockpit/footwell and wondering about reducing that volume by half and just having a shorter footwell ; the idea there being to reduce the potential flooding volume and weight in the boat – and alongside that thought where to site a bilge pump or 2 !.

Marking out one of the planks.

Today though let me begin with a sea story.

On the 18th of august 1848 some 800 or so mainly small open fishing boats launched off beaches or from the small fishing harbors of the Moray firth in the north east of the UK – to go out and fish in the shallow North sea . Despite a fair start in good weather the wind rapidly increased and the sea state became rough such that many of the fishing boats hauled their nets and ran for shelter. In the ensuing storm 124 boats were lost due to capsizing and/or down-flooding and it is reported that 100 fishermen were lost at sea that night. One point that was raised by the subsequent enquiry was that many boats were lost while trying to enter harbors – i would surmise that perhaps steep breaking waves in an onshore set were partially to blame.

In the aftermath of the storm the British government ordered an enquiry and this was carried out by a captain John Washington of the Admiralty. His report, presented to the British government in 1849 came to 2 main conclusions – firstly that many of the fishing harbors were inadequate/unsafe to enter in heavy weather and secondly that the open hulled design of most fishing boats at the time was the cause of many of them flooding and capsizing. Although not directly stated in the following changes which mainly dealt with the harbors problem the fisheries of the time did start to recommend that fishing boats should be at least half-decked to reduce water ingress and strangely it is reported that many fishermen disliked the change as it meant reducing the catch volume and working on a deck rather than from lower down – inside the boat.

Fishing boat design did slowly change though……and it seems changed away from smaller inshore style boats that could be beached easily to larger and heavier boats , decked or half-decked and often with a foc’sle to give the crew some shelter.

Obviously though i’m not a fisherman and i’m not building something that is anything like a small open fishing boat of the mid 19th century and yet……and yet there seems to be a deeply held belief among many sailors and often the unthinking public too that small boats are intrinsically less ‘safe’ than large ones even when the actual evidence runs contrary to that view. The other side of this though is that i could get caught out offshore in heavy weather just as i did in the ‘blizzard’ incident in Lyme bay a couple of years back – the conditions i met then could have resulted in a serious broach-to and/or capsize in a small open boat and that would have perhaps ended with me in the water….very cold water at that time of year too.

……….Back to the story though…….An open boat of that era would have been a relatively heavy structure and most likely ballasted for stability with rocks, stones and in some cases bags of sand and gravel ; once loaded with a heavy catch of fish the reserve stability could have been very low, freeboard low too and once those boats started taking on a bit of water over the sides easy to flood and sink. I suspect also that the long keeled boats as they were at the time weren’t the easiest to control downwind in a heavy breaking sea – while pure conjecture i wonder how many broached-to while running, quickly filled and as quickly went down.

The painting ‘Fog warning’ (Winslow Homer)

Offshore fishing always was and still is one of the most dangerous jobs to do – and as with nearly all highly dangerous and or physically demanding jobs one that has always been done almost uniquely by men. In the painting above by the late Winslow Homer a small craft, a fishing Dory, is out on the Grand Banks and that’s it’s ‘mothership’ (fishing schooner) up to windward – the rower is anxiously looking over his shoulder at the mounting sea and the encroaching fog bank……will he get back to the fishing schooner in time or will he be , like many Gloucester Dorymen another one simply lost at sea as hundreds were.

There’s a kind of mental trap here though and it’s the same kind of trap that gives us the obsession for ‘safety’ whether we realize it or not. Just this week i was catching up with a couple of new video channels , in one the amazing Sven Yrvind is building his next boat and in another a young designer/builder was starting the build of his micro ocean cruising boat. Both of them seem to be designing and building with an approach that is ultimately fear-full and defensive : designing and building not for the everyday things that happen but for those ‘ultimate’, once in a lifetime storms and resulting in boats that are like sealed submarines , unsinkable, uncomfortable, slow and not great sailers to start with.

Today many sailors seem safety obsessed way above and beyond a simple respect for the sea and an understanding that it’s always going to be a changing and chaotic environment and where it’s not the latest gizmo but basic raw skill, knowledge and to be honest a certain amount of chutzpah….or sheer Cojones….that will get us through the difficult times.

Not so long ago i had to feel my way carefully, in a dense sea-fog, around Plymouth Hoe so that i could put into one of the marina’s there to go ashore and do my basics ; food, fuel and water. There i happened to be one boat back (in my scruffy little 22′ centerboarder) of a big and new cruising yacht of 40 feet or so – i just happened to overhear the owner’s wife loudly moaning on her mobile phone want an absolutely awful time they’d had on the motorway and how they couldn’t possibly make the short passage to Fowey in this absolutely awful fog !. Me…..i took a look the back of their boat and even i could see the plethora of electronic gubbins from GPS recievers to radar sets and beyond…… I simply cast off my lines and handrailed my way back around the Hoe until i found the short passage across the ‘Bridge’ and around to Cawsand bay ; the next morning at around 0400 i set sail and started my first cross channel passage in that little ‘inshore’ boat……and solo too.

The funny part of all of that was that after a long 30 hours plus at sea, alone in the English channel, in an ‘inshore/protected waters’ type craft i made my landfall off the north Brittany coast , in a lumpy sea and grey dawn……that a couple of miles offshore i sailed past a Breton fisherman out there in a small open boat with just a little outboard on the back and no other gear that i could see. His little boat maybe 12 feet or so and completely open was bobbing up and down in the uncomfortable swell and the fisherman was calmly sucking away on his Gauloise while he fished.

However and once again i find that i’m getting off track so…..

So i’m building and modifying a relatively large open boat, essentially a big cruising dinghy, to become an expedition boat capable of doing an ocean crossing – there, it’s on the page now. I’m not thinking about ultimate survivability in an extreme storm but i am thinking seriously about things like buoyancy, capsizes and recovery …..that and all of the things that do go wrong with small boats and their drivers. To get at those things though and find out what is and isn’t relevant and/or important what i’m going to do in part 2 is look at the things that actually do happen to small craft and that through the eyes and records of the people that take an interest in such things.

Until next time.

Planking and boarding


  1. Wise words Steve. Too much reliance on gizmos and the inability to manage risk effectively in the world at large in my opinion. My sailing hero is Webb Chiles, who has circumnavigated in a 24 foot daysailer and crossed the Pacific in a Drascombe Lugger! He’s a one-off, that’s for sure but I think we can all learn something from his approach to sailing. And yours.


    1. Yes indeed i remember Webb Chiles’s story, made me want to go out and buy a cheap old J24 and go ocean cruising in it !. I remember briefly writing about the man himself in a double piece alongside Roger Taylor as 2 old men of the sea. Here’s one that you mat not have come across yet……Howard Rice, his ‘SCAMP’ (Southern Cross) and his voyages in Patagonia. I’ll be talking about that next time including his epic capsize and recovery.


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