The offshore pocket yacht.

Pocket yachts , second post.

In the first post of this series i talked about my experiment to make a pocket cruising boat out of an old British classic ‘tabloid’ yacht – a Deben 4 tonner ; in this post i want to go a bit further back in my own sailing life and talk about the boat that i intended as a genuine small offshore and even ocean going boat – my Frances 26. To do that i first need to give a bit of personal sailing history and a bit of context for buying that boat. In my blog i made the decision early on not to write about anything that i’d done in sailing before i started the blog and my problem now is that the time when i bought my own Frances 26 almost predates me even owning a computer : sadly also iv’e lost nearly all of my digital photo files from when i was refitting and then sailing that boat.

Frances 26, ‘La Luz’……owners photograph.

In the 1990’s……ok, so very ‘last century’…..i worked in the sailing industry for several years until i realized that it was a colossal mistake for me to be doing that and so in 1995 or thereabouts i packed my seabag for the last time and came ashore. In retrospect i think that working in the sailing industry in the way that i did – mate, then skipper of an old maxi yacht, was maybe one of my worst life choices ever. I think now that taking something that i had been passionate about as an amateur and turning it into a ‘profession’ although for profession simply read ‘job’ was at the heart of that mistake. I know now that i’m fundamentally introverted and almost asocial which means that i find dealing with large groups of people, and having to entertain them, difficult to actually painful ; equally i know now that neither am i really a racing sailor at heart so the continuous round of charters and regattas that we took part in i just found stressful rather than exciting.

When i threw my seabag over the rail for the last time and walked away from the boat that i used to drive i never looked back and in fact i gave up sailing totally for a few years. The strange thing now is that i seem to have lost the next two years – i know i went to work, in fact i worked every available shift, night after night. Once a month my treat was to take the foot ferry from the Hamble to Warsash just over the river and there have a browse of the nautical bookshop – whatever i bought would then be my main reading matter on breaks for the next month. The good thing about that time is that i escaped the narrow focus of IOR maxi yachts that my sailing life had become…..backing out of that mental cul-de-sac and exploring a much broader interest in boats and the sea took me to a whole load of new influences. I know, for example that i developed an interest in shallow water craft – like USA east coast Sharpies- an interest that i still have today.

Sharpie ‘Egret’

One of my most consistent new influences was the series of books written by Lin and Larry Pardey all based around their time with the two long keeled wooden cruising boats that they built and sailed…..engineless too. They seemed to espouse the idea of almost maximum simplicity and self reliance in sailing that included putting their trust in sails, anchors, minimal technology but a high degree of sailing based seamanship. That view i find is very much like my practice in the other disciplines iv’e followed in the outdoors…..from hiking and bushcraft to canoe and sea kayak .

Many of the separate threads of my sailing based storytelling come from that period and i find today that the thing i’m working on in my backyard started life, as an idea, back then – some 30 years ago . Another regular feature of my slow evolution of thinking about boats and my future life was that when crossing the Hamble river aboard the ferry we would often pass close to a Frances 26 moored there. I always liked that boat – somehow it looked just right……’salty’

I didn’t and couldn’t own a boat for many years to come but one of the things that kept me going during the first couple of bleak years was what i called my Frances 26 Advent Calendar – i had a photograph of a Frances printed out, mounted it on card and then made a cover for it that could slowly be exposed as a set of windows….every month when i was able to put some boat money aside i would ‘buy’ a piece of that Frances 26 by opening a window onto another detail. I thought then that if i was going to have my own boat it would have to be something that i really wanted , would do the job i intended , which included offshore and even ocean sailing and at the same time might be my full time home while i moved from job to job : i defined it, what i wanted, as the smallest boat that i could comfortably live aboard and which would sail well over long distances……thus the idea of my pocket offshore yacht came about.

Frances 26 WABI”

In my first post in this series, when i was talking about using a small classic yacht as a cruising boat, i set out what i thought were my requirements for a boat at that stage of my cruising life – more than ten years before that when i bought a rough secondhand Frances 26 i simply wanted that boat because ……well, ‘because reasons’ as they say !. That it also seemed to fit everything that the Pardey’s said and wrote about the ideal rugged and self reliant sailboat was simply a bonus , for sure it had the right features such as a long keel, moderate displacement, good sail area and so on but to be honest it just looked and felt right.

Previous blog post about the Frances 26 :

I think that the boat i bought was a very early British built Frances 26 and that it had spent all of it’s life on the west coast of Scotland as a family cruising boat – that it was very tired and needed a thorough refit was clear but what was also true was that it had the interior layout that i wanted ; essentially an open boat with a large vee berth forward, a working area of galley and huge chart table under the doghouse and then a pair of proper sea berths aft.

When i bought her she came with a small solid fuel stove and a small stack of the dried peat that her former owner used as fuel – in her major refit i decided i needed a cold store for food so the stove space became an ice box/fridge. Although small looking inside i was perfectly comfortable as i tended to live forward at anchor but usually slept aft.

Frances 26 WABI” living aboard during refit.

My plan for the boat was to complete a major refit in several stages and then to one day ‘just pack her and go’…..go long term cruising aboard her and incidentally retire from my job in the NHS. Today i wouldn’t like to admit how much money and time i put into that boat – in the first stage of the refit she got all new rigging and sails for example, but then she tried to sink on her winter mooring when water started coming through her rudder mounting bolts so after that she needed a new engine, new electrics and while i was doing that i also fitted a windvane self steering ; a difficult job with the Frances’s stern shape. I would also say of my years with the Frances 26 that those were the years that i genuinely tried to become self reliant with jobs that i would have previously passed to an ‘expert’ – fitting and aligning the new engine for example and then having to build a new switch panel and wiring loom.

WABI” new engine goes in.
New electrics and new watch station.

Sailing the Frances.

As a sailboat the Frances was nothing like any boat (for her size) that i’d sailed before – remember though that i’d come from light and twitchy IOR race boats that needed a hand at the helm always and a sail change for every 5 knot increase or decrease in wind speed…..multiple jibs, genoas and spinnakers just to go somewhere. In comparison the Frances felt slow and steady because it was very forgiving and had a gentle motion – in real terms i was genuinely surprised just how well it got on with the job of getting someplace else without stress or fuss. The first time i ever set the windpilot and let her find her own way with wind direction was a total revelation ; i set the gear in Plymouth sound one afternoon , trimmed sail and she simply heeled a bit , picked up to cruising speed and headed for open water while i nipped below to put the kettle on.

One time i came away from our temporary berth at Saltash heading upriver for a quick cruise up to Dandy hole and a quiet weekend at anchor when i came across a pair of Vertue’s beating up the Hamoaze. Of course, they pretended to be not actually racing when i came up behind them and then really pretended to not be racing as i overtook the pair of them ……i think they were so miffed at being overtaken by the Frances 26 that they pointedly ignored me at anchor.

At anchor Dandy Hole, Cornwall UK

Frances 26 offshore.

One calm late afternoon several years back i finished my provisioning , topped up my water , upped anchor and slowly ghosted out of the anchorage off the town quay in Falmouth to work our way out of the harbor and south towards Pendennis point. Near the entrance and not far off the well marked rock right in the middle of the fairway there the wind died away completely so i fired up my nearly new reconditioned engine and started motoring south towards the Mumbles and on past the Lizard…..there, in open water a gentle air picked up from the west so i hoisted sail again and set the windpilot to make a few degrees west of south and aiming for the mouth of the Chenal de Four….some 110 miles away.

I remember that i took a good look around and that there was no traffic, the sun was less than an hour away from the horizon and it was starting to cool off so i went below and made myself a good filling dinner from my fresh food supplies. Out beyond the Lizard i could start to feel the gentle long rise and fall of the westerly swell running up channel but the Frances has such a seakindly motion that i could cook and work at the chart table easily.

After dinner i noticed that the wind had come aft a bit and thus because WABI” was being steered by the Windpilot , that we’d come up above course a bit – the ideal course being a bit difficult to determine exactly because i would have to deal with at least 5 cumulative east-west streams during the passage . Whatever…i decided to sail the passage as well as i could so i went forward up onto the Frances’s wide foredeck, dropped the hanked genoa and instead hoisted my new code Zero/reacher for the first time and then, going aft again, reset the windpilot to come off the wind a bit more.

I find it difficult now to explain just how awake and excited i was to be heading out to sea on my first long solo offshore passage and about to go into my first night alone at sea – for sure iv’e sailed many night watches both cruising and racing but never before on my own. I knew i had several hours of quiet sailing before i had to cross the first channel separation zone so for the first time i tried to establish a solo watch routine in which every 20 minutes i would check the sails and compass and then stand in the cockpit for a few minutes doing a complete 360 degree check of the horizon – then i would go below again and try to relax. I found after a few watch cycles that i was most comfortable just sitting on a cushion placed on my lowered engine box top – that meant that i could sit in the companionway with my head and body under the sprayhood.

Once every second hour i turned on my combined VHF radio and GPS unit , marked the position on my channel chart and had another look at the tidal chart too ; after a few 2 hour cycles i could see our straight course through the water become a sinuous curve that then turned back on itself as the tide changed again.

I remember being very happy, fulfilled in a way that i’d got the old and tired Frances back into full offshore sailing mode and that here i was with a good stock of water and food – i knew that i was only intending to cross the channel and put into the first major river estuary in Brittany but i also had a huge temptation to harden up and make for the outer passage around Ushant……and just keep going south……why not i thought except that i would be extremely tired by then and why not just stick with my plan for once.

Mid channel the first separation zone had hardly any traffic and i didn’t need to change course at all but for the second one there was lots of shipping and i had to alter course a few times…the wind went a bit forward again with the change of tide so sometime during the early hours of the next day i changed back to the genoa again . I was all that day and next night at sea, by pure luck i caught the last 2 hours of tide past the big light at Ile Vierge and found the marker for the Libenter shoal almost at slack water…..then turned east into the main channel for L.Aber-Wrach.

I was incredibly tired and fuzzy in the head by then and for a while got a bit confused by the red marker lights in the smaller channel, the Malouine channel to my left and north…..for a while i drifted too far that way on the new flooding tide until i heard the ominous sound of tide gurgling around rock. Somewhere around the mark known as the Petit pot de Beurre i realized my mistake and quickly doubled back a few minutes until i was back in the main channel again and not long after that i put into the first anchorage west of the marina. With about 8 meters of water under the keel and on a rising tide i set my big Delta anchor, had a last look around and headed below to get some sleep.

WABI” at anchor off Whitsand bay during a passage down channel.

The Frances 26 as a cruising boat.

During that first cruise to western and then southern Brittany i visited the 3 ‘Abers’, went around into the Rade De Brest, visited the Aulne but didn’t go much further than the suspension bridge that time (didn’t have a chart of the river) and then headed south…..first around the Crozon peninsular and into Morgat and then south again through the Raz de Seine on a ‘lumpy’ day followed by a rapid passage east to anchor in Audierne. The furthest east i got during that trip was Benodet where i briefly got pinned alongside the visitor pontoon by a ferocious ebb…..that’s also where i had the entertaining ‘trouser’ incident with a friendly Dutch sailor.

The boat did exactly what i wanted it to as a cruising boat, and i would say – at the time…..because by choosing , buying and refitting that boat i broke away from everything i’d done with boats before and the Frances taught me a hell of a lot about going cruising in a self reliant way. At the same time she was a perfectly comfortable liveaboard for me solo and when my partner was able to join me. The big ‘however’ though was that i was learning to think a lot more carefully about what i really wanted from a boat and that my needs weren’t exactly along the Pardey’s lines ; while having huge respect for what they did with similar styles of boat i realized that one of the features that i wanted in a boat was the ability to sail in very shallow water and to dry out upright without needing anything like beaching legs.

Below – on the return from south Brittany, WABI” off Paluden quay .

WABI” (background) off Paluden quay.

Frances 26 in retrospect.

In retrospect then i hugely enjoyed my time with a Frances 26 and i really only sold her because our lives changed, i decided not to just drop out and become a long term cruising sailor and instead my partner and I bought an old miners cottage in Cornwall and i had a couple of years boat-less while i worked on that. For my next boat i knew that i was never going to be able to put that much money and time into a boat refit and also that what i wanted in a boat i was only just becoming able to define ; in a way the Frances taught me that the Pardey’s principles absolutely did work but were maybe not what i needed. Whatever i owned next was going to have to be even smaller, lighter and simpler , a lot less expensive than the Frances and i knew that it was going to have to live in a mud berth and sail in shallow water.

Today i have great affection for the design – whenever i see one, and i know of 2 in the Falmouth/Mylor area i have to stop and look at them even though i know the boat well. I wouldn’t buy one again but only because my thoughts about boats have changed so much since i owned WABI”. The Frances 26 is, in my opinion, a unique boat, i think it’s the best boat that Chuck Paine designed and if iv’e got this right then he nailed it because he designed the first one for himself and strangely i don’t like any of his later designs……there is a similar 30 foot design by the same designer locally and to me it looks ugly and boxy – iv’e also outsailed it in my smaller Frances 26 too !

The offshore alternative.

As iv’e said above i really wanted to own a Frances 26 and i easily convinced myself that it would make a good offshore going pocket yacht on the same lines that the Pardey’s did and then wrote about in their series of books. It was after i sold the Frances and was working on our cottage that i came across the ‘Sailing Frenchman’ and his enjoyable Youtube channel – in brief his first series of films is about the 26 foot yacht that he bought for the equivalent of a bottle of beer, did a total refit of and then sailed across the Atlantic. The boat was an Ecume de Mer…..another boat that iv’e often seen and always liked – to my eyes it’s another boat that just looks right but they are also a very capable sailing boat and one that i thought would make a very good low budget boat for offshore passages .

Below is a link to one of the ‘Sailing Frenchman’s’ video series……as i understand it he’s off at sea again and this time racing in the Mini-Transat race.

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