Wednesday, 31 January 2007


I’ve spent a few days away from the workshop. Maintaining the single-mindedness necessary to keep the build at the top of my list of priorities is hard work in itself. Especially when the larder is bare. I’m fortunate not to be so tied to the train of modern living that I can’t disembark now and again to pursue other interests. But it’s about time I hopped on again.

To get the Trow into the top three of my priorities I’ve had to let a few things fall by the wayside. A visitor to my house would be quick to see that there’s a quantity of everyday household DIY that somebody’s obviously shirking. And I’ve seen my neighbours (Chief Vitalstatistix et al) pointing out that the plastic sheet stapled over the broken bathroom window—a temporary repair, which has been in place for two years—is somewhat lowering the tone. My churlish reply to these gossipy folk would be, “Will fixing the window get me on the water any earlier?”

I would also like to excuse myself from other responsibilities towards the upkeep of the house by mentioning that it is a building dominated by children. My case is that there’s not much point fixing things that will almost certainly get re-broken or painting walls that will soon be scribbled on or enforcing the kind of discipline that would make children quake in their shoes at the thought of defacing a door. I’m happy to give the house over to them while they’re young even if it does mean that hordes of the blighters might blow through at the weekend like a rampant marauding army. Defiling biscuit packets, spilling milk, working crumbs and other indescribable grot into unlikely places. Charging up and down stairs, upending toy boxes and uncapping felt-tip pens. Then thundering out again leaving disturbing smells and unflushed lavatories.

It’s fine by me so long as I can get on with my boat.

These pictures are from last Saturday. A centreboard case cheek with 3 coats of epoxy. I’ve taken this shot to highlight the appalling finish I’ve achieved even sanding between coats. I'll have to try with a roller. Here’s the taper being worked into the centreboard. The ply looks pretty dodgy to me but Mr Mushroom assures me that all ply is like that, I say that I thought marine ply was different and he tells me I’m mistaken—I’m as unlikely to find ply without voids, as I am to find knot-less pine.

There's Bertie the belt-sander sitting smugly in the background quietly digesting the chunk he’s just taken out of the centreboard. I can’t believe the name’s stuck, it’s getting like Thomas the Tank Engine round this workshop. Soon I’ll be animating the tools on the bench and making up stories for them. Actually I think Priscilla Plane and Stuart Surform have got a little tool-box romance going on…

I won’t continue.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007


Pulga is Spanish for flea. The pulga in this story is a boat and its story is a short one. In the gloomy post-civil war days, this spirited craft must have been a little beacon of optimism. Built in 1944 by Sebastian Roch from lines drawn by a local engineer, Lluis Ferrer, the Pulga is an 11ft 4in carvel dinghy. 75 were made in total and some, the notice in the museum will tell you with pride, were exported to the US. The plucky little boat wore 6 square metres of canvas which propelled her at a fair clip—she was reported as doing 48 miles in 16 hours and, for a few short years the class enjoyed popularity and the future looked bright, not just for the Pulga but for small boat sailing on the Spanish coast in general. But, in 1948, the son of the builder, also called Sebastian, pushing his Pulga hard in a regatta, capsized and drowned. Narrow beam and a low righting moment were the trade-off to the Pulga’s speed.

Sebastian Roch senior was so distraught that he ceased production of the boat and nobody else, it seems, stepped into the breech. Sebastian junior’s sailing companion Mariano Mallol survived the capsize and, in memory of Sebastian and the Pulga, had a model of the boat built, which was carried to the chapel of Sant Magi in Tarragona. The model is still there today.

Of the 75 boats built only one example is known still to exist--this one called Bruja, (witch) on display in El Museu del Port de Tarragona.

The Pulga is an attractive boat with lines that would look good on a much larger boat. She also has a hidden beauty in her materials, there’s no oak, spruce or mahogany, but Mediterranean white pine, wide grained, knotty and resinous and olive wood, materials that clearly state her nationality, making her an authentic piece of Catalan history.

Authentic but obscure, a google search for pulga reveals thousands of pages detailing the habits of wingless blood-sucking insects of the order siphonaptera but nothing about this brave little craft.

Friday, 26 January 2007

El Port d'Alfacs

This is one of the bodies of water on which I’d like to float my Trow. It’s El Port d’Alfacs on the south side of the river Ebro Delta at the southern tip of Catalonia. Several square kilometres of flat, shallow water, sheltered from the prevailing swells of the Mediterranean by 4 km of sandy spit called El Trabucador.

Though protected from the sea, it receives the full force of the north westerly Mestral wind that comes howling down the Ebro valley from the Atlantic, scattering lenticular clouds like so many piles of plates as it goes. The river valley tightens as it cuts through the coastal mountain range of the Sierra del Cardò, accelerating the wind to the sort of speed that turns caravans over on the motorway. Then, fully wound up, the Mestral bursts on to the Delta where it screams across the distinctive paddy fields lifting the water in great swirls and driving the local population half mad with it’s relentless onslaught.

It’s a fantastic wind that brings Technicolor clear blue skies and cold clean air, but the local fishing fleet of Sant Carles de la Ràpita are obliged to keep to port and the only people you’ll find on the water are a hardcore knot of weather beaten windsurfers. And sometimes it’s too much even for them.

Fortunately there’s also a pleasant south westerly thermal breeze that blows between force 2 and 3 throughout the summer. Making the tepid waters of El Port d’Alfacs the perfect play ground for more pedestrian craft like my Trow.

The warm water breeds plenty of weed, fish, crabs and cockles and round the shallow edges I’ll have to unship this large centre board and row but out in the deeper water I should be able to make good ground to windward.

The Fleet Trow, from which the design for Gavin Atkin’s Light Trow is derived, belongs to similar but colder waters—the Fleet, snuggled behind Chisel beach in Dorset. Coincidently the Fleet Trow bears a resemblance to the traditional craft of the Port d’Alfacs, they are both narrow, flat-bottomed, heavily built boats, propelled by oars or a quant in the weeds, and they are both pretty, purposeful and, judging by the state of the few remaining specimens, on the verge of extinction.

It’s wishful thinking but it would be nice if this modern, ply and epoxy Trow were to inspire a new generation of craft for these waters.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007


"I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth. A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea." Bernard Moitessier.

Standing shipwrecked and distraught on a beach in Trinidad having just lost his entire possessions except for his sea chest Bernard Moitessier decided to build a paper boat with which to cross the Atlantic to France.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been shipwrecked, his first boat, the dilapidated junk Marie Thérèse had run aground on a reef off Diego Garcia in 1952 after an 85 day passage from Indo-China into the teeth of the monsoon. Moitessier had had no way of measuring his longitude and the state of his boat was such that he’d had to dive over the side to plug the leaks.

Well educated and resourceful he got a lift to Mauritius on a British Corvette and soon found work on the island. It wasn’t long before he was earning good money and began thinking about another boat.

Marie Thérèse II was designed and built by Moitessier and after 3 years on Mauritius he left for Cape Town then, after a long stay he moved on to St Helena and then the Caribbean. It was while on a passage from St Lucia to Grenada that Bernard, pushing himself hard on a mammoth watch, fell at asleep at the helm. The boat sailed on in the warm tropical breeze and ran aground.

Moitesser felt that he had committed a crime against his boat by ignoring the laws of the sea. “The first of which is to keep watch, and the second never to relax ones efforts.” Bernard thought of Jacques Yves Le Toumelin sailing amongst the treacherous reefs of the Torres straits repeatedly pricking his leg with a sharp knife so that the pain would keep him awake. “I should have done the same.” He reflected, “Or chosen another profession.”

Bernard had $60 in his pocket and Trinidad wasn’t the sort of place where you could find a high paid job. He wanted to get to France, “Where money flowed like water and where the ghost of Marie Thérèse II might fade.” He would be able to earn well and build a new boat, but first he had to get there.

Basing his ideas on the bamboo framed cargo boats of the coast of Annam he would build a boat of paper. He spent $15 on wood for the frames, he planned to buy jerry cans for storing water and, for food, would take advantage of the cheap price of rice. He hoped the fishing would be good.

Bernard approached the local newspaper for material with which to sheath the boat. The editor, seeing a good story, offered all the old copies of the local rag that might be needed and gave $100 in return for a 20 page letter about the trip, to be sent when Bernard arrived in France.

After 8 days on the island he started on the build but a friend came running, there was a place as crew on an oil tanker bound for Europe. It would leave in two hours. Much to the relief of his concerned friends Bernard went for his sea chest.

Moitessier is one of the most loved and respected of long distance single-handed adventurers. In the double-ended 38ft steel ketch Joshua, which he eventually built in France, he twice rounded Cape Horn. He famously cocked a snook at the world of competition, renown, fame and wealth by failing to complete the Sunday Times’ Golden Globe round the world race of 1969, when he was clearly going to win, and sailing on to Tahiti instead. He died in 1994.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Halving joints

The work is getting noticeably easier and quicker, it’s just practice but all the same, satisfying to notice the change. Though not readily tangible it’s progress.

I set up a little production line to make halving joints, nothing flash just a system. The centreboard case goes through the middle of frame 3 and to build the case in such a way that it slots into the frame when assembled and adds to overall structural integrity, required not a few halving joints. Along with the now customary umming and arring, chin scratching, huffing, puffing, grumbling and cursing that accompany most boat building decisions in the Invisible Workshop.

The halving joint was the first piece of carpentry we were taught at school. Chippy, the unimaginatively named teacher, was a domineering presence in the woodworking class, so much so that I couldn’t concentrate on the work for fear of a clip round the ear and consequently my joints were shoddy. One thing that got Chippy’s goat more than anything was a plane left face down. Quite why planes were on the bench when we were doing halving joints I don’t know, but woe betide the boy who had a face-down plane in front of him. Chippy clipped ears with a wooden ruler and planes had to be left on their sides.

My next teacher, in a different school, was lax, wonderfully lax. Good-natured and genuinely interested in carpentry he also started us on the halving joint. He didn’t really fit in and he must have asked himself everyday what the hell he was doing in that school —a question that most of the alumni probably asked themselves too. He was smart enough to realize that no amount of cajoling and threats could make disinterested, apathetic children (we weren’t an inspiring bunch) wizards of the halving joint. And so he dedicated his attention to the keen boys and turned a blind eye to those dissolute few who sneaked out back for an illicit smoke.

And so I spent the woodworking hour developing a smoking habit that reached two packs a day at its height and left school having categorically failed to learn the halving joint or much of anything else.

So it was not without a little satisfaction that I witnessed these little fellows popping off my bench with more regularity than either of my teachers could ever have expected. Some of them don’t actually go together too well but its nothing that a liberal dose of epoxy won’t fix.

I see now that I forgot to take a photo of my plane. Face down.

Sunday, 21 January 2007


Well here it is, the bare bones, the Trow’s skeleton, the rib cage.

I’ve been looking forward to this moment, the first time I get to see the form developing, the lines on the computer and the ideas in my head in 3D. Admittedly I didn’t spend much time setting it up right. The boat’s not square as it stands and the distances between the frames are only guessed at but it was a hurried job, done more to demonstrate to the various onlookers that it was a boat and not furniture than as an accurate dry run.

Kitchen units, I ask you… Actually Chief Vitalstatistix was there, along with Impedienta, saying that it looked very big and, said the Chief, “It wont go through the waves very well with that flat front.” Said I, “You’ll find the front at the other end.”

5 minutes later I dismantled it and noticed that the structure held together even without clamps, I don’t suppose this is significant but when I dislodged the inwale from frame 1 the whole thing sprang apart like Inspector Clouseau’s 2cv.

There’s still a lot to do before the sides go on, the central bulkhead needs to be framed and have a thwart added. I wanted to avoid framing it but have noticed that it’s 4mm shorter than drawn, how this has happened I don’t know, but the framing lumber will have to make up the missing length. The holes in the end bulkhead are hatches or rather urn holders, and a hatch still has to be cut on bulkhead 1. I’ve added bevels to the frame members on bulkheads 1 and 3. This took a lot more thought, worrying and emails than was warranted by their difficulty. The literature often refers to "tricky bevels" which had evidenty set me on a wave of bevel paranoia.

Heartened by the bevel experience I went on to experiment with scarf joints. Again everything I’ve read about these joints has put me off them, expect, of course that they’re effective and look better than a butt joint. But it turns out that my plywood sheets are 6cm longer than the standard 244, which means there’s an opportunity to scarf. I made a join, roughing out the ply taper with the plane, and then finishing with the belt sander. I clamped the two pieces to the bench, buttered up the faces with epoxy, put a heavy stone on it and walked away to let it cure overnight.

When given the boot test by a passing cowgirl the next morning, the join held up well, better than I expected. But later I couldn’t resist giving it that little bit more pressure and eventually it broke. Still, the ply was under far more stress than it will be on the boat. This is good news and bad news, good because I can use scarf joins instead of the slightly clumsier butt joint, bad because I now have to make them—and make them well.

Saturday, 20 January 2007


My Mother-in-law’s been round to check out the bearer of her ashes: my Trow. Apparently she’s been talking to her friends in Barcelona about the plan, it sounds like its going to be along the lines of a Viking burial, I only hope I don’t have to burn my boat as well. Anyway, her friends think it’s a fantastic idea and, not only will they all be coming to the launch but some would also like their ashes taken out to sea when the time comes.

I can see a business opportunity developing here. See a need—fill a need. Book now for a Light Trow ash scattering cruise. Custom ash dispersal ceremonies. Boat fitted with luxury teak urn holders, maximum discretion.

Actually a few people stopped by today for a chat. One guy, who reminds me of chief Vitalstatistix from Asterix, watched me chipping away at something until his curiosity got the better of him and he came over to ask if it was kitchen units.

Kitchen units! …I ask you… It's a bloody boat you fool!

He reacted as if I’d said I was making a nuclear warhead, raised his arms to heaven, “It’s tremendous! A boat! He is making a boat! It is tremendous!” I heard him later, over the hedge, telling someone in the street, “It’s tremendous…etc.”

Then another acquaintance popped by the workshop. I should explain that when a Catalan tries to pronounce my surname it usually sounds like they’ve just breathed in a fly—they splutter and hack at my phonetics and generally discharge something that sounds quite but not entirely unlike Crawshaw, the sort of name you’d expect an alien floor cleaner to be called. This particular guy has got round the problem by calling me Robinson Crusoe, so when I told him what was afoot he obviously found it very fitting, “Ahh Crusoe, so you finally escape, you build your little boat and escape over the sea.”

What with one thing and another I didn’t get much done.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Raymond the Rudder

Here’s the finalized shape of the rudder and the waterline drawn up on some scrap. It looks fairly big to me, actually it’s as wide as the centreboard, I don’t know if this serendipitous symmetry will have bearing on it’s function, or indeed if it will function. But I have faith.

I’ve often read that, when dealing with the design parameters of underwater foils, depth is more important than surface area in terms of lateral resistance and lift. This has been in relation to windsurfing, though, which is exclusively performance orientated. Obviously a planing board has little else but it’s fin in the water so it’s important that the small wetted surface is delivering the maximum lift and minimum drag.

The Trow is further towards the other end of the performance spectrum and this rudder with its large surface area should give plenty of grip in the turn so long as I don’t put the tiller too hard over.

The issue now is to work out how to make it a lifting rudder without it becoming too bulky. And, if possible, without interfering with the nice curve on the trailing edge. Lifting rudders have a pair of cheeks on either side of the blade, and the blade lifts up between them, modern ones have custom-made aluminium or stainless steel cheeks, homemade ones have ply.

One avenue I might take is that of leaving and returning to the beach under oars then shipping and unshipping the rudder in deeper water. It will be easier to handle the surf with oars, or at least I’ll be able to take the waves head on. I wont be going out in any large waves but I’ve seen other small boats come to grief in small shorebreak as, with their sails set they turn side on to the waves as the hapless crew struggles to lower a recalcitrant rudder. But again I don’t know if the Trow’s fine stern will permit my weight sufficiently far aft to ship the rudder.

I have a set of gudgeons and pintles purloined from a wrecked dinghy that allow the rudder to raise up when it touches the bottom. So I’ll try those as well.

The belt-sander with no name

I’d like to welcome a new member to the Light Trow construction team. A belt-sander— one of the most useful and indispensable tools in the boat-builder’s quiver.

So pleased was I, anticipating the possibilities that this tool will open-up, that I toyed with the idea of naming it… Bertram the belt sander, Basil, Brian... Bottomley. Sandy?

I meet people who refer to their vehicles by name, “Charles’ MOT’s coming up I think we better get his tyres changed.” The names seem so apt. What a colourful, peopled world these folk live in. I’ve tried to have cars with names but after uncomfortably uttering, “Derek’s making strange noises.” For a few days I desist. My cars always end up being called “the car” or, when the strange noises have resulted in a large garage bill “the f-ing car”.

No, I’m not a name-giver, I can’t think of an internet moniker for myself and I probably wouldn’t have named the children if it hadn’t been a joint effort.

This mean, green, machine loaded with a 60 grit belt, ready to take the edges off any inflated egos, shall remain the belt-sander-with-no-name.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Back to the drawing board

I’ve been drawing up a new shape for the rudder. After discussion with Gav it looks like a deeper, narrower rudder will be better than the one drawn. But not too deep and narrow or it will stall the boat. Quite how a “stall” manifests itself on a boat I’m not sure, but I guess it causes unnecessary drag and slows the boat.

The issue with the rudder as it stands is that any significant crew weight forward will lift the blade out of the water. This is how the Patí Català tacks -though it doesn’t have a rudder- the helmsman's wieght lifts the stern out of the water, the hull pivots on the bows and the force in the sail pushes the stern round. Neat. But I think I’ll stick with the traditional method on my Trow I don’t want to inadvertently tack every time I go forward to get a beer out of the ice-box.

Rudder design is not an exact science, at least not without a mega computer, so it will be a question of trail and error. Gav’s given me some numbers, 3 inches off the width, 6 on to the depth. Fairly straight forward and if I have to tweak it later, well it’s only plywood and it cuts easily.

Drawing up the shape made me think though—how much of design is an exact science? How many “easy-to-open” milk cartons are patently design failures? And does anybody market a soy sauce bottle that doesn’t slosh sauce over the food then drip incontinently over the table?

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Port Ginesta

There hasn’t been a progress report lately, the building work is slow and to detail a day sanding would be tedious. That’s not to say I don’t like sanding, there’s something enjoyable about seeing shapes form under the 20 grit, it’s difficult to stop my mind drifting off though. I was wondering how many 20 grit personalities I’ve run up against over the years, inflexible, fast moving characters. You either avoid them or get the edges sanded off your self-esteem.

I stopped at Port Ginesta on my way back from Barcelona today. Compared to my local yard it was buzzing. A fishing boat was being built in one shed; the mould was set up—an impressive wooden structure that puts my small efforts into perspective. There were a couple of other interesting sights. This is a six metre built to a similar formula that defined the classic J Class yachts of the America’s cup, only many times smaller. She’s slick and beautiful but up close there was a reassuring amount of filler used on the hull. The ladder seemed to indicate that someone was aboard but despite jovial knocking no head appeared.

Then I came across this pretty old girl, Grey Ghost of Southhampton and there were people working on it. But they weren’t the owners and they didn’t know anything about the boat except that it was about 100 years old (sounds like an exaggeration) and that it had some serious rot. The rather morose builder had nothing more to say. He didn’t know what these strange bulges on the stern were for, and his body language implied he didn’t care. I’ve yet to run up against a boatyard worker passionate enough about boats to have a friendly chat, or maybe boatyard bosses enforce strict nose-to-the-grind-stone policies. Sometimes I think it’s my boat-side manner, too brusque and prying in Catalan. Maybe I should give it a run under the 20 grit.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Donald Crowhurst

I have always been fascinated by this story.

After Sir Frances Chichester’s successful single-handed circumnavigation of 1967 in Gypsy Moth, with only one stop in Sydney, adventurous yachtsmen realized that the next great challenge was the solo, non-stop circumnavigation.

The Sunday Times, having profited from their sponsorship of Chichester was keen to support the sailor who took up the challenge. However, several yachtsmen declared their interest and so the Sunday Times organised the event into a race—The Sunday Times Golden Globe. The rules were few—anyone leaving a British port between June 1st and October 31st 1968 and returning to the same port having rounded the capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn was in.

Of the 9 entries to cross the start line 5 had to give up in the early stages. The 4 to continue were Nigel Tetley, Robin Knox-Johnson, Bernard Moitessier and Donald Crowhurst.

The front man of a failing electronics business, Crowhurst saw in the Golden Globe an opportunity to gain public recognition, demonstrate electronic equipment that he had developed and save his company from bankruptcy. Flamboyant, enthusiastic and plausible, people believed in Crowhurst. The tragedy, they say, is that Crowhurst did too—he believed his own hype to the point where he didn’t recognise his own limitations. He never doubted that he was capable of competing and winning.

His boat, the trimaran Teignmouth Electron, was built hurriedly in Norfolk and delivered in September with many faults. But Crowhurst was busy developing the complex equipment that he planned to take and there was no time for extensive sea trials, as October 31st drew near it became plain that the Teignmouth Electron would not be ready. Crowhurst had worked hard to “put up a front” when dealing with sponsors, publicity and the rounds of lectures that he gave. It was this confident and relaxed ‘front’ that propelled him onto his boat and away at 5pm on October 31st 1968. By now it was too late for him to bridge the gap between what he had promised and what he knew he could deliver.

Teignmouth Electron was a mess, and after two weeks at sea Crowhurst realized that he wasn’t going to make it round the world. But he kept on sailing unable to acknowledge the truth. Then he made a false assertion. He claimed a record-breaking day’s run of 243 miles and, in order to prove it, he started a fake logbook. Though he may have been planning to retire from the race, the falsehoods snowballed. He reported good progress when he was still becalmed in the doldrums and then he declared generator problems and ceased to emit radio messages.

He spent the next two and a half months drifting on the south Atlantic staying away from shipping lanes, repairing the boat, cooking up logbook entries and writing poetry.

In April he announced via radio that he was approaching Cape Horn from the west though at the time he was just off the Falklands. In May his real and false routes converged and he started on the journey home. His plan was to come in second, he would still receive some of the honour and his logbooks would not be too closely scrutinized. However, the good speed he reported forced the leader, Nigel Tetley, to push his battered trimaran too hard and just 1000 miles from the finish line Tetley’s boat sank.

Now Crowhurst was going to win, it was unavoidable. But he knew that his records wouldn’t bear expert examination. Having backed himself into an isolated, lonely corner, he began to distance himself from reality. His soul gushed out on paper, thousands of word on physics, God, nature and his own position in the universe demonstrating that he had achieved enlightenment—a reward far greater than winning the Golden Globe. All that was left was to choose the moment in which to leave this world for the next. He left his tape recorders and logbooks on the cabin table and on July 1st 1969 at 11.20 he jumped over the side.

As for the other contenders, Tetley was rescued but returned home a broken man, he tragically committed suicide two years later. Moitessier, who from the beginning had been anti the trivial concept of a race, rounded Cape Horn but continued straight on around again to Polynesia thus making a farce of the race. Robin Knox-Johnston in Suhaili, a boat he had built himself, was the only entrant to return, with robust good humour and on a diet of institutional English stodge he completed the circumnavigation in 313 days. When the news of Crowhurst’s death broke, Knox-Johnston immediately donated the ₤5000 prize money to the Crowhurst family.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Tally ho!

A day out for the workshop today. We set up shop at the children’s riding school and did some whittling with horses trotting in the background. We are boat building nomads not missing an opportunity to make some headway. Frame 7 with thwart incorporated takes shape.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

What the futtock shrouds!

Not one to gratuitously drop the F-bomb it’s been fairly ringing out around the workshop over the last few days, echoing off the buildings, a monotonous soundtrack on my journey back to square one.

The reasons for this detour are, quite frankly, too embarrassing to detail, suffice it to say that the learning curve is a greasy pole and just when you’ve spent a few days scrabbling up it you can slide back down again in the time it takes to say “check your measurements.”

I bought the cleanest pine plank I could find from Mr Mushroom.

Although the thwarts are drawn as coming out of ply I’m using pine to free up space on the ply sheets. There are several pieces (centreboard and case, rudder and skeg) that aren’t featured on the cutting plan and I want to avoid buying another sheet of ply. Anyway it turns out that the pine plank isn’t that clean after all, there are four or five knots in its 3 metres. And my question is; will I be able to live with knotty thwarts?

In mind’s eye I have a vision of this beautifully finished Trow, gleaming in unblemished varnish, shooting blinding reflections from her brightwork and in such a vision I cannot tolerate knotty thwarts.

But the reality is different. My Trow will be launched bearing the scars of a prototype build at the hands of an amateur builder and I’ll be happy if she’s symmetrical (devastated if she isn’t) and seaworthy. Phil Bolger said, “Never use expensive materials to build a boat designed to be cheap.” I don’t think that Gav’s idea is for an expensively built boat or for one that’s massively pampered. Well built yes, obviously, but his message is more along the lines of get out on the water and have fun, than don’t launch your boat till the varnish is perfect. So I’ll take Bolger to mean don’t be too fussy if you haven’t got the time or the talent or the wherewithal. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to permit slapdash work, just that I’m not going to re-buy material that’s been used in a previously unsuccessful dry run. The upshot of this may be vacant screw holes in unlikely places but I’ll just have to live with them, and the knotty thwarts.

By the way, anyone who hasn’t arrived at these pages via intheboatshed should definitely take a few moments (though you’ll end up spending an hour) browsing the site. Run with genuine and infectious enthusiasm it opens up the world of traditional boats, restoration and boatbuilding. Don’t miss the link to the Free Design Stuff, which is where I got the Bolger quote and where I first saw Gavin Atkin’s designs. There are also some gems to be found on the “techniques” page. When you’ve finished go on to the Duckworks page, also linked from intheboatshed.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

The Islander

I’ve been dipping into Harry Pidgeon’s account of his first circumnavigation: “Around the World Single-Handed” subtitled The Cruise of the Islander.

The Islander was a 34ft yawl which Harry built, from a plan drawn by Captain Thomas Fleming Day, using the booklet How to Build a Cruising Yawl as his guide.

In 1917 he set to work hewing out the keel timbers on a vacant lot by Los Angeles Harbour. He used Douglas fir and Oregon pine and bent the 2½ inch by 7½ inch planks into place alone and without a steam box. A carpenter from a nearby boat works said to him, “I know how we would put those planks on at the shop, where we have a steam box and plenty of help, but how you got them on I can’t see.” The boat took a year and a half to build and as Harry said, “From the laying down of the keel to the launching the Islander came near to being entirely the work of my own hands.” It cost him $1000.

The Islander was 34ft by 10ft 9 inches and drew 5 ft empty, she carried 630 square feet of cloth in three sails, Harry didn’t install a motor feeling that, “ the real sport is to make the elements take one where he wants to go.” And go he did. First to Hawaii and back to Los Angeles where he made such changes to the rigging “as experience suggested.” And then on to the Marquesas and around the world.

He was obviously a very efficient worker, either that or time went more slowly in the 20’s; while getting ready for his journey to the Marquesas he comments, “I made a sea anchor out of canvas, and still having time on my hands I made a new suit of sails.”

A seaworthy vessel the Islander took storms, gales and a near catastrophic grounding off South Africa in her stride. Eventually bringing Harry back to LA back in 1923 making him the second person to circumnavigate single-handed after Slocum. Ten years later he took off on another circumnavigation in the Islander and, in 1947 ten years after returning he set off for a third, this time with his wife. Harry was 73. They sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii and then ran into dire weather on the 67day passage to the New Hebrides where they stopped for repairs. But while anchored a typhoon struck and the Islander was driven onto rocks and destroyed.

Harry and his wife returned to California and the first thing he did was build another yawl, a 26ft Sea Bird again designed by Thomas Flemming Day.

I love that kind of irrepressibility.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Local girl

The most interesting small boat you’ll see on this stretch of the western Mediterranean is the Patí Català. If you look patí up in the Catalan/English dictionary you will find it means “patio”, an unlikely name for a boat, but if you let your eye wander further down the page you’ll see that it also means “skate”, which gives some indication as to the boat’s performance. These things fairly blister along.

Looking at the patí’s hulls without the mast stepped you could be forgiven for confusing the front with the back. The shallow bows have a pronounced overhang and gentle entry which runs back to a deeply veed stern. The mast is stepped well forward amongst a profusion of rigging yet there is no jib. The Patí has no boom either, or daggerboards and you wont find pintles on the stern because it has no rudder.

The boat can be steered of course, it doesn’t just bolt off for the horizon, but it turns out that what you steer it with is you—by sticking your hand or foot in the water on the inside of the turn. But that’s not all, you also get your weight on the stern, sheet out and rake the mast forward to bear away. If you want to head up you sheet in, rake the mast back, run forward and put your foot in the water. To tack you accompany the boat through the eye of the wind by walking round the front of the mast. Combined with the speed it makes for a wet and active sail.

Maybe these idiosyncratic attributes are due to its unusual design evolution. The patí’s fast lines weren’t developed by shipwrights or fishermen but by swimmers.

Back in the 1920`s members of Barcelona’s swimming clubs built double hulled swimming platforms which they paddled (standing up) out to sea to get a tranquil dip. A sail was added which gave more range and speed and it wasn’t long before the competitive members of the swimming clubs were racing their patíns on the way back from their swimming jaunts.

The craze grew until swimmers were spending almost more time building their boats and tweaking the designs than training for swimming competitions. Regattas were held throughout the 30’s and strong rivalries developed with each swimming club touting their design as the best. Finally a race held in the 40’s revealed that boats designed and made by the Monqué brothers of Badalona were significantly faster and soon this design became the blueprint for all patíns and a class was born.

The very competitive class is large, probably larger than any other class in Catalonia, with about 2500 boats being launched straight off the beaches. The patí is still made in the traditional way and of wood, which is the only material strong and light enough to withstand the torsion in the hulls and the battering they often get in the steep shorebreak. GRP was used for a while in the seventies but the results weren’t satisfactory. The strict class rules wont permit an incursion into carbon and kelvar. The workshop that produces about 80 patíns a year has only one mould, so patíns really are identical.

The patí is as catalan as cava, castelles (human towers) and calçots (BBQed mild onions). And the Catalans, as a people with a heightened sense of national identity, are fiercely proud of it. Like other emblematic icons of Catalan culture they are quirky, brilliant and yet, out of the context of their native land, (with the exception of cava) they fail to thrive. Not that the Catalans are actively trying to export their invention, they’re perfectly happy to keep it to themselves. I believe there are patí clubs in Belgium and Holland and the odd boat has been exported over the years but in general you will be hard pushed to find the patí anywhere but on these 300 km of Catalan coastline.


However, despite the cultural significance and the exciting sailing you still find abandoned hulls on the beaches. I was given one of these hulls once but before arrangements were made to get it home the local council, in a frenzy of spring beach cleaning, took it to the dump. And that’s where these ones will go too. It seems an ignominious demise for a pretty, unusual craft. A more fitting end, at least linguistically, would be to convert the hulls into benches and sell them as patio furniture.