by Burton W. Blais
The following narrative describes the pleasures of building and sailing a small sailboat designed for camp-cruising. This particular sailboat design ("Houdini") was conceived by New Zealand designer John Welsford (www.jwboatdesigns.co.nz) as a diminutive, seaworthy trailer sailer capable of taking a small crew of adventurers to different sailing venues.
Years ago when I cast about for a small boat to build during a flare-up of boatbuilding-itis (a symptom of "boat-on-the-brain" disease), I had never heard of John Welsford and his designs. I was looking for a sailboat with camp-cruising potential, a large cockpit and a beamy hull capable of safely carrying a relatively large payload of adventurers and their gear. The boat had to be easily trailerable behind a modestly powered family car to convey her to different sailing venues. Nautical aesthetics matter a great deal to me, and I wanted a traditional looking boat, something in the vein of an American catboat (a type which greatly appeals to me), with a jaunty sheer and a four-sided sail. I had considered a number of Phil Bolger's designs, having built several in the past, but wanted to try something a little different this time around. Then I read a couple of articles in Watercraft magazine describing John Welsford's Houdini design, and felt that here was a boat that met all of my criteria and which seemed to be within the limited scope of my boatbuilding abilities. And so, I ordered a set of plans through Duckworks and began gathering some building materials.
The plans were fairly detailed and accompanied by a written description of the building sequence. The hull was built using merenti plywood and white ash for all structural framing members, including the keelson and stringers. My choice of ash for this purpose was based on its ready availability, strength, flexibility and gluability (its poor decay resistance was compensated for by thoroughly coating with epoxy). The exceptions were the skeg and outer keel, which were made of South American mahogany due to the abuse these members would suffer from groundings and so on, negating the effectiveness of any epoxy capsule.
I made several deviations from the plan. First, I omitted the designer-specified anchor well in the foredeck, preferring instead to keep the small Danforth on a specially made bracket mounted on the forward bulkhead, with the rode and a 10' length of chain stowed in a bucket, providing ease of deployment from the cockpit. Another omission was the drainage well in the cockpit floor, which I felt would be of little value in the event of shipping a large sea (minor dollops of water are easily mopped up with a sponge, whereas a diaphragm pump will suck up larger quantities right off the floor). Lead pigs (65 lbs each) were bolted to the bottom on each side of the centreboard case beneath the cockpit floor. The space enclosed by the floor, sternsheets and forward section are intended to form a continuous watertight compartment providing buoyancy in the event of a capsize. I fitted plastic ports (the type used on kayaks and canoes) to provide access to the bilge area and for servicing the centerboard pin. These subsequently proved not to be entirely watertight, but they nonetheless sufficiently retard the influx of water to keep the boat afloat while bailing her out. Access hatches in the forward bulkhead and sternsheets were made watertight using closed cell foam weather stripping against which the covers are tightly pressed when closed.
During construction, some difficulty was encountered when attempting to bend the forward bilge panels to meet the stem. The broad panel of stiff merenti plywood simply could not be induced to take the required twist, and after breaking three pieces I began searching for an alternative approach. I considered strip planking this section, but in the end settled for ripping the plywood diagonally into approximately 5-inch wide strips running from bottom to stringer. This solution worked well, with the whole section being reinforced with two layers of glass cloth and epoxy, both inside and out (plus the sheathing layer applied to the whole exterior of the hull). The only drawback to this approach is that it resulted in an unfair chine line at the forward section which was very difficult to correct with repeated applications of thickened epoxy and a belt sander. I never was satisfied with this line's final appearance.
I had originally wanted to follow the purist's path and equip the boat with a set of oars for auxiliary power. However, after careful consideration and consultation with some sailing buddies, I decided that this hull would not likely row well, and opted to fit her with an outboard motor (a brand new Honda 2 horsepower, reliable, good on fuel and relatively non-polluting) on a transom-mounted bracket. I never regretted this decision (though I did eventually fit her with oars for extended cruising under circumstances where gas might not be readily available, and she did indeed prove to row rather like a pig).
The exterior of the hull was sheathed in fiberglass cloth and epoxy, with several coats of epoxy on every other surface. She was painted using one part polyurethane marine paint (which experience has taught me does not stick well to an epoxy-coated surface without a primer coat), with Cetol or varnish applied to accent coamings, rubbing strips, tiller and other features. The mast is an aluminum tube, as suggested by the designer, with spars of varnished spruce (construction grade) painted white at the ends to give that traditional flair.
When it came to choosing a name, I thought about what I hoped to achieve in this boat. I wanted to broaden my sailing horizons, to make my way along the rivers and lakes of eastern Canada relying primarily on the boat and whatever gear I had aboard. While sailing is my summertime passion, cross-country skiing is an important focus for me during the long Canadian winter. I thought of my hero, Hermann "Jackrabbit" Johanssen, who pioneered skiing in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. He met many Cree people during his ski trips through the Canadian wilderness, and learned to admire the way native people cherish nature. The Cree were also impressed by this man, giving him the honorary title "Okamacum Wapooes" (Chief Jackrabbit), because of the speed with which he travelled through the bush on skis. Just like the jackrabbit, who is at home moving speedily through his native woodland environment, I hoped that my little boat would be at ease scudding across the waters.
Jackrabbit was launched on a Saturday morning in June, in the beautiful St. Lawrence River, near Morrisburg, Ontario. The weather was hot, hazy and humid, with the wind SW in the 10-15 knot range, which prompted me to tie in the first reef. She was rigged on the trailer, and the lot was backed down the launching ramp without ceremony. After admiring how she floated in good trim, and testing her initial stability by walking around inside the cockpit (she is somewhat tipsy, but in no danger of capsizing even with my considerable bulk on the rail), a friend and I set off on a daysailing adventure, motoring out of the protected harbour into the chop of the wide river (the 2 hp Honda motor pushes Jackrabbit along very nicely).
The only snag in the whole affair occurred at the beginning, when I attempted to raise the sail while transiting the harbour exit. Before leaving the dock I had clipped the halyard to the hoop which slides on the mast, but had neglected to also attach the spar. So when I attempted to hoist the sail, the hoop duly slid up the mast, leaving the sail in the cockpit. Once up, the hoop was irretrievable. I quickly climbed onto the foredeck, and, hugging the mast, tried to reach the hoop on my tiptoes with hands outstretched. With my weight placed at such a height above the waterline the boat became highly unstable, at one point going over so far that the starboard gunwhale was in the water. Since this strategy was ineffective, we resorted to the expedient of returning to dock and finding a long object (in this case a leaf rake) to bring down the mastheaded hoop. I resolved then to carry a boathook on future outings!
The rest of the day was great, and I had the best sail in a very long time. It had been years since I had sailed a dinghy (my other boat at the time was a 28 foot sloop with a fixed keel), and the ability to go just about anywhere without worrying about grounding or damaging the keel was very liberating. When we initially raised the sail the wind had momentarily diminished, and I thought Jackrabbit a bit slow, but I left that first reef in as I expected the breeze to freshen, and did not know how she would behave. I had no difficulty adjusting the tack downhaul and boom outhaul to give me a nice sail shape. When the wind did pick up to 10 knots and above she sailed superbly, making considerable speed and pointing much higher than I expected with her lug rig. Even when the wind started gusting 15-20 knots later in the afternoon, the boat felt very safe beating upwind (with still just the first reef tied). I found that simply letting out the main very effectively reduced the degree of heel in strong gusts, while still allowing her to move speedily through the water. We beat upriver all afternoon, and when it was time to return on a downwind course I took the precaution of tacking on a series of broad reaches - the breeze was really starting to pick up as we headed in, with a gathering thunderstorm in the offing - doing "chicken" gybes (or "wearing ship") to bring her about on each new tack. Throughout the afternoon other sailboats would come over to have a closer look at us, and we got many compliments from people both on the water and on shore as we were making everything snug on the trailer. An excellent start to Jackrabbit's career, I thought.
Earlier in the year I had scheduled an eight day cruise to the eastern end of Lake Ontario in my HR 28 sloop. My sailing buddy John and I had stocked up on supplies, and I had already booked my vacation leave at work. I had been experiencing problems with the inboard Atomic 4 gas engine which were being attended to by a mechanic, who promised everything would be in order in time for our cruise. The day before we were set to depart I got the news from my mechanic that the head gasket was on backorder until the following week, with the result that I would not be able to motor the 40 miles upriver (against the current and predominantly southwesterly winds) to Lake Ontario. John and I were devastated, as we had been planning this cruise for a long time, looking forward to visiting a number of interesting places on the lake including Main Duck Island, which stands 20 miles offshore, and the shores of the Prince Edward County peninsula, the southernmost extension of Canada into the lake. My wife Lisa, seeing our disappointment and recalling how satisfying I had found my inaugural sail in Jackrabbit, suggested that we trailer the boat to Lake Ontario, establish a base camp in a tent somewhere on shore and explore the Lake in a series of daytrips. I was eager to test Jackrabbit in a serious sailing venture, and had wondered when the opportunity would arise. Now my wife pointed out the obvious, and John and I eagerly altered our plans accordingly.
We arrived at the Waupoos marina, located in the large bay formed by the eastern shore of the Prince Edward peninsula, known as Prince Edward Bay, and arranged to set up our tent in a nearby field. We then rigged and launched Jackrabbit, and although it was already late afternoon, immediately set out on a brief sail to get a feel for the area. That day we experienced fairly light and variable winds, but managed to sail along the inside passage between Waupoos island and the mainland. John was initially concerned by the boat's tippy behaviour at the dock, but we soon learned to distribute our weight properly under sail to keep the boat in good trim and moving along comfortably. The next day we logged about 15 nautical miles exploring South Bay, looking into the mouth of the Black River, and circumnavigating Waupoos Island in a 10-15 kt breeze. We were able to sail her in a variety of conditions and learned to appreciate her exceptional behaviour on all points of sail. She proved to be very stable and slipped through the water gracefully, taking the gusts and chop without any difficulty whatsoever, increasing our confidence in her abilities.
On the third day we decided to sail across the wide mouth of Prince Edward Bay, a distance of about ten nautical miles which at one point would have us several miles offshore. Our destination was the southern tip of the peninsula, a place known as Longpoint Harbour, homeport to the last remnant of the commercial fishery on Lake Ontario. This harbour is known for its remoteness and the narrow breadth of its entrance. Few yachties ever go there. We had been to this harbour several years earlier in my Tanzer 22 sloop, and wished to see it again.
The night before we set out had been blustery, with a strong south easterly wind working up large swells which we were to confront the following day. By morning the wind had abated somewhat, dropping to about 15 kt, but large residual seas remained. We tied in the first reef, and set out on a long closehauled tack toward our objective, visible as a very hazy shoreline extending far away on the horizon. When we cleared the lee of Waupoos Island, we began to experience large swells, our bow lifting as they rolled beneath us with a hiss. But she took it all in very good stride, meeting each wave and never falling off her course toward the distant point. She rode comfortably over the four foot swells, with the occasional six-footer (the proverbial "rogue" wave), and never once gave us cause for concern over our safety. We were both impressed by how high she pointed, and what little leeway, if any, she made. In fact, on a closehauled point of sail she seemed to crab to windward. As we eventually neared our objective we turned onto a run for the narrow harbour entrance. To the east of Long Point lie two large islands, Timber and Swetman, creating a tunnel effect accelerating the wind and driving us inexorably toward the entrance with large following seas. In this we turned head to wind, dropped the sail, then pointing our bow to enter the harbour under motor. As we neared the entrance we were struck by how narrow the gap appeared, and it occurred to us that perhaps the harbour had fallen into disuse and the entrance had silted over the years. Indeed, as we crossed the gap one of our underwater appendages rubbed the gravelly bottom.
Once inside the harbour we were surrounded by calm, and made our way to the old government dock where a steel trawler was made fast (though how such a large craft negotiated the narrow, shallow gap was beyond our comprehension). We had been three hours at sea, and desperately needed to stretch our legs by taking a short walk along the rocky shore. The force of the wind and waves beating upon the shore at this point was impressive, making us not a little apprehensive about departing this safe harbour for the return journey. After clearing the harbour entrance we met a steep wind-driven chop head on, causing the boat to hobby-horse violently, making it difficult to go forward in the cockpit to hoist the sail. Matters were further complicated when, as I hauled hard on the halyard the spar stuck, causing the bronze snap hook I used to clip the halyard to the spar and mast hoop to fail. In an instant I found myself in the bottom of a wildly pitching boat with the sail and spar in my lap. With some difficulty, I was able to retrieve a spare shackle from my ditty bag and finally got the sail aloft, after which we turned on a quarter reach back home. This time we took the swells on the quarter, and John, sitting on the cockpit floor, was amazed to see how the towering waves would appear poised to wash into the transom cut-out, only to roll harmlessly under the buoyant stern, which would rise easily to each swell. We returned home by rounding the weather side of Waupoos Island, and made the boat fast to her dock in the marina, deeply satisfied with her performance under challenging conditions.
On the final day, we returned to a more detailed exploration of South Bay, sailing along the bluffs forming much of the largely uninhabited north shore for a distance of about 5 miles until we reached the bottom of the bay. Here we dropped the anchor and waded in shallow water to a grassy bank, making her stern fast to a rock. We then walked about half a mile through a meadow in which a wide path had been mowed to the waterfront, emerging behind a small rustic church. Next door we visited the mariner's museum, chronicling the area's extensive history of fishing, schooner days and shipwrecks. We returned for the last time to our base camp at the Waupoos marina on a gentle breeze. The next morning we broke camp and got the boat back on the trailer, making our way home with feelings of exultation at having fulfilled our original goal of doing some serious sailing on a great inland sea. The world is indeed a bigger place in a small boat.