COLVIN GAZELLE: A Junk-Rigged Cruising Icon

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Colvin Gazelle under sail

American shipwright and boat designer Tom Colvin, who has long championed both metal construction and junk rigs on cruising sailboats, has designed about 300 small ships and boats over the course of a career that has now spanned about 70 years. He designed the original Gazelle for himself and his family to cruise aboard way back in 1967. She has since proven to be both his most successful and perhaps most interesting creation, with over 700 sisterships launched to date.

The first Gazelle was conceived as a no-frills light-displacement boat that could function both as a shoal-draft coastal cruiser on Chesapeake Bay, where Colvin was based at the time, and as a bluewater cruiser. She was built of 10-gauge Corten steel (i.e., about 3.4-mm thick), except for the main cabin top, which was marine plywood. The ballast consisted of lead bricks stacked in the keel and capped with cement. To save weight, Gazelle carried no engine and her hull form was long and lean. Her most distinctive feature was her schooner rig, which consisted of two Chinese junk sails mounted on lightly stayed aluminum masts with a Western-style triangular jib out front flying from a long bowsprit. She also carried a triangular “fisherman” sail between her masts or sometimes flew a loose-luffed reaching staysail from her main masthead.

By all accounts the first Gazelle sailed well, as is reflected in her performance ratios. She balanced well on all points of sail, her helm required little attention, except when running dead downwind, and she was reasonably fast. Colvin reported hitting speeds of around 9 knots sailing his boat. A sistership built soon after the first, Migrant, once reported a best day’s run of 202 miles and a best week’s average of 163 miles per day during an extended bluewater cruise. But Gazelle’s windward performance, in Colvin’s own words, was “less than breathtaking.” She usually had to sail 50 degrees or more off the wind to maintain speed and course. Thanks to her narrow beam, shoal draft, and generous sail plan, she also needed reefing early, which is easy to do on any junk-rigged vessel.

Very few of Gazelle’s many sisterships are as simple–or as light–as the original. Almost all have engines installed in the large midships cargo area that separates the main cabin from the aft cabin. Colvin himself installed a small 10-hp Sabb diesel in his Gazelle before selling her; most other owners have specified much larger engines and in some cases have grossly overpowered their boats. Most sisterships also have heavier interior joinery; in some cases the scantlings have also been increased. Colvin estimates the average displacement is about 6,000 pounds heavier than that of his first boat; he cites one extreme case where a boat was built almost 20,000 pounds overweight (before the rig and ballast were installed)!

On the other hand, most sisterships do have electrical systems, a feature lacking on the original, plus other modern amenities. Several Gazelles have been built in aluminum, which saves a lot of weight, and a small handful have also been built in wood. The vast majority are junk-rigged, though some have gaff-schooner or gaff-ketch rigs, which reportedly work well. The least successful sail plans, according to Colvin, are single-mast Marconi sloop and cutter rigs, as the boat has trouble standing up to a taller single spar and does not balance as well.

The interior lay-out is similar to those seen on modern center-cockpit boats, except there is no cockpit. Instead the helmsman is stationed on a flush-decked area between the main and aft cabins, directly abaft the mainmast and directly over the engine or cargo area.

The first Gazelle originally had a small double berth oriented fore and aft offset to starboard in the aft cabin. Colvin later changed this and installed separate single berths port and starboard, which he felt was more seamanlike. Many sisterships instead have large athwartship doubles all the way aft. These are very comfortable in a calm harbor, but are less comfortable when the boat is underway or rolling at anchor. They also interfere with the worm-gear steering system specified by Colvin and require the installation of hydraulic steering instead, which dampens the helm’s responsiveness. In the original design the aft cabin, which also houses the nav station, has no standing headroom, as the deck overhead is flush save for a large scuttle housing its forward-facing companionway. On several sisterships, however, an aft cabinhouse has been added.

The main cabin connects to the aft cabin belowdeck via the engine or cargo area, which has only stooping headroom. The main cabin does have full standing headroom and can be laid out several different ways. In most cases the forepeak has a narrow V-berth bisected by the keel-stepped foremast, which precludes installing a filler section to make the berth a double. On some boats the foremast is deck-stepped and the space is configured differently.

Gazelle interior looking forward
Typical Gazelle saloon looking forward

Directly behind the peak there is an athwartship head (the original design also calls for a second toilet in the aft cabin, though not in an enclosed head compartment). In the first Gazelle the galley was originally at the aft end of the main cabin, ranged around the companionway, with two outboard pilot berths and a pair of narrow settees either side of a drop-leaf table in the saloon forward of the galley. Colvin deemed this inadequate and later changed things around, placing the galley forward, just abaft the head, with one outboard pilot berth and a dinette aft to starboard of the companionway opposite a single straight settee. In the majority of sisterships, however, the galley seems to be aft, where the motion should be more comfortable in a seaway.

Gazelle interior
The same saloon looking aft

Used Gazelles are very attractively priced and construction costs keep escalating, so it is hard to justify building a new one. As of 2006, there was a firm in India, Kondo Syokai, offering to sell new Gazelles for a sail-away price of 50,000 British pounds, but according to Colvin they have only built one boat to date. If shopping for Gazelles on the brokerage market, be warned that listed specifications are often based on the original design displacement rather than actual displacement, hence may be wildly inaccurate.

 

Colvin Gazelle plan


Specifications

LOA : 49’0”

LOD : 42’2”

LWL : 33’0”

Beam: 11’4”

Draft: 3’10”

Ballast: 7,500 lbs.

Sail area: 854 sq.ft.

Water: 60 gal.

Displacement

–Original: 18,000 lbs.

–Average: 24,000 lbs.

D/L ratio

–Original: 223

–Average: 298

SA/D ratio

–Original: 19.86

–Average: 16.39

Comfort ratio

–Original:30.45

–Average: 40.60

Capsize screening: 1.73

Nominal hull speed

–Original: 8.8 knots

–Average: 8.0 knots

Typical asking prices: $30K – $70K

 

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24 Responses
  1. I recognize the interior photo’s in your article. That’s my boat, Summer Wind! We have a small tour and charter business in Philadelphia. Sailing to windward is an issue, as you mention, and I’m thinking about cambered junk sails in the future. I like the work that Arne Kverneland has done.

  2. rob d

    Looking for Gazelle owners and sailors…..

    I sailed a junk rigged Gazelle from New Zealand to Mexico via Pitcairn Island in 1988. It was quite painful at times. One passage took 7 days to do 296 miles. Good strong boat but sails like a well trimmed refrigerator. Down wind in 40kts she would get going!

  3. noel

    Hi Tom, I actually sailed on the blue hulled Indigo pictured above and am a self proclaimed gazellaphile but have suffered the impure thoughts of redesigning Colvins sacred form to allow for better upwind performance. I am curious how the cambered panels works?

  4. SV Madam Wong

    We own Madam Wong, a Colvin Junk rig, a sister ship to Kung-Fu-Tse. We have cambered junk sails and she sails pretty well in all conditions. The self-tacking rig is a dream to sail.

  5. Scott Holthaus

    Sorry about Tom
    He was most helpful with information and replied with thoughtful answers to my many questions This is a great loss
    I own the blue hulled boat in the article It is on the Oregon coast and sails that mean water happily.

  6. Nancy McKay

    Curious about where my fathers old Gazelle is. It was sold to the Unruhs in 1995. At that time it was named NAAM. It was beautifully finished on the interior with 5 different kinds of wood, the hull was steel made in BC and shipped down to Bainbridge Island where my father built it out.

  7. Bluemeanie

    I am new to the junk rig and am reading and watching all I can and trying to make sense of it. Camber is a big issue. I read that the Chinese didn’t need it because natural fibers stretched and provided the curve. I wonder if natural fibers on the bottom and modern sailcloth at the top for a flat storm sail would be a way to go. They could be connected with a piano hinge a la Mingming 2. Has this been tried?

  8. Capt. George Wall

    I own a Gazelle built in 1986 by Barnes. My copy of the hull offsets has become damaged. Does anyone have a copy they could help me with the missing numbers?

  9. Pat

    Good Afternoon All,
    I have been trying to find a copy of Mr. Colvin’s book Sail Making especially for
    chapters 13 and 15 ( standing rigging and hanging the junk sail). Does anyone know if Mr. Colvin’s is selling copies of his books? I have tried, unsuccessfully, to contact someone through the WEB page, email, and phone. I am a relatively new owner of a Gazelle, love the boat but have some questions about how the previous owner has her rigged.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Pat Reed
    Preed2@bellsouth.net

  10. Pat

    Good afternoon again
    In my orevious post I said I was trying to find a copy of Mr. Colvin’s book on sailmaking or chapters 13 and 15. That was an error – the chapters I am most interested in are chapters 12 and 14.

    Thanks in advance for any help

    Pat

  11. Murray

    Curious about where my fathers old Gazelle is. It was sold to the Unruhs in 1995. At that time it was named NAAM. It was beautifully finished on the interior with 5 different kinds of wood, the hull was steel made in BC and shipped down to Bainbridge Island where my father built it out.

    Hi NAncy Murray here she was beautifully done and Mac was a very good woodworker.

  12. Shane

    [quote=Nancy McKay]Curious about where my fathers old Gazelle is. It was sold to the Unruhs in 1995. At that time it was named NAAM. It was beautifully finished on the interior with 5 different kinds of wood, the hull was steel made in BC and shipped down to Bainbridge Island where my father built it out.

    Hi NAncy Murray here she was beautifully done and Mac was a very good woodworker.[/quote] Hi Nancy, I think your boat is on Lopez Island where Steve and Ilene Unrah live. She is re-named Finn. But the sails are on our Gazelle ‘Vagrant, here in Tonga!

  13. Jim den Hartog

    Not sure if this is still active but we sail a Gazelle and have just completed a 22 yr long circumnavigation. Now in Brazil. Vessel name is GAIA. We are Jim and Helen and our email address is jimandhelen2@hotmail.com would love to hear from anybody re Gazelles. Specifically for now we need to know Tom’s specifications for the bowsprit on the Gazelle. We cracked our wood bowsprit in the the Indian Ocean and want to replace it with Aluminum or steel but do not have Tom’s scantlings on board. Any help would be appreciated via email please.

    Jim and Helen

  14. Steve Nelson

    Hi all I am Stephen Nelson the proud new owner of Irena purchased from Capt George Wall a Gazelle 42 . Looking for sisterships her new home will be Scotts Ck Portsmouth Va. sbncaptn@aol.com 757 377 4470

  15. Trystan

    Hi Nancy, I know exactly where Mac’s boat wound up, I’m the current owner! I’d love to get in touch with you and round out the story a bit. Also curious how “Shane” got the sails?

    Curious about where my fathers old Gazelle is. It was sold to the Unruhs in 1995. At that time it was named NAAM. It was beautifully finished on the interior with 5 different kinds of wood, the hull was steel made in BC and shipped down to Bainbridge Island where my father built it out.

  16. Lorraine Cook

    My father, John Burtchell, bought Colvin’s original Gazelle back in the early 70’s. He, my Mom, sister and brother lived aboard for 10 years or so, mostly in Melbourne Florida. They sold it and ended up in East Palatka Florida where my Dad passed away in 2000. Last I knew a family from Alaska bought it but I believe it’s changed hands a few times. Would LOVE to know where it is now.

  17. Lorraine Cook

    My father, John Burtchell, bought Colvin’s original Gazelle back in the early 70’s. He, my Mom, sister and brother lived aboard for 10 years or so, mostly in Melbourne Florida. They sold it and ended up in East Palatka Florida where my Dad passed away in 2000. Last I knew a family from Alaska bought it but I believe it’s changed hands a few times. Would LOVE to know where it is now.

    I’ve just heard that it was in a Hurricane in the Carolina’s a few years ago and that it may have been destroyed. So sad.

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