CRUISING BOAT EVOLUTION: From Work Boats to Yachts

Colin Archer ketch

In our last episode in this series, we described the genesis of the Cruising Everyman in the mid- to late 19th century. These were sailors who were not aristocratic bluebloods looking to flaunt their wealth, but a simpler breed of more middle-class sailors who enjoyed cruising under sail for its own sake. These are cruisers we can easily relate to today, and what most interests us, of course, is the sort of boat they most often went cruising in.

For many sailors of more modest means who wanted vessels that were both substantial enough to survive a bit of weather and large enough to live aboard for limited periods of time in some comfort, the easiest and cheapest thing to do was simply to buy an old working boat and refurnish it. Some paint, some furniture tacked in down below, and perhaps some rig alterations could quickly transform many such boats into perfectly serviceable cruisers. It helped, of course, that working sailboats everywhere were steadily being replaced by power vessels, and thus were available at reasonable prices in ever-growing numbers.

Fishing boats were probably the most popular candidates for conversion. Indeed, some types established secondary reputations as cruising boats that ultimately eclipsed their previous identities. We tend to forget, for example, that two popular American craft now considered classic coastal cruising vessels–the Cape Cod catboat and the Friendship sloop–were both originally designed and used as inshore fishing boats.

Friendship sloop drawing

Sailplan of a typical Friendship sloop. These were working fishing boats that morphed into coastal cruisers as cruising under sail became more popular

In Britain, lifeboats were also seen as ideal vessels to make over into cruising boats. This practice, which continues to this day, started at least as early as 1886, when E.F. Knight made a name for himself cruising from England to the Baltic and back aboard Falcon, a converted ship’s lifeboat he purchased for just 20 pounds.

Pilot boats were another logical choice, as they were usually designed to be both fast (so they could compete with other pilot boats racing out of a harbor to do business with inbound vessels) and seaworthy enough to go out in any weather. Several types were pressed into service as yachts on both sides of the Atlantic. Bristol Channel pilot cutters became particularly popular as cruisers in Britain, but by far the most influential type was a beamy double-ended 47-foot pilot and offshore rescue boat designed by Colin Archer in 1893 for work along the coast of Norway. The simple symmetrical lines of these boats, known as Redningskoites (see photo up top), were explicitly copied by others seeking to create durable all-purpose cruising boats. The best-known example was Eric, a scaled-down 32-foot Redningskoite designed by William Atkin in 1925. Meanwhile, the design for another very influential double-ended cruising boat, the Tahiti ketch, conceived by John Hanna in 1923, was explicitly based on boats sailed by Greek sponge fishermen.

Pilot cutter

A British pilot cutter under sail

Tahiti ketch drawing

For a generation of cruisers John Hanna’s Tahiti ketch, based on old sponge fishing boats, was considered an ultimate “get-away boat”

By far the most famous converted working boat was Joshua Slocum‘s Spray. Slocum does not at all fit the template of the amateur cruising yachtsman described in our last installment, but his influence on the sport was extraordinary. Ironically, he did have something in common with George Crowninshield, the owner of Cleopatra’s Barge, which we discussed at the very beginning of this series. Like Crowninshield, Slocum gained his nautical expertise as a professional merchant mariner. Unlike Crowninshield, he lived in the latter part of the 19th century, when commercial sail was being driven into extinction.

Crowninshield took up cruising because it amused him, and he had been successful enough as a commercial mariner that he could indulge his fancy in a grandiose manner. Slocum, on the other hand, became a cruiser mostly in desperation. His professional life had been destroyed, and he was shorebound and down on his luck when, in 1892, a fellow ship captain, perhaps as a joke, gave him a decrepit 36-foot Delaware oyster smack that had been left in a field to rot. With characteristic tenacity Slocum rebuilt the boat and, after a brief attempt to earn a living fishing her, set out on a protracted singlehanded cruise around the world. This voyage and Slocum’s book describing it, Sailing Alone Around the World, not only helped to legitimize “alternative” cruising, it also spread the seed of the cruising dream much farther than before. Indeed, Slocum’s book is still in print today and still works its magic in the minds of most cruising sailors.

Spray photo

Joshua Slocum aboard Spray

Spray sailplan

Sailplan of Spray

Spray lines

Lines of Spray

What perhaps is most significant about Spray is how anachronistic she was. Even at the time of her circumnavigation, which Slocum completed in 1898, she was in many respects completely obsolete. She was, by Slocum’s account, approximately 100 years old when he acquired her, and her hull form reflected this. Her shape tended toward the old “cod’s head and mackerel’s tail” school of naval architecture, with a fat entry, maximum beam at or a little forward of amidships, and a finer run aft on her waterline. She was wide (over 14 feet) with a relatively shoal draft (about 4 feet) and short ends–her waterline length (about 32 feet) was just 4 feet shy of her length overall. She was also immensely heavy for her size, displacing 24,000 pounds, and carried all her ballast in her bilges, with none at all in her keel.

Spray had almost nothing in common with modern turn-of-the-century yachts (a fact in which Slocum seemed to take great pleasure), but she served well enough as a cruiser. Indeed, her performance, given her particulars and the fact that she was sailed singlehanded, was extraordinary. Slocum reported top speeds on the order of 8 knots, and he routinely averaged 150 miles a day on passage–numbers more typical of 36-foot yachts built in the mid-20th century that weigh half as much. He also boasted of the boat’s ability to steer herself, but credit for this, and for the speeds achieved, must in fact go to Slocum himself. He was a master mariner who had the skill and nerve to drive a vessel hard and was an intuitive expert when it came to sail trim.

What is also significant about Spray is that, in spite of her putative obsolescence, her design is still considered viable today. Contemporary cruising boats that mimic her lines, most particularly steel hulls built to plans drawn by designer Bruce Roberts, though not exactly common, are not hard to find. Some devotees, in fact, still insist that Spray represents the “ultimate” cruising boat.

Bruce Roberts ketch

Example of a Bruce Roberts ketch based on Spray

What this really demonstrates is that–unlike a racing yacht, which succeeds only if it wins races–the worth of a cruising boat can be measured in any number of ways. One good reason, for example, why some traditional designs based on old workboats like Spray are still viable is that they yield lots of interior accommodation space, which is, for many cruisers, a key consideration. Other reasons for favoring such boats may include, as mentioned above, their affordability and availability, plus they are often extremely seaworthy. But perhaps their most powerful (and most subjective) attraction is their strong romantic appeal. Traditional boats tap directly into the zeitgeist of the cruising dream, and this unquestionably influenced the development of cruising boat design as cruising became more popular.

Of course, not all early small-boat cruisers were inclined to go sailing in old work boats. Many had the resources to commission the building of modest yachts and this led to a proliferation of specialized designs. As was the case with R.T. McMullen’s 42-footer Orion, which we mentioned last time, these were often unremarkable adaptations of mainstream yacht designs. It became common, however, for experienced amateur cruisers to commission idiosyncratic designs that reflected personal prejudices and preferences. Here again McMullen provides a useful example, as both Procyon and Perseus, his smaller purpose-built singlehanders, were unique vessels that must have seemed odd to mainstream yachtsmen of the time.

Some amateur cruisers acquired enough knowledge and expertise to become amateur designers as well. One of the first and most influential of these was Albert Strange, a British headmaster and art teacher born in 1855 who first started cruising the Thames estuary as a teenager in a converted workboat. As a member of the Humber Yawl Club, which was directly descended from one of John MacGregor’s canoe clubs, Strange’s design work followed a fascinating trajectory from small sailing canoes similar to those sailed by MacGregor to much larger double-ended deep-keeled vessels known as “canoe yawls.”

Strange canoe-yawl

A Strange canoe-yawl under sail

Canoe-yawl lines

Lines of a Strange canoe-yawl with overhanging stern

Strange did not invent the canoe yawl, but he is credited with inventing the elegant overhanging pointed canoe stern that initially distinguished his boats from others and was later widely copied. Among the many amateur cruiser/designers who followed in his wake were T. Harrison Butler, W. Maxwell Blake, Fred Fenger, and Maurice Griffiths. Although the work of such men is unique and identifiable, their boats on the whole tended to be conservative, featuring moderate proportions, full ballast keels, narrow to moderate beam, and relatively short ends.

Yet another intriguing wrinkle was the advent of cruisers who sought to build their own boats. For a certain sort of fellow the notion of constructing a boat was just as alluring as the prospect of sailing it. Also, of course, for those with the time and skills backyard building could be a more economical way to get afloat.

The most adventurous build-it-yourself cruisers worked without plans and made things up as they went along. Remarkably, this was yet another trail blazed by Joshua Slocum. Some years prior to his voyage in Spray, Slocum had owned and commanded a 138-foot trading bark, Aquidneck, that he lost on a sandbar in Brazil in 1887. To get his family home to the United States, he and his oldest son, Victor, built a bizarre 35-foot unballasted junk-rigged sampan (Slocum actually called it a canoe) that they christened Liberdade. Slocum and his wife and two children not only sailed this unlikely vessel more than 5,000 miles from Brazil to the U.S., they then lived aboard the boat and cruised it on the East Coast for nearly a year.

A vessel as eccentric as Liberdade did not immediately inspire imitations, but Slocum’s use of the Asian junk rig did anticipate such modern designers as Blondie Hasler, Tom Colvin, and Jay Benford, who installed junk rigs on both racing and cruising vessels. Liberdade also provided an important creative precedent, setting an example for future designers and sailors willing to think “outside the box.”

The backyard builders who had the biggest impact on the development of cruising boat design were those who wanted or needed plans to build to. To meet this demand, some designers started conceiving boats with simplified lines that were easy for amateurs to put together. Often such designs were published and marketed through the several boating magazines that sprouted up on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the earliest and most significant was an American publication, The Rudder, founded in 1891 by a fiery small-boat evangelist named Thomas Fleming Day. Day believed strongly in the concept of backyard building–“No Boats, No Sport: All Hands Build Hulls” was a favorite slogan of his–and he published many build-it-yourself designs in his magazine. He also believed in practicing what he preached and in 1911 sailed one of these boats, a 26-foot yawl named Sea Bird, across the Atlantic from Rhode Island to Gibraltar with two companions as crew.

Sea Bird photo

Sea Bird under sail

Sea Bird drawing

Drawing of Sea Bird

Sea Bird had a simple V-bottomed hull with a single hard chine on either side and was explicitly designed for ease of construction. Her plans specified two underwater configurations; she could be built either with a centerboard or with a deep keel supporting 700 pounds of ballast. She also reportedly carried about 1,000 pounds of internal ballast. With her low freeboard, Sea Bird may not have looked particularly seaworthy, but Day’s transatlantic voyage hushed many nay-sayers, while convincing others that Day himself most likely was a lunatic. Further support for the latter proposition came the following year when Day went transatlantic again, this time in a 36-foot powerboat carrying 1,200 gallons of gasoline.

Over the years, several hundred copies of Sea Bird were built by amateur cruisers. Among these was a larger sistership, a 34-foot boat named Islander built by Harry Pidgeon, a farm boy from Iowa, in a vacant lot in Los Angeles in 1917. Pidgeon, a self-taught sailor, completed a singlehanded circumnavigation in Islander in 1925, becoming only the second man (after Joshua Slocum) to perform this feat. He subsequently lived aboard for 16 years, made another circumnavigation, and was in the middle of a third (this time with his wife) when he finally lost Islander in a hurricane in the New Hebrides. Fortunately, both Pidgeon and his wife escaped with their lives.

NEXT: The Golden Age of the Cruiser-Racer

Related Posts

2 Responses

Leave a Reply



Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Facebook Pagelike Widget


Google Ads