Readers of the book Foul Bottoms will recall how I started to build a ferro cement hull (remember those?) 40 years ago on sheets of yellowed foolscap and tracing paper. When I first considered building a boat to fit an East African Railways and Harbours flatbed wagon, I was greatly influenced by a little book I had acquired, Connor O’Brien’s 1933 On going to Sea in Yachts. It gave opinionated, but sound advice on the benefits of square rig in small boats.
Then I scored a design project in The Seychelles where I saw the local trading schooners at work.
The average size of the smaller clipper bowed schooners was about 45 feet which looked just right to me. They had a full height deck houses as crew accommodation but this sat a little awkwardly on this size boat. They were very simply rigged with galvanised standing rigging holding up fresh out of the ground Casuarina tree spars. All the blocks, jaws and fittings were home made. Very home made.
My barefoot artisans had just built a 4-star resort on an abandoned goat farm to International hotel standards. They could do better than this. I was aboard one schooner during their annual sailing race and strolling around those wide steady decks behind chunky bulwarks while the Trade Winds caressed you with a blast of Force 6 made you feel you were aboard a real ship.
A late friend had bequeathed me his boating library collected over many years. Among these papers were the full working drawings of the 59-foot steel Canadian brigantine St Lawrence, including every spar and rigging details. I still treasure these 1954 prints. Also, there were the lines of a small New England coasting schooner, which I drew up at 39 feet on the keel to suit the railway wagon.
I made a hollow planked scale model of the schooner hull which gave a good idea of the amount of space available below. By ballasting the model in the bath until she floated at the designed waterline you can calculate the displacement of the full sized hull. You just multiply the ballasted model weight by the cube of the scale. Mine was 1:20 scale and weighed 6.75lbs. Multiply that by the cube of the scale: 6.75 x 20 x 20 x 20 and you get 53,760lbs. That’s 24 tons.
The surface area calculations suggested a hull weight of about 5.3 tons and further 2 tons for the ferro deck. All up, about 30% of the displacement. Allow 8.5 tons for a 35% ballast ratio and that left over eight tons for fit out, stores, machinery and trimming ballast ... and errors in my calculations and making good mistakes in the ferro skin.
I see from my file I had a price from Hong Kong sail maker for 300 pounds for 1,000 square feet of lowers. An old friend, Mac, had access to galvanised steel cable and a swaging machine. I was still undecided about the rig when I left the project. The square rig and staysails were promoted by O’Brien, W.A. Robinson and Irvine Johnston.
Subsequent experience aboard a similarly square rigger confirmed to me that this can be a better alternative to spinnakers and special running sails, particularly when you are dealing with 19th Century D.I.Y. spars and fittings.
They say it is the things in life that you didn’t do that regret more that the things you did. This was a beautiful dream and I have enjoyed recalling this exciting time of my life, but overall, I am with Edith Piaf on this … Je ne regrette rien … no regrets, mate.
*John Quirk has been writing about and illustrating the joys of messing about in boats for over half a century. He is the author / illustrator of Foul Bottoms, published by Adlard Coles and available from Boat Books in Crows Nest and from Amazon.