Searching for a “Sea Shell”

This is an article I wrote for the DCA (Dinghy Cruising Association) after I bought my Hurley Felicity. It is an account of the process I went through to find my bot and all the stages of looking for moorings, anchors etc.

In the 203 edition of the Bulletin I wrote of my sea-kayaking journey from Kippford to Gamesby and my reasons for transferring my allegiance from sea kayaking to sailing. Throughout the winter of 2008-9 I have been reading some back issues of the Bulletins and in them there are accounts of boat types that members chose and why they chose them. Recently I have been searching for my own boat and I would like to give an account of my experiences in finding a sail boat and why I chose it.
My search for a boat lasted roughly 1 year using mainly the Internet with occasional visits to people who were selling boats. I felt I had a good idea of what craft I was seeking – on paper at least; and I transferred this data onto charts, made lists and compared sizes, sail types, keel types, cabin or no cabin, prices, trailer or non trailer etc. but sometimes armchair research is not enough and fieldwork is everything.

Requirements and Intentions
Some of my questions/requirements were:

1. A boat with a cabin of some sort. My intention was to live on her for a good part of the year and she had to be a “home from home”. I was well used to erecting tents, although erecting a tent over a boat is a great idea and I had not tried that before, but if I was to stay on her for any length of time in all conditions I wanted the ease of crawling into a cabin.

2. I do not drive so she had to be moored permanently on the sea, she had to be either small enough to be manhandled onto shore; or sturdy enough to remain in the sea and robust enough for the tides around my area.

3. Bilge keel or lifting keel? This was the big question for me I could not decide. The Solway waters are murky and mostly with sand or pebbly bottoms. I did not want to damage the hull on stones or rocks submerged under silted water.
A bilge keel would ensure a safe landing whatever the bottom and give her good standing whenever I left her for any length of time.

At the same time because of the low shifting sand banks a bilge keel would limit where I would be able to go and how long I would be able to sail.
A lifting keel would ensure I would get into a safe mooring or up the various rivers.

The state of the Solway Firth was a fast moving tidal estuary with shifting sand banks and no detailed maps showing anchorages, in fact there is no sailing in this area a tall!

The ideal boat would be a “lifting bilge keel”!

I began to think of ways to adapt a lifting keel-boat so it could be safely positioned
Up-right when she dries out. I thought of making a brace or hammock type system that could support the hull off the ground, which could be erected and taken down when needed, but I gave up on the idea, as it was too unstable and difficult to stow in a small boat.

I saw a photo of a DCA boat in one of the bulletins where they were using fenders either side of the hull to support her when the tide was out. This was a better idea but no good when the tide was in, as the fenders would float away from the hull. Even if they were strapped onto the hull (like my sea kayak’s sponsons) it would make the hull too unstable when afloat if too far underneath, or the boat would not sit level when dried out.

An alternative to this was to use bags either side of the hull filled with sand. As this idea took shape I thought of ways of positioning bags under the hull fixed in a pre-measured position so they sit equally balanced filled with water. The idea was that the bags (about the size of potato sacks) would be stored empty in the boat until needed, then filled with water after anchoring. Then they could be positioned underneath the hull with markers to indicate when the bags are at equal distance under the keel; as the tide ebbs the hull would sit on the water sacks.

Later replacement sacks could be put in place with sand (collected from the beach) and the water released from the original bags, the boat would be supported on the sand bags in the same position as the water bags; the sacks could be positioned so the middle of the sack rests on the keel giving it equal distance either side.

The advantage of sand over water is the added weight to stabilize the boat when afloat and sand does not leak. By simply tying the end of the bags sand would stay in place and mould itself to the shape of the hull and keep its form. With a quick releasing knot the bags could be opened when afloat and the sand emptied out.

This might seem a lot of work for people who have silt and good sand along their shores but where I intend to sail there is uneven surfaces, rocks, pebbles and the odd motor laying on the seabed unobserved because of the murky waters. With practise this system could be quick and does not take up much space in a small boat.

4. Type of sail? I wanted a sail that I could work from the cockpit. I had learned on a gaff rigged Mirror dinghy, and crewed on various other gaff rigged boats, also I had crewed upon and admired the junk rigged sails that are excellent for single handed sailing, quiet and inexpensive to maintain; but I liked the idea of introducing the gaff rig back to the Solway Firth as I have seen old photos of the Solway Shrimping boats coming out of the mouth of Annandale.

I had delayed my desire to buy a sail boat for 3 years as I was led to believe, through gossip, that “sailing was an expensive business and that I would have to have a big boat to do the type of cruising I wished to do”, which would result in more cost therefore, it would be unaffordable for me! Through the Internet and DCA members I found out that it need not be an expensive passion and there were boats out there, which were ready to sail and affordable, for someone who was not in current employment or with a large bank account, credit card or rich relative!
The libraries stocked a lot of good books for me to read during the summer/winter months; I read a lot of the backlog of DCA bulletins and after crewing on some DCA boats in the autumn 2008 I found that my goal was reachable “this year” in 2009. I made a plan to buy my boat in April 2009 ready for the sailing season.

Sailing Areas
Besides looking at types of boat I also looked at my sailing areas: what were the conditions like? What was the coast like, sea states, sailing times per tide, etc.?
To find some answers to the list of questions and doubts in the winter of 2008 I visited the west coast of Cumbria and Southern Scotland looking at possible mooring sites and sheltered anchorages, marinas and harbours; getting as much info if/when/where I was to moor my boat there. I walked along many miles of coastline making note of shingle, sand, mud, quicksand and rocky sea beds, seeing how the tide came and left the Solway Firth and speaking to various people along the way.

Most of the boats I enquired about were in the south of England most had trailers and since I do not drive I made enquiries about expenses for some haulage firms to bring her up to Cumbria. The costs soared, it all began to get very complicated, and it was no longer about sailing and enjoying the outdoors it was about cranes, trailers, mileage and diesel, road insurance and marina fees; sailing was an expensive business after all!
I had a budget of £3000 and with transport costs half of that was going on bring her up and getting her into the water.

April 2009 came and I lost hope, I had visited a few boats but the transport was letting me down the frustration of seeing a boat then not being able to get her to Cumbria started to erode my enthusiasm, so I changed tack. I started to think of sailing a boat from the south of England to Cumbria, but since my sailing experience was minimal I thought I might be risking myself, the boat and others, but that did not stop me of collecting maps and looking at anchorages from the West to the East of England or from the East of Scotland back to Cumbria and reading accounts of sailing trips in those waters. Another idea was to move down south or to where the boat was situated as I was intending to live on her most of the time; or another idea was to keep her moored down south and commute! All were drastic solutions but in a way reflected my wish to learn to sail and to follow my dream.

The Boat
Eventually, I found a boat in West Cumbria and the owner was willing to put her in the water for me at no extra charge, my luck had changed. The boat I chose was a compromise to my “on paper” ideal. She had a cabin, she was Bermudan rigged not junk or gaffed, she was bilged keeled but they were small and she floated very easily off the trailer. I could board her when afloat like I did a dinghy and she had a feel of a dinghy too but with a ballasted keel she was quite stable afloat. The owner let me use the trailer for a few months while I painted her at home but he then wanted the trailer back sooner than planned and she had to put in the sea before she was complete.

There was still some work to do on her but all cosmetic – paint, new D-bolts, halyards and sheets etc. I realised how little I knew about rigging a boat, and it was a steep learning curve. Some thing’s I am still trying to work out, and some thing’s I might have to invent myself.

On the sea I found there were some problems: water entered the bilges through a loose depth-finder fitting and the outboard motor did not work very well. The owner said he had sailed/motored her before but it was obvious that he had not sailed her at all. Until then I had met people who clearly loved sailing and wanted to sell their boat to a good owner, they did not try to cheat to sell their boats. This man obviously had not told the truth and just wanted to get her off his hands. On the surface I had bought a boat that could not be sailed, which leaked, and had no motor; the task ahead was daunting but I was determined to solve these problems.

I missed the sailing season but in the months over the summer I learned to rig her and maintain her to my standards of safety. The leaks were sealed and the motor was taken for repair but later found out to be unusable, the boom and sail was adapted to fit to the mast. She did not have a name when I bought her so I chose “Sadaf” a Persian word meaning Sea Shell.

The Rig
The rigging is simple and I intend to keep it that way. I have 1 main and 1 genoa, but the boom and main sail were not fitting to the mast and obviously did not belong to the original boat. I enquired at the local marina but they did not seem to know the type of goose-neck needed so I made the goose-neck fitting myself so she fitted to the mast securely. The main has no reefing points, so I have made my own system by furling the sail around the boom then securing it to boom at either end, I guess it is unorthodox but it seems to work

The boat came with a 6hp Eventude 2 stoke outboard that no longer works and was far too heavy for the boat. I am debating with myself whether to get another motor? I really do not want one, I come back to the old argument that “if I have the motor it will make me take risks, I will venture out when I know I would not have done without a motor”. It is the “ifs” which makes me think about getting one: “What if I get caught out in bad weather? What if my rigging fails while sailing? What if I miss my mooring or cannot get up a river for a safe anchorage with the sail? What if I need to go to a harbour?” what if none of these things happen…the debate in my head is still going on!

I have tried sculling using one of my kayak paddles tied to the slider at the back of the cockpit. Rowing or sculling is no good against a 7knot tide, but surely by dropping an anchor near the mooring she would sit until the tide went out and I could fix her to the mooring when the tide flows again?

The boat came with a grapnel anchor but I bought a second anchor [7.5kg Bruce] as I was advised that the grapnel anchor is no good, and in fact it did not hold in the sand when I dragged it, the Bruce held firm, but on the safe side I think to get a 3rd anchor (Danforth) so if I do not get a motor I will have double surety to sit it out safely while the tide abates.

I often bury the grapnel and use it as another mooring for the stern of the boat. I use this when I need to swing her into the wind as sometimes my mooring becomes a lee shore when the wind is from the east and the tide is going north this creates a beam on situation to the waves, so with the grapnel dug in I can pull her stern round so she faces the waves.

The worry I have is coming up to my mooring buoy in a fast flowing tide race, getting to the buoy is hard enough but then to catch hold of the buoy either with a mooring hook or by lassoing, and tie the mooring line to her from the cockpit, bearing in mind she needs to be facing up current.

What I have decided upon is to have all the lines (mooring lines and anchor warps) fixed to the fore mooring bollard. First I try with the mooring lines to lasso the buoy; this allows me 2 attempts as I have one line either side of the hull – starboard and port.

If I am unsuccessful and conditions do not permit me to bring in the lines and try again, I will position the boat well above the buoy and drop the grapnel and use it as a break, this will slow my movement in the fast current so I can prepare the Bruce anchor. By dropping the Bruce (and Grapnel) from the cockpit the boat will move down current until the line is paid out and taught on the mooring bollard; I should have enough holding power to position myself near to the buoy where I can either manoeuvre myself towards the buoy or sit and wait until the tide is out. If the Bruce is not strong enough I can use the sails to help positioning her to the mooring Buoy.

Interior of Boat
Inside it is quite basic, there is no padding on the walls only fibreglass painted white and some plywood furnishings along the port side, plenty of storage space. I sleep mainly on the floor supported by the seating on the starboard side and the furnishing on the port side. I use a Trangia stove burning meths fuel. I have slept on her quite often and I have not had restful sleeps each time as the sounds are new and I have been on board in rough weather, high winds in the rigging and waves that toss me around the cabin, but it is getting better.

I use an oil lamp for light and this helps to keep the cabin warm too, in the winter I hope to make the cabin warmer by using a few barbecue charcoal pieces sitting in a small grill stand though only used when the tide is out. I will probably use a 12volt battery in time, but at the moment I have no need for electrics. I do not use a depth sounder at the moment I have strapped a thin pole up to the side of the deck that touches the seabed, this is marked off so I know when she is nearly touching bottom for me to jump out if need be; also as she gains depth the pole will sink deeper and this I have marked off to about a meter so I know when to start sailing. The pole can be tied along the side deck and released when needed. Also I have a line with a fishing weight used in the same way, when the line is taught I know I am not near the seabed, when it goes slack I have reached bottom.

I can erect a nylon tent fabric bungee-strapped down over the boom that gives shelter in the sun when the tide is out.

The day came when I was ready to try my first trip she had been on her mooring all summer and the locals were ribbing me “have you been out in her yet?” but I was in no hurry. I was conscious as a single-handed sailor of safety, and when I let go of the mooring I am on my own with a tide that can sweep me on to the harbour wall if I was not prepared.

I tried an idea of securing the boat to the mooring on a 60ft length of rope. I let out the rope and let the wind and tide take me down tide towards the harbour wall hoping the rope would hold me; the rope held and I prepared myself for sailing and “finding the wind”. I read a lot of books but actually “finding the wind” was not so easy. The wind was gusty, and the often it came at me from all directions.

Sometimes I lost the wind, sometimes it disappeared and without the rope I would have been against the harbour wall as the tide was ebbing fast. But as I sailed using the mooring as my pivot I got a feel of all sides of the wind, learning to tack and jibe and if I made a mess of it I let the boat fall back on her extended mooring rope, drifting back and to start again, these lessons were valuable.

One early attempt at jibbing snapped the goose-neck from the mast; I had spares of different strengths and so fixed another one that is still holding strong, the mooring rope helped me to do these alterations and to make sure they worked without committing myself to a more open voyage.

Winter is now here and I will be lowering the mast until the gales pass over, I intend to sail over the winter months, and to take her further out along the Scottish coast. I am learning all the time and enjoying every moment.