Building Expedition Vessel Bagheera

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When venturing into higher latitudes, there’s nothing like a steel hull!

When venturing into higher latitudes, there’s nothing like a steel hull!

In early 2019, the 52ft steel expedition vessel Bagheera celebrated her 10th birthday. During that time, and in the years since, she has carried my wife, Krystina, our clients and me over 75,000 miles in Arctic and subarctic waters. This is the story of how Bagheera came to be and a reflection on her design.

I was born in the Netherlands and raised by parents who love to sail. When I was 10, we started sailing in the high latitudes during family vacations. It was during these voyages that I started thinking about a life at sea, exploring the most remote corners of the world.

When I was 12, my parents decided to build a new boat, and I went to the naval architect with my father, a professional boatbuilder, to finalize the purchase of the design. I was shocked by the price, calculating that it would take over 200 years of saving my weekly allowance to afford a design of my own. At that moment, I decided to become a yacht designer so I could save on design costs. Luckily, my 12-year-old self did not know about building or maintenance costs, and this blissful lack of knowledge helped keep the dream alive while I read all the books I could find on boatbuilding and design.

Launch day in the Netherlands: Bagheera’s black hull and yellow decks maximize her visibility in bad weather

Launch day in the Netherlands: Bagheera’s black hull and yellow decks maximize her visibility in bad weather

By the time I was 16, I had designed Bagheera, a 52ft expedition sailing vessel, even though it wasn’t until a year later that I could attend university and start a professional education as a naval architect. The design got tweaked in between my university lectures, and by the end of the three-and-a-half-year program, the Bagheera design became my graduation project. Around this time, I finally found the courage to show my father the drawings and ask his professional opinion. He studied the drawings for a while without saying a word, and after what felt like an eternity asked one simple question: When will we start building?

I stuttered a bit about finances, being a student and not having a well-paying job, as I did not really intend to start building right away. My father, though, calculated that buying the steel would not cost very much and reminded me that I wouldn’t have to buy it all at once. Two months later, a truckload of steel was delivered to a small building lot near my parents’ home in the Netherlands. There was now no question as to how I would be spending my evenings and weekends.

It took my father and me four-and-a-half years to build a technically finished boat (with no interior) and get it ready to sail. All the work was done by hand out in the open. The only piece of heavy equipment we had available was a forklift.

Bagheera’s design features were based on my 20 years of sailing with my family, combined with the ocean-racing experience I’d gained working as a part-time sailmaker during my university years and the deliveries I’d made aboard a wide variety of boats. My design brief was that she be simple, low-cost, low-maintenance, fast, ice-reinforced, well-insulated, comfortable, easy to handle singlehanded and able to survive autonomously for a year. I also wanted her to have enough power to push through 5/10 ice (where 50 percent of the water’s surface is covered in ice floes; 3/10 generally being the maximum a sailboat goes through); and be capable of wintering over in the Arctic without damage.

After launching in the early spring, we waited for a strong low to move in over the North Sea to give the boat a good practical test. We sailed the first half of the voyage downwind and the second half upwind to Norway, and it only took a day and a half to cover the 330 miles. After spending the night in Egersund, on the Norwegian coast, we sailed back to the Netherlands in a similar time frame with even stronger winds and more confused seas. The voyage resulted in a list of repairs and improvements before we could cross the North Atlantic to Nova Scotia, where I had accepted a job as a naval architect. Among the tasks I needed to complete were fixing a slow oil leak in the gearbox; raising the magnetic steering compass higher above the deck so there would be less interference from the boat’s steel hull; adding some handrails; making some small alterations to the mainsail reefing system; recalibrating the autopilot; remaking the jacklines; adding a couple of deadeyes in the cockpit for lifeline attachment; adding some nonskid belowdecks; and installing a Navtex a system in order to better receive ice information for the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

From the Netherlands, we sailed to the Orkney Islands, where we stopped briefly before continuing on to Halifax. In theory, we wanted to sail far enough north that the lows would pass to our south, providing easterly winds. However, that spring, the lows were pushed much farther north, and we ended up sailing 19 days upwind, often in gale-force winds. It was Bagheera’s baptism by fire, and she withstood it with flying colors.

That winter, I finished the interior, and Bagheera began her career as a charter boat in the Arctic. Over the years, we have facilitated research, film, photography and mountaineering projects, as well as taken on adventurers, tourists and mile-building offshore sailors who wish to visit remote areas.

During our voyages, Bagheera has proven she can withstand anything that nature (and human stupidity!) can throw at her. There has never been a moment we felt unsafe or weren’t sure how she was going to behave. On one occasion, we had to push her through 8/10, or “close” ice as defined by the WMO to escape an ice-locked anchorage and negotiate 35 miles of heavy sea ice. The engine had to work overtime and we needed to maneuver in tight corners, but Bagheera’s rudder, propulsion train and ice reinforcement proved to be up to the job, and we made it out without a scratch.

At other times, we have ridden out hurricane-force winds, both at sea and at anchor. While sailing from Newfoundland to Greenland in the early spring, we got a beating from a westerly storm. Sailing along at 9 knots on a beam reach, Bagheera was negotiating the waves as if they were not even there until a wave significantly higher and steeper than any others came out of nowhere. Before I could take any form of action, the mast was underwater. However, seconds later the boat was upright again, shaking the water off her decks and accelerating back to her favorite speed as if nothing had ever happened. Except for a big mess down below from a shattered container of pasta and bottle of olive oil, there was absolutely no damage.

Bagheera has hit uncharted rocks at full speed, and due to an autopilot error, she once hit an iceberg that folded our 110lb anchor around the bow like a piece of origami—but again, in neither case was there any form of damage to the boat. On another occasion, while in a sidearm of Disko Bay in Greenland, an area we believed had a 5ft tidal range, we decided to anchor in 17ft of water as it was still flooding. At 0300, we woke to the sound of a wineglass shattering on the galley counter and realized that Bagheera was heeled over 20 degrees. Apparently, the tidal range in the southeast corner of Disko Bay is more like 12ft, and Bagheera was lying in 4ft of water. Needless to say, the stout structure of the keel didn’t even register the incident.

A track of Bagheera and the author’s extensive travels in the far north

A track of Bagheera and the author’s extensive travels in the far north

Another one of my design requirements was that the boat should sail well, especially in light air and to windward. Most expedition-style boats are lacking on these two fronts. Bagheera could not be like that, as light air occurs frequently in the north, and one sails upwind about half the time in this area. Light wind capabilities are mostly determined by the ratio between wetted surface and sail area. We chose the smallest possible wetted surface that we could construct and increased the rig size by 30 percent of what is typical on boats of this style and size. This has resulted in a reduced need for engine hours when sailing in the semi-permanent high-pressure zones in the Arctic.

In order to sail upwind, we opted for a 10ft-deep fixed keel with almost all the ballast in the lower third. One of the advantages of such a deep keel is that you can get the same righting moment with less ballast, and therefore reduce the total weight of the boat. This was especially important since Bagheera is built of steel and heavily reinforced against ice. By lowering her center of gravity, we could reduce the ballast ratio to only 25 percent and still have a stiff boat. To further lower Bagheera’s center of gravity and keep weight out of the ends, the diesel tank is mostly in the keel fin, the batteries are right on top of where the keel is attached to the hull with the engine is just behind them, and the anchor chain (weighing a little over 900lb) is at the base of the mast about 3ft under the waterline. All this adds to the stability of the boat and makes her sail very upright. With her tall rig and deep keel Bagheera sails upwind like no other cruising boat we’ve ever seen and makes good headway even when the wind is blowing 50 knots on the nose in big seas.

Bagheera perfectly at home in an ice-choked harbor;

Bagheera perfectly at home in an ice-choked harbor;

While Bagheera’s keel has never been a problem when it comes to water depth, 10ft is about the maximum practical depth for handling a boat on dry land in a boatyard, and we have occasionally come across yards that can’t lift her high enough. Still, the performance advantages outweigh any haulout inconvenience.

The accommodations are very simple. The boat is divided into six watertight compartments by the various bulkheads making up the interior, and these same bulkheads are well-insulated too in the interest of keeping the inside warm and blocking noise. When we winter in the high Arctic, we can close parts of the boat with the watertight doors, which leaves a small, very well-insulated space that is efficient to heat.

Steel boats have a reputation for being rust buckets and maintenance nightmares. But in our experience, they will be almost maintenance-free for decades, assuming an appropriate paint system is selected and properly applied. Bagheera is painted with two-part epoxy, originally developed for large commercial cargo ships. The steel that was procured for building the boat was pre-sandblasted and coated with a welding primer. When it was time to paint, we sandblasted half the inside of the boat on the first day, cleaned up all the sand and dust and then painted the area with an etch primer. The next day, we did the other half of the inside, and on the third day, we completed the outside of the boat. The interior received four coats of primer and one coat of finish paint. On top of that, we applied a gas-tight, fire-retardant, two-part polyurethane insulation foam that varies from 3in to 6in thick. We coated the outside with 12 thick layers of primer and two layers of topcoat in the final color. When selecting the colors, we wanted to use something that stood out, was memorable and had added value. After reading various articles on visibility of yachts at sea, we concluded that the topsides of the hull should be a dark color and the deck a bright one. Studies have shown that dark-colored hulls are more visible from the bridge of a ship in bad weather, while a bright, contrasting color shows better from the air in case of an SAR mission. We opted for black and yellow, as those two colors complement each other and are easy to get used to. An unintentional but very welcome side benefit is that yellow is an absolutely brilliant color for contrast with nature and wildlife photography. We get a lot of professional and semi-professional photographers onboard, who all seem to love the contrast between nature and Bagheera’s deck color. It also results in Bagheera being very recognizable.

We are very happy with the rig. The mast is made by Selden and is superb in both quality and performance. It features an internal rail that is part of the extrusion and allows the mainsail cars to be inside the mast. In addition to avoiding an expensive, high-maintenance external rail, this also saves weight aloft. I made our Hydranet Radial sails myself—a woven blend of polyester and Dyneema that is extremely durable, flexible and lightweight. After 75,000 miles, we are still using the original sails, which still have practically the same shape that they had when they were new.

Bagheera’s electronics are extremely simple. No instrument talks to another, which basically means that there is no network onboard. A backup battery bank for emergency situations will independently feed the main communications equipment as well as the important navigational equipment. All the electronics are by Furuno, and none have ever failed us. Even when we endured a direct lightning strike, most of the instruments continued working. For long-distance communication, we use Iridium with a main-unit pilot that was installed in 2017. It gives us 128 kilobits-per-second internet aboard and never seems to drop a single bit.

Disappointingly, our two autopilots are not trouble-free. The first, a Furuno NavPilot, originally drove an electric motor made by Jefa. However, the clutches kept failing, resulting in a pilot that can no longer engage. We added a hydraulic ram to the Furuno-driven quadrant and added a Simrad autopilot, which drives a completely new electric motor, also by Jefa. Even though it is a very expensive unit, it has already failed four times, each time for a different reason. The problem has always been resolved under warranty, but it is an absolute pain in the neck. The electrical motor is another story—it too keeps failing, and the clutches are flimsy at best. After eight years of struggling with the manufacturer and very high bills, we decided to give up on them and rely on hydraulics instead. The Furuno itself has never missed a beat so far, which only confirms my faith in this professional, ocean-going brand.

The engine is a story unto its own. For budgetary reasons, we installed a 30-year-old, rebuilt Ford Lehman. A heavy, medium-rpm, six-cylinder diesel, it is extremely simple and requires no special knowledge or tools to keep it running. It has only one big design flaw that we found the hard way, twice. The fuel return lines, which also cool the injectors, are under the rocker cover, meaning that any leak in the 36 connections in the return line remains unnoticed until the engine stops—which happens because the engine oil becomes diluted by diesel and loses its lubricating capabilities. The result is a seized engine that cannot be repaired and must instead be completely rebuilt and the crankshaft machined. The first time this happened, in 2014, we were in Greenland. I managed to buy half an engine block in good condition and had it flown to Greenland, where, after a few days of long intensive work, we managed to get one working engine out of two partial engines.

The next failure, for the same reason, occurred while we were on our way to the Arctic. We were only 30 miles away from home when the engine seized. This time, the Ford Lehman was replaced by a modern common-rail Yanmar—half the weight, half the size, less noise, and substantial fuel savings, but above all, practically maintenance-free compared to the Ford. The downside was that it cost a lot of money, and it took another 10 days to completely rebuild the engine room while we were under a lot of pressure to make it north for the Arctic research project we had committed to.

Bagheera still has many years ahead of her. For our style of travel, the knowledge that we had at the time of building, and the available budget, Bagheera has been perfect, and she is low-maintenance. After having sailed with Bagheera for over 10 years, there is very little that we would do differently. 

08-022-001-General-Arrangement

LOA 51ft 8in

LWL 46ft 11in

Beam 14ft 11in

Draft 10ft

Displacement 40,000lb

Ballast 12,800lb

Sail Area 1,615ft2 (main and 105% genoa)

Fuel/Water (GAL) 423/502

Ed Note: Erik de Jong and his wife, Krystina Scheller, started bluewater cruising as children. They met in Greenland and have sailed together ever since. Winters, they live ashore in Sitka, Alaska, where de Jong, the inaugural recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s “Young Voyager” award in 2016, works as a marine consultant and naval architect. Summers, they sail locally and in the Arctic, and run an adventure and research charter business aboard Bagheera (see bagheerasailing.com for details)

The Cruising Club of America (CCA) is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. It is composed of more than 1,300 ocean sailors, has 14 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and together with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club organizes the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org

Story and photos by Erik de Jong, Cruising Club of America, Bras d’Or Station

July 2021

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