Downsizing Again: A Small-Boat Sailor Comes Full Circle

How and why one sailor went from bluewater cruiser to creek crawler
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 The author and his friends put Maggie May through her paces

The author and his friends put Maggie May through her paces

My first boat, a sailing dinghy, was just 10 feet long. The second was 12 feet, the third 14, and so on through a succession of ever-larger sailboats.

Aboard my first offshore boat, a 32-footer, I sailed many thousands of ocean miles singlehanded. In other boats I cruised Northern and Southern Europe, sailed the Pacific and Indian oceans, cruised Australia, and crossed the Atlantic several times.

My bluewater boats culminated in Firefly, 43 feet of self-indulgence. I had her designed to my specifications and built in cedar epoxy to incorporate all the ideas I had garnered during 30 years of long-distance cruising and racing. We enjoyed several years of great sailing with her, including two Atlantic crossings and two seasons in the Caribbean.

When I decided my ocean crossing days were over, I realized that Firefly’s nearly seven feet of draft and 13 feet of beam would severely restrict my options for cruising in my shallow local waters. I also realized that at 43 feet, Firefly was not the best for singlehanding. In thinking about an alternative, I was inspired by such boats as the Alerion 28, the Morris M29 and the beautiful, if expensive, Brenta line of Italian daysailers.

What I wanted was a simple boat, a boat that I could get ready for sea in a few minutes and with minimum fuss, a big dayboat with a large cockpit and minimal accommodation. How, then, did I end up with possibly the most complex 26-foot boat I’ve ever seen?

As fate would have it, John Chambers, who had built Firefly, had also recently built a 26-foot gaff yawl, which he suggested I take for a sail. I did and was absolutely hooked. She’s a very pretty traditional boat with wooden spars, designed by Steve Dalzell from the Landing School in Maine.

Two years later, Maggie May was launched in Chichester Marina on England’s south coast. I had specified a few changes, such as a different layout below, slightly more headroom (which is a bit academic when it’s less than five feet and I’m six foot two) and like Firefly, built in cedar and epoxy. She draws well under three feet with her centerboard up, and though she is only 26 feet long on deck, the bowsprit and boomkin tack on an additional nine feet.

The first boat I owned carried a gunter rig, and the first offshore boat I skippered was a gaff cutter. However, in the intervening 50-odd years, all the boats I had owned were Bermudian sloops. So I was once again the new boy when it came to both the gaff and managing more than one mast. Firefly had three spars—the mast, boom and spinnaker pole. Maggie May has seven, including a bowsprit, boomkin, mast, gaff, boom, mizzen and snotter. With time, though, I’ve come not just to understand this more complex rig, but to love it. Indeed, what has really surprised me is just how well a long-keeled conventional gaff-rigged boat sails.

First and foremost, she is very forgiving. Whenever a gust hits, the peak of the gaff immediately drops away, and with barely any more heeling, she accelerates. I’ve recorded a steady 7 knots in flat water, not bad for a boat with a 23-foot waterline.

Maggie May also handles well, with only a touch of weather helm, and is easy to control with her long, sweeping tiller. The only complaint I have with her handling is in tight marinas. The same long keel that makes her track so well also makes her slow to turn. Still, with only two tons displacement, she’s easy to fend off.

The hull was built upside-down of tongue-and-groove cedar strips using the so-called Speedstrip method, in which the cedar is glued and coated with epoxy on laminated frames. Over this are two diagonal khaya laminates and a layer of glass epoxy. The result is so smooth many people assume the boat is fiberglass. The superstructure, deck and cockpit are all epoxy glued ply and the centerboard is housed inside a lead keel. The board itself is laminated wood (epoxy again) with a 22lb weight to help it down. The spars are spruce—and beautiful.

Maggie May is intended for daysailing with the occasional night on board, so she is very simple belowdecks, with two full-length bunks, a large forepeak for storage, a chemical head, a camping stove and a sink. Power comes from a two-cylinder 10hp Nanni diesel engine driving a Gori folding propeller on an offset shaft.

Does my “simple but highly complex” boat live up to expectations? Perversely, although it takes more effort and time to set all those sails than it does with a Bermudian rig, I actually sail more. Sail is hoisted as soon as she leaves her berth and only lowered as we return. The proof, perhaps, is in the fact that Maggie May was only motored for about 15 hours during the whole 2013 season. If that isn’t the mark of a good sailboat these days, I don’t know what is!

Photo by Malcolm White

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