Tuesday, September 21, 2010
As outlined in previous posts, my decision to buy this 3.5 horsepower Tohastu was long and guilt-ridden. In the end, I felt that this boat is just too big to handle expeditiously and safely without the power. But I could not have guessed how much pleasure would ensue from strapping on this appendage.
As I mentioned, the first trip with a gas auxiliary was on a long, narrow reservoir, the South Saskatchewan River upstream from Gardiner Dam, to be exact. True to the forecast, the weather held very hot and still for the entire trip of four days, with just a few puffs of sailing wind at the very end. As it turned out, we motored about 150 kilometres, and had a surprisingly pleasant time doing it. Without the motor, we would have had to abort altogether.
Thanks to fossil fuel, we slow-powered our way through an area of wilderness seldom appreciated, where the river cuts through an otherwise almost desert-like region of southern prairie, home to prickly pear cactus, pronghorn and deer, cottonwood and bur oak. With the sail stowed, we motored along under hull speed — maybe five knots. Every ninety minutes or so, the motor would begin to flag somewhat, indicating it was time to refuel its integral fuel tank, less than one liter capacity.
Twice I spilled a small rainbow of fuel upon the water and I am still mad at myself for it. If you must run a gas outboard, I think it is your solemn duty to figure a way to refuel it without spills. Unfortunately, the people who profit by the industry do not make it easy. The motors are designed not to catch over fills, and the people who make jerricans don't make good filler necks. Since that first outing I have found a no-spill spout for the jerrican I have, but it is far from perfect and takes some skill to use without over-filling.
There are many motor boats that use Lake Diefenbaker, as it is called. But few slow down enough to enjoy the real nature of it. While motoring along at roughly one-third throttle — there is no more speed to gain from more power — I came up with some rationalizations for having a motor. The fuel use, compared to that which I use driving to the water with the boat following along on its trailer, is insignificant. I have made countless purely human powered wilderness trips over the years, but can think of not a single one that was begun without a car trip to the trail or canoe launch. Even underway, our nature trips rely on the whole gamut of military-industrial wonders: Goretex, LEDs, GPSs, ripstop nylon, heavy-metal batteries, satellite-produced maps, Lexan, Vibram, butane.
Yes, it is a slippery slope, and I will always feel circumspect about the motor. Yet that first trip on Lake Diefenbaker got me thinking about Neoma's capabilities as a river boat. I thought of the small Redwing power cruiser designed by Karl Stambaugh. Recently, I did solo trip to Lac La Ronge and was royally becalmed for nearly three days, getting just enough wind for one good sail. So I ran the motor a good deal. It runs quietly, sips fuel. It is not the End of Days.
One very real threat with the motor while traveling solo is falling overboard and watching it power your floating home over the horizon as you immerse yourself in hypothermia research. The little kill-switch cord that you are supposed to clip on yourself is too short to be practical with the motor hanging so far outboard — so you have to add a piece of line to end of it and remember to wear it.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
I would hate to disagree with Aeneas about anything — he's a smart fellow — and the electric kicker does work wonderfully well within certain limits. I think those limits are reasonable to him. For me, they started to chafe after a season.
Electric motors are close to perfect. Unto themselves, they are cheap. I bought a surplus deep-cycle battery to run the motor, but even a new one of those does not cost too much. Such batteries are very heavy, nearly as heavy as a gas motor, but this boat can handle a lot of gear weight. E-motors are extremely long-shaft by design, and you can dial them to just the right depth. Mine clamped sideways on the canoe stern and was ready to use.
The real beauty is the silence. The boat moves along and yet would not disturb a loon. Electrics run emissions-free in the field, and battery charging can be likewise if you employ solar or wind options.
That brings us to the limitations. Recharging during a cruise is impractical. Good photoavolaic panels are expensive, and anyway you can't bolt enough of them on a sailboat to power her cruising. A windmill might give you the wattage, but these are extremely expensive, and there is no room on a boat of this size to mount one.
If you use the motor very sparingly, just for a few minutes a day to get into and out of anchorages, then one battery charge can support a cruise of a few days. Contrary to the misleading advertising of trolling motor companies, you cannot move a boat around for many hours a day and not damage your battery through over-discharge.
In windy conditions — and I'm not talking gales, just fresh breezes —you run into the same handling problems you get with oars. Birdwatcher's high-sided design can be a real liability in crosswinds, so you have to be sharp on the tiller to stay in control. And if there is much headwind at all, it can be very difficult to move against it.
Despite its limits, the electric is so reliable, so simple and, above all, so peaceful to use that I have made many cruises with mine.
Then the day came when Mark and I chose to make a cruise on a long, narrow reservoir. The forecast was for days of high-pressure weather and likely calms. We'd have to keep a schedule and cover distance in order to meet our ferry vehicle driver. And when you get all-business like that, you start to covet a real motor. I slunk down to the shop and bought 3.5 horsepower Tohatsu, wondering if was going to propel me to hell.
• no over-head Lexan panels or "skylights" for me
• my oar ports were store-bought port lights, the oars and locks borrowed from a rowing shell
• I had put the sail rig and off-centre centreboard to port instead of to starboard, to favour right-handed crew
• my steering linkage was made of #50 roller chain, sprockets, flange bearings and and shafting, all inexpensive, common items from an industrial hardware supply
All those modifications worked beautifully well for me.
When it came to the sailrig, I had made bigger changes, and trouble-shooting my cat-ketch, spritsail rig was the task of this late-season voyage.
After finally getting the boat to open water (see my next post on oars, motors and moral purity), Mark and I made sail. With the mizzen now smaller, with about 20 square feet trimmed from its trailing edge, we hoped the helm would balance better. I had re-cut and resown the ill-fitting jib, and we hoped this would now do its job without bellying out into a terrible shape, and pulling Neoma's bow to leeward.
The wind was snapping hard, big whitecaps were rolling down from the northwest, and the little boat absolutely tore away on a beam reach. The weather helm was much reduced, but still significant. But we had more sail up than was really prudent. We turned a little downwind after rounding a point, and the boat was surfing like a dinghy. We were clipping eight knots at times. We sailed this way for an hour or so, covering a lot of lake and fighting to keep up navigation-wise. Just in time for lunch we got under the lee of a small island and dropped the rig in a glassy bay in front of an empty island cabin.
For the afternoon, we decided to set main and jib only — no mizzen. The boat was tamed right down, the amount of helm was just right and the sailing was very relaxing. It started to drizzle. The beauty of Bolger's design is that you never have to have your upper body out in the elements, yet you don't feel stuck "indoors" either. Tucked under the superstructure, but with the breeze moving through the boat, the effect is like sitting on an open-air verandah.
We noodled around the lake for the next three days, and the boat worked perfectly, without fuss or bother. The morning we were going to turn back west for the marina, the wind had veered halfway round the compass, so we had a following breeze to take us in. It was more than a breeze, really. It felt like half a gale, and we had to cross the very open south bay of the lake. The waves were steep-fronted whitecaps and had built to about five feet from trough to peak — about as big as they get on this lake. As we left the shore behind us, and no land visible ahead, I hoped everything would hang together. It was a long way to drift even right-side up. I tried not to think about broaching and being upside down.
In fact, the boat showed no tendencies that way, and we had a wonderful crossing. We just rode the swells and took pleasure in the boat. Everything worked. There seemed to be no terrible strain, or even a moderate one. The last cruise of the season was going to be over all too soon. I have to say I felt a bit of pride at that moment. I had built a boat, had designed and built her sail rig, and it was carrying us capably through the Canadian wilderness. I thought of all the adventures to come. Neoma had grown up.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Her first real cruise had shaken loose many fresh problems with my modified Birdwatcher, but I was by now patient and philosophical about my temperamental plywood yacht called Neoma. You may remember that I compared launching a boat you have built to getting married or bungee jumping. After the excitement of the big plunge, you realize this is just the start of a long, up and down relationship, and it may take years to figure out all her capricious ways — if you ever do. You will dangle upside-down at the end of your tether for a long time, so best have fun with it. Well, I am mixing my metaphors . . .
Again in the back yard dry dock, dealing with excessive weather helm was the first order of business. Previous trimming of the mizzen and welding the steering gear to reduce play had not been quite enough remedy. By using a jib, and therefore getting more sail area forward of the centreboard, I hoped to not only balance the helm better but make Neoma more close-winded. The jib trials on Reindeer Lake had not been satisfactory because my hand-me-down jib was too big for the fore-triangle space and bellied out to leeward. I recut and re-edged the sail and placed a new padeye farther forward where the tack would be fastened. I also put in a taller mast — an easy job when your masts are just grown sticks with their bark peeled away — to accommodate a more upright jib. The foresail would now set properly.
Then it was time to address the chine log that had popped loose. The cause was simply that I had not carried the sheathing fabric up and over the chine logs, and moisture was getting between them and the hull side panels. I had chosen not to put fabric on the side panels on the advice of some authority I can no longer remember. The logic was that, while fabric and epoxy are tough and abrasion resistant and therefore vital for the bottom, they do not make your wood "waterproof" and their cost and weight is wasted on the sides. However, I regret not "glassing" the entire hull. The extra strength and puncture resistance you get on quarter-inch panels is reassuring, and it makes a better base for paint. Epoxy may not be waterproof, but it is much more so than paint. After a long spell afloat, the "dutchmen" in my marine plywood panels swell and telegraph their positions quite plainly. One of these days I will get around to glassing the whole sides. As it was, I ran a three-inch piece of polyester tape over the chine logs and sealed their tops with a larger fillet of epoxy.
A problem with the rudder had presented itself on Reindeer Lake. As designed, the blade hangs straight down; however, the blade ought to be parallel to the angle of the stem, or it will impart heavy forces on the helm. You are, in effect, sailing with a partially raised board. Phil Bolger addresses this problem in the addenda to his Birdwatcher I plans, advising that you have a preventer line, or downhaul or what you may call it, to pull the blade the last few degrees forward. This has to be fed through the rudder head over a couple of sheaves.
At last, I got around to installing my electrical system, a grand term for my humble set-up. I installed two running lights each side and a white on the stern, two interior LEDs plus a 12-volt bus to accept three cigarette-lighter type accessories. One of these would be my VHF radio, though in the waters I sail nobody uses a marine radio much. I have never uttered a word to anyone on mine to this day.
As for the supply side of the system, I had a small photovoltaic panel, the kind you can fold up and carry in a knapsack. This fed sun power to a rather pricey controller-charger, which managed my battery, a massive 12V deep cycle thing I got from a surplus outlet. In the near future, I wanted to try an electric trolling motor. I will wade into the topic of motors — gas, electric and human powered — a couple of posts hence.
Finally, I reinforced the simple tiller by screwing some long, rather decorative brass straps on either side. I hoped that the weather helm would be at last tamed on the next voyage, but meantime, I did not want the tiller to break.
Next time, we are back on the water, this time on a magnificent lake called Lac La Ronge.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
The Neoma is pictured on her first real voyage. She is royally becalmed on Reindeer Lake, a state in which she drifted for much of this inaugural trip. Eventually, a new sailboat must go to meet the wild wind on her own terms. Flat calms were a prospect that I never bothered to envision while building. Somehow I always imagined my boat heeling to the rail, and Reindeer Lake being vast and remote, I always pictured a grey froth of forbidding whitecaps. The surprising calms of this maiden voyage were indeed punctuated by some very strong winds, and so I had chance to get to know the Birdwatcher design — and my own sail design — at both ends of the spectrum.
The moment Mark and I launched (see picture on the last entry), the lake went dead calm. After getting afloat and away from the dock, we hoisted main and mizzen and then waited on a tiny, glassy bay. We made coffee, then lunch, then tea and were still just a few metres off shore. In fact, realizing I had forgotten something in the truck, we rowed to the dock, all sails standing, and I went up the hill for the item. Back aboard, more time passed until, in the late afternoon, just enough breeze came over our stern to push us out of that slender bay and into the lake proper.
At this point, a squally line of thunderheads became visible to the north — the forbidding face of Reindeer Lake I had expected — and they were marching down to meet us with us with disconcerting speed. The force of the gust front was startling, instantly knocking us on our beam ends, a variety of unstowed items going a-clatter in the bilges. We were suddenly flying, the windows were bending down to the racing water, and the tiller needed two hands to control.
Looking back, we were spooked by that rush of the wind, the first hard blow to hit Neoma's crinkly new sails. The gusts were a handful and the boat still unfamiliar. If you are going to capsize a boat, it is when you are getting to know each other. The ice had only gone off about ten days earlier, and I had no desire to test the Birdwatcher seaworthiness formula just then. I declared we would run into the lee of a point and reduce sail before continuing on the widening lake.
Recall that Neoma's workboat sail rig is "reeefed" by striking one mast altogether, and moving the remaining one to a third, intermediary mast step. Simple as this sounds, it is a lot of work repositioning six spars, re-roving the various lines, lashing down the unused part of the rig. It is a system from a prior century, an era inured to hard labour. We were still getting to know the ropes, and the snapping wind dogged our efforts. As an added challenge, we had an audience. Several aluminum skiffs had come racing across the water from the Denesuline village of Southend, bearing curious locals to see what new foolery had arrived from the city. We must have looked a circus sight amid all that flogging canvas. Teenagers laughed, and a rather handsome couple with after-dinner coffee mugs in hand looked at us with a mix of incredulity and concern.
"Going up the lake?" said the woman. "Be careful."
No sooner did we have everything shipshape and hauled in the main, than the wind died again. It would not revive that day, which was already evening. We ghosted briefly on the remainder of the squall and nosed into a snug bay for the night, just a few miles from the boat launch.
Somewhat exhausted by the 600 kilometre drive, the capricious wind and the long day, we made camp aboard. And in this role, the Neoma performed beautifully. By moving our Rubbermaid totes full of gear into the ends of the boat, and stacking them, enough space was made available for two men to sleep, one ahead of the middle bulkhead, one abaft. The dodger unrolled and snapped into place easily, and the boat became a rain-proof, mosquito-proof floating tent.
Earlier I have opined that the Birdwatcher is an unrowable craft for one person, and therefore that there is no point in installing oar ports as shown on the drawings. However, my store-bought opening ports serve other purposes that may make them worthwhile. Thanks to their little bug screens, you can open the ports for ventilation in camping mode. In their protected position under the gunwales, no rain will come through even in a storm. The person sleeping aft can also raise up just slightly and get a view of the weather at night. A window is nearly always welcome, and I would not want to be without my little ports.
The morning was bright and we had a nice beam wind to ride northward. We had given ourselves eight to ten days to reach as far north into Reindeer's 250 kilometre (150 mile) length as possible. We planned to sail away from the sun until our time was half gone, then turn around. The lake is so labyrinthine and island-studded that the return route would seem wholly unfamiliar. Realistically, I hoped to make it to the halfway point of Kinoosao, one of only three small villages on the whole lake.
The nice breeze carried us through the island maze for a couple of pleasant hours before the sky clouded and the wind veered around to head us. At one point where it funneled through a narrows, we tacked several times to shoot the gap, and it seemed we might be blown against the rock walls of the shoreline there. I knew in theory that the Neoma would not be as close-winded as the dinghies I was used to, but the reality was depressing. The boat seemed to require about 140 degrees. Not only that, but the light hull lost so much momentum in coming about, that progress to windward was further compromised. We barely made that gap against the wind.
Turning east, we then took off on a mad run, the rising wind carrying us down to another narrows, this one with a submerged rock showing on the chart in mid-channel. While Mark stood and scanned in the whitecaps for this sunker, I wrestled the helm and tried to bring the left shore close to port. The tiller bent like a sapling, and the boat wanted to broach. My sail trimming had not tamed the weather helm. The rudder seemed ready to stall, and once again we slipped through a narrow rock chute barely under control.
Fearful of the boat's handling qualities, I started to point us closer to shores. However, this only halted our progress. It was either wrestle the tiller in big winds, or wallow in the lees. Eventually we got on a nice beam reach and made some progress, ending the day in one of the perfectly sheltered bays that are easy to find on northern lakes. Easy to find, but hard to get across the last few metres of glassy water in winds too light sail, too much to row. This would become a tedious end-of-day pattern in the early voyages.
The morning was again bright and fair and so was our mood. Mark had slept ashore and me aboard, each to our preference, and the coffee was excellent. We were slowly getting to know the boat, and we had an ace up our sleeve. I had been given a jib sail from an Enterprise and planned to try it on Neoma. Not much more than a handkerchief it was, but Phil Bolger has written in many places that a small jib can do wonders for a rig not so much by increasing area, but by shaping the airflow over the main. We would see.
Sadly, however, the maiden voyage was about to come to a swift end. Leaning over the starboard bow to get some water from the the lake, I noticed a gap opening between the chine log and the hull side panel. Water had clearly reached the wood somehow, and the swelling was pulling the epoxied structure open. The gap was small, perhaps an eighth of an inch at most, but it was in a vital location — the hull itself. I was mortified. It is one thing to have to tinker with an experimental rig. But for the hull itself to start coming apart on the first voyage was embarrassing.
I showed Mark, who just shrugged and left it to me to decide our course. I was the builder, after all. I had plenty of tools, spares and even epoxy aboard to do repairs. But whatever had caused the problem could appear anywhere along the chine log, and epoxy takes time to cure. There was no real chance of a tow on this lake, and only one road to its shores. Continuing further was needlessly risky.
It took two days sailing — much of it becalmed but punctuated by some tiller-wrestling in the occasional blows — to get back to the launch point. The last evening, we sailed in heavy rain, lured by favourable winds but struggling to navigate in the low light. Finally, we then slept at anchor in an exposed location, it being too dark to find a better one. The boat charged around her anchor, keeping our vestibular systems charging all night too. In the light airs, we had time to mess with the jib and found the foremast was not high enough to set it properly, so that was inconclusive. One truth was incontrovertible: Neoma was not close-winded in her current configuration, unable to get much closer than 60 degrees to the wind.
While all this may sound like a litany of woes, it did not feel that way. We enjoyed each other's company, the eagles and trout fishing, the Labrador tea. Reindeer Lake is a stunning, pure wilderness that we got to sample, and will return to again. The final image will give a taste of paradise. Meanwhile, I had plenty of data to take back to my shop.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
(Apologies for the long interval, and thanks to all for the interest. I have been out of the country for several weeks and just too busy to get at this. So let's get back to it . . . )
In the interval between Neoma's first sea trial and the departure for her first big voyage, I was very busy. As I mentioned, my sailing buddy Mark Nicholson and I were determined to take the boat out on Reindeer Lake, a very remote place where gear that works can be a matter of life and death. It was slightly silly to use this big lake for the shakedown run. But we have a lot of bush experience between us and the boat was big enough at 24 feet to keep us safe so long as it merely floated. We would carry survival suits, emergency locator beacons, and take all our usual safety precautions. The significant risk was not to life and limb, but to pride. My worst fear was that Neoma would have to be abandoned 100 kilometers up the lake due to some catastrophic failure.
Tackling the problems that arose during sea trials, I first attempted to deal with the wicked weather helm. This I achieved by slicing the aft 20 square feet or so from the mizzen and re-sewing the leech. The photo atop the previous post shows the sail plan after that modification, its total area now about 180 square feet. As I mentioned, the boat also seemed to have lee helm in light airs, but I ignored this issue for the time being.
I still maintain that one of the key weaknesses in the Birdwatcher design is the steering linkage required because of the pointy stern. Moving parts are prone to failure. The chain drive I had come up with was very solid without being heavy, but the small amount of slop in it robbed you of a vital few degrees of tiller swing. There was none to spare in this slender boat. I dialed most of this out by having a friend weld my steering shaft and its sprocket into one piece. The downside was that it made for a bigger piece to repair or replace someday. I decided it was strong enough never to fail, at least not before the tiller or rudder fittings themselves broke.
The biggest decision by far — and the most heartbreaking — was to abandon my leeboards and to install a centreboard case as per the plans. The leeboards themselves seemed to work beautifully under testing, but I had as yet invented no means of quickly raising and lowering them. With the time and energy I had, I saw no way of inventing a good system before leaving. In desperation for a clever solution, I asked Aeneas Precht to come over. His own Birdwatcher is a marvelous, custom version that I have mentioned earlier, and Aeneas is a very inventive and experienced builder. It was he who gently suggested I just go with the tried and true centreboard. He said I would have it installed in no time, and could go sailing. The next winter, I could finish the leeboards and someday remove the centreboard again.
I took his advice. I did not believe the centreboard would be so easy as he imagined, but I was at my humble best as a builder by that point, and indeed had it installed in three days. I hated to see my big sprawling space inside the boat cut up the board, and I am still determined to get rid of it someday. The case installed, it was back to the boat launch with Mark to test it — where Neoma promptly began to sink! Clearly there was a big gap hiding somewhere in the epoxy under the centreboard case. Two days later, the boat floated nearly dry, except that the centreboard bearing cover leaked. Two days later . . . well, you get the idea.
Eventually, we got the rig up, the board down and the whole works just sailed, as a sailboat is supposed to do. I still was not delighted with the lee helm that showed itself on that calm day. As for weather helm, we'd have to wait for the winds of Reindeer Lake to know if my mizzen trimming had solved the problem.
Meanwhile, the arrangement of the sailing lines was not perfect in the details. There are many ways to run sailing lines around a boat, but tradition assumes she is sailed from an open cockpit. With Neoma, you are in effect trying to pull your ropes from indoors. Or, to put it another way, the lines are being fed to you down in the bilges through a skylight over your head. I think it will become tedious if I attempt to describe the line-stringing problems further in writing. I will try to use pictures in future posts that show how I worked out these issues in time. By the launch on that first trip, we were still jury rigging a lot of things.
I was still experimenting with oar locks and rowing arrangements, which would soon reveal itself to be mostly a waste of time. This boat is un-rowable by one person, except in an absolute dead calm. So I won't waste more virtual ink on the subject here.
There were camping considerations too. We could always find snug shores on a boreal lake and use a tent on the ground for sleeping. But I wanted to be able to sleep aboard and had sewed a dodger to cover the centre slot. It was held down by snaps, had tiny hatches over the mast steps to facilitate sailing under cover in the rain, and two more hatches like tent doors in bow and stern in which to access the anchors etc. I just thought it up and did it, a design that has proven rather elegant in use. If you make enough stuff, once in awhile you do something right in a single stroke. For the rest, patience is a virtue.
My electrical system, meanwhile, was non-existent. This did not matter on a 250-kilometer-long lake whereon the only vessels were a scant handful of aluminum fishing skiffs that had no running lights either. Navigating that rocky maze of a lake was a day-time-only affair.
Somehow, we made it to the dock on Reindeer Lake sometime around the June solstice. The Neoma is pictured just after the launch, all ready for her maiden voyage. You can see how the oars are stowed under the gunwales to save space on the top deck, which is taken up by two sails, and six spars. On board you can make out one of those swimming noodles, which Mark brought along as a kind of joke. That's him in the bow. In fact, Mark is about the most important asset I had in building. You really need a patient friend like him to help you work out the details of a big project like this. The Birdwatcher is too big to tackle without help. Thanks, Mark.