Sometime in early May, just days after the ice went out on our nearby cottaging lake, Mark and I took Neoma out for her re-launching. I had made a few little changes and one big: new leeboards. The revised versions were shaped like beagle ears, or fan-shaped in the Dutch style, the way Phil Bolger shows them on many of his designs. In Boats with an Open Mind, he writes of the necessity of shaping boards this way, asserts that slender, high-aspect ratio leeboards are apt to stall. Since my old, slender boards had to be replaced in any case because they were too heavy, I took this route.
Spring conditions were just as cold as the fall had been, but I had Mark's invaluable assistance to get the boat rigged again, his weight as live ballast, his skill as a sailor, and his sheer encouragement to at last try my Birdwatcher under sail. In readying the new leeboards for sail this time around, I simply slung them from rope pennants in the Bolger fashion, attached to my cargo track version of a "toe rail." I did not bother rigging any way of hoisting them, not wanting to waste time unless I knew they worked — After two days' preparations, we were ready to sail, and the lake offered just enough wind for experimenting. We pushed off, hauled in main and mizzen sheets and at last — some 12 years after the idea to build a boat had bit me — I was finally under sail in a boat truly my own.
It was both wonderful and weird. Though not as responsive as the dinghies I was used to, the 24-foot Birdwatcher is remarkably lively — but still a much bigger boat than I had skippered before. It was lovely to feel her motion as she heeled with the tiny gusts and accelerated, and her helm was immediately responsive. I will never forget the first music of the ripples playing along her hull, readily audible because you are down inside the boat as you sail, one of the unsung delights of the Birdwatcher cabin concept. With no centreboard case installed, the space inside the boat was wonderful. She felt like a great yacht inside.
The leeboards worked without fuss or apparent strain. They just dug in and did their job, out of sight and mind. I peered over the lee rail expecting to see a board flexing like an archery bow, but there was no visible tension. Though no preventer line was in place to keep the boards from being pulled aft, they stayed put so long as they were working. The windward board, however, would trail aft and plane over the surface, leaving a wake and indicating that a quick, reliable hoisting system was vital. But as providers of lateral resistance, they worked fine.
There were negatives that became apparent. The breeze waxed and waned and, under the heavier airs, the weather helm seemed far too great. Mark dialed this out simply by moving the leeboards aft. However, once the breeze died back the Neoma moved into a lee helm condition — very unsettling it is having to sit to leeward with the tiller in your belly. She was not at all close-winded by my dinghy standards and the slop in the steering linkage seemed to make it worse. She lost way considerably in coming about, though you have to expect that in such a light boat, and was simply helpless in light air.
The cat-ketch, spritsail rig I had designed did its job, like the leeboards, without fuss or strain. However, it seemed an impossible lot of work hoisting it all up, getting its six spars strung into place. The peak sprits were, as I have mentioned previously, very heavy.
In an article I wrote about these early days with Neoma for a Canadian travel magazine, I described being somewhat bitterly disappointed with her overall performance that day. I think Mark found my demoralized reaction surprising. In fact, I was probably feeling the strain of the long build more than anything, and the pressure to have things all ship-shape by the time we were to venture into the far north. I was looking for perfection.
Looking back, I suspect Neoma did pretty well for herself that day. In retrospect — and for the first time — I should pat myself on the pack for a few things. The boat was light, strong and stood up to her rig beautifully even though empty. The centre-of-effort for my rig was nearly four feet lower than Phil Bolger's sail plans. The sails set and drew perfectly. Their rigging was bomb-proof and repairable in the field just as I had designed them. The sight-lines were not compromised by foregoing windows on the top deck. The leeboards still needed hoisting mechanisms, but worked otherwise. With practice, two sailors could cope with the rig just fine, and in due time I would be able to single-hand without difficulty. From all reports, Phil Bolger's larger rigs on Birdwatcher's are impossibly unwieldy, and his small rig is too small for light air. The movable mast steps and partners, the cheap cargo track attachment system, offered perfect flexibility for future experimentation.
And, as I will describe in subsequent posts, there were simple solutions to most of her problems. Without appreciating it, I was already making good progress through the sea trial phase.