September 11, 2011

How do they survive?

SOMETIMES I WONDER at the bravery of people such as Richard Crawford and Kun Poi Chin, both of whom have sailed Cal 20 sloops from California to Hawaii. Now the Cal 20, as you probably know, was designed by Bill Lapworth as a rudimentary day sailer for people graduating from dinghy sailing. She has a ballasted keel and a cockpit 8 feet long.

But who would go to sea in a 20-footer with a cockpit 8 feet long? One big wave over the transom and you’re gone, surely? One decent pooping, and it’s goodbye cruel world. I mean, a Westsail 32, like many yachts designed for deep-sea work, has a much smaller cockpit than a Cal 20.

And yet, when you come to think about, it’s amazing how many long ocean voyages have been made by small, completely open boats — boats that are ALL cockpit — from Captain Bligh to Frank Dye.

So how do they survive? My first thought is that when the weather gets really bad they lie to a sea anchor set from the bows. That keeps them head-on to big seas, which are parted and shouldered aside, rather than slopping up against a flat transom and tumbling over into the boat.

But my second thought was that any wave big enough to threaten the boat would simply curl over and dump itself into the boat clean over the bow, just as easily as it would come over the transom. I don’t know how Captain Bligh managed, but Frank Dye’s 16-foot Wayfarer had a plywood foredeck running aft as far as the mast. And, of course, the Cal 20 also has a foredeck, running even farther aft.

But the Wayfarer is a centerboarder, and she can lie downwind of a sea anchor fairly quietly with the board up and the mast lowered. I’m not so sure that same applies to a Cal 20, with its keel and mast fixed in place. Most keelboats refuse to lie quietly to a sea anchor streamed from the bow, mostly because of the windage on the mast and rigging, which lies forward of the center of lateral resistance, the theoretical point around which the hull pivots.

To get a Cal 20 to lie reasonably close to wind and wave in heavy weather, I think you’d probably want to show a scrap of sail as far aft as possible. Maybe a small storm jib set from the backstay would do the trick. I doubt that a normal main trysail would get the necessary sail area far back enough.

Chidiock Tichborne, an open 18-foot Drascombe Lugger, had no foredeck when she sailed almost all the way around the world, but she had flotation that made her unsinkable, and that fearless mariner Webb Chiles seems to have spent quite some time sitting up to his waist in seawater before he could bail her out.

There are open ship’s boats in Patrick O’Brian’s splendid Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels that make remarkable sea voyages, voyages that were simply taken for granted in those days, so in the end it probably all boils down to practical seamanship and good boat handling.

All the same, I was rather relieved to note that Richard Crawford has been experimenting with a large chunk of polystyrene that fills much of the aft end of his cockpit. It not only lessens the amount of water the cockpit can hold, but it also adds a good deal of flotation. Sounds like a very good idea to me.

Today’s Thought
There are periods when the principles of experience need to be modified ... when in truth to dare is the highest wisdom.
— William Ellery Channing, Works.

Patrick Murphy brought a pig home.
“Where are you going to keep that thing?” his wife asked.
“Right in here,” said Pat.
“But what about the smell?”
“Ah well, he’ll just have to get used to it.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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