June 3, 2012

The truth about Spray

IT COMES AS A BIT OF A SHOCK to learn that the first yacht to have been sailed all the way around the world singlehanded was actually not very seaworthy. Apparently Capt. Joshua Slocum’s famous Spray, which has been copied lord knows how many times, was unlikely to right herself after a capsize. She was extremely stiff initially, but once heeled beyond a certain angle was unlikely to recover.

This assessment, which is not the best news for the many owners of existing Spray clones, came from one of America’s best-known sailboat architects, John G. Hanna, designer of the famous Tahiti ketch.

In The Rudder Treasury (Sheridan House) Hanna says:  “Since the Suicide Squad has been for many years building exact copies of Spray, and will continue doing so for many years more unless restrained, perhaps I can save a life or two by explaining, as simply as possible, the basic reason (skipping many other good reasons) why Spray is the worst possible boat for anyone, and especially anyone lacking the experience and resourcefulness of Slocum, to take off-soundings . . .

“A big lurching cross sea, that would scarcely disturb a properly designed hull, can — especially if it coincides, as it often does, with an extra-savage puff of a squall — flip over a Spray hull just as you would a poker chip.

“Many duplicates trying to duplicate the circumnavigation have disappeared without trace, just as the original Spray and Slocum did.”

Hanna goes on to say that one Spray copy that completed a circumnavigation, Roger Strout’s Igdrasil, was flipped “up to the very point of the last rollover, and for a second or two it seemed she would never come back on her bottom.” Strout told Hanna that if ever he were building again for such a trip, he would willingly sacrifice the comfort of broad decks and great initial stability for more of the ultimate stability that infallibly rights a well-designed yacht, even if knocked down with her masts in the water.

Hanna added: “I trust a little sober reflection on these facts will cause a ray of light  to dawn in the minds of another generation of would-be Spray duplicators. The famous old ship had her good points, and no one admires them more than I; but not enough to overcome some almost certainly fatal faults.”

All of which tends to reinforce my own long-held belief that a large portion of any boat’s seaworthiness consists of the skill and experience of the skipper (and crew, if any).

 Today’s Thought
None but blockheads copy each other.
— William Blake

There’s a new series of TV sets due to hit the market soon. They project in 3-D. They’ll give you height, width, and debt.

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


Anonymous said...

John, I own a Spray 28 and a Folksong 26 and while I am happy to heal the folksong over at 30 degrees you would be mad to try and do that with a Spray the righting moment of 75,000 foot-pounds at 35 degrees.
You like quoting from Rudder magazine I suggest you read the June 1909 issue.

Anonymous said...


you are quoting rubbish! experts opinion !

read the June 1909 issue of Rudder for a different point of view from another expert !

Matt Marsh said...

No, Anonymous, he's not quoting rubbish. Opinion, maybe, but opinion that we now know has a sound physical and mathematical basis.

In Slocum's time, computing a stability curve was a tedious bit of calculus that took many days, if not weeks, of an engineer's time.

Today, the calculation takes only a few seconds once the boat's shape and weight distribution are known. So we do it for almost all new boats. Do it on anything that vaguely resembles a Spray, and you find a boat that's stiff as a concrete pad for low angles of heel, but has no hope of righting herself once her mast is in the water- pretty much exactly what Chapelle figured when he analyzed the Spray.

Of course, wide, shallow-bilged boats are everywhere now- because a stiff hull can fly more sail, and therefore win more races and knock off more miles a day along the coast. You just have to be really, really careful not to get caught in waves big enough to capsize them.

Bruce said...

Slocum never did return from his last voyage. While no one can really know for certain what really happened to him, an article like this gives one pause to wonder.

Anonymous said...


Spray, the Ultimate Cruising Boat by Bruce Roberts-Goodson - a quote from the book page 25.
"The curve of stability shows that Spray is theoretically uncap-sizable. Because at 90 degrees of heel she still has left a righting moment of over 20 000 foot-pounds "

Stabillity curve for the Spray 28 (1.7)

The spray is a long keel not bilged keel.

mgtdOcean said...

From the biography and autobiography I've read, Slocum received Spray as a derelict and practical joke. He rebuilt her and sailed her in spite of her shortcomings. So he took what he was given and set the goal. In other works he didn't go search out the perfect boat.

As for his last voyage , just speculation, it could be the old sailing captain in the time of steam, a man who's time had past, and decided for it to be his last voyage.

Matt Marsh said...

Roberts put a pretty substantial ballasted keel on his re-interpretation of the Spray. I agree that it's an improvement on the original, but design knowledge has progressed a lot since then.

Just because RM is positive at 90 degrees doesn't mean the boat can't capsized- this only means that it can't be knocked down by wind alone in flat seas. It can still broach, it can still be rolled over by a breaking wave, and it can still be knocked down when it crosses a crest.

A well-proportioned cruising monohull, in this situation, will pop back upright. Wider boats, like VO 70 racers, Sprays and barges, generally have high inverted stability. Once flipped, they tend to remain upside down- like a catamaran, except that the Spray, being ballasted, is likely to sink before it can be righted.

Anonymous said...

@Mat, I see John has not commented on his original post ! While it's only a blog and I enjoy reading it, I take issue when he makes such a negative post against a particular design of hull, Spray designed hulls have sailed thousands of miles around the globe in the last 120 years.
You only have to look at the Fastnet of 1979 and the 1998 Hobart race disasters where boats that where abandoned survived after the crews abandoned ship, it tends to be the crew that give up before the boat, with regard to to the Slocum Spray he was an old man who could not swim, did not have the modern navigation aids, inboard diesel engine we take for granted these days and was probably run down by a Steam driven coastal cruiser.

Anonymous said...

Many of the spit and polish brigade feel cheated that the first vessel to achieve a solo circumnavigation was a stout work boat design rather than smart yacht. Unfortunately for them the Spray got there first.

The Spray represented a design that worked on New York Bay and as far offshore as the Banks in all weathers for at least 75 years. So she was a proven seaworthy design and Slocum, who was as experienced seaman as ever sailed recognised this and stated it many times. In fact fisherman only stopped building to the basic design when engines replaced sail.

The Spray was completely rebuilt from the keel up by Slocum and was sound when she sailed around the world. Yes, she declined in later years as Slocum got older and was unable to pay to keep the maintenance up. The disappearance of the Spray is generally attributed to being run down by a steamer, as she was in shipping lanes and Slocum was famous for letting her sail herself. This opinion is the one that Slocum’s son Victor, himself a master mariner, adhered to. An argument against single handing, not the vessel.

Yes the wide side decks would not be my favourite for a design that would right easily, but at least two Spray replica's have been capsized 180 degrees and came back. Possibly it depends on what was used as ballast and how it was secured.

There has been more expert opinion in favour of the Spray than against her. Even from Hanna who is quoted above. Despite what is said there Hanna designed at least five boats based on the Spray, Foam, Foam II, Wyomi, Penguin and Faith, and he waxed lyrical on the design on many occasions. A man of opposites perhaps.

Pete Culler is one of many experts with good things to say about the Spray. He built the Oxford replica and owned her for 20 years. He is widely regarded as one of the most reliable authorities on American working boats.

Sprays represent one of the world's most popular, and probably THE most enduring, cruising designs. This is partly because Slocum's "Sailing Alone Around the World" was inspirational, and partly because generations of cruising people have found that a (very) roomy, shoal draft vessel is their ideal for cruising.