June 17, 2014

Why re-invent the wheel?

A COUPLE OF WEEKS BACK, Small Craft Advisor magazine featured a lovely little boat on the cover. She was a 15-foot open dinghy designed by John Welsford, shown sailing miles offshore of Fremantle, Australia, in that gorgeous translucent blue/green water of the southern Indian Ocean.

She was one of Welsford’s most successful designs, a sturdy, multi-chined coastal cruiser/camper with more than 700 sets of plans sold, and dozens having made impressive passages in rough conditions. But, besides being sturdy, the Navigator, as the class is known, is just downright beautiful in the eyes of anyone with a background in sailing.

The one on the magazine cover was rigged as a yawl, with a delicate mizzen and a workmanlike genoa sent from a long bowsprit. The mainsail was a sliding gunter with deep reef points —  altogether a rig that must be easy to balance and simple to control in heavy weather. In the photograph, she was riding over a foaming wave with a bone in her teeth and the tiller held lightly amidships. Her name was Matthew Flinders and I fell in love with her immediately.

But after days of lusting and wondering how long and how much it would cost me to build one, reality began to set in. Why, I wondered, do we keep re-inventing the wheel? What is wrong with the dinghy designs that already exist? Why, for example, should the Navigator be better in any way than the Wayfarer, which the famous British designer Ian Proctor set down on paper in 1957?

Can there be a better sea-boat than the Wayfarer? Frank Dye survived a Force 9 storm in one on a passage from Scotland to Norway many years ago, so she has certainly proved herself on the wide ocean. Furthermore, the Wayfarer is raced as a class in many parts of the world. She is fast. She actually planes. Her Bermuda rig of mainsail and jib is efficient and closewinded, and she is not burdened with an awkward bowsprit and boomkin, as the Navigator is.

The Wayfarer’s hull is a foot longer than the Navigator’s, and about 50 pounds heavier. She is almost certainly faster around the buoys and more weatherly in strong winds. I can’t help wondering if the original client  who sought John Welsford’s skills to design a small boat for family beach cruising and deep-sea sailing had ever heard of a Wayfarer.

The Navigator’s looks exude the old-world charm of a clinker-built boat, that much is certain, but the Wayfarer has the classically simple, conservative lines that have never gone out of fashion.

This line of thought made me realize once again how little is new in the design of small open boats. Advances in technology have allowed large yachts to sail around the world in record times, but nothing much has changed in the performance of dinghies and small yachts of the world, with the possible exception of outré boats like the Moth, whose crews need to be performing acrobats on nautical unicycles.

When I look at Hobie cats, I think of Herreshoff, who designed an award-winning catamaran before any of us was born, and I marvel at how difficult it must be for any modern boat designer to improve on the lines of yachts built generations ago. Re-inventing the wheel is a very challenging task.

Today’s Thought
What we call “Progress” is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.
— Havelock Ellis, Political Mystics: Titan and Avatar

Tailpiece
How can smoking cause sickness when it cures salmon and ham? 

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

3 comments:

Kevin McNeill said...

I blame this all on Duckworks who just recently started a feature called Monday Morning Blogs and in it I found yours. That was Monday, This is Wednesday and I've just finished 2011, three and a half more years to go. And I'm missing dinner. Nice going!

By the way glad you like my Island

Kenneth Sherwood said...

John, I expect every SCA reafer and most Welsford customers know of the Wayfarer. Articles have appeared in SCA and the Dye's book in their bookstore. But isnt Proctor the one to be asked about reinventing? Welsford's yawl is an updated classic. Mizzen is important for sime sailors. There are differences. And fans of Chapelle know each truly classic design grew up to meet specific needs and local conditions.

Greg Gray said...

Well, John, you piqued my interest, but for the life of me I can't find plans for a Wayfarer online. That could be the reason people need to look elsewhere for satisfaction, namely to John Welsford's Navigator or AWOL designs, which the home builder hasn't been shut off from.

(And thanks for a great and entertaining blog).