Monday, 3 May 2021

Building a Replacement for Stroma


As my seventieth birthday approached I finally parted from Stroma, designed by Alfred Mylne and built by McGruers on the Clyde in 1929. We had looked after each other in all weather for over forty years. These old racing yachts sail beautifully but need a fit, young crew and after a few years on the market she had found ideal new custodians in a young couple of the same age I had been when I took her on. I’m hoping for an invitation to the hundredth birthday party in a few years time.
Over the years I’ve built several boats and have also acquired a number of good friends among some of the professional designers and builders who inhabit the traditional boating community, men and women whom I’ve found universally generous with their time and expertise and whose advice has saved me from potential blunders on projects such as the extensive restoration of Stroma, which took several years. That gave me the confidence to believe that I could safely take on the challenge of building my next cruising boat. The search was on for a suitable design.
The basic requirements were for a boat small enough to be sailed by one person, but with space for a couple of friends, the rig controlled as far as possible from the cockpit and seaworthy for inshore waters among the islands of Scotland’s West coast. Where I live, in mid-Argyll, we don't see big waves very often but our tides are fierce and can set up extremely nasty jabbles that sometimes can’t be avoided. The bonus is the ability to ride on top of a tide and vastly increase your cruising range if you’re prepared to set an alarm. One of our best ever trips on Stroma, about forty years ago, involved setting off from Ardminish on Gigha at about 4 am with a good strong Southwesterly and a flooding Spring tide, and reaching North at eight knots over the ground to moor up at Ardfern in time for breakfast in the old drovers inn.
There were a couple of further considerations. First, auxiliary power. After the first few years I took the little two stroke Vire out of Stroma and sailed engineless from then on. This was for reasons of both practicality and vanity; small petrol engines don’t readily cope with life under a leaking cockpit sole and the weight of a diesel replacement would upset the trim, but also there’s nothing uglier than an outboard bolted on the side or over the stern of a lovely old yacht. What was to be done? Second, handling on shore. I wanted to be free from boatyard bills except if absolutely necessary. This indicated a hull that could be managed on a launching trolley and a mast that could be easily dropped.
Readers will be familiar with the countless discussions on yachting forums about designs and I would only say that there is no such thing as the ideal boat. The list boiled down to just two, Francois Vivier’s Beniguet and Iain Oughtred’s Wee Seal, both very elegant and practical. The former had the advantages of being a more modern concept, lighter and simpler to build, with just sufficient space below. The latter had more internal space and looked more like what the late David Ryder-Turner called a “floaty boat”, but also seemed to my eye too compressed, an awful lot of boat crammed into eighteen and a half feet. Then I heard about Kotik, the result of Mikhail Markov commissioning Iain to stretch the Wee Seal out to twenty one feet. The result was more generous space inside and to my eye a more aesthetic shape.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed studying boat plans. I’ve never regretted buying study plans and occasionally complete sets of drawings for boats that I’ve ended up not building. You learn a great deal from them and it helps today’s designers to keep going. I’ve kept the plans for the Beniguet and may build her some day; that would only be following Mikhail, who now has one of each!

Mikhail's Beniguet

When the Kotik plans arrived I discovered that Iain had drawn a yawl rig option as well as the basic sloop. This gave me food for thought, because thirty years ago I built Sonas, a pretty, very slender gunter sloop designed by David Ryder-Turner and found that she would have been far happier as a yawl. With a large mainsail she proved a real handful at times and we were usually reefed unless it was pretty calm. The idea of dropping the main in a blow and getting home under jib and reefed mizzen became very attractive. Yawl rig, probably with a Bermudian main, would have worked fine, as that design had a counter stern and the rudder post forward in a tube. But the Kotik has an external rudder and I like the positive feel of a straight tiller. There was also the consideration that the stern deck doesn't have a lot of space for extra spars and bits of string, so I stayed with the sloop. Of the six Kotik designs built so far, I think that only one, Ian Milne’s in New Zealand, is a yawl.
A couple of other decisions had to be made. Iain had drawn options for both a self draining cockpit and a deep, traditional one. The former seem almost standard in small boats and they are, I understand, compulsory under safety regulations in some countries. I’ve never liked them and am not convinced that they’re helpful in normal inshore conditions. I believe that if a big wave did come over it would be safer for it to flood into the lowest part of the ship, from where we could pump it out, rather than to have it trapped higher up, which would surely make the ship vulnerable to the following one. I went for the deep cockpit, allowing the crew to sit in comfort well out of the wind.

I also decided to keep the cabin dry with a bridge deck, which also provides extra seating in the cockpit and storage space inside the cabin.
Iain provided several alternative layout suggestions, fitting in up to four berths. I redesigned the space for just one, good sized, berth and the possibility of a second person sleeping under the foredeck. However, in coastal cruising I think it's better for any crew simply to bring a tent and sleep comfortably ashore, which we can do anywhere in Scotland. Here we don’t have a law of trespass and you can set up camp anywhere, as long as it’s not in someone’s garden.
I decided to offset the main hatch to starboard, leaving more space to port for a wide chart table, which has a drawer underneath. This relates well to the centreboard case, which is offset to port, avoiding the problems of casting a slot in the ballast keel.
As I started studying the drawings I also made a couple of changes to the design, in each case following a discussion with Iain, who was always very patient and open to new ideas. Please, never alter a design without the designer’s approval!
First, I increased the ballast somewhat, as Kotik was designed to sail with a crew, while I would be mainly single handed and our weather can change very quickly. I did so by deepening the casting and extending it forward a little, which thankfully hasn’t spoiled the trim. I changed the profile slightly, so that it will be ballast, rather than deadwood, that takes the bump if we ever meet a misbehaving skerry.
Second, I learned from Mikhail that his Kotik could sometimes be tricky to steer, a feature of long straight keels and canoe sterns, which necessitate a raked sternpost. On the theory that it’s easier to cut off than to add a bit of rudder blade later I increased the area and also made it widest below to make it more effective.
A further change came along much later, once I was in contact with the brilliant sailmaker Steven Hall of Tollesbury. He recommended increasing the angle between the yard and the mast, enabling the mainsail to be sewn with vertical panels and no battens. It also allowed more space for the halliard block and the wire span. Space here is a problem with all steep gaff and gunter rigs, leading to innovative solutions, including as a last resort, bringing the halliard through the mast with an internal sheeve.
The construction took two and a half years from late in 2016. I am fortunate to have a wonderful neighbour, who doesn’t use her garage, as a result of which I had a nice dry space over thirty feet long and about three feet wider than the maximum beam. There were no doors, which at least prevented any fumes from epoxy resin causing a problem. Fortunately that winter was mild here and I could work for at least an hour or two most days. The photographs tell the story better than I can, but I’ll mention a few decisions I made that may be of interest.
First, a piece of advice that I got from Richard Pierce, formerly of Ferry Nab at Windermere and now based on the Isle of Luing, one of the historic Slate Islands near where I live, a man who has built more boats than anyone I know. Instead of lining up the building ladder by running a string through the moulds at a low level Richard rigs a tensioned garden wire directly above the centre line of the boat, from which he suspends plumb lines of varying lengths that can be slid along to provide accurate reference whenever needed. This proved its worth with the hull both inverted and upright, making it easy to ensure bulkheads etcetera were true.
To avoid any possibility of rot later I decided to use Accoya, a specially treated softwood that starts out mainly as Radiata Pine, for the stems, hog, floors and deadwood. It was easy to work with, if a little softer than I would have liked. For deckbeams and other parts I used mainly the tried and tested Douglas Fir, readily available and an old friend.
I had heard of Vendia Plank from Finland and decided to use it for the hull. It proved extremely hard, flexible in the right directions and I would recommend it if it could still be obtained. I saved several months by getting Alec Jordan to cut the hull planks and moulds for me, which he did most accurately. I suspect he was relieved when I told him that there had been no gaps anywhere. I cut the scarfs in the garage and then turned part of our house into a production shop in a dry, warm atmosphere which suited the epoxy resin. I would then walk the planks, up to twenty three feet long, along the road to the garage, provided it wasn’t too windy or raining. Robbins Super-Elite plywood was used for bulkheads and decking.
In my view there are no tricks to working with epoxy, just do frequent mixes of precisely the amount needed, measuring it on digital scales protected by clingfilm rather than using pumps. Treat it like the deadly poison it is, cleaning all spills as they happen. In cold weather I help it along with a hot air gun.
Under this system the hull went together very quickly, basically at the rate of a pair of planks every couple of days, held by the usual homemade giant clothes pegs. There followed several months of building up the deadwood, fairing it off, filleting everything and coating the exterior with three coats of epoxy until we were ready to turn over in May 2017.

The start, Accoya for machining

What houses are good for

Hull complete, three coats epoxy on

About 10 % of the build done!

As a fan of recycling and keen to keep some references to the past I was lucky to find enough old growth pitch pine to build the cockpit seating and flooring. It is lovely material, which used to be plentiful but is now endangered. It can be found in old buildings throughout my native city of Glasgow and was also used for hull planking in old yachts. The thrust post for the mast started out in life as part of the Ardrishaig Distillery, built in 1831, that my friend John the builder had rescued from the demolition thirty years ago, so part of my new boat came from a tree that would have been growing at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The biggest worry was sourcing the ballast keel, which weighed about 400 kilograms by the time I had deepened it as described above. I wasn’t brave enough to cast it and decided that it would be an interesting challenge for Ballantines of Bo’ness, now into their third century. They must have done them in the past. The present managing director, Gavin Ballantine, was game if I provided the pattern. I would love to have seen the pour taking place; it's probably better that I didn’t.

The Designer and his Apprentice

For the spars I went with the traditional recommendations, Sitka Spruce for the mast, boom and yard and ash for the tiller, the latter made by my friend Pat as a present to the boat, using a piece from a local windfall tree. These parts were the only ones to be varnished, with lots of coats to prevent rot.

Pat and the tiller

For standing rigging I decided to go with 4mm Dyneema, incredibly strong of course, but I get slightly spooked when I go forward, as on Stroma there was a comforting trio of galvanised stays to grasp and this stuff doesn’t feel the same.
My intention regarding propulsion was to mount a two stroke outboard, bought years earlier but never used, in a well behind the cockpit rear bulkhead. Then I learned that this might be problematic, as an outboard in a well can choke on its own exhaust. I also learned about electric outboards, which I’m sure are the future. Sadly they swing a propellor too big for the internal well that I had built, so I now had the pleasure of removing it and reinstating the hole I had reluctantly cut in the bottom of the hull. External brackets exert a lot of torque in the wrong places, but Richard came up with a neat solution, a sturdy retractable beam that slides in a secure housing unseen behind the bulkhead.

The Pierce Bracket

Final touches were a nice Harris tweed cushion for my bunk and a clock and barometer from Wempe of Hamburg; in a self build you can spend the money you save on nice things. Named Mariota, after the Queen of the Western Isles circa 1380, she was launched in the Summer of 2019.

Final Inspection

The launching crew

Not content with making a lovely ash tiller, Pat turned up with a fine carving dedicated to Mariota, made from an ancient piece of Kerrera oak from a windfall tree.

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water