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I’m back!

I haven’t updated this blog since last spring, when we failed spectacularly to compete in the Everglades Challenge. However, it wasn’t just embarassment that prevented me from writing; I was busy with other stuff.

Mostly I was land-hunting in the North Country.


I was born in Syracuse, and northern New York is really what comes to mind when I think of Home. Our family has had a camp on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River, near Alexandria Bay, for about a hundred years. The happiest days of my childhood were spent there. I think our kids would say the same.

For many years Nancy and I have been thinking about getting a homestead for our own little family somewhere up there. Some miles north of the old camp is St. Lawrence County, one of the largest counties east of the Mississippi, and that’s where our dreams have mostly been constructed. On the river plain are two small but lovely towns, Canton and Potsdam, and they are distinguished by a lively culture and four good colleges. One, St. Lawrence University, founded by the Unitarian Universalist church, is the school my grandmother graduated from a century ago. Another, Clarkson University, is one of the premier science schools in the country. Even better, the county was the center for a back-to-the-land movement in the 70s, due to the then-cheap land available, and many of these ancient hippies (my people!) are still around, leavening an already stimulating social environment.

So for years, we’ve looked longingly at the land there, from the river to the Adirondack State Park, which takes in much of the eastern part of the county. This summer, we decided to get serious about finding a little farm on which we could plant orchards and keep bees, grow a big garden in real soil, and have some actual seasons. I spent most of the summer roaming around the county, looking at property, wrangling with real estate agents, and camping out in state parks. In late July, I found a beautiful little acreage that we could afford, just 10 minutes east of Potsdam. It’s surrounded by nature conservancy land, so we’ll never have condos or pig farms for neighbors. It’s a mixture of woods and meadows that was once farmland, judging by the stone walls and foundations that we found here and there.

Nancy on a wall

The soil is sandy glacial till, and should be rich enough for our purposes; it already raises a fine crop of stones every year. It’s 9.65 acres, so it’s a wide-flung kingdom to folks who’ve spent the last 30 years living on a suburban lot. There are old unkept apple trees, maples, blackberry thickets, and lots of wildlife. There are a few truly ancient trees.

Nancy with a big tree.

It’s really a wonderful place, and it’s ours now.

In Slider-related news, I think that the concept of a small open cruising cat with a modest rig and seating inside the hulls is well and truly launched on the world sailing scene. In the years to come, I hope and expect that other designers will draw similar and better boats, but I’m really enjoying the number of sisterships that have been built and are being used by happy owners around the planet.

Most recently a Canadian builder who sails on the beautiful waters of Georgian Bay sent me pictures of his Slider. He built his boat over the winter, a very quick completion. He used the sail dimensions included with the plans to build his own mainsail, and reports that it was a good sail, though he went sailing so much last summer that he wore it out. He tells me that because he has a narrow harbor entrance, he started out with a trolling motor mounted on one crossbeam, but after a week or so he removed it as unnecessary. Under sail and paddle, he can always make it out, even with a strong wind against him. This has been my experience as well, and I think it’s one of the great advantages of small open sailboats. I go sailing a lot more in Slider than in any of my previous boats. Everything is simpler.

Here’s a picture of Al’s Slider:

Slider sistership from Ontario, Canada

And another:

Ontario Slider again

I really don’t know how many Sliders have been built now, but it’s not a small number. She’s given me an enormous amount of pleasure over the last 4 years, and I hope she’ll continue to be a part of our family for years to come. I can’t wait to sail her on the St. Lawrence, one of the great scenic rivers of the world.

Slider at twilight

Lessons Learned

We’re back from our non-attempt to run the Everglades Challenge. As some of you know, we decided not to go Saturday morning. Tampa Bay was a little rough, with 20 knot winds on the nose, but the real deal-killer was in the forecast. The front that spawned so many tornadoes and killed so many people was due to pass through the area Sunday, with winds of 30 to 40 knots predicted. Later in the week another front was forecast with winds of similar violence.

When Nancy and I woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning, the first thing we did was to check the NOAA forecast. The second thing we did was to look at each other and say, “Not for us!” We still went over to the beach to see the launch. It was, as always, extremely interesting. Some folks had trouble getting off the beach, some, like us, didn’t go at all, and others returned to the beach after making the attempt.

After a couple of hours, a few of the other on-lookers helped me get Slider back into the water, and I sailed her around to the boat ramp on the far side of Mullet Key. Nancy drove the car and trailer back to the ramp, and before long we were in full retreat.

Departing the beach to go home

(The excellent photographs used in this post were taken by fellow Boat Design forum member Hoyt, and used by his kind permission. I think I was too involved in the rush to get ready to even think about taking pictures, though I had a Pelican case full of cameras.)

My difficulties actually began Friday afternoon, when I decided to sail Slider around to the launch beach, rather than try to manhandle her off her trailer at the beach. I estimated that Slider, with all the supplies for the trip, weighed about 800 pounds, but after seeing her in the water, I revised that estimate upwards a bit. In any case, even though there were many willing hands to help, I thought it wiser to move her by water. All went well until I was beating down the western shore of Mullet Key. I paused to raise the jib, and soon after, the head tore out of the mainsail. In retrospect, I think I might have shackled the headring on cocked, which put an unfair strain on it, but it was not a well-reinforced ring, being simply pressed on. In any case, with the main billowing around like a trash bag on a barbed wire fence, progress to windward became very slow. The sprit was at least holding the sail up, so I was getting a little drive, or at least some balance out of it. I left it up, hoping a big gust wouldn’t rip the other grommets out of the sail.

At this point, my biggest concerns were making the beach in time for the mandatory meetings and letting Nancy know that I hadn’t drowned. Fortunately a couple of fellow competitors luffed up as they passed me to see what was wrong, and to offer help if needed. I thought I’d be okay, but I was grateful for the opportunity to pass the word that I’d be late. They didn’t know Nancy, so couldn’t tell her directly, but they let Chief (the event’s head honcho) know, so Nancy could check with him if she got worried. She was indeed a bit worried, as the afternoon passed with no sign of me. It took me several hours to sail a distance I should have sailed in about 45 minutes, but eventually I made it around the corner. The winds picked up until they were pretty sporty, and I finally dropped the main. I reached down the south side of Mullet key on jib alone, going fast.

Once there, a half-dozen kind folks helped us haul Slider up the beach and turn her to face the bay. Here I learned that my launching scheme was not the best. Despite the warnings of several experienced competitors that my PVC pipe rollers might be inadequate, I persisted in carrying them. I used to haul our old Wharram cat up on beaches to paint the bottom, using a similar scheme. However the sand here along the NW Florida coast is much more compact and solid than the sand on Mullet Key, which is loose and piles up in front of the rollers. If we’d launched, we’d have had a tough time getting her to the water by ourselves.

Slider on beach 1

We spent the remainder of the afternoon attending meetings, getting our gear inspected, and repairing the torn sail. I put a couple of webbing straps through the ring and stitched the straps to the sail. This wasn’t the prettiest repair, since the only webbing I had was bright blue, but the repair seems solid, and I have no doubt it’s stronger than the original pressed ring.

Slider on beach 2

But the time we were done, it was almost dark, and we were exhausted. We decided to forgo our camping spot at Fort DeSoto, and found a motel near the Tampa-St. Pete causeway. This gave us access to the internet and the Weather Channel, and these information sources played a large role in our decision to stay on the beach Saturday morning.

I have to say that though our decision was difficult, we do not regret it. As the following week passed, and we read about the mayhem among the competitors– the boat breakages, the capsizes, the injuries– we were increasingly grateful we’d chickened out. We were there for fun, and that was all we were there for. We had literally no chance of winning our multihull division, of course, since Slider is built for comfort, not speed, so we were there only for the experience of sailing through those south Florida waters.

There’s been some speculation that the reason I chose not to go was that my wife was my crew. That’s not exactly the case. Nancy, in many ways, is braver than I am, but she saw the situation as dangerous too.

All that said, as the captain, I had the responsibility to do the smart thing. I hope I would have made the same call no matter who my crew was. It’s okay to risk one’s own life, but it’s more of a moral problem to risk the life of a less-experienced person who is depending on your good judgment. Of course, honestly compels me to add that if I’d drowned their mother, my children would never have forgiven me. We talked to each of them Friday night, and told them we were considering dropping out, but that I hated to think what folks might say about me. Each kid, in his or her own way, said the same thing. “Well Dad, you’ve never cared what people said about you before, so why would you start worrying about that now?”

Okay, but the Watertribe folks are a special group. I have such great respect for them, and for what they do that their opinion does matter to me. However, I heard not a single derisive word after I let Chief and the race manager Paddledancer know that we were bailing out. Everyone I’ve talked to since has been supportive of our decision, including some of the iron men who sailed deep into and/or completed the race. The people at the event were wonderful to us. I got many offers of help when I needed to repair the sail, for example, and we were shown a number of other kindnesses. I can honestly say that I’ve never met a better bunch of people.

Slider on the beach 3

The ride back to the ramp was a small adventure on its own. A couple of hours after the start, I put up a reefed main, and then another half-dozen onlookers got me down into the water, where I lay to the anchor for a bit while getting lines organized and so forth. The surf was fairly bouncy, which made everything a little more difficult. When I finally hauled out to the anchor and set off, I had great difficulty in getting my rudders down, for some reason, and I flailed around just off the beach for some minutes until I could get them set. Once the rudders were down, we reached off down the beach, parallel to the wave trains, going right along. This was a tad on the wild side. Perhaps it was the overloading, due to carrying enough food and water for a week, plus the required gear, plus my crop of gadgets, but stuff happened that has never happened to Slider before. I actually had waves break across both bows. I was in a panic about my car keys, which I had foolishly dropped onto the deck in the corner between the aft cockpit coaming and the cabin shell. I was really worried that the solid water hitting the front of the cabin might make it aft and soak my brand-new key fob, but when I reached the ramp, the keys were bone-dry, like everything else in the cabin. Despite the breaking waves, we took no water aboard, even in the open cockpit.

Once I turned the corner and started running downwind, things got to be a lot more fun. We set a new speed record surfing on the big waves coming in from the ship channel– 11.2 knots, pretty fast for an overloaded undercanvassed 16 foot cruising cat.

I made a navigational error and turned in toward the passage to the boat ramps before I should have. When I realized my error, I was already sailing across a shallow flat, and the waves kept bumping us on the bottom. Fortunately we never stuck, which could have been dangerous in those conditions, and there was no harm done, another great thing about shoal-draft cats. I did rub a little glass off the forward corner of one rudder, but that was easily repaired. I lost some bottom paint going up and down the beach, but that had to be expected.

All in all, we learned some valuable lessons, and it’s a good thing we learned them, because they were expensive lessons. We’re cruisers, and it’s a basic tenet of successful cruising that you do not deliberately go out into bad weather. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be late for work, or your flight home, or your wedding– prudent cruisers wait for a suitable weather window. Period. This attitude is at odds with the attitudes that racers must cultivate. A racer has to go when the gun goes off, no matter the conditions or the forecast.

Maybe racing isn’t for us. That’s a sad thing to realize, for me, because I’m a fairly competitive person. But the sea scares me, as it should. Whenever I’m tempted to do something risky, I think of the old quote attributed to the Aran islanders of west Ireland:

A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned…for he will go out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we only be drownded now and again.
John Millington Synge
The Aran Islands.

Departing the beach

Off to the Everglades Challege!

I haven’t updated this record lately; I’ve been too busy trying to get ready for the Everglades Challenge.

This raid-like race for small sail and human-powered boats runs every year in March. It starts at Fort DeSoto, a county park on Tampa Bay, and ends at Key Largo about 300 miles south. Last year’s winner, Randy Smythe, set a new course record in his self-designed one man trimaran, of 1 day and 16 hours, a remarkable time for a single sailor. The limit for the race is 8 days. We hope to finish somewhere in the middle of that time frame.

Although this is definitely a race, and we’ll do our best to keep Slider moving well, we’re not really going with a racing mentality. Slider’s best quality is not her speed, but her comfort. We’ll try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an iron man, or even a great sailor, to participate in events like this. You just have to have the right boat, and make proper preparations.

Folks who’d like to follow the race can check the web site of the event sponsor,

There’s a tracking map here:

This is Slider’s shared SPOT tracking page.

Here’s a picture of Slider on her trailer.

slider on trailer

Notice the little cabin on the starboard cockpit. This was my attempt to make Slider into a multi-day racer for two. Since my wife Nancy is going to be my crew for the Challenge, I decided that a dry protected berth would allow a two-person crew to keep moving much more steadily than might be the case if Slider was a completely open boat. The cabin is tied down by two lashings, and it’s the work of a moment to cast these off and remove the cabin. The cabin has a small 30 watt solar panel to keep a motorcycle battery topped up. This is to run the LED navigation lights, and to recharge cell phones, cameras, and the netbook chart plotter we’ll be carrying.

slider's cabin

The race starts Saturday March 3, 2012. We hope to be there tomorrow night, with a day for gear inspection and getting the boat up the beach. In the EC, boats must be small and handy enough to be launched from above the highwater mark, by their crew, and using only gear that can be (and must be) carried aboard for the race.

Wish us luck!

Super Slider is on the horizon

I have a mostly completed hull for a 23 foot cat and great hopes for the design. But unfortunately, I have another idea that seems to me to be a more generally useful idea, and it’s the kind of thing you can’t stop thinking about.

Super Slider

If you click on the tiny fuzzy image above, a better image of what I can’t stop thinking about will appear.

Slider in her slip

Nancy and I took Slider out this afternoon, and we sailed over to Destin on a perfect October day. Winds were light at first, and we tacked slowly across the bay, maybe touching three knots occasionally. The winds freshened a bit as we came back along the island, so we made it back to Fort Walton pretty fast. We decided to extend our sail a little and sailed under Brooks Bridge into Santa Rosa Sound.

This turned out to be tricky sailing, because we were in the lee of two rows of gigantic condos, which blanket the beach until you reach Air Force land. The seabreeze really swirls through the canyons between them. The wind was clocking around every few feet, sometimes heading us a bit, sometimes giving us a broad reach. We meandered up the Intracoastal, which on this Monday afternoon was practically deserted. We didn’t see a single barge the whole day.

Going home, we were able to close reach back to the bridge, where the only tense moment occurred. The tide was running against us in the narrow Sound, and under the bridge we lost the wind completely, as often happens. We’d just about made it out when the wind ceased. We coasted down to a knot or so through the water, and we soon began to lose ground to the end of the bridge bulkhead. These are made of jagged timbers and giant bolts, and can chew a boat up pretty bad if you get up against them when a wake goes through. It’s only in moments like these that I ever really wish for a motor.*

But my gloomy speculations, as the timbers and spikes got closer, were interrupted by my pragmatic wife. She grabbed a paddle and with a couple of mighty heaves shot us out of that wind hole and into a nice fresh breeze that took us swiftly back to the ramp where Slider’s trailer was waiting.

superslider logo

Small boats are a lot of fun, as well as actually attainable for those of us who aren’t wealthy. A Slider can be put together– with a little creative scavenging– for a couple thousand.

Small boats have a lot of other advantages, too. It’s nice to have a boat that can be gotten out of difficulty with a couple of paddle strokes. It’s also nice to have a fast boat, and though Slider shows a surprising turn of speed compared to most open beach cruisers her size, she’s not really multihull fast. She doesn’t have enough sail area to be really fast, because she is all one piece, for ease of launching. As a beach cruiser she needs to be stable and forgiving, and that’s why she has such a conservative rig.

For real multihull speed, a cruising cat needs enough beam to carry a big rig safely. Unfortunately, I’ve reached the sad conclusion that the big new boat is a little too big for the beach cat rig I bought for it– it’s only 220 sq. ft. and I think a bigger rig is needed to take full advantage of the boat’s size and beam.

For a long time I’ve considered a small step up from Slider– a slightly larger boat with greater sailing beam and a fast rig. Super Slider is the child of this thought. At 19 feet and built simply and lightly, she will be driven very well by the beach cat rig. She’ll give me an opportunity to try out my new folding mechanism, and she’ll be the perfect boat for events like the Texas 200 and the Everglades Challenge. Small cabins will offer some protection to the offwatch crew and she’ll have self-draining footwells for seating comfort and hull integrity. She might not be an ocean crosser, but she’d be fine crossing to the Bahamas, in the right weather window.

So when I get back from Detroit– a trip I look forward to with the same anticipation as I look forward to a root canal and a mugging in the dentist’s parking lot afterwards– I’ll get right to work on Super Slider. I’m going to use everything I’ve learned about building cats using stitch and glue to make the job as simple and intuitive as possible.

If Super Slider turns out to be Super, I might even go into the kit boat business– that’s how enthusiastic I am about the design.

superslider logo

*But about that motor… you know what would happen? I’d have to be prudent and always start my motor when approaching a bridge made iffy by wind or current. Pretty soon, I’d be starting it for every bridge, and then for other reasons, and then I might as well be driving a motorboat. Sometimes I might go out and never raise the sails. You may laugh, but I often see sailboats motoring along without a scrap of sail up, even on fine days like today. I’ll bet those guys started out with the best of intentions.

Still, the next boat will probably have a small outboard, because I’d like to take the boat to the Bahamas. When you get a weather window, you should probably zip across the Straits as expeditiously as possible, even if the wind is too light to sail fast.

Folding mechanisms for the new catamaran

Unless I get filthy rich, I never plan to own another boat that can’t be put on a trailer and hauled out for maintenance and safety. This was partly a lesson learned after Hurricane Opal, in which our 27 foot keelboat was slightly damaged. I sailed Dilvermoon over to the Shalimar Yacht Basin, where she was hauled out and set in an adjoining gravel parking lot on jackstands. I was assured that the fee for storage while waiting for the insurance adjustor would be reasonable. After a month I decided to have a guy with a big hydraulic trailer set the boat in our side yard where I could do the repairs myself, and was presented with a storage bill for over a thousand dollars, not counting the haul-out, for which I was charged another few hundred. For a month of sitting on a gravel parking lot. Their excuse was that the low rate they’d quoted me was on the assumption that they would be doing the repair work. They didn’t mention this when they hauled the boat.

Now we have laws against hurricane gouging, but we didn’t then.

Anyway, now that I have returned to the multihull fold and fallen in love with catamarans again, I have a dilemma. Trimarans can be designed to fold fairly painlessly, and Ian Farrier has become the designer with the greatest number of cruising multihulls afloat as a consequence. But my opinion is that trimarans are inferior to catamarans as cruisers, particularly in the smaller sizes. And catamarans that can fold quickly and easily for narrow slips and highway-legal trailering are not as easy to design as folding trimarans are.

There are many clever cat designs that allow folding or sliding to fit on trailers, but most of them have drawbacks, from my point of view. Most require that the mast be unstepped before folding. Some fold by rotating the hulls under a central pod. My particular situation is that I have a very generous neighbor with a slip that he allows me to use. But the slip is not wide enough for a 23 foot cat of reasonably modern beam. So my boat must fold in such a way that keeps the antifouling in the water and the mast up. Continue reading →

Slinger progress

Slinger is coming along.

As regular readers will know, I tend to change my mind a lot in the course of each new design, trying always to optimize the design for its primary purpose. When last I talked about the boat, I was gung-ho to have comfortable little cockpits, in attempt to emulate the very comfortable seating in Slider, which is one of her greatest virtues.

However… I’ve thought a lot about this, and I now have the additional experience of working inside the first hull, so I have a clearer picture of how the interior space lays out.

Slider, an open boat, is primarily a day sailer, although much thought went into making her more suitable for short cruises. Still, cruising on Slider is much like camping out– in order to be comfortable in bad weather, I have to pitch a tent on Slider’s deck. The idea with Slinger is that we want to live aboard for several months at a stretch, while making extended cruises, such as to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. The functions are very different.

So here’s a view of the new cabin profile:

Continue reading →