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Once the bottom had cured, I flipped the boat back into it’s fully upright and locked position. The fiberglass made the hull noticeably more stiff, which is interesting because it didn’t span any joints/laps on the bottom. I also checked square and I was only a tad bit off. The shimming concept seemed to work, which I was quite proud of.
|As instructed, seam is taped…|
The directions call for taping off a region around the seam between the bottom and panel #1 to aid in making the fillet to cover the seam, which is necessary for a smooth transition for the fiberglass cloth. There was a slight problem with this process though, which may affect the finished product. In order to make the fillet small enough to span the gap between the tape and not leave a hardened shoulder when the tape is removed, I had to bear down on the squeegee enough to get the fillet to fit between the tape. This caused the fillet to be a tighter radius, which caused a problem during the wetting out process. On the next boat, I will make this fillet with a much larger radius. Taping any seams during construction is an interesting conundrum. The guys that don’t tape say they will next time and the guys that do tape say it’s a waste of time and tape for minimal/questionable benefits. As with most things, I can see both sides of the argument. I’m still on the fence about it. Taping obviously makes a much prettier seam, but the tradeoffs are that it creates a shoulder that needs to be faired. It does take a considerable amount of tape and it’s a bit touch and go when you should remove it. As you can see in the photo below, taping the seams also creates more visible stains from the wood flour tinted epoxy. I was really worried how this would look in the finished product. I wanted to minimize sanding on the veneered plywood so I didn’t burn through it, but the plan was to leave the interior bright.
|Finished fillet. Ready for glassing…|
I also took the time to do a continuous, smooth, finished fillet on the transoms to cover the tabs. Because they intersect at greater than 90°, it’s easy to do with the modified squeegee/spreader/scraper. You have to get the mix just right though. Creamy peanut butter, not chunky, and not old peanut butter that’s separated. If it’s too dry, you get a really rough fillet, too wet and it slumps. Anyway, the glove and denatured alcohol trick worked really well. The fillets are glossy smooth and should take very little sanding. Also, keep in mind that these are great fillets to practice with because most of them will be covered when you enclose the air tanks.
|Even using over-sized cloth, not much extra at the beam…|
To glass the interior, I laid it all out and hand smoothed it again and taped up the excess cloth against the sides. BTW, I got the cloth through one of our vendors at work and due to a serendipitous purchasing glitch, I got cloth that was a bit wider than CLC recommends. As you can see, at the beam of the boat, my wider cloth BARELY covered up to the garboard. Whew! Go with the wider cloth, it’s worth the peace of mind…
|Interior glassed. Not without learning a few harsh lessons. Next boat…|
The wetting out procedure was considerably more complicated due to the filleted seam between the bottom and the garboard. It kept wanting to create a bubble under the cloth. A tad more resin and some creative squeegeeing secured it. By the time I got toward the other end of the boat, the first end was starting to tack up.
Once I was done wetting it out, I made the biggest mistake of the project so far (as referenced earlier). I neglected to review the directions and I sliced the wet cloth along the lap seam between the garboard and panel#2. It kind of pulled the cloth and left strands showing and created some bubbles under the cloth. Thankfully, these were mostly at the ends, which will be inside the air tanks, so no problemo. I also had to pull tiny slivers of blue tape out of the seam because I sliced it with the razor knife while trying to remove the excess cloth. I just happened to reread the directions for the nth time after wrestling with it and it clearly states to let the cloth cure then cut it out. Since I cut the excess cloth off the ends of the transoms the next morning after glassing the bottom, I now know how much easier it is to cut the saturated cloth after it has cured. It slices like stiff cardboard. My ragged edge meant that I had to spend an extra half hour sanding the edge of the fiberglass, which may actually show in the final product. We will see. Only after a few coats of epoxy will I be able to tell if this was a total biff…
|Bulkheads tabbed in…|
Flush with the lack of success from the fiberglassing the interior, it was time to install some bulkheads. When I removed the wired in bulkheads, the hull only flexed 1/16″, removing the necessity of having to install the spreader mentioned in the instructions. This made me feel really good about the build and the glassing so far.
Next step, finishing the fillets…
Let’s take a minute to examine where we are time-wise at this point. These are extremely loose numbers, but I think are a very fair representation of how many “lunch hours” I’ve spent on this project.
Let me also take a minute to reinforce (pun intended) that my choice to tab the boat together first, remove the wires, then go over it with a finished fillet turned out to be the best decision a novice boat builder could make. Like I said, I think it should be explicit in the instructions to use this technique as the ramifications of not doing so are substantial. BTW, other than the CLCBoats.com forum, there is no Eastport Pram builder forum like there is for the Passagemaker dinghy PMDBuilders.net. Hmmm…
Total: 40 hours
Wow! I wonder how long it will take me to recoup the hours building with hours sailing. Hopefully some time next year. Speaking of which, I’m already seriously considering building a Passagemaker…
First, a bit of a confession. The timeline for this blog is not in real time because this is a re-post of my blog on another site, so don’t think you can build this beast in a few weeks, unless you take off work.
Here’s the tool you’ll definitely need for the “stitch” part of Stitch & Glue™, a wire nipper. It allows you to cut the stitches without damaging the plywood because it cuts flush. I first stumbled on this tool while stringing barbed wire fencing around an entire ranch during a summer in college…
So I finished the contours on the center bulkhead and fitted the transoms back. Only this time, I was so jazzed to put the damn thing together that I didn’t remove any of the glue squeeze-out. FYI: the directions call for using epoxy on everything. I used a weatherproof glue (Titebond II) to laminate any panels in the plans that are more than 6mm (1/4″). Since everything will be encapsulated in epoxy anyway, it shouldn’t matter as long as the lamination is structural, which it definitely is. Titebond II glue joints that I use when making furniture are stronger than the wood.
I wanted to go into a little more detail about the stitching technique since it caused me such a quandary. Below are examples of a stitch that I managed to pull together since I’m doing this by myself on my lunch breaks, and one that I replaced once the panels were all together and twisted correctly since it’s neighbor stitches were holding it together while I did the intermediate stitch properly. It’s amazing how the rabbets and a properly twisted wire pull the hull together. Remember, twist the properly located wire just enough to snug it up against the wood fibers. A partial twist more will cause the wire to cut into the thin plywood edge. It may not need to be said, but I followed the righty-tighty convention on all my stitches. It drives me crazy when twist ties are backwards. OCD much?
After tweaking each stitch, I thought it prudent to nip each one off to reduce the wires sticking out and possibly (read probably) interfering with the upcoming steps, which involve epoxy, which one can’t afford to eff up. The stitches remind me strongly of having braces and watching the orthodontist nip the wires after having them tightened…
|Stitches tightened and nipped off – SUPER SHARP!|
After reading a ton of other blogs (thanks guys!), I determined to deviate from the instruction manual slightly and “tack” the laps between the stitches. I think that this should be explicitly recommended in the instructions because if you get globs of thickened epoxy onto the stitches, then you’ve got a pretty serious issue to address once it’s hardened. It’s not smooth or fair and the only way I was able to deal with the few boogers I created was with a Dremel tool and a small burr. This was done by squirting the silica-thickened epoxy with a System Three epoxy syringe with the idea in mind that I would come back with a larger radius fillet once the tacks had cured. It worked amazingly well. The hull was amazingly stiffer once the tacks cured. The “downside” of tacking the panels together is that it’s another step and in my case, another day’s worth of waiting for the slow cure epoxy. I think this paid for itself in spades by not having to fix hundreds of boogered stitches from a single pass approach.
The second pass of silica-thickened epoxy injected via syringe then finger-smoothed created the exact same fillet as shown in the manual. It left the thin plywood rabbeted edge and tangentially intersected the adjacent panel. This creates a lot of surface area contact, which creates a lot of structural hull integrity, which is kind of the point. I was successfully able to use the denatured alcohol trick to smooth 75% of the laps. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and the laws of thermodynamics (it didn’t get as warm in the shop as I’d anticipated), I had to leave two laps un-smoothed as it was getting late. The next morning after the epoxy had fully cured, there was a noticeable difference between the glassy smooth joints and the lumpy, non-skid joints. A few minutes of hand sanding the offending laps got them within striking distance, aesthetically-speaking, of the smoothed ones. Not perfect, but acceptable, considering I’m going for a working boat, not a museum piece. Also, you have to keep in mind that everything will get several coats of epoxy, which does wonders for smoothing things that look rough…
|Panels overlap transoms on purpose. Joints super-tight for not being CNC’d…
|First pass, laps tacked together between the stitches…|
Now that the laps were structural, it was now time to start thinking about filleting the interior. Since I’m using the tabbing technique, I wanted a smaller radius for the tabs. Then I’ll cover the tabs with a larger radius, continuous fillet. This meant two different filleting tools. System Three spreaders (Part # 3540S99) have a nice 3/4″ radius on them from the factory, so I took one and laid out a 1″ radius. The tabs were filleted using the factory spreader and the long, continuous, smooth fillet was made with the modified one. An added bonus to using a spreader is that once you’re done making the fillet, you can use it to scrape up the excess that squeezes out. One thing that first time epoxy users might not know about plastic spreaders and mixing cups is that once the epoxy cures, you can usually peel/pop the epoxy off the slick plastic surface and it’s like new!
|Original and modified filleting tools…|
|Tabs in place. Transoms are rock solid. Wires are easily removed with nipper.|
I deviated from the directions again by fiberglassing the bottom of the boat first. I agonized over this step for several reasons. First, it’s much easier to do the bottom. It’s one panel and it’s convex shaped. The interior is concave and three panels. It’s actually a huge difference in the wetting out process. I’d recommend considering this option. Of course the trade off is that if you glass the interior first, you can still make sure that the boat is square by using winding sticks or just a visual. There’s no way to tell if the boat’s square if it’s upside down with both ends drooping over the sawhorses. Plus, I had no idea how stiff glassing the bottom would make the boat, so I didn’t want to build a permanent twist into it. What I did to address the issue was place the boat right side up on the sawhorses and shim it square. Then I flipped the boat upside down and put the equivalent shims under it to compensate. Theoretically, this should make the boat square.
|Protective tape in place on first lap. Rolling out 6oz cloth…|
Luckily, my shimming trick worked! I squeegeed all of the excess resin out of the cloth, leaving the glass weave showing. You know when the cloth is properly saturated because it get’s completely dark. No white areas showing, only nice dark wood grain showing through.
|Boat bottom shrouded in 6oz cloth and hand smoothed…|
|Bottom wetted out…|
I made a small deviation from the directions here that ended up having huge consequences. Because I got some epoxy drips outside of the target zone, I was concerned that it would fuse the glass in the wrong spots, so I ran a razor knife along the silica thickened fillet on the first lap, severing all of the glass fibers. This allowed me to remove the excess dry cloth without disturbing the bottom panel. This actually worked too well, because it lulled me into a false sense of security when glassing the interior…
|Excess cloth trimmed and tape removed…|
|Properly wetted cloth still shows the weave…|
So, I went ahead and stitched the transoms on even though I’m not done cutting out the handles. I just wanted something that looked like a boat instead of a pile of scrap lumber. I’m really impressed with the precision in which the parts mated up. The tolerances were so close, it looks like a CNC kit!
|It’s really cool the way the parts all force each other into the correct hull form!|
|Stitching planks #3 and #4 on really makes it look like a boat!|
|She’s got some nice lines. Real boats have curves…|
|I couldn’t resist adding the center bulkhead template
in to see how close it fits and the final hull shape.
I’m going to remove the transoms and finish the handle cutouts and ease the top edges while it’s still easy to use the router on the workbench.
The next step is to precisely locate the center bulkhead and stitch it in place. This stiffens the hull and holds it into the correct shape so I can flip her and fill all of the lap joints with thickened epoxy. That will stiffen up the hull a bit to help her keep in shape…
Captain Chris out…
So after doing a ton of research by reading all of the other Eastport Pram and Passagemaker dinghy build blogs out there, I decided to dive into doing the stitches. Everybody discusses the stitching process from a big picture standpoint, but I wanted to go a bit more in depth here. The directions clearly state to start at the bow. Some advice on the CLCBoats.com forum was to start in the middle, but that could lead to both ends being off. My concern about starting at the bow was that I’m doing this myself and that’s a lot of unsupported plank just hanging out there. I wondered if a string loop around the boat would hold the planks in place long enough for me to get the stitches in. Lo and behold, it worked!
|First course of planks stitched with the help of my loops…|
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself… Before the stitching comes the rabbet joint procedure. Let me tell you that in all the years I’ve been doing woodworking, I’ve never done anything like put a 1/8″ rabbet in a 1/4″ sheet of plywood, especially on a curved surface. Luckily, I had a router and the 3/8″ rabbet bit, so no extra expenses there. I clamped sections of the planks together on my workbench and routed the stretches between the clamps. Move clamps and continue on. I made sure to mark my templates to ensure I rabbet the correct edges because the first two planks are concave and it’s a bit non-intuitive.
|Rabbet joint closeup shows geometry of lap-strake…|
|Difficult to see but the wire poking out the back left goes into the previously drilled hole.|
OK, so now back to the stitching… It was a bit scary and tricky. I found that if I bent the wire into a lopsided staple, then I could put the long side into the plank that’s at a bit of an angle, slide it in a bit to get it started, then put the short side into the bottom and slide them both through. Then I smash the bend in the staple flat across the seam with my finger to take out some of the slack (making sure not to crush the rabbeted edge that’s sitting on the sawhorse), then duck under the boat. I make sure the staple legs are bent sort of parallel with the boat bottom, then twist so that both legs are wrapping around each other equally, kind of like a DNA double helix. You don’t want one just corkscrewing around the other. Twist placement is also important. I wanted the crotch of the twist to be right on the edge of the rabbet so that the crotch sits naturally on the corner of the plywood. This also draws the joint together very efficiently.
I was also concerned that the stainless steel wire would be too stiff and/or sharp for the 1/16″ holes and the 1/4″ plywood, with the 1/8″ rabbet (vs. copper wire everybody else uses). So far, so good. I left the stitches a little loose on purpose and I figure I can always tighten them up as needed.
|Second course stitched, ready for the transoms!|
|Starting to form a boat shape!|
|Not bad looking for $27 oak plywood…|
Captain Chris out…
I always try to go to the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival every year for my birthday. Shortly afterwards, I decided to bite the bullet and finally bought the plans for Chesapeake Light Craft’s Eastport Pram. I decided to go with the non-nesting version because the curves of the thwarts were much sexier than the trade-offs for the nesting version. Well, I went against the grain (pun intended) and bought some 1/4″ oak plywood from Home Depot. I’ve been going there almost every day anyway to build the new store, so I thought what the heck. It’s less than a third of the price of Okoume from Eden Saw. Although not quite as pretty as the mahogany, it will still make a gorgeous pram. There’s the debate about marine grade, waterproof glues and all that, but I’m going to encapsulate it in epoxy anyway, so I figure for the price if it gets waterlogged after a while, I’m still way ahead of the game. Plus, this is a learning experience and I really want to build a Passagemaker next. Also, I’m cutting out a version in 1/4″ masonite to act as a router template for a possible future second boat. Although I do love lofting, drafting and laying it all out, anything I can do to reduce build time on a second boat is highly desirable. I figure I’ve got about 16 hours into the boat thus far and I don’t even have all the pieces cut out yet. I’m focusing on cutting out the parts that get stitched together in the proper order according to the instruction manual that came with the plans. So, first the bottom, then the side planks, then the transoms, then the bulkheads, then all of the rest of the thwarts, etc.
I had a hell of a time cutting out plank #1 with a sabre saw/jigsaw. It walked and wandered so much that I had to spend an hour sanding it back to the line. That’s when I thought about using my Japanese pull saw. It worked like a charm. It has a narrow kerf and allows me to make modest curves that are perfect for the planks. I’m cutting through the masonite and the two sheets of 1/4″ oak plywood ) good sides together at the same time so that the template and the both side panels for the boat are exactly the same.
|Cutting the curves the smart way…|
I probably need to mention here that the plans call for 6mm and 9mm okoume for the hull and transoms. Since I’m stuck with 1/4″, which is nominally 6mm, I can only double up on my plywood to make the transoms, which will be approximately 12mm instead of 9mm. I’m OK with the additional strength on the transoms and thwarts, as long as the extra thickness doesn’t create a problem putting the boat together. I am a little concerned about the additional weight. The stock Eastport Pram is supposed to weigh 65 pounds and since I’m doubling up on several parts of the boat (1.5x actually), I’ll probably be noticeably heavier. I plan on addressing this with wheels on the skeg so that I can roll it down to Green Lake beach and launch. It’s about 2 blocks away from my apartment, across a weird 5-way intersection (typical of Seattle), so I’ll probably get some looks as I stroll past Starbucks on the corner…
|“Bad” side of bottom. The oak veneer is actually really sexy…|
|Planks all cut out – two mated sides, good-side to good-side, so bad side is showing, plus template…|
|Bow transom: two-ply of 1/4″=12mm instead of 9mm plus masonite template…|
I did a test pass with the 3/8″ rabbeting bit in the router on some scrap plywood. The thinned edge slips into the gap between the bearing and the bit, so I quickly realized that two planks need to be ganged up to allow the bearing to ride on an edge safely. I’m planning on painting the exterior of the hull, but the interior will be finished bright with epoxy resin and varnish. Because of this, it’s important that the “good” side of the plywood gets the rabbet on the top of each plank, so that it overlaps properly when stitched together. This is one of the most common mistakes people make when building one of these according to all of the build blogs I’ve read. I’ve left the screws holding the layers together as much as possible to facilitate alignment. It looks like I’ll need to make a router template for the bow, stern and keel handle cutouts.
So, next up is cutting the rabbets on at least plank #1 so I can get some practice stitching the plank to the bottom. I’m using stainless steel seizing wire instead of copper, so I shouldn’t have any breakage issues. Another challenge will be to glue the bad sides together and making sure they become one while staying perfectly aligned (vs. gluing up blanks then cutting out the profiles). I may have to build a quick and dirty jig for that, but it shouldn’t be too tough. I also thought about vacuum bagging them, but that makes it impossible to keep the alignment perfect.
So far, I’m at 5 sheets of 1/4″ oak plywood at $27 each plus 2 sheets of 1/4″ masonite at $13 each. I’ve already got the epoxy, so that’s covered. I was perusing the Pettit Easypoxy for the hull and it says that one quart covers 600 square feet and quarts are only $18-$38, depending on the color.
Captain Chris out…
With the Holidays coming up, I thought I’d demonstrate how to make a very easy version of what is popularly called a Solomon Bar in the paracord weavers’ world. In the sailing world, this is called Portuguese Sennit. It’s a way of adding a decorative wrap to many things on the boat to protect it from getting damaged or provide a better grip on something. A lot of these types of keychains and bracelets use two pieces of cord, often times to create contrasting colors in the weave. I wanted to make mine more simply because I had to crank out about a hundred of these for boat show giveaways so they’re made with one continuous piece. We used 7/64″ AmSteel® Blue in black for ours, but you can use any small diameter line, whether it’s double braid, single braid, three strand, etc. You can make a keychain fob any length you want by modifying the length of the “core”. Other rope diameters will scale differently too. For reference, once I got into the groove, it was taking me less than three minutes per fob. NOTE: The procedure below was photographed sideways. You can rotate the entire procedure 90° by substituting “top” with “right” and “bottom” with “left”.
It took me a few fobs to figure out that you’re always initiating the new weave with the same tail. There’s no need to mark on end or try to keep track of which end to start the next “half knot”. Once you get cord firmly attached to the ring, all of the following half knots are exactly the same. If you look for the vertical knot (see the wrap that goes over the top tail in the picture below step #9), you always begin with that tail. That means you can put the fob down and pick it back up and always know where you’re at. You can also flip the fob over and it still works.
1. Cut a 4′ piece of 7/64 cord.
2. Fold it in half.
3. Bend the bight over the key chain ring leaving a “core” of 3″.
4. Take the top tail and fold it over the “core” and under the bottom tail.
5. Take the bottom tail and fold it under the “core” then up through the loop you just made with the top tail.
6. Snug up the starter knot onto the key ring by tugging on the tails. Note, this might cause the knot to slide, affecting the length of the “core” so make sure to re-establish a 3″ core if that happens.
7. Now take the bottom tail and fold it over the “core” and under the top tail.
8. Now take the top tail and fold it under the “core” and up through the loop you just made with the bottom tail.
9. Repeat steps 4 through 8 until you get to the end of the core.
10. Tuck the tails through the small “core” loop at the bottom of the fob. Even though the tails are on opposing sides of the fob, make sure to pass them through the “core” loop the same direction.
11. Pull on the tails until the end of the fob is symmetrical.
12. Trim off tails to the desired length.
13. Fray the tail ends if desired. This has the added benefit of keeping the tails from pulling through.
Congratulations! You now have an official sailor’s keychain fob. Stay tuned for the 4 Strand Chain Sennit keychain fob procedure! Please feel free to post any questions and/or comments.
Captain Chris out…
I’ve made probably dozens of dinghy lifting bridles over the years. Most designs involve splicing the legs (usually either 3 or 4, depending on the lifting points on the dinghy) onto a central stainless steel ring. The problem with those stainless steel rings is that I’ve seen them deform when they’re loaded up. While talking to a customer today who was looking to swage his own lifting bridle out of stainless wire rope, I came up with this design for making an easy lifting bridle out of just AmSteel. It has the benefit of no deformation, and it’s soft, so you don’t have to worry about the ring bonking you on the head or dinging your dinghy.
NOTE: For two very important reasons, we’re going to use the direct bury method of splicing the AmSteel onto the 4 snaps, not a locking splice. First, you can’t do a locking splice on the end because the 2 RD (rope diameter) center eye can’t pass through the much smaller 1RD ends. Second, you may need to adjust the length of each leg to level the suspended boat. This could be due to geometry or weight distribution (e.g. outboard motor making one end heavier). The direct bury is by far the easiest splice to quickly adjust. This is also why you need to make each leg a bit longer than you might originally think when you cut your pieces.
You now have a soft eye with twice the breaking strength of the original line! Terminate each leg as desired as previously discussed.
Please feel free to post any questions/comments.
Captain Chris Larsen
With the advent of fibers like Dyneema, it’s now possible to craft things by hand with limited tools that have the same tensile strength as stainless steel parts that have to be manufactured. One of the most common things for DIYers to make is a soft shackle or “softie”. It replaces the standard stainless steel shackle that is commonly seen on both power and sailboats. Besides being able to make a shackle with less that $3 worth of AmSteel, there’s no pin to drop in the water to ruin your day. Whenever I do deliveries, I always have a pair of soft shackles hanging from my belt loops, just in case. Properly made, an AmSteel soft eye has more than twice the strength of the line itself, which boggles my mind. Soft shackles are commonly used to attach jib sheets to the clew of the sail, assuming there is an eye spliced into the forward ends of the jib sheets.
As an overview, making a soft shackle uses many of the same skills as splicing AmSteel, with the addition of topping it off with a lanyard (aka diamond) knot. The directions below will result in a soft shackle that’s approximately 10″ long, made from 36″ of 3/16″ AmSteel. I wanted the length of AmSteel that you start with to be something that was easy to purchase (i.e. we sell AmSteel by the foot). This means that toward the end of the procedure, when you’ll be tying the lanyard (diamond) knot, the tails will be rather short. This was done intentionally to reduce waste.
We highly recommend being very familiar with tying the lanyard knot before attempting this procedure since it’s unnecessarily challenging to attempt the knot with short tails (or you can start with a piece of AmSteel that is at least 4′ long). NOTE: the dimensions given below are strictly for making a soft shackle from 3/16″ AmSteel. The dimensions will need to be scaled up or down depending on the specific rope diameter used and the finished length of the shackle desired. When in doubt, just start with a piece of AmSteel that looks too long. There is also a very interesting soft shackle calculator on L-36.com (a third of the way down the page).
The reason this is called an “improved” shackle is that there are a few other methods of making soft shackles. Some are rated as weaker constructions and some get considerably difficult to use as they get older and exposed to salt water. Some guys much smarter than me have worked up this design and have thoroughly tested it, proving that it’s a superior shackle. On the retail side of things, these shackles can go from about $15-$30, depending on size.
Congratulations! Your soft shackle is now ready for service. Please feel free to post any comments/questions. Note that the shackle could still have some movement until it’s fully loaded up, hence the tails are there to keep it from falling apart. Since we’re stuck with some amount of tails, some people just fray them out, which also makes the tails harder to get sucked back through the knot. I can tell you from first hand experience that when your soft shackles make a trip through the laundry cycle, they’ll definitely be frayed…
Captain Chris Larsen
P.S. Once you master making a soft shackle, you can really take it up a notch and make one of these:
Over the years, I’ve run charters in the BVI over a dozen times, hung out with Kid Rock and Kenny Chesney at a bar, and even officiated a wedding in international waters. On board, we’ve had everything from steak and baked potatoes to bananas foster, from rum drinks mixed with freshly harvested coconut water to lobster fettuccine alfredo. I was even hired to bring a band from island to island for a 50th wedding anniversary flotilla. I loved my first trip to the BVI so much, I tried to buy the Spirit of Anegada, a 39′ gaff rigged daysail charter boat, but ran into problems because of my American citizenship. I think the British are still a bit miffed about that whole independence thing. By the way, the Coke is more expensive than the rum down there. Anyway, here are some observations for people contemplating their first trip to the BVI.
The British Virgin Islands is the number one sailing vacation destination in the world, for good reason. The weather is relatively consistent, you’re never far from civilization as the islands have sufficient infrastructure for most of your needs, and the sailing primarily consists of short hops from island to island that are the equivalent to sailing around the San Juans. A four to six hour sail is pretty standard for any given day. Remember, they want you on a mooring ball by 5PM. The BVI has just enough of a different culture to feel exotic, but is not remote enough to feel like you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. The USVI feels just like you’re in America, with strip malls, big box stores, etc. For a sailor, a vacation in the BVI will feel like a fantasy in paradise, with breathtaking vistas everywhere you look. Because it’s so easy to sail there, you can have the confidence to relax and plot the course for your own bareboat vacation. Even though everything under the waterline is a national marine sanctuary, the British allow you to pump your head directly overboard. Keep this in mind when taking your morning swim, because the boat upwind of you might be taking advantage of that policy.
Hurricane season starts at the beginning of June and lasts until November. During those months, discounts are available for the “low season”, but you run the risk of getting rained on. You can get cancellation insurance with some charter companies that might cover this contingency.
Holidays are also “high season”, but the weeks before Thanksgiving, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the weeks after New Years are priced reasonably. May is considered “high season” also, but you can take your chances and sneak into June if you’re lucky. I once had a monsoon start pouring on us just as we were stepping on the plane to leave during the first week of June.
The Moorings & Sunsail are the premier charter companies in the world. They get new boats and have a lot of amenities where throngs of people vacation. Their bases look like Ellis Island during WWI. They also treat you like a number. If you’re fine with paying for new boats and huge clubhouses, then fine. We charter with the second-hand fleets that get the Moorings/Sunsail boats when they’re retired after five years (i.e. BVI Yacht Charters, Footloose, etc.). There are trade-offs. The boats are older, and a bit more beat up, but they’re also “broken in” and considerably less expensive. We met a group at Foxy’s on Jost Van Dyke who had a brand new boat, and all kinds of things were going wrong with it.
Some of these companies also have referral and/or repeat customer discounts, so they get even cheaper when you do it again. Some companies will limit where you can go (i.e. Anegada), but some don’t seem to care. If you want to do a “crossing” over to Anegada (14 miles due North from Bitter End Yacht Club), then make sure your company will allow you to do so (by the way, it’s worth the trip). Discounts are available everywhere for Sunsail charters, but if their original prices are high enough, then the discount just puts them back in the same ballpark. Different companies have a different number of bases and locations, so if you want to go to Tahiti or Antigua, and a repeat customer discount would help you in the future, you might want to take that into consideration.
On a slightly unrelated note, we use credit cards that have airline miles associated with them, so if you use a Continental credit card to book the charter, then the miles will help offset the price of airfare to get down there. If you don’t rack up enough miles for that trip, you might at least get enough miles every other, or every third trip, depending on usage.
Monohull vs. Catamaran
Monohulls give you a very “salty” feel when you’re sailing in the Caribbean. They heel over and you really get to plow through the waves like Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake. Some people like this, and some don’t. Monohulls will point a bit better, but have slower speeds, so it can tend to be a wash. Monohulls have less interior volume, so depending on the size of your party, that may be a factor. If you get a monohull with two staterooms, the one aft will be much roomier than if you get a three cabin model. Monohulls will rock more when you’re on a mooring ball. If you’re used to sailing a monohull, then chartering one may make you feel a bit more confident on your vacation. Monohulls have a deeper draft, so be careful if you go to Anegada in one. Tacking a large monohull is just like tacking a small one. You bring the jib over as it’s luffing.
Catamarans are big, in all ways. They’re wide, which means they have a lot of interior volume for lots of amenities. There are more cabins, more heads, and more privacy. They’re also a bit tricky to maneuver. They have two engines and twin throttle controls. This allows you more maneuverability, but also makes it harder to see the corners. They don’t point quite as well. On the other hand, they have full-roach main sails, which grab more wind and scoot you along faster. This additional speed can make up for the larger angle of attack. Cats are great for larger parties, people unused to sailboats heeling, people looking for more comfort and amenities, and kids. Cats draw almost no water, so there’s no problem if you decide to sail to Anegada. Tacking a catamaran can be tricky. Make sure you get up your boat speed, then allow the jib to backwind to help push you through the tack. Once you’re safely on the other tack, you can bring the jib across. The jibsheets tend to snag on the winch at the base of the mast that’s used to set the mainsail, so keep the lazy sheet tight as the jib comes across. Because there’s very little ballast on a catamaran and lots of freeboard/windage, there’s very little momentum to push you through the tack. One of the biggest benefits of a catamaran is the extra cabin will undoubtedly provide another couple to defray the cost of the charter with. Also, catamarans often have tiny cabins in the bows that are perfect for kids.
Both boats usually have stack packs for housing the main sail. Furling mainsails have been phased out because of jamming problems. Most boats also have lazy jacks, so raising and lowering the mainsail while motoring directly upwind is critical to keep the battens from fouling. Both boats use the same systems on board. The 12V batteries, head, propane stove, etc. are identical.
One way to get to the BVI is to fly into St. Thomas, then take a ferry over to Tortola. This lets you see a bit more stuff while you’re waiting to be ferried around, but nothing terribly spectacular. The ferry schedule can be on “island time”, which means if you’ve got any time constraints, it can be a little anxiety inducing. The ferry is also how locals get to and from work and get all their purchases back to the BVI from Costco, so the ferry won’t leave until they’re done loading all of the goods the locals have purchased. You’ll still have to take a taxi from the ferry landing to the charter base, as it’s a long, confusing way to drag your luggage.
Our preferred way to get there is to fly to Puerto Rico, then grab a prop plane to Beef Island. The layovers in Puerto Rico can be long, but that’s where they make Bacardi rum, so it’s not too bad. The puddle jumper can be a bit scary, but the views out the windows are pretty enough to take your mind off the noise and smell of exhaust. Beef Island has a pretty short runway that starts right at the water’s edge, so it can be exciting. Once you land and go through Customs, you’ll need to grab a taxi around to the charter base. This can actually be a pretty exciting experience. The roads are narrow and twisty, there are herds of goats and other domesticated critters to negotiate. We’ve also seen very colorful funerals happening in the cemeteries along the side of the road.
Tortola – The main island of the BVI chain.
Cooper Island/Salt Island
Virgin Gorda - North Sound is where Sir Francis Drake gathered his fleet before attacking the Spanish Armada in Puerto Rico. On your way out of North Sound, you can see Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s private island so keep an eye out for his submarine.
Anegada – Means “drowned island” in Spanish. It’s a decent daysail across to the only coral island in the BVI chain. As a result, it’s so flat that the only thing you see for miles are palm trees and the occasional roof. It’s well worth the trip, but be careful. It’s very shallow, so make sure you follow the buoys marking the channel and mooring field. Luckily, the sandy bottom is easy to get off if needed. A lot of people run aground there, so just be careful. They have a webcam. There are some very entertaining videos on YouTube that feature people attempting to anchor in the mooring field.
Jost Van Dyke – A very cool island with lots to do. Get there early, as the mooring balls get grabbed up fast in the four main mooring fields. Probably my favorite island on the itinerary.
Sandy Cay – the island featured in the opening scene of Gilligan’s Island. Strolling along the beach, hiking through the vegetation and snorkeling are the primary activities.
Marina Cay – Home of Happy Argh and the third Pusser’s Company Store to get your passport stamped. There’s a really pretty shallow lagoon to snorkel in and both bars have a great view. There’s some history to check out while you’re there. You can get your picture taken every thirty seconds out on the fuel dock and retrieve it online when you get home via the timestamp. They have a webcam.
What to Take
Conclusion – Many people walk away from a week in the BVI saying it was the best vacation they’ve ever had. It’s very beautiful and readily accessible for people with a wide range of sailing experience. Done properly, it can safe, fun, and you’ll come home with a tan and lots of souvenirs. It can be done by a whole family, or just a couple. Many people use the BVI as their destination for weddings, family reunions, get-togethers with friends, or just a romantic get-away for a couple.
Stay tuned. In our next installment, now that you know what the BVI has to offer, is how to figure out your itinerary with so many great things to see and do. After that, how I grab a mooring ball and tie the boat up for the night.
Captain Chris Larsen
A few years ago, I cracked open my monthly American Sailing Association Instructor Newsletter and saw a great article about how to rig your Windex. I was immediately struck by the fact that most people look at rigging their Windex in a completely one-sided way. The common viewpoint on Windex setup is to demystify the ability of a sailboat to go upwind, but having taught on San Francisco Bay in a 21′ sailboat, I felt that stressing safety might be considerably more important.
Sometimes, a Windex is rigged with the two arms/tabs arranged pointing forward and they’re 90° to each other. This is a great visual for the “No Go Zone”, the sectors 45° on each side of the wind that a sailboat can’t sail up into. It’s where the sail stalls and reflects the standard 90° tacking angle. For beginning sailors, this is an important visual reference for sailing the boat properly upwind, knowing when you’re pinching too high, and when you can stop your turn after the tack. It’s a great way for students to reinforce the wind direction they’re feeling with a way to quantify that with the handy dandy instrument at the top of the mast. If your Windex is setup this way, then the wind vane’s arrowhead will be inside the arms of the “No Go Zone” angle when you point too high. In this case, the arrow would be reversed from the image above. If the arms/tabs are pointed aft to increase visibility from the cockpit, then the image above would indicate the boat is heading directly upwind.
It’s also very common for that angle to not be at 90°. Whether it was installed improperly, got tweaked while trailering the boat, or a seagull has decided to adjust it for you, they’re often not quite right for whatever reason. I often jokingly tell students that most boats tack at 90° and if you spend a million dollars on your boat, you can get that down to 80° or less, but the standard textbook answer is about 90°.
When I finished that article, I thought it was a great discussion about upwind performance, but what about safety? When I teach, I have the following hierarchy of imperatives: Be Safe, Have Fun, Learn to Sail. Without being safe, you can’t have fun, and without having fun, what’s the point of taking a sailing class? With safety being the top priority, what’s the largest source of potential danger on a sailboat? An accidental jibe (aka crash jibe).
The Windex can alternatively be setup as a visual indicator of what we call the “Caution Zone”. Notice we’re not going with “Danger Zone” here. Accidental jibing is definitely a potential hazard to be aware of, but obviously we don’t want to scare the students off in a Sailing 101 type course. The “Caution Zone” is approximately a 60° arc directly downwind where the wind can sneak around the back side of the sail and cause you to accidentally crash jibe, especially if you’re going over any substantial waves that drastically affect the wind’s angle of attack. In this case, with the arms aft, the arrowhead of your wind vane will be inside the arms of the Windex as it point into the apparent wind coming from behind the boat, once again opposite of the image above.
I think this is an important option to consider when rigging your Windex. In all fairness, another very powerful visual indicator that you’ve entered the “Caution Zone” is that the jib dips or “winks” because it’s being shadowed by the mainsail. However, if you’re on a boat without a jib, there would be no indicator, so the Windex would be even more important.
Regardless of how you setup your Windex, I think it’s important to know your options. I always like to know the “Why” behind everything we do on sailboats.
Captain Chris Larsen