Observations On Sail And Oar Boat Sizes

Last month I had the good fortune to join two friends on a three day cruise, circumnavigating Harstine Island, in south Puget Sound. Normally, trips like these are all about the natural experience, the beauty, the peace, the near death moments, like my trip to Sucia last year.

But this trip ended up being much more about the friends I was traveling with, and let’s face it, their boats. There is no rule about heavily coveting some other man’s boat, and taking sexy pictures of it, right? They were both in sail and oar boats designed by Iain Oughtred. And I was very keen to see how they compared to my little sail oar boat, although I knew setting out that there was really no comparison.

One boat was an Artic Tern, belonging to my friend Bruce, who has soloed it the length of the Inside Passage (read his entertaining stories here). And the other was a Ness Yawl, built and crewed by my talented new friend Dan. They are very similar boats, one 18′ in length, the other 19′, with nearly identical beams, 62″ and 64″, and designed to weigh between 240 to 260 pounds. They both sport lug yawl rigs, and both are drop dead gorgeous boats.

For many, Iain Oughtred’s designs represent the very best sail and oar camp cruising boats you can build and use. To my eye they are the most beautiful of the type, and are known to be capable of handling challenging ocean conditions, while not being too heavy. Pulling all of that off is some trick, because designing a small boat that can both row and sail well is challenging. The ideal hull shapes for each are rather dissimilar.

By quick comparison, my modified CLC Skerry is 15′ long, has a 54″ beam, and weighs about 125 lbs empty. And this is one of those situations that shows you how just a little bit of extra length and beam in a similar shaped hull quickly turns into a much more substantial boat, with all the associated pros and cons. My boat Joy appeared a bit toy-like next to theirs, and could handily fit inside theirs. You can sort of get a sense of that from the picture below, taken by Bruce.

Three sail and oar boats rafted up for dinner in South Puget Sound.
Rafted for dinner inside Dickenson Point – Picture by Bruce

Where Did We Go?

Map of our route circumnavigating Harstine Island.

Before we get into the more interesting stuff of talking about sail/oar boat sizes, let’s get this rundown of where we went and what we experienced out of the way.

Our little trio of sail and oar boats traveled about 32 miles, over two and a half days, circumnavigating Harstine Island clockwise. Harstine is ten miles north of Olympia, in south Puget Sound, and is not too big, just ten miles long and three wide. So it was no great effort to get around it.

We had planned on venturing further, but had a serious lack of wind the first two days. And it was stupid hot for this early in the year, with temperatures in the high 80’s to low 90s. By the way, did you know that if you varnish yourself with seven or eight consecutive layers of sunscreen you can achieve a superior state of weather protection?

Day 1

A couple of us launched at Arcadia, close to Shelton, and the third from a ramp more to the east (I never learned where), and met up on the east side of Hope Island. We then rowed up the west side of Squaxin Island, and continued up Pickering Passage. We had a good strong current moving with us up the side of Harstine Island. So much so that we really did not need to row, and at times just sat round chatting as the shore passed by. At one point we were almost in a circle. I grabbed my camera to take a picture of their beautiful boats, and laughed to find we were all a bunch of circle jerks, each with a camera in hand.

Two Iain Oughtred designed sail and oar boats.

Eventually we ended up in Jarrell Cove State Park. We stretched our legs on shore, used the facilities, and then tucked ourselves back behind the park dock, in very shallow water. After rafting up for a social dinner, we separated for a glassy calm night on the hook, with a big tide rise called for.

In the middle of the night I woke up to a soft banging on my boat. Peaking out of my tent I was surprised to see I had drifted nearly under the state dock. Turns out I had not put out enough anchor line, and the rising tide had floated my anchor. Stupid of me, but no harm done, and a good lesson; one that I thought I had already learned years ago. The upside of the incident was rowing back into position through a bioluminescent light show with every oar stroke.

Rafted up for dinner in Jarrell Cove.
Rafted up for dinner – in Jarrell Cove

Day 2

The next morning we rowed up around the north tip of Harstine, and hung out for nearly an hour on the water at Dougall Point, hoping for wind. Dan and I snacked and chatted a bit, while Bruce did some sketching. But no luck with the wind.

Hanging out waiting for wind around Dougall Point.
Waiting for wind – Dougall Point

So we continued to row down to McMicken Island State Park, with a short stretch of sailing. We hung out in the shade at the park there for a number of hours. The tide was dropping some 14 feet that day, and Dan and I had to regularly reposition our boats just offshore, using anchor buddies (giant bungee cords). Bruce anchored out and bummed a ride to shore in a dinghy from another sailing family. Note if you visit here that there is a bunch of Poison Oak along the shoreline at McMicken. Fortunately Bruce recognized it before any of us touched it.

It was here that a woman off another boat gave Bruce a very expensive block of truffle cheese. Odd. Pity cheese, you might suspect? For surely these thin, ripe gentlemen must be starving, having rowed from the horizon to this sandy shore, on a blistering hot day? No, not pity cheese. Tribute cheese, we elected to believe. For we three bold adventurers, in our motorless wood boats crafted with our own hands, must cut quite a spectacle of virility, compared to the weak chinned specimens available, that arrived through a haze of sensory corruption, aboard floating motor homes made of frozen-snot, through no effort of mind or body or skill. OK, it was probably pity cheese. It was damn good pity cheese, thrown on a cracker with some smoked Salmon Dan shared.

Rowing along the shore at McMicken Island Sate Park.
Two double ended boats using anchor buddies close to shore.

We had intended to stay the night, but in the afternoon a nice wind came up from the northeast that was too enticing not to use. So we headed off, and crossed the sand bar between McMicken Island and Harstine, with just a few inches of water below our keels, and sailed south down Case Inlet.

Lug Yawl sail and oar boat with Mount Rainier in the background.
Bruce, Row Bird & Mount Rainier
Skerry sailboat sailing in south Puget Sound.

Typical though, the wind mostly died a short time later, and I started to row again, to get around Wilson Point. The other two boats were further out in the channel and had put a bit of distance on me. We were headed for Henderson Inlet. The wind came up a little again and I sailed crossed the channel to Henderson. My travel companions selected a more eastern approach, closer to Johnson Point, and seemed to run out of wind for awhile, and I gained a little ground on them. And around the time the wind died for me again, they got too much wind. I was rowing, they were swearing.

Despite our different boat sizes and routes, we all ended up arriving at nearly the same time. We were fairly tired at this point and opted to anchor just behind Dickenson Point. That was probably a mistake, because for the first half of the night we had rolling waves that made for little sleep. My rudder was constantly clunking, which had me fretting about stronger attachments, with closer tolerances. We probably should have continued on down into Woodard Creek for better rest.

Double ended dinghy at anchor with tent up.
Bruce ready for some sleep.

Day 3

The next morning the weather report was not good. It was already blowing a steady 10 knots, and was calling for gusts from 20 to 30 later in the day. So we cut out early. Dan sailed off, and took a long time short tacking his way north until he rounded Johnson Point, heading east. Bruce and I opted to row against the wind and then continued to row mostly downwind through Danna Passage to the west. Not long into our row Dan contacted us on the radio and recommended drysuits and reefed sails, because he was experiencing some very gusty conditions. I was already in my drysuit. But we tucked into Big Fishtrap Inlet, and did put a reef in, while checking out the many Sand Dollars in the shallows. We still ended up rowing across Danna Passage, to Brisco Point, because the wind was very gusty.

Rowing Joy, my modified CLC Skerry, with the Olympic Mountains in the background.
Another nice shot from Bruce, with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

At that point I got fooled into thinking the breeze had stabilized. So I put up a reefed sail, only to take it down very shortly after. The wind was still stubbornly gusty. I would go from barely moving, to white knuckling the tiller, as my double ended dinghy started surfing, an unnatural activity for her. As we entered Squaxin Passage, and headed north around Hope Island, the wind became even stronger. We ended up crossing Pickinger Passage to our ramp in a steady 10-15 knot wind, that was mixed with stronger gusts. With conditions forecast to get windier, we called it an early day, and pulled our boats out at Arcadia. I had a beautiful drive up the Hood Canal on my way home to Port Townsend.

Observations On Sail And Oar Boat Sizes

OK, now the interesting stuff. But first some rules. Rule #1 – get it out of your head right now that what I am about to say are suggestions for you or anyone else, or in some way judging my friend’s boat choices. Nope, these are just my current thoughts on what I like in a sail/oar boat; for me. Me, me, me. Rule #2 – there is no such thing as the perfect sail/oar boat. Any such comments are pure hubris in my mind. This type of boat in particular is a pile of compromises.

Traveling with my friends on this trip, two things really stood out to me.

Bigger Boats Are More Stable

Duh. And I knew that. But experiencing the actual difference between the stability of their boats and mine was illuminating on a different level. Their boats were massively more stable, when a human body was moving around within, and could clearly carry a much greater load, in gear or people. These guys can stand on a rail, or even up next to their masts in the bow or stern (like Dan is below). Sure the boats heel a bit, but there is plenty of stability for that type of activity.

By comparison, I can very carefully stand on a seat close to the rail in the center of the boat, and the boat nearly dips a rail. And I definitely cannot put any significant weight off center up in the bow or stern without the boat saying to me, “absolutely not, I will dump your ass in the water”. Notice in the picture below, that even though my boat is evenly loaded with a bunch of cruising gear weight, my weight still squats the boat down in the stern.

The greater stability of their boats makes them more comfortable to hang out on when the boat is at rest, and certainly more comfortable when the wind and waves are up and they are sailing, when my boat becomes very athletic. Although my boat is easier to deal with on the shore.

Chatting in our boats while waiting for wind.
Dan demonstrating the comfortable stability of his larger boat. Picture by Bruce.

The Larger Boats Were Slower Under Oars

The other stand out difference, was that my boat was noticeably quicker under oars. This is something I have theorized about in the past when traveling alone, but was proven out in the company of these larger boats. As every armchair boat geek knows, longer waterlines are faster. Right? And yet my boat has a nearly three feet shorter waterline, and was quicker. So what gives?

I am no expert, but there are two things at play here. First, the average human makes for a wimpy motor. There is just not that much power behind the oars. Second, the larger boats not only have more weight to move, but more importantly a good bit more wetted surface area. The more boat surface you have in the water, the more drag you will need to overcome at the oars. My boat weighs about half as much. And being small, it also forces me to take less stuff along, for more weight saving. I pack like I am backpacking. All of that means there is less drag inducing wetted surface area.

Two double ended boats rowing in south Puget Sound.
Picture by Bruce – Showing my boat low on her lines, with all the cruising gear, food and water aboard.
Beautiful double ended Lug Yawl boat sailing.
Dan’s boat Otter

Throw some Olympic class muscle behind their oars, in a short race, the story might be different. But when cruising over many miles, and applying the average amount of power at the oars, my boat moves about 3-4 mph compared to 2-3 mph of the larger craft. That might not seem like much difference, but in slow boats attempting to row 10-15 miles in a day, it can mean a few less hours at the oars. And when rowing along at the pace of my larger friends, it is fairly effortless.

I always seem to row over 50% of the miles on a cruise. And I like rowing, partly because my boat is easy to row, and I can actually cover some miles that way. So this is a very important consideration for me.

The larger boats are definitely designed to be better at the sailing side of the sail/oar equation. And they are. It was clear when the sails were up they are faster, and less athletic to sail as well, because of their greater stability and length. And on longer cruises, they would be much more comfortable.

Did I Come Back Itching To Own A Bigger Boat?

No, not really. Or at least I successfully fought off the urge. Maybe.

It is not that I consider my boat the perfect sail/oar boat for me. That was never my goal. I just happened to own the boat, and was curious to see if I could turn it into a usable mini-cruiser. And I was sick of buying new boats. And it turns out to be pretty dang good.

Having gained some experience cruising it now, I find it a little too minimal. Over a number of days of cruising, my back starts to complain. And the sleeping is just a little too tight at my shoulders. And as mentioned, it is an athletic sailing craft because of how light and small it is.

After this trip I realized that much of my physical discomfort would more wisely be addressed with a regime of stretching and core strengthening in my daily life, instead of changing boats.

Nope, it is far from perfect, and I am sticking with it. In fact, after I finish my Lavro Dory motorboat project, hopefully this summer, the next boat I build will be an even lighter weight rowing boat that I can throw on top of a car, or on top of the Lavro. The Lavro will be my little water truck, taking me safely across big water like the strait between Port Townsend and the San Juan Islands. Then the Lavro becomes an anchored camping site, and I can spend my days exploring in the smaller rowboat. That rowboat will get far more use than a larger sail/oar boat would.

But What Would Be My Perfect Sail/Oar Boat?

Small sailboat in south Puget Sound.

But half the fun of boating is thinking about what boat you might like instead. So, if I were looking for a different solo sail/oar boat, for the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and other protected areas (avoiding larger water crossings), I would still opt for a smaller boat than my compatriots, for better rowing performance, and easier handling on shore. A true 50/50 boat, with equal balance of rowing and sailing.

I am not a big guy, at 5′ 8″, 155 lbs, and that definitely comes into play on my boat choice. A sail/oar boat should fit your size and strength and agility.

I also keep in mind that with boats, a little bigger can actually be a lot bigger, in terms of overall material costs, weight, oar length, trailer size, storage space, and maintenance hours.

Windage is a factor that seems important in a human powered craft. While it is easy to say that I will just sail if it is windy, there are many circumstances where I have had to row in wind and waves. And as you can imagine, a larger boat presents a lot more windage.

In my experience sail sizes and spar size and weight are important on a sail/oar boat. I constantly take the rig down and put it back up, on the water. If rowing lots of miles, I definitely want my spars down. Even my single skinny carbon fiber mast reduces my rowing speed when it is up. So the sails and spars need to be very manageable, and they need a good place in the boat when rowing.

Sailing in dangerously cold waters, whatever boat I have must have a lot of reserve buoyancy chambers, and be easy to recover from a capsize.

I also like a boat I can push on and off a shore, and get on and off a trailer, without too much struggle. Numerous times I have launched at a shallow ramp that does not float my boat off the trailer, and I have to manhandle it off and back on.

Every bit of cruising gear must be secured or strapped down in case of capsize in a sail/oar boat, so there needs to be places and systems for that.

It has to have a quick to put up and take down tent to keep the weather out, and does not present a lot of windage at anchor.

It has to have have nice lines that I enjoy looking at.

Taking all of this into account, my current boat gets a lot of things right. It is really very very good. Honestly, the only things I would try to improve would be to have a bit more stability at rest and sailing, and a touch more comfortable sleeping and sitting positions. And I do covet the advantages of a lug/yawl rig.

Possible Options

So for going solo, something around 16 foot sounds about right, so long as it is designed with lots of rowing in mind. There are no current designs that have everything I like in a sail/oar boat. I would want to modify all of them. But contenders are Iain Oughtred’s Tirrik at 16′ 9″, Iain’s 15′ Tammie Norrie, John Welsford’s Walkabout at 16′ 2″, John’s SEI at 14′ 8″‘, Eric Hvalsoe’s HV16, maybe Clint Chase’s 16′ Calendar Islands Yawl, or a Mantinicus 16′ peapod, although it is rumored to be pretty tender. Another strong option recommended to me by Ben Fuller is the Antonio Dias designed Harrier dinghy. The Harrier is 17′, and just under 5′ in beam, with a flat bottom panel. The boat is definitely rowing focused, and is fast under sail. Unfortunately I am not terrible fond of her shear line looks.

Iain’s Tirrik might win purely because I think it is the most beautiful, even if the Tirrik is a bit longer and heavier than I have in mind. John’s Walkabout is the closest to what I like in features. It is a great boat. But there are a few things about the boat I would want to change, to suit what I like, and to make it a little lighter weight. John’s SEI on the surface appears very similar to my Skerry, but it has more beam, a fuller stern, and a good bit more stability, allowing a touch more sail area. He said it would be “a little more sticky to row” compared to mine, but much more stable. Strong contender, that one, although I would want to modify it in a similar way to mine for cruising.

If I wanted a boat very similar to mine, with a few minor improvements on the sailing side of things, I would go with a Ross Lillistone’s Phoenix III. Remember this is for cruising in fairly protected waters. The length and freeboard are the same as mine. And it is well setup for rowing with one person. It has a little more beam, and fuller stern sections with a transom. That, combined with a very fine entry, makes it a bit better sailing, both upwind and downwind. It is still fairly lightweight, at about 160lbs, and is reported to be easy to recover from a capsize. Lots of people have successfully camp cruised on these boats. Below is an example of one at a recent wooden boat festival in Port Townsend.

Phoenix III boat.

But I recently sailed and rowed one. And my initial thoughts about how the fuller stern and transom would greatly improve the initial stability, as compared to my boat, did not pan out. It is still a very tender boat. Sitting on a side bench, when not sailing, heels the boat over an uncomfortable amount. And the layout in my boat is better for how I like to use it. It is also a fairly complex build. Ross has partnered with Duck Flat Wooden Boats on a new version of the boat, called the Phoenix 15, that is easier to build, with a flat plywood bottom. It is nearly identical otherwise, with just a touch more beam and length. If I did not have my boat, and wanted a very minimal cruiser, I would start with that design, but make an interior similar to my boat, with an off-center daggerboard.

My Choice

If I had to chose and existing design that fits my desires, John’s Walkabout seems best. I have first hand experience with how stable it is compared to mine. Although I would talk with John about making some changes. For how I camp I would prefer to open up some of the forward area of the side benches, like I have in my boat, for easier storage of larger items like drybags, soft coolers, anchor stuff, and water containers, that can all be strapped down. But that might require a slight reworking of the end tank volume, to make sure the boat can still recover from a capsize.

Although, I have come to value a transom, having lived with a small double ender for awhile now. It would be nice to able to occasionally use one of the new electric outboards. It would open up some cruising options. And transoms give better access to the rudder, and a good strong place to mount a mizzen.

So my ideal sail/oar boat might be sort of a mixup between a Phoenix 15 and a Walkabout, with some of the interior from my boat, a lug/yawl rig, and maybe a water ballast tank for more stability under sail and relaxing at anchor. I have started drawing up some of those ideas. Who knows, maybe I will someday build it.

That is just me though. Boats are highly personal, and addictively interesting. They contain multitudes. With more experience and an older body, my desires are likely to change.

And it seems to me that more important than trying to get the perfect boat, is to use the one you have a lot, learn its strengths and weaknesses and become skilled at teasing the best performance out of her. My little boat always seems to get me to where I want to go, often ahead of larger craft.

What can you take from all of this, to help your own sail/oar decision? Probably not much, other than to ignore advice that does not take into account how you will dominantly use the boat, where you will use it, how long you will be cruising for, your size, strength and skill level, your adventure seeking to stress endurance quotient, how many miles you want to cover in a day, and how much rowing vs. sailing you will be doing. And then ignore that advice also. Figure out what works for you, through experience.

No matter what sail/oar boat you have, they all are really fun for exploring, like Bruce is below, checking out a shallow bay on the west side of Hartsine Island. I am just about my happiest in my little boat, sometimes with a camera in hand.

Rowboat exploring a bay off Harstine Island, WA.

P.S. You will often see us without life vests in the pictures above. That was only in calm conditions, when rowing, in hot weather, with virtually no chance of capsize. When sailing, we were all wearing them. Well, two thirds of us at least. Probably best not to follow our example. I did recently get a new life vest that is better for rowing that you can read about here.

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