Sunday, June 5, 2011

Phoenix III and the Perfect Customer

Mist on Lake Cootharaba -courtesy Paul Hernes
Sometime early in 2005, a fellow walked into my workshop in Brisbane, Australia. At the time we were extremely busy with a number of boats under construction, and I remember that I was unable to attend to the visitor for quite a while. He had told me that he wanted to look at a boat we were building, with the intention of purchasing a set of the plans for his own use. His name was Paul Hernes, and he appeared to be typical of the sort of amateur builder who frequently came to the shop.

In those days the telephone would ring constantly, and I had to leave Paul to his own devices for five or ten minutes. While he was waiting patiently, the visitor wandered around the workshop, and struck up a conversation with my friend, Doug Laver, who was working on one of our jobs. Doug is a man of action, and after listening to Paul's story he said that he should abandon any idea of buying the plans he had in mind. Doug told him confidently that he needed a better boat, and said, "...Ross will design it for you."

Now, Doug's promise was made with the very best of intentions, but the problem was that I didn't have any idea the the promise had been made!


For quite a long time I had been drawing designs as a method of educating myself. Despite a lifetime of reading about boats and boat design, I still didn't know anywhere near as much as I wanted to about the design process. I began my design work as a strictly private affair to help me better understand the work of the designers  from whose plans I built. But a promise is a promise - Doug and Rhonnie were both of the opinion I could do the job, and Paul Hernes didn't know of my misgivings.

Designing a boat - at least one with detailed drawings, rather than just a set of lines or a 3D model - takes up an enormous amount of time, and time was something I had very little of in those days. We were working fourteen hours a day, six days-per-week, and after work I still had to do all of the accounting, ordering, and invoicing. Consequently, Paul's new design was done in very late-night sessions, and I had to feed him the drawings one or two at a time. The instructions - other than some notes on the plan sheets - were verbal, and delivered over the telephone. (These days there is a fifty-page instruction manual with the plans).

To cut a long story short, Paul Hernes turned out to be one of those rare people who have intelligence, patience, good-humour, and initiative in equal measure. Despite having only built a tiny pram dinghy by way of past experience, Paul had the very first Phoenix III done in about five months.
Paul (dark shirt) listening to another of my friends, Ian Hamilton, (red shirt) giving him advice that he didn't seem to need! The hull of the very first Phoenix III.
Time and again I have explained to people that the thing to do when building a boat is just to get on with it, and most of the thousands of questions which fill up your mind at night time will be answered by the job itself. What is needed is what Paul displayed so very well - common-sense and initiative.

Well, it is now six years since the first Phoenix III was launched, and Paul has sailed her on an average of once a week for that entire time - sometimes he sails much more frequently, and occasionally poor weather keeps him off the water for a little while. But I have met few people who use their boat more consistently (yes, Rick, I know you do too...)

Paul on launching day. He and I spent plenty of time getting the boat rigged and sorted before going to the water. No fanfare and no hurry - that is always the correct approach.

Paul and me about five minutes after the very first launching under sail. The crease in the mainsail is because the brand-new snotter line had stretched, but she was going nicely anyway.
Paul's Phoenix III tacking away from Rick's Pooduck Skiff
Phoenix III in a tranquil beachcruising scene.
That is me testing her stability on launching day. Very good for such a slim boat.
Paul repainted her a while back. Here she is showing her new hull paint and her optional balance lug rig.
As the above photo shows, you can rig Phoenix III in a number of different ways, using the same mast and the same mast step and partner. There is even a Bermudan rig which requires stays - but it still uses the standard mast step and partner. Being able to swap rigs without carrying out any modifications to the boat is a distinct advantage, particularly if you are interested in cruising as well as day-sailing. I took great care to proportion all of the rigs to allow for proper hull-balance while still using a standard mast stepping position.


There are plenty of examples of Phoenix III around now - this is a nice one sailing on the U.S. west coast

Since Paul finished his boat there have been a lot of other examples of Phoenix III launched. At the time I designed her, I had decided that the ideal size for a beachcruiser which would carry one or two people, be a pleasure to row, and be light enough to manhandle onto a trailer when operating alone was somewhere around 15ft long and with a breadth of 4-1/2ft to 5ft. I have not changed my opinion.

Paul's boat on a Queensland beach, showing off her lovely Allwood sails.
Since the first day when Paul walked into my workshop, he has become a good friend and an inspiration to me and to many other sailing people in this part of the world. It is largely due to him that Phoenix III has become such a success. Paul has quietly and steadily worked over his boat, developing the running rigging and making small alterations to his stowage arrangements etc. This is how things should be - a boat used frequently, maintained well, and developed so that the combination of skipper and boat become a smoothly-functioning team.

You can download free study plans here and see my web page of designs here

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