Sunday, October 30, 2011

Beach Cruisers

I spent a significant proportion of my early life (until about 5-1/2 years of age) travelling around the world on cargo ships, one of which was only 2,900 tons. On her we journeyed from Copenhagen to Sydney, Australia via all stops. Having been given the run of such a small ship crossing the oceans of the world, it is not surprising to me that I grew up with a love of boats and the water.

M.S. Coolangatta
As if that wasn't enough, my father had a large collection of books written by boat designers such as William Atkin, Francis Herreshoff, Howard Chappelle, and many others, and I watched as dad built a beautiful strip-planked William Atkin-designed round-sided dory called Nancy in our lounge-room. I sailed a Sabot at the local yacht club and did all of the normal things a 1960s kid would do when growing up on the shores of Moreton Bay.

One of the big events of my life started when my mother came home from one of her infrequent shopping trips to our State Capital, Brisbane, with  a new book in her basket. It was "Swallows and Amazons" by Arthur Ransome, and to this very day I continue to re-read the entire twelve book series. This set of stories changed me from being a racing person to a cruising person, although remnants of the racing-me still lurk within!

Tom Dudgeon setting up for the night aboard Titmouse. (illustration by Arthur Ransome, from Coot Club, published by Jonathan Cape)
Throughout my teens and early twenties I sailed constantly, with an increasing emphasis on cruising (or beach cruising as it later became known to me). The next major step for me came in the eighties when I first read L. Francis Herreshoff's book, "The Compleat Cruiser" (spelling of "compleat" comes from Isaak Walton's book, "The Compleat Angler").

The Compleat Cruiser is essential reading for anybody interested cruising and wooden boats, but the section which had the most dramatic effect on me was the part where Goddard described a beachcruiser to his new friends Coridon and Briggs. The boat he was describing was a 13' x 4' 6" cruising dinghy with a standing lugsail of 76 sq.ft and equipped with leeboards.

L. Francis Herreshoff's beachcruiser from the book, "The Compleat Cruiser"  (published by Sheridan House)
Here is what the fictional character Goddard had to say in one part of the book;

"What do you mean by a beach cruiser?" inquired Briggs.
"It means a boat to cruise along beaches in shallow water," Goddard replied, "a boat to sleep aboard when hauled out on the beach, and I can tell you that this is an interesting and risky sort of cruising. It takes skill and experience to sail close to the shore if it is a rocky region and there is a sea running, but you can visit many unfrequented places in a beach cruiser. Of course, there are sheltered waters in rivers and marshes where there is no danger. A beach cruiser, emphatically does not mean a boat to hang around bathing beaches, or anything of the sort, but rather a boat for a naturalist who wants to study shore birds and animals. It is the best sort of craft for the poor man who has an urge for cruising. Even Conor O'Brien, whom most of us think of as a deep water man, wrote a chapter in his book, On Going to Sea in Yachts, that was called 'The Beach Cruiser'. (The Compleat Cruiser, by L. Francis Herreshoff published by Sheridan House)

Over the years I continued to go on beach cruising expeditions, varying in length between two hours late in the afternoon or night, to four-day trips covering long distances in isolated areas. Sometimes the boats used were kayaks and small sailing/rowing boats like Phil Bolger's Cartopper and an Oughtred Macgregor sailing canoe, while at other times we went in outboard-powered dinghies/tinnies. But most often the boat used was my dad's old design, Phoenix.

Phoenix, showing just one of her many rigs
We used Phoenix a lot because she was what was available, and she did a great job when there were two of us. But for solo trips she was (and still is) just a bit too big and heavy - especially on the beach. On the other hand, the small boats and kayaks were too small in many circumstances. Time and again I came back to thinking about the beach cruiser idea from The Compleat Cruiser, and I started sketching a "Goldilocks" boat - not too big, not too small, but just right!

After a considerable time, I made a half-model of what I had in mind, and from the half-model I took off a set of lines using a pantograph arrangement of my own devising, based on priniples I had picked up from reading L. Francis Herreshoff's biography of his father, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff.

The original half-model from which I took the lines
I've previously told the story of how I eventually developed the Phoenix III design from this set of lines, and you can read about it here - Phoenix III and The Perfect Customer 

Phoenix III has proved to be a good design, and I'm particularly pleased with her size, being the same breadth as the Francis Herreshoff beach cruiser at 4' 6"/1372mm to the inside of the planking, but being longer at 15ft/4572mm LOA to the inside of the planking. The increased length has been achieved on a hull weight which is still slightly lower than the mythical Herreshoff boat.

My friend Ian Hamilton was very impressed by Phoenix III but was intimidated by the glued-lapstrake (clinker) construction. Having built several boats previously using the stitch-and-glue method, Ian asked me to produce a new design which would replicate Phoenix III's layout and proportions, but be constructed stitch-and-glue. The resulting design is First Mate, photos of which you can see here in First Mate Photos one, two and three.

Cover sheet from the plans showing three of the rig options
Construction plan drawing showing layout
First Mate has turned out to be one of my favourite designs, although I have to admit that I haven't yet sailed one. I just like the overall shape and feeling of the boat, and because of having one under construction in my shed for a long time, I've had plenty of time to look her over. The reason for the delay in completion has been that she is a private job to test the design - Ian paying for the materials and me giving him the labour (or most of it anyway) - so the boat gets worked on only when other jobs have been done. However, she is getting close now. There are several other First Mates completed or under construction.

Dry fitting the deck
Dry fitting the deck
Ian looking over his boat at an early stage of construction.
It seems to me that both Phoenix III and First Mate fulfill the aims put forward by L. Francis Herreshoff in The Compleat Cruiser. Both are very light-weight, they are both arranged for satisfying performance under oars and small outboard, and both have a choice of rigs. One of the rigs - a balance lugsail - is coincidentally exactly the size of the Herreshoff boat's standing lug i.e. 76 sq.ft.  One significant difference between my designs and L.F. Herreshoff's beach cruiser is that I've specified a centreboard, whereas L.F.H. opted for leeboards. The leeboards do avoid the potential problem of having the centreboard slot jambed with sand and pebbles, and they are something I may consider on another design I have waiting in the wings.

It is great fun to build and use your own boat, but even better is to design her for yourself in the first place. Why not have a go at drawing your own design and getting exactly what you are after? It isn't all that difficult, and in the old days, people did it all the time. Then go and have some healthy fun on the water!


  1. Love Phoenix III and first mate. Your post prompted me to pull down L Francis' "Sensible Cruising Designs", and the beach cruiser was in the book. Great inspiration. Another of his designs that would make a useful beach cruiser is "Carpenter", built lightly...

  2. Curious as to what design is "waiting in the wings" that may use leeboards. Sounds interesting. Maybe it's the one that will balance with a passenger seated on the aft thwart?