Month: February 2013

Tenerife to Lisbon on the 1904 gaff ketch Bessie Ellen

Bessie Ellen is a Westcountry trading ketch, built in Plymouth in 1904 and is very typical of the type of boats that were being built in great numbers around the coast throughout the 19th an d early 20th century.  After a lifetime of carrying cargo she now operates as a charter vessel with her owner Nikki Alford who rebuilt the boat from a bare hull.

I join the ship now and then to skipper for Nikki and I came aboard to help bring the boat back from the Canary Islands after her winter of chartering in the sun.

This is a log of our voyage from Tenerife to Lisbon.

9th February 2013.

Last minute preparations underway before departure.  Bobstay, whisker stays and forestays are all tensioned, food is loaded and stowed away and passage plans are logged with MRC in Falmouth and Portugal.  The list of jobs needing to be done on any boat before setting off on an extended ocean passage is endless, but special attention has to be paid on this type of vessel that has just finished a long hard charter season.  We did a full rig check from top to bottom looking for any tiny stress fractures in the iron work, chaffing in the running rigging and other damage that could become a problem at sea.  The boat is in very good condition and looks extremely smart thanks to the hard work, time, effort and money put in by her owner so we don’t have too much to worry about on that side of things.


The guests arrive in the afternoon, and once they have been taken through the safety talk and a briefing about shipboard life while at sea, we slip lines and head round the coast and drop anchor off Los Christianos.  From here it is easy to weigh anchor and head straight off without hassle, and it is nice for the guests to spend a first night on the boat out of the marina but not at sea so they can get used to their new surroundings and find their way around the ship.  We have a superb big hearty meal of roast pork followed by homemade lemon cheese cake followed by a good nights sleep.


10th February 2013.

Noon position: 28ᵒ16.3’N 016ᵒ55.7’W


Forecast: NE F5/6.  Moderate to rough sea conditions. Plan is to head NNW, pointing as much as we can but keeping boat speed up until we are north of Madeira where we will be able to take advantage of the Azores blocking high pressure and start heading east.


0830.  Weigh anchor.  There is very little wind on this western coast of Tenerife in these north easterlies so we motor up the coast in mirror calm waters.  We kill the engine and drift near a pod of pilot whales, several of which swim right up to the boat and dive under our keel.


1200.  The Canaries is well known for its acceleration zones where the wind is funneled between the islands and can easily be 15 knots more than forecast.  With this in mind we set the main with a single reef followed by the staysail, inner and outer headsails.


1300.  Course 315*M.  Sail out of the lee of the land into rough seas and strong winds which quickly build to 40-45 knots with frequent gusts of 55 knots.  It seems the reef was prudent.  The ship takes it well making 8/9 knots boat speed on a fine to beam reach.


1600.  Course 340ᵒM.  Winds ease to a steady 30-35knots and we settle into a comfortable rhythm on a course of 340 M.  watch system temporarily altered to 2 watches so as to strengthen the crew in what is forecast to be a lively night.  Tomorrow we will return to a 3 watch system as planned.


2000.  340ᵒM.  Choppy confused seas that we encountered around the islands are dissipating and a more consistent 2m ocean swell is coming through.  The ship has settled into a steady motion with the occasional larger wave making her roll uncomfortably.  The helm is light and easy and the new guests are quickly getting the hang of helming an 85ft ship.  Some of them are used to sailing small modern yachts with tiller steering so it take a little coaching and some practice to get them steering a steady course.  The off watch clear up after dinner which was served straight from the galley in these rolling seas.



11th February 2013. 

Noon position: 30ᵒ05.68’N 018ᵒ25.93’W. 

Days run: 137Nm.


0800. 340ᵒM.   My watch take the deck.  The NE wind have settled in now with a steady Force 6 breeze giving us about 6 knots.  There’s bacon for breakfast!


1200.  340ᵒM.  At the change of watch we shake out the first reef in the main.  The wind is steady Force 6-7 so she will happily take a full mainsail.


1730.  345ᵒM.  A loud bang reverberates through the hull.  Shouts from the watch to get on deck.  We have snapped a link at the bottom end of the bobstay leaving the bowsprit dangerously unsupported.  We drop the inner and outer jib and heave too where we can assess the situation.  Our options are to motor sail north to Maderia but that is straight into the choppy seas.  We decide on a running repair at sea.  The bottle screw at the top end of the bobstay is let go with the chain held on a rope.  We lower one of the crew down on the inner jib halyard wearing a drysuit.  He very cleverly manages to join the two parts of the broken chain with a big shackle and gets a cable tie on to seize it.  We then attach a chain hoist between the top end of the bobstay chain and the bowsprit and winch the two parts together until we can do the bottle screw up and eventually tighten the chain.  An hour later we are as good as new, except for the several bits of rope attached to the bottom end of the bobstay which will have to wait until we reach Lisbon.


1900.  335ᵒM.  Just getting dark and we are back underway.  The crew are getting changed out of wet clothes when there is a shout from the helmsman.  The clew of the mainsail has pulled out and the main is flogging in the breeze.  It never rains but it pours!  We quickly lower the peak and throat halyards, run out the reefing tackle and haul in on the second reef.  There is no chance we can get the 1st reef as that pennant is taking the whole strain of the sail. 15 minutes later the main is set nicely with 2 reefs.  The easy repair can wait until daylight tomorrow.


2300.  340ᵒM.  Engine on.  Decide to motor sail as wind is decreasing.  Sheet in on the main and attach preventers to the boom and gaff to stop them crashing and causing anymore damage.




12th February 2013. 

Noon position: 32ᵒ03.61’N 019ᵒ04.19’W. 

Days run: 125Nm.


0800.  004ᵒM.  Wind is veering as promised and is now ENE.  Making 6 knots motor sailing.  First few spits of rain, we must be heading north!


1400.  000ᵒM. The mainsail clew has been repaired so we reset the lashing, shake out the reef and set the full main.  Outer jib hoisted and engine off.  The wind has shifted to ENE so we are now sailing due north.


13th February 2013. 

Noon position: 34ᵒ02.7’N 019ᵒ10.7’W. 

Days Run: 131Nm


0700.  005ᵒM.  Spotted first vessel since we left Tenerife.  As the sun rises we can see it is an oil tanker.  He does not come up on the AIS for some reason even though he is only 7.2 miles so we are not sure what the name is where it is heading.


1300.  017ᵒM.  Making good ground now with the veering wind, even managing to make some easting which we desperately need to do.  Looks from the forecast as if the winds are going to die off as we head north from here.  Lunch on deck of pumpkin soup and homemade crusty bread, we eat like kings on this ship!


14th February 2013

Noon Position: 35ᵒ50.8’N 018ᵒ53.7’W

Days run: 117Nm


0500.  025ᵒM.  Wind is veering significantly now, just what we need so we can alter our course towards Lisbon.  Another ship sighted, M/V Primrose bound for Boston.  Call him on the VHF as we can’t see him on AIS.  He reports that he can’t see us either indicating a problem with our AIS transceiver.  Spend some time going through the manuals but to no avail, everything seems to be fine except that it doesn’t work!  We will have to wait until there are more ships around so it can be tested properly as there is little traffic out here to pick up anyway.


1300.  395ᵒM.  Busy morning with shifting winds.  Headsails have been hoisted and dropped several times and the main sheeted in and out to account for the wind which is backing and veering and going from force 2 to 5 every half hour, keeps the watches busy.


1500.  060ᵒM.  Wind has come right round enabling us to lay a course for Lisbon, although we are moor sailing.  The winds are a light 10 knots, enough to fill the sails and steady our motion but not enough to give us any speed.  We are after all working to a deadline as we have guests who need to catch flights.  We take advantage of the easy rolling ocean swell to get up the mast and fix the red all round sailing light which has most likely blown a bulb.  There is enough wind in the sails to stop the roll which is horrible while trying to work aloft.  I don a harness, fasten it to the gantlin and climb the ratlins to the hounds, from where I will clamber, half hoisted, to the lower part of the topmast where the red and green all round sailing lights are located.  It turns out it is the bulb so fortunately a quick fix.  Fantastic view of nothing but gentle ocean swell from up here.


1600.  035ᵒM.  Winds backed again.  We sight a whale blow about half a mile on our starboard beam so we put the helm down and make our way slowly over.  After 10 minutes of waiting the whale surfaces again and it turns out it is not one but two, possibly Fin Whales.  They send enormous blows of spray from their blowholes before diving again.  As we motor slowly away one of them breaches, jumping half out of the water, it is certainly a big beast!


2000.  060ᵒM.  Motor sailing into the night with main and main topsail up and the staysail, 750rpm on the engine giving us 6.5kts.  Plan is to carry this course NE until we are on a similar latitude to Lisbon, by which time it is forecast to blow a steady F5 SW which will carry us on a starboard tack broad reach all the way into the coast.  Plans can always be changed!



15th February 2013.

Noon position: 37ᵒ26.91 016ᵒ46.66’W

Days run: 148Nm


0800.  060ᵒM.  Peaceful night aboard.  Wake up for my morning watch to find the Atlantic is a mill pond.  Just shows you never know what to expect out here at this time of year, it could just as easily be a gale.  We see some flying fish for the first time since leaving the Canaries, they are really bizarre animals!


1100.  060ᵒM.  Wind is filling in from the SE so we can lay a straight course for Lisbon.  We set the headsails and sheet out the main.  Not enough wind to sail yet so we leave the engine on but reduce the rpm.  We are still working to a bit of a deadline so can’t afford to drop the speed right down.  We are now making 7.5kts, if we can keep this for 24hrs it will take the pressure of and we can sail at a more leisurely pace.  Passage making with deadlines to meet is not ideal as it can sometimes force decisions to be made but the boat is a business and has to be run to a schedule, although not at any cost.  If the weather became really adverse we would of course seek shelter and find other ways of getting our guests to their flights next week.  The crew on my watch are set to work, the deadeyes have to be oiled with linseed, rust stains removed and the manual deck bilge pump is being wire brushed ready for a fresh coat of tar.  There are constant little jobs to do aboard a boat on passage, last night the steaming light bulb blew so I will pop up the mast and replace that this morning.  The 240volt impellor pump we use as a daily bilge pump and for empting tanks was starting to struggle, a quick inspection found the impellor was missing a blade or two so it was replaced.  A 5 minute job but it could be crucial in an emergency if the bilge doesn’t perform to its optimum.


2000. 075ᵒM.  We decide to bring the main topsail down at the change of watch.  Forecast is not entirely clear and it could blow a bit so better safe than sorry.



16th February 2013.

Noon Position: 38ᵒ17.62’N 14ᵒ00.15’W

Days run: 143Nm


0400. 085ᵒM.  We have the 4-8am watch today which I like as you get to see the sunrise and finish with a good breakfast.  We are still motor sailing but the wind has veered to SSW and is slowly building.  It appears from the forecast we are going to get a sou’ westerly blow before we make landfall and this is likely the start of it.  Barometer has started to fall.


0800.  085ᵒM.  Wind has built sufficiently so we can sail and still make good speed, we set the flying jib and within an hour are making 6.5kts in the freshening breeze.  Breakfast of champions today – freshly baked bread and leftover plum tart from dinner last night!


1200.  085ᵒM.  Wind is a steady F5 on the beam and we are making an effortless 7-7.5kts.  It is times like these you can tell that Bessie Ellen was designed as a sailing ship with no engine, in the right conditions she glides along with such a comfortable motion and so easy on the helm, it really is a joy to take the wheel.


1400. 085ᵒM.  The ‘Bessie Ellen Bake Off’ reaches its third day.  It is the turn of my watch today to bake the cake for afternoon tea, in competition with the middle and starboard watch.  As watch leader I do as any leader does and delegate the task to someone who actually knows what they are doing!  We get a superb lemon drizzle cake, and although I’m bias, I think it is the clear winner.  We also take this opportunity to do a sweepstake for our time of arrival, closest to the mark wins a bottle of rum so people are studying the log book hard to make their best guesstimate. Wind has slacked a little but the clouds look ominous so we decide that a reef will be taken in before dark, perhaps over cautious but prudent none the less.  Handling a big gaff main in the dark with rolling seas is no fun when the wind gets up, and the old girl doesn’t deserve to be stressed too much at the grand old age of 109.


1700.  085ᵒM.  Take the first reef in the main.  Good practice for the guests to do this kind of sail handling in adverse conditions, keeps them on their toes!


2300.  090ᵒM.  Wind eventually building from the south.  Gusts now of 30 knots with an increasing sea, but it’s on the beam and she is taking it well.  Making a steady 7 knots boat speed.



16th February 2013.

Noon Position: 38ᵒ 41.93’N 010ᵒ 42.12’W

Days run: 158Nm


0400. 095ᵒM.  Take in the outer jib as the winds reach a steady F6-7.  We are sailing fast but comfortably.  It’s a bit lumpy down below but everyone is managing to get some sleep of some description.  The rain squalls are coming thick and fast, this is the first night I have to get out the waterproof trousers, I guess they are here for the duration now.


0800.  095ᵒM.  Bacon and baked beans for breakfast!  We now have less than 100Nm to go and it looks like we might make it in tonight before last orders at this speed.


1200. 095ᵒM.  Fastest day yet with a very satisfactory 158Nm from noon to noon, and all under sail.  Put a good breeze on her beam and she will really fly!


1300.  095ᵒM.  Wind is veering again to due West and dying rapidly.  We are quickly left with a lumpy sea and not enough wind to fill the sails.  We try sheeting the main in hard and putting a boom and the two gaff preventers on but the gaff yard is still crashing horribly so we do a quick drop and get it all lashed down tight.  The next few hours we will no doubt be rolling around but at least we won’t break anything.  It’s engine for the last miles of the trip unfortunately.


1600.  095ᵒM.  Cross the Portugal VTS reporting line.  We call ROCA Control to inform them of our inbound passage to Portugal, give our present position, course and speed with ETA in Cascais.  We are now crossing the southern side of the Cape Roca TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) so we will be seeing a lot more ships travelling north and south, time for the watches to keep their eyes peeled.


2000.  105ᵒM.  The TSS is not as busy as we expected.  Picked up the lighthouses of Cabo Roca and Cabo Rosa.


2300.  Tied up and all secure in Marina de Cascais. The guests are tired but extremely happy.  We open a couple of bottles of red and toast ourselves and the ship, as always she has done us proud this trip.

To find out more about how to come sailing on Bessie Ellen contact Classic Sailing in Cornwall.

This Week’s Special

One of the more pleasant aspects of our work is when we discover a boat which really works, a boat which looks different from the usual, a boat with real character.

Tara is one such – see Sailing Yachts on our web site –  and her history opens a window on yachting across the Atlantic.

The following account sent to us by her owner makes interesting reading.


‘Wink’ Warner ??


It’s not often that in spotting the details of a yacht for sale on the south coast of England, an ‘unknown’ designer’s name is seen attached to such a handsome boat. ‘Wink’ Warner? Who on earth is ‘Wink’ Warner and what is a Warner 33?

And so a little investigation seemed called for, which unearthed a fascinating history of both the yacht ‘Tara,’ a Warner 33 and her designer.

Wink’ or to give him his full name, Winthrop Loring Warner is not ‘unknown’ at all and proves to have been a very distinguished American Naval Architect. Apparently extremely shy, he actively avoided seeking the notoriety his designs warranted. Born in 1900 in Middletown, Connecticut, Warner went on to study Naval Architecture for four years at MIT and then worked with John G Alden, and Phillip Rhodes – at one stage replacing Olin Stephens…so there is nothing lacking in his CV!

‘Wink’ or to give him his full name, Winthrop Loring Warner is not ‘unknown’ at all and proves to have been a very distinguished American Naval Architect. Apparently extremely shy, he actively avoided seeking the notoriety his designs warranted. Born in 1900 in Middletown, Connecticut, Warner went on to study Naval Architecture for four years at MIT and then worked with John G Alden, and Phillip Rhodes – at one stage replacing Olin Stephens…so there is nothing lacking in his CV!

In 1929 he set up his own naval architects office in Middletown and his first commission was for a 53’ ketch to replace a smaller yacht which Alden had designed for the owner. Stepping into his mentor’s shoes like this must have been in at the deep end for the young designer. However, the risk was worth it because more commissions followed and the practice grew, taking on more staff although Warner never shared the actual design work. One of his team later remembered that “we produced very good looking boats, they were comfortable cruising boats, not racing yachts and Wink was known for getting a lot into a little space”

This point is amply demonstrated by Tara who is described by her broker as being like Tardis. She also has a typical look of a Warner design.  Looking at several designs published in a 10 page feature article on Warner in Wooden Boat magazine of 1987 it is obvious that he had an eye for producing very good looking boats which are handsome rather than pretty. They all have a very purposeful look about them. Between 1931 and 1961 no fewer than 60 of his new designs and builds were featured in both ‘The Rudder’ and ‘Yachting’ magazines with many more being featured in ‘Wooden Boat’. In  addition, there were many accounts of long distance voyages in his yachts…16,000 miles in one year in the Pacific clocked up by Blue Sea 111, and a 25,000 mile Pacific cruise by ‘Tere’ were two which showed that Warner designed for the oceans of the world, not just the Eastern Sea Board.

The tally of his designs is even more remarkable given that during the Second World War, Warner was drafted to work for Wilcox Crittendon who made, and still make, naval equipment.  Tara still has her original Wilcox Crittendon heads (but in the owner’s garage as a heritage piece!  The current owner describes it as a work of mechanical genius but not something to be tackled by the faint hearted. So Tara now sports a more streamlined modern heads).

After the war, Warner turned his attention to designing wooden boats for a new era where raw material and labour costs started to soar. Perhaps with the same mind set as David Hillyard he designed a yacht of which many could be built and where the design tried to minimise those aspects of the building process which were the most expensive, such as long drawn out ends. The challenge he set himself was to produce a high quality 33’ wooden yacht for $20,000. Hence the Warner 33 was born. This design was very successful and around 14 were built in wood before a mould was taken off and the design became the first American GRP production cruising yacht.

Building to a price point did not mean skimping on material quality or builder. Tara for example, built in 1953, has a mahogany hull of which the planks still look like new timber. Other timbers used are unusual in British built boats such as Canadian Rock Elm and American White Oak, and Cedar for the floors. Nearly all the metal work throughout the boat including fastenings and knees is very solid bronze all of which reflect the build quality. The owner reports that when the bronze fastenings are drawn they come out looking like they were only screwed in yesterday. Tara was built at Graves Yard in Marblehead, Maine, a yard which had a very long and extremely distinguished pedigree in the ‘yacht capital’ of the USA. 60 years later their workmanship is still plain to see.

On his death in the late 1980’s all Warner’s designs were taken over by the NationalMaritimeMuseum in Mystic Seaport. The current owner reports that all the work done to Tara during his ownership has been done using the Warner’s original drawings which were supplied by the museum. The collection holds 150 drawings for the Warner 33 showing how Warner used a meticulous design process to control the production cost.

So with such a strong American East Coast provenance what is Tara doing in Plymouth, England?

Tara was owned for over thirty years by Sir Kenelm Guinness. He had forsaken the family brewing company for a career at the World Bank in Washington. Reportedly he had a number of homes up and down the eastern seaboard of the States from Florida up to Maine. Each home had its own dock and Tara, along with the rest of the family, migrated up and down the coast with the seasons!  It was he who changed the boat’s build name of Lara to Tara reflecting his Irish heritage, Tara being the ancient historical seat of Irish Kings as well as being a Guinness family name. The current owner has a letter and photographs from Sir Kenelm outlining how much pleasure his family derived from Tara.

During this period it is understood that Tara sailed the Eastern Atlantic seaboard from Venezuela to Newfoundland. Eventually Tara was taken over by a professional yachtsman who knew her well. He crossed the Atlantic with just himself and his young daughter aboard. Once on this side of the Atlantic, she cruised round Ireland and down to Spain.

In 1996 her current owner set off from his Hillyard in Sutton Harbour in Plymouth to buy a pint of milk. It was many hours before he returned to his family waiting with cold tea, having seen Tara, newly arrived in the harbour, and fallen instantly in love with her. Tara became part of their family and has been cherished ever since. She was the subject of a major upgrade by John Moody and Traditional Sail in Salcombe in time for her 50th birthday in 2003 so she now boasts all mod cons within a very handsome classic yacht.

Tara’s design is very practical for UK waters a long shallow keel with a draft of 4’10” meaning that creek crawling (especially with her legs) adds great fun for family exploring. For all her owners she has been very much a family boat on which all the families’ children have all developed a deep love of sailing. Getting both her huge cockpit and very generous accommodation into a 33’ boat is like an optical illusion.

Although beamy for boats of her era she has an extremely sharp waterline entry which then flares out to the deck making her not only very dry but in the words of her broker with a grin from ear to ear as Tara whistled across Plymouth Sound “ She sails like a witch!”….yes, she’s rather fast too.

So well done Wink Warner.

Much of the historical information above is drawn from an article in April 1987 in Wooden Boat Magazine.





Perfect or project?

In these financially restricted times we are noting an interest in projects. The problem is that projects vary hugely in type, size and quality and one man’s viable project is another man’s firewood.

The moral must be, know your skills, admit your limitations and make sure everyone is on side because this might take some time.


I have seen some very successful projects and some disasters and it is always the disasters which make better reading of course. However I am not going to write about those because they are invariably exaggerated, always depressing and we don’t like failure here. Failed owners too often blame the boat and not themselves and “I told you so” gets nobody anywhere. Full marks for trying I say but let’s make sure you set off on a course with some reasonable hope for success.


I have just had an e-mail from a brave and determined lady who some years ago set out on a missionary voyage with a group of like-minded people in a little 65’ schooner and by strange circumstances – they would never believe you if you made it up – she became the owner. With age not on her side, no knowledge of wooden boats, not a sailor and no money it looked like only a question of time before it all fell apart.


She thinks it was God at the helm. I am not so sure of His track record as a ship-mate and prefer to think it is her own determination; whichever you care to believe the result has been very encouraging and she is at sea once more with a missionary purpose again. We can only admire such dedication.


A small refit job started here recently when a Suffolk based gent bought a fine Folk Boat.

His first boat was a sailing dinghy before he was captivated by a huge lump of a French-built sailing fishing boat which had been through our hands several times and had absorbed several fortunes over the past 25 years.

Love has no bounds and he dedicated several years of his life to this fine ship but however many flares he fired she was taking him down. With a little encouragement and after a brave rear-guard action he finally accepted the inevitable and we got him out of the big boat and into something far more realistic, a Folkboat.


I have a personal mantra that most people are over-boated and the Folkboat was and still can be the answer to a problem. The original Folkboat was an inspired design and perfect for post war, budget sailing in the Baltic. However it all went wrong when owners wanted to make the design do more than was ever intended.

Being also a popular class here in UK, we persuaded the Norwegians to let us have an English version which meant a bigger coach-roof to get more volume below because we were not as hardy as the Scandinavians and carvel construction to placate market opinion.

Then the Poles and the Hungarians and the East Germans shrewdly spied a gap in the market, enlarged the coach-roof into a block of Soviet flats and turned them out for the cost of a few pints for a thirsty UK market. They were well built, great skill but sadly the mahogany and fastenings used seldom stand the test of time.

A half-way design between the basic Scandinavian FB and the Soviet block of flats came with the few boats built by Cyril White in Brightlingsea in the 1960’s.

He even built a matching pair for the Guiness brothers in 1965.

His success was in keeping the clinker construction which is quicker and cheaper to build and emphasises the very sweet lines of the hull, extending the cock-pit by a few inches on the basis that a lot of small boat sailing is day sailing with a group of friends when extra cock-pit space is desirable and building a coach-roof which is similar to the very small Scandinavian slice of cheese but slightly bigger all round and gaining height by the clever deception of keeping the coamings low and adding camber to the roof.

The result is one single long cabin with no silly internal subdivisions, still 4 berths, 2 in line each side, good sitting head-room, the standard proven FB rig but with an inboard engine.

This is the perfect compromise in a small boat.

If you want a heads or can’t take your socks off in company or God forbid want more than tea and hot soup on a passage then either stay at home and sail virtually or work overtime and buy a bigger boat.


We sold this boat to a chap who never came back to pick her up from the yard so that eventually she was seized and sold for not a lot. However as a repeat warning to all would-be project builders there is no such thing as a bargain. One man’s bargain is the next man’s hole in the water to fill with money and despite appearances this one is more than just a fresh coat of paint if he is going to be serious about taking the opportunity to put her properly right while he is at it.


Projects can be immensely satisfying and rewarding but you have to be realistic. There’s nought for nought in this world. You need money or skill or effort or preferably all 3 unless, like my schooner-owner lady, God and luck are on your side and I don’t see much of either these days.


My Suffolk owner had learnt a lot from his time with the big French boat and sensibly took his new acquisition to a Devon based Scottish boat builder who like many individual, self-employed boat-builders does excellent work at realistic cost.

His recent excavation of the back-bone bolts and chain plate bolts is a lesson to all of us.

The yacht looked perfect a few years ago and indeed was very smart and much cared for. A few years of neglect did her no favours but nothing serious as she has been out of the water and largely covered so the buried deterioration in the bolts must be long standing.


The real horror is the totally predictable and avoidable one of using threaded stainless steel rod as a through bolt. Firstly it is almost certainly stock threaded bar as provided by the builder’s merchant and secondly you never, never bury thread in the timber as Small Cavity Corrosion is inevitable. The right sort of fastenings can all be had and are not even expensive. Suppliers can be found on our Services Section or by a quick call to the office.


People worry about rot in wooden boats but it is our experience that it is more often the metal that goes wrong first and takes the wood with it.

Checking and replacing center-line bolts, keel bolts, chain plate bolts, sea-cock bolts and even hood end fastenings is so easy and inexpensive and can save huge expense and heart-ache later if done in time.

The photos on Charlie Hussey’s web site ( of the fastenings extracted from the Folkboat say it all and confirm that so many issues with wooden boats are not caused by deterioration of wood but by deterioration of the metal which then takes the wood with it.


I had an example of the same problem recently in my pre-war Vertue Caupona. I have sold her several times over the past 30 years and every time I had noted the open stem scarph just below the wl. Repeated surveyors all advised simply filling it and it was never my position to question an expert but when it came to getting my feet wet I was not totally happy. I found a 5/8” bronze bolt through the scarph and several ½” bronze bolts all down the stem holding the inner and outer stem together, all standard stuff.

The 5/8” nut disintegrated when I put a spanner on it and when knocked out, three separate bits of bronze fell to the floor. Bronze or not, it had disintegrated years ago and the stem was held together by habit. Given how people are prone to winding up their rigging,  it is amazing how strong habits can be.

Of course the other bonze through bolts all came out, all more or less rotten and were replaced by bronze bolts off the shelf from Seaware in Falmouth at nominal cost and with only a few hours work.


The moral is that not even the best marine quality bronze is proof against the ravages of time and sea water. Fastenings hold a wooden boat together and replacing fastenings can often be a simple Meccano job so don’t hesitate too long to have a look.


I found a similar surprise when I came to replacing some planks on my Miller Fifer. Jimmy Miller was a prolific boat builder but being not just a canny Scot but a Fifer to boot he was not a man to waste money on fancy stuff. So he fastened his Fifer range of motor sailers with galvanised boat nails or cut nails or rose head nails, however you want to call them.

They were good enough for his boys to go to sea fishing in the winter Icelandic waters so they would be good enough for a mere yachtsman and so they have proved to be.


His larch planking used below the waterline is perfect and gives no trouble but I don’t know where he bought his mahogany for the topsides planking and the superstructure.

Even if you can keep the fresh water out of the superstructure by meticulous varnishing, the topsides planking seems to have rotted down the middle of the plank. It is almost as if the wood had some prior fungus from the start which does happen.  Having sailed the boat in total confidence and with not a hint of trouble in some weather and some distance before starting on the refit, I told Richard to hit her hard with a ball pein hammer down the length of every plank.

And sure enough all down the water-line plank stbd side the hammer went right through. A tap or a prick on the outside would never have told you that the plank had a fungal rot down the middle.

Replacing planks is the most fundamental part of a refit and also the easiest and should not be expensive. Luke Powell could plank a 40 footer from scratch in just a few weeks and that was using 1.5” thick larch so don’t be fooled by costly plank repairs.

The old planking came out with a chain saw in a few minutes leaving behind the galvanised boat nails in the 4” square sawn oak frames which resolutely refused to move. It took a 3’ jemmy with a 4’ scaffold pole slipped over it to get them to break free. Of the 60 or 70 nails removed only some 5 or 6 did not come out. They were the few which were rusty because water had got in behind and simply snapped at the interface when under stress from the jemmy. That is always a nuisance because the stub then has to be drilled out and the resulting hole plugged before you can go on with setting the new plank.


Last year a chum with an extremely beautiful, teak pre-war Dallimore lost his mast when a bronze chain plate failed. It looked perfect above and below deck but fractured within the thickness of the deck. Sad, dramatic but remember it had been there untouched for 80 years!

And another chum here in Dartmouth lost his mast when his galvanised iron chain plate fractured. The bit of metal above the hole simply pulled out leaving a fork instead of a hole. And again his chain plate had been there untouched for 55 years.

What do we expect – miracles? You can’t just blame this sort of thing on wooden boats. Knowing it’s proclivity to stress fracture, I wonder what all the stainless steel in the modern grp yacht will be like in 50 years?


The moral of this tedious tale – dockside gossip that bronze is fool proof and iron is bad news is not always to be believed and like all gossip it depends on who you are talking to.

It also dictates that maintenance is more than just varnish. If you are going to sail an old boat for £20,000 instead of building a new one for £120,000 then you must carry out some fundamental checks every few years which are more than cosmetic. However they need not be expensive and most can be tackled by a careful owner with a box of simple tools and perhaps just a little advice and encouragement. Don’t think of it as a project, just as a challenge.

The joy of it is that a wooden boat is made up of a large number of small bits and within reason each bit can be replaced in turn while our friends with white plastic can do little when their boats start to go wrong. Of course like modern motor cars the modern yacht relies on being out of fashion long before it wears out so the problem  never arises with anyone who is likely to make a fuss.


The real issue yet to be tackled is what on earth do you do with the white plastic blob when it goes wrong and you don’t want it any more?


But that is a delicate subject for another day……………….