Of Handbuilt Sloops

“To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go. The tales of rough usage are for the most part exaggerations, as also are the stories of sea danger… Dangers there are, to be sure, on the sea as well as on the land, but the intelligence and skill god gives to man reduce these to a minimum…To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in the grandest mood. You must know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over.”
From my perch in the netting slung aft of the heli-deck (for obvious reasons, my favorite place to pass the time) I finished the book “Sailing Alone Around the World” by Joshua Slocum earlier this evening, a little gem I found tucked away in the ship’s library the other week, chronicling Slocum’s lone sail around the world with the Spray, the wooden sloop he built by hand. All told, his voyage was forty-six thousand miles and took three years, two months and two days, distinguishing him as the first person to single-handedly sail around the world.
Written in 1899, I was surprised to find when I first opened the yellowed pages that Joshua’s writing is surprisingly witty and entertaining and in fact, the likes of which a fellow adventurer might spin around a campfire one night, or as I find myself now, around the table in the mess at meal time here on the Esperanza. In addition to being filled to the brim with stories of his adventures–from hallucinations after eating spoiled plums to finding himself in an over-turned dinghy and unable to swim–his descriptions of the Spray brought me back to my time a year ago on the Dandelion, a rig of much similarity and handling from what it sounds like. Like the Spray, the Dandelion is also a 34′ hand-built, wooden sloop with a cutter rig, meaning that extending from the bowsprit is the jib, behind that the staysail off the boom and then the mainsail with its’ boom extending to the boom kin off the transom. A true work of love, Jeff Waldman built the Dandelion over a period of eight years in the front yard of his family’s house on the river just north of Milwaukee using the designs for the sailing vessel Juno found in George Buehler’s book “Buehler’s Backyard Boatbuilding.”
The book is still kept on board the Dandelion, it’s binding broken, pages dog-eared with greasy finger prints and penciled notes written in the margins. It surprised me greatly to see that a plan for a vessel like the Dandelion, weighing in at 22 tons, can be contained within just a few pages of instruction and diagrams. How Slocum built the Spray without even that, is a wonder.
Slocum boasts of how the Spray he was able to set the Spray on course, trimming her sails and lashing her wheel in place and then let the little boat carry on her way without deviation from her course. He describes how he made twenty-seven hundred miles from Thursday Island to the Keeling Cocos Islands with no more than three hours total at the helm, including the time spent getting in and out of harbor on either end. With this my mind drifts back to last year after we had finally launched the Dandelion. It was early October and one of the last warm days full of sunshine and fair breezes when we realized that she would sail herself. With the sails trimmed to a close reach and not even having to lash the tiller, the Dandelion cut through the water her crew laying on deck looking up at the sky–it will remain one of my favorite memories.
As Slocum made it safely around the world, I’m thankful that we all made it safely on the Dandelion last fall, for we had some close calls to say the least. It’s interesting to me to note the contrast in myself between when I arrived on the Warrior last January, still traumatized to a large degree from our harrowing time on the Mississippi right before I left in Memphis, and the state of mind I arrived with on the Esperanza this time–one of calm and confidence. It’s amazing to me to think of all I’ve done and the changes within myself just within this past year. Sometimes I still can’t believe that it all hasn’t just been a dream.

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