Tech Transformations Introduction

My first experience of sailing anything larger than a dinghy was forty years ago. The boat was ‘Wallop’, aptly named both for her beer connotations and for bumping into things. She was a 26-foot wooden cutter, bought by my elder brother Chris for $1,000 [pounds], and kept on a mooring at Burnham-On-Crouch.

Wallop was a bit of a pig to sail. She had been cut down from a ketch to a cutter by the simple expedient of removing the mizzen and extending the boom aft to such an extent she required a boomkin to get the backstay to clear the mainsail. This large mainsail produced tremendous weather helm and plenty of exercise for whoever was on the tiller. Some of our sails were canvas, Terylene (Dacron) being a fairly recent innovation. All the sails were baggy with what I now know to be an appalling shape, but at that time we were blissfully unaware of such things

If you wanted to go anywhere, including on and off the mooring, most times there was no choice but to use the sails because the hand-cranked Thorneycroft engine was always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to start (you had to remove a plug from the cylinder head and pour in a cupful of petrol to prime it – it was a wonder we never burned the boat to the waterline). When cranked, the engine was as likely to backfire and try to break your wrist as it was to fire up (you learned early on to keep your thumb on the same side of the crank handle as your fingers so that if it backfired your hand got thrown off instead of something fracturing).

Sailing off the mooring in Burnham was tricky. Even in those days, there were quite a few boats and the tide runs hard. We didn’t get it right one time and were impaled on the bowsprit of another boat.

Another time, I was with my friend Peter, then a midshipman in the navy who later rose to senior rank. We were maneuvering under sail, trying to anchor as close to Clacton pier as possible in order to minimize the dinghy ride to the pub. We misjudged the tide and got swept under the pier. The mast hit the top of the pier. The shock ripped the boomkin out of the boat, untethering the backstay. Luckily, the shrouds held, or else the mast would have come down. We were well and truly stuck and had to get towed out by local fishermen, with many a pithy comment on our seamanship.

Wallop had no electrical system. Navigation lights were paraffin. We navigated using traditional piloting techniques and dead reckoning (and very old charts, some of which pre-dated the Second World War). We had a torch-battery powered depth sounder, but it rarely worked, forcing us to use a hand lead line. There was, of course, no form of radio communications. We cooked on a primus stove. The accommodations were extremely primitive.

We had a wonderful time, including sailing to Europe and back (although we did get run down by a ship on the return voyage and almost lost the boat, not to mention our lives).

Fast forward forty years. We will soon begin construction of ‘Nada III’, a Malo 46 to be built in Sweden. The Malo is a lovely boat with excellent performance for what is a relatively heavy offshore cruising boat. The helm is beautifully balanced. Sails, of course, will all be Dacron or some more sophisticated laminate, with excellent shape. No problem sailing on and off a mooring here, but little incentive to do so with an utterly reliable modern diesel engine for propulsion, and a bow thruster for tight quarters maneuvering.

‘Nada III’ will have a roller reefing headsail and an electric windlass and winches to minimize the physical effort of sailing such a large boat. We will have satellite-based electronic charting and worldwide communications. There will be a revolutionary digital electrical power distribution system to control a full suite of lights, fans, refrigerator and freezer, generator and watermaker. We will have a propane stove with an oven and grill. Anywhere in the world, we will live as comfortably on this boat as we do at home. All this, of course, will cost 500 times what ‘Wallop’ cost.

It’s astonishing to see just how much cruising boats have changed in my lifetime. It’s not necessarily for the better – I doubt we will have any more fun on ‘Nada III’ than we had on ‘Wallop’ – but these changes are here to stay.

Over the coming months I will look at some of the technologies, past and present, that have so radically transformed our sailing in such a relatively short space of time. I’d love to hear from you, the readers, about those technologies (with relevant anecdotes) that have had the greatest impact on you.

By Ocean Navigator