Voyager drops gaff rig for freestanding junk

To the editor:

My Paul Johnson-designed Venus gaff ketch Greya was built and fitted out in England between 1992 and 1995. Her dimensions are LOD 32 feet and beam 11 feet four inches, and she displaces 10 tons. I set off from England in July 1996, calling at Vigo and Puerto Morgan, Gran Canaria, before departing in November 1996 for my singlehanded crossing to Antigua. My crossing took 35 days, including 11 days of calms, westerlies, northwesterlies, southwesterlies, and driving squalls. I found my gaff ketch rig tiring and heavy to handle without crew. It was no fun doing a pas de deux on the end of a plunging bowsprit, trying to wrestle a wildly flapping jib down in a squall.

I had already read Annie Hill’s masterpiece Voyaging on a Small Income, and during my crossing I re-read it. With my gaff rig, I thought, “If I am finding it difficult now (I am 50), what is going to happen when I am 60?” Clearly I was going to have to change my rig. While reading Annie Hill, I began to think, why not junk? Everything Annie says about the junk-rigged boat seemed eminently sensible. I had never sailed a junk-rigged boat before, but I had spent a few years in the Far East in the late 1960s, and I have always thought that the numerous junks one saw in those days had great character and “soul.” I therefore resolved to investigate the possibility of converting Greya to junk rig. I felt it was important to seek Paul Johnson’s opinion, so I went to St. Barts, where Paul lives, to consult with him. To my surprise, Paul thoroughly approved of the idea (he designs only gaff ketches). I therefore decided to definitely go ahead and change the rig.

Upon hearing of my plans, a friend in Antigua gave me the excellent book: The Chinese Sailing Rig: Designing and Building your Own, by Derek van Loan. It is marvelous for the inexperienced; it gives clear, concise instructions, including all the relevant dimensions. You simply follow Mr. van Loan’s instructions from beginning to end and you have a boat with a junk rig.

The next step was to decide where to do the conversion. I was in Antigua, which has all the facilities needed to do such a job, but it is expensive, catering for the most part to the “superyact” trade during the season (December to April) for which price is not a prime consideration. I had just about decided to go to Trinidad to do the job. The best riggers in Antigua are Tend Aloft Rigging of English Harbour, and one of the owners, Peter Todd, said to me, “You know, we have the best carpenter in the Eastern Caribbean here (I would need new masts), and if you can wait until after Antigua Race Week (when English Harbour practically closes down) you could get the job done here during the summer at “summer rates.” We have very little work during the summer, and a project like this would be very welcome. So if you don’t mind the hurricanes and can live on chicken and rice (food in Antigua is very expensive), why not consider doing the job here?” I decided to stay put and wait until the end of the season.

Several things could be done while waiting, the most important of which was to dismantle the old rig. This I did during March and April 1997 while anchored in English Harbour.I moved alongside Antigua Slipway in mid-May, and Tend Loft Rigging craned out the old mainmast and mizzen. I was unable to use these as Mr. van Loan dictated that my masts had to be 10 inches in diameter at the partners, and my old mainmast was only eight inches in diameter at its base. Sandy McGraw of Sandy’s Fiberglass Shop came and glassed over the old mast holes, and I was waterproof again. In the meantime, I had met up with the famed “best carpenter in the Eastern Caribbean,” Jerry Bardoe, whose business goes by the name of Chippy. He took great interest in the project and drove me around to introduce me to the other small businesses that I would have to use.

I photocopied the relevant pages in Mr. van Loan’s book and distributed them to the various craftsmen, as none of them had been involved in building a junk rig before. We started by emptying the boat of my possessions, and I moved into a wooden shack ashore. We then built half bulkheads and deckhead beams by way of the partners to take the stress of the unstayed masts out to the sides of the boat. Mr. van Loan recommends Douglas fir for masts and spars. We therefore ordered planks measuring 20 feet by 10 feet by two feet from Florida. These took three weeks to arrive and clear through customs. Thereafter I spent many happy hours at Chippy’s shop in Falmouth (adjacent to English Harbour) assisting Jerry and his two able assistants, B.M. and Oliver, to coat each plank with West epoxy and laminating them to arrive at a 36-foot nine-inch foremast and a 41-foot six-inch mainmast, both 10 inches in diameter at the partners and five inches in diameter at the mast heads. In addition, the Chippy team made 13 battens, two yards, and two booms from the same Douglas fir, plus mast wedges.

Total Fabrication of English Harbour, run by an amiable London-born Antiguan giant called Glen, had started fabricating the partners and mast steps from mild steel. Having calculated from Mr. van Loan’s book where the two mast steps should be placed, Sandy came and fiberglassed in substantial floors in the forecastle and saloon. Glen’s fabricated mast steps were then fiberglassed and bolted into the floors.The great day arrived when my beautiful new masts were ready to be moved from the carpentry shop to the Antiguan Slipway. With eight “volunteers” we managed to round up from the local rum shop, we lifted the heavy masts (approximately 880 pounds each) out through a window and up onto the top of a very ancient Leyland dump truck (for my money was running short by now). We lashed the masts atop the truck as securely as we could and set off for the Antigua Slipway. Antiguan roads are not good, and I was alarmed to see substantial overhangs of the masts whipping like fishing rods every time the truck bounced over a pothole, but Jerry assured me that this was what the masts were designed to do.

We were following the truck in Jerry’s pickup, and I became even more horrified as I watched the lashings on the foremast begin to work loose. With each violent bump of the truck the foremast started to slide slowly down off the back of the truck and into our path. The driver was concentrating so hard in trying to avoid the worst of the potholes that he had not seen that he was losing my precious new foremast. Jerry started blowing his horn and flashing his lights, but the roar of the truck’s old engine was so great that the driver could hear nothing. Fortunately, we had almost arrived at our destination. The last 600 feet to the slipway is down a very steep hill. The truck’s descent brought the angle of the masts to nearly level. The foremast’s slide almost stopped, but, even so, when the truck came to a halt, the tip of the foremast was just three inches off the ground. Glen had fabricated steel masthead, yard, and boom fittings, and these I now fitted. Sandy sheathed the masts in epoxy and fiberglass per Voyaging on a Small Income.

Mast stepping day was another turning point. I had made up the halyards and lazyjacks and shackled them to the masthead fittings. Jerry’s crew had cut mast holes through the foredeck and cabin top. Glen came and bolted on his substantial partners and backing plates at the mast holes. The two Peters of Tend Aloft Rigging arrived, the old Slipway crane was fired up, Jerry placed an EC (Eastern Caribbean) dollar coin on each mast step for luck, and the new masts were lowered expertly into place. Jerry’s crew hammered the wedges into place while the locals on the dock shouted advice about the trim and rake of the masts. We clapped on the mast-boots, and Greya was now a schooner. In the meantime, I had had the sails made in England and airfreighted to Antigua. The yards, battens, and booms are situated on the port side of the masts, and my sailmaker had suggested that, when lashing the sails to the battens, a length of flexible one-inch-diameter PVC plastic water pipe be placed on the other side (port side) from the batten. I started lashing from the yard down; i.e., lashing the head of the sail to the yard, then the uppermost batten and waterpipe, and so on downwards. As I completed each yard and batten I secured it to the mast by a parrel. As the work progressed, more and more of the sail was hoisted, but the Slipway is a sheltered place and the Leeward Islands have little wind for most of the summer months. I finished by lashing the foot of the sail to the boom, then parrel around the mast, then attaching sheets, downhauls, yard haul parrel, luff haul parrel, and tackline. Having completed the smaller foresail I then undertook the same process with the mainsail. The rigging took a month. I also fitted a main boom gallows, which made the rigging of the mainsail easier.

On October 29 I moved off the slipway and out to anchor in English Harbour. For the next month I took Greya out on daysails off English Harbour. There were various problems with the new rig. The sheets were pulling down the aft ends of the upper battens but not the booms. This was solved by altering the order in which the sheets were led through each block. The wood battens chafed against the masts when on a port tack. This was overcome by gluing leather anti-chafe strips into the battens. When running, Greya sometimes rolls heavily, and the foresail gybes. A preventer was rigged, being clipped onto the end of the boom, led forward to the apex block in the eyes of the bow and then back down the other side of the cockpit. The lazyjacks stretched, causing the aft end of the foresail to droop when stowed.

I took off for two weeks in December for a short shakedown cruise around Guadeloupe and Dominica. A more extensive cruise in February and March to Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Bequia, and the Tobago Cays ironed out any further problems and enabled me to learn how to sail the boat. The new rig proved to be far easier to handle than the previous rig, and everybody comments on how beautiful it looks. In April 1998, Greya participated in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, the first junk-rigged boat to enter. To be sharing the same dock and racing in the same events as the magnificent Valsheda, Endeavour, Alejandra, and Mariette was a privilege and an honor indeed. And we didn’t come last!

To summarize, the project was lengthy and somewhat over budget, but the result is a beautiful-looking boat that is easier to sail, safe, strong, and with sails and rigging that are inexpensive to maintain.

By Ocean Navigator