Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Leeboards overboard! Departure imminent.

(Apologies for the long interval, and thanks to all for the interest. I have been out of the country for several weeks and just too busy to get at this. So let's get back to it . . . )

In the interval between Neoma's first sea trial and the departure for her first big voyage, I was very busy. As I mentioned, my sailing buddy Mark Nicholson and I were determined to take the boat out on Reindeer Lake, a very remote place where gear that works can be a matter of life and death. It was slightly silly to use this big lake for the shakedown run. But we have a lot of bush experience between us and the boat was big enough at 24 feet to keep us safe so long as it merely floated. We would carry survival suits, emergency locator beacons, and take all our usual safety precautions. The significant risk was not to life and limb, but to pride. My worst fear was that Neoma would have to be abandoned 100 kilometers up the lake due to some catastrophic failure.

Tackling the problems that arose during sea trials, I first attempted to deal with the wicked weather helm. This I achieved by slicing the aft 20 square feet or so from the mizzen and re-sewing the leech. The photo atop the previous post shows the sail plan after that modification, its total area now about 180 square feet. As I mentioned, the boat also seemed to have lee helm in light airs, but I ignored this issue for the time being.

I still maintain that one of the key weaknesses in the Birdwatcher design is the steering linkage required because of the pointy stern. Moving parts are prone to failure. The chain drive I had come up with was very solid without being heavy, but the small amount of slop in it robbed you of a vital few degrees of tiller swing. There was none to spare in this slender boat. I dialed most of this out by having a friend weld my steering shaft and its sprocket into one piece. The downside was that it made for a bigger piece to repair or replace someday. I decided it was strong enough never to fail, at least not before the tiller or rudder fittings themselves broke.

The biggest decision by far — and the most heartbreaking — was to abandon my leeboards and to install a centreboard case as per the plans. The leeboards themselves seemed to work beautifully under testing, but I had as yet invented no means of quickly raising and lowering them. With the time and energy I had, I saw no way of inventing a good system before leaving. In desperation for a clever solution, I asked Aeneas Precht to come over. His own Birdwatcher is a marvelous, custom version that I have mentioned earlier, and Aeneas is a very inventive and experienced builder. It was he who gently suggested I just go with the tried and true centreboard. He said I would have it installed in no time, and could go sailing. The next winter, I could finish the leeboards and someday remove the centreboard again.

I took his advice. I did not believe the centreboard would be so easy as he imagined, but I was at my humble best as a builder by that point, and indeed had it installed in three days. I hated to see my big sprawling space inside the boat cut up the board, and I am still determined to get rid of it someday. The case installed, it was back to the boat launch with Mark to test it — where Neoma promptly began to sink! Clearly there was a big gap hiding somewhere in the epoxy under the centreboard case. Two days later, the boat floated nearly dry, except that the centreboard bearing cover leaked. Two days later . . . well, you get the idea.

Eventually, we got the rig up, the board down and the whole works just sailed, as a sailboat is supposed to do. I still was not delighted with the lee helm that showed itself on that calm day. As for weather helm, we'd have to wait for the winds of Reindeer Lake to know if my mizzen trimming had solved the problem.

Meanwhile, the arrangement of the sailing lines was not perfect in the details. There are many ways to run sailing lines around a boat, but tradition assumes she is sailed from an open cockpit. With Neoma, you are in effect trying to pull your ropes from indoors. Or, to put it another way, the lines are being fed to you down in the bilges through a skylight over your head. I think it will become tedious if I attempt to describe the line-stringing problems further in writing. I will try to use pictures in future posts that show how I worked out these issues in time. By the launch on that first trip, we were still jury rigging a lot of things.

I was still experimenting with oar locks and rowing arrangements, which would soon reveal itself to be mostly a waste of time. This boat is un-rowable by one person, except in an absolute dead calm. So I won't waste more virtual ink on the subject here.

There were camping considerations too. We could always find snug shores on a boreal lake and use a tent on the ground for sleeping. But I wanted to be able to sleep aboard and had sewed a dodger to cover the centre slot. It was held down by snaps, had tiny hatches over the mast steps to facilitate sailing under cover in the rain, and two more hatches like tent doors in bow and stern in which to access the anchors etc. I just thought it up and did it, a design that has proven rather elegant in use. If you make enough stuff, once in awhile you do something right in a single stroke. For the rest, patience is a virtue.

My electrical system, meanwhile, was non-existent. This did not matter on a 250-kilometer-long lake whereon the only vessels were a scant handful of aluminum fishing skiffs that had no running lights either. Navigating that rocky maze of a lake was a day-time-only affair.

Somehow, we made it to the dock on Reindeer Lake sometime around the June solstice. The Neoma is pictured just after the launch, all ready for her maiden voyage. You can see how the oars are stowed under the gunwales to save space on the top deck, which is taken up by two sails, and six spars. On board you can make out one of those swimming noodles, which Mark brought along as a kind of joke. That's him in the bow. In fact, Mark is about the most important asset I had in building. You really need a patient friend like him to help you work out the details of a big project like this. The Birdwatcher is too big to tackle without help. Thanks, Mark.