Sunday, September 19, 2010

Neoma reaches adulthood

My Phil Bolger-designed Birdwatcher, christened Neoma, made her last cruise of her first sailing season near the end of September on Lac La Ronge in north-central Saskatchewan, a vast, wild but moderately accessible lake that has become her de facto home waters. To recap, I had veered from Phil Bolger's drawings in a few small details:

• no over-head Lexan panels or "skylights" for me
• my oar ports were store-bought port lights, the oars and locks borrowed from a rowing shell
• I had put the sail rig and off-centre centreboard to port instead of to starboard, to favour right-handed crew
• my steering linkage was made of #50 roller chain, sprockets, flange bearings and and shafting, all inexpensive, common items from an industrial hardware supply

All those modifications worked beautifully well for me.

When it came to the sailrig, I had made bigger changes, and trouble-shooting my cat-ketch, spritsail rig was the task of this late-season voyage.

After finally getting the boat to open water (see my next post on oars, motors and moral purity), Mark and I made sail. With the mizzen now smaller, with about 20 square feet trimmed from its trailing edge, we hoped the helm would balance better. I had re-cut and resown the ill-fitting jib, and we hoped this would now do its job without bellying out into a terrible shape, and pulling Neoma's bow to leeward.

The wind was snapping hard, big whitecaps were rolling down from the northwest, and the little boat absolutely tore away on a beam reach. The weather helm was much reduced, but still significant. But we had more sail up than was really prudent. We turned a little downwind after rounding a point, and the boat was surfing like a dinghy. We were clipping eight knots at times. We sailed this way for an hour or so, covering a lot of lake and fighting to keep up navigation-wise. Just in time for lunch we got under the lee of a small island and dropped the rig in a glassy bay in front of an empty island cabin.

For the afternoon, we decided to set main and jib only — no mizzen. The boat was tamed right down, the amount of helm was just right and the sailing was very relaxing. It started to drizzle. The beauty of Bolger's design is that you never have to have your upper body out in the elements, yet you don't feel stuck "indoors" either. Tucked under the superstructure, but with the breeze moving through the boat, the effect is like sitting on an open-air verandah.

We noodled around the lake for the next three days, and the boat worked perfectly, without fuss or bother. The morning we were going to turn back west for the marina, the wind had veered halfway round the compass, so we had a following breeze to take us in. It was more than a breeze, really. It felt like half a gale, and we had to cross the very open south bay of the lake. The waves were steep-fronted whitecaps and had built to about five feet from trough to peak — about as big as they get on this lake. As we left the shore behind us, and no land visible ahead, I hoped everything would hang together. It was a long way to drift even right-side up. I tried not to think about broaching and being upside down.

In fact, the boat showed no tendencies that way, and we had a wonderful crossing. We just rode the swells and took pleasure in the boat. Everything worked. There seemed to be no terrible strain, or even a moderate one. The last cruise of the season was going to be over all too soon. I have to say I felt a bit of pride at that moment. I had built a boat, had designed and built her sail rig, and it was carrying us capably through the Canadian wilderness. I thought of all the adventures to come. Neoma had grown up.

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