SELKIE—My Personal Dreamboat: A 23′ Keel-centerboard Sloop

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May 26, 2014

Doug Hylan




I should say at the outset that I am a lazy sailor. Although I have the greatest admiration for the sight of a boat under a spectacular jackyard topsail, I can't imagine mustering the gumption to put one up myself. That pretty much goes for a whole list of other sailing paraphernalia: spinnakers with poles, mizzen staysails, running backstays, gaff headed sails, jibs out at the end of spidery bowsprits. I love to gaze upon these things, and am genuinely glad that someone is willing to put up with them; but for myself, I prefer to swish along in a boat that is simple and demands little exertion from me.

One advantage of recessionary times is that boat designers, who tend to be of a softheaded and romantic nature unsuited to the making of any serious amounts of money, when faced with nothing much else to do, will start thinking of the "perfect" boat for their own purposes. Softheaded as they may be, they tend to know what works and what doesn't, and are generally aware that they are not likely to win the lottery anytime soon. Throughout yachting history, these have been some of the most carefully thought out designs: refined but economical, reduced to the essentials.

With such a lengthy introduction, I now blushingly introduce SELKIE. She is the boat I see myself using, now that I have reached the age where visions of sailing to coral atolls have faded, and I’ve come to realize that day sailing, if you have a little time and some beautiful surroundings, can really be the best sailing of all.

I have sailed many different small boats over the years, some wonderful, some horrors. Some were fast, but too unstable or uncomfortable, and definitely too demanding. Some had wonderfully welcoming cockpits, but were a bit pokey for my taste. A few of them came pretty close to the mark for me, but while I am dreaming, I might as well have everything just the way I want.


Selkie for On the DB011

So here is my thinking behind SELKIE:

Size -- It is almost axiomatic that the greatest pleasure per dollar comes with smaller boats. Coincidentally, the fullness of maturity convinces many of us that we are tired of the labor and responsibility that a bigger boat entails. Downsizing can be good, but I have seen many sailors who try to take it too far. A boat that is too small, too light or too narrow can become one that is found sailing off by itself, with the captain floundering behind trying to figure out how to inflate that wonderful, inconspicuous life vest he so wisely purchased.

Draft -- The keel centerboard configuration is a good one on several counts. For the observant sailor, it makes it possible to see the bottom before it gets too shallow, eliminating the need for a depth sounder. For the hopeless daydreamer whose mind is off on planet Zed, the centerboard can provide an early warning system for shoaling water. Relatively shallow draft makes trailer launching a possibility, and this can help reduce the annual yachting budget. A hefty ballast keel can be employed, which, except for serious windward work, is generally the only lateral plane that is necessary. The usual centerboard trunk pierces the boat’s bottom and weakens it. It also complicates construction. So SELKIE's centerboard is contained entirely within the ballast fin.

Stability -- For the sailor approaching the golden years, an ebbing sense of balance and a lengthening reaction time makes stability an important factor. This means a boat that is not too tippy and has enough mass to be reasonably steady underfoot. Generous beam and a good chunk of ballast is the recipe that SELKIE uses for this.

Speed under sail -- It used to be assumed that speed under sail, particularly to windward, required a narrow hull and a deep ballast keel. This kind of hull is indeed a thing of beauty, heeled well down and knifing into the wind. However, fighting to stay in my seat, not to mention moving around the boat, is not my idea of lazy sailing. And it turns out that the same stability that makes a boat steady under foot can also make her faster. Good stability allows for a good sail area/displacement ratio (in street talk, more horsepower), and a sail that is standing more vertically is more effective than one that is nearly flat in the water.

Rig -- A fractional marconi sloop rig with a standing backstay is the rig for me. With just two sails, this rig can be up in a jiffy, and put to bed nearly as quickly. A gaff would mean running backstays to tend, lots of halyard to coil, constant fiddling with the peak halyard tension to keep the best sail shape, and more work when furling and putting on sail covers. So why not an even simpler cat rig in a boat this small? Well, catboats like to be off and sailing the instant the sail is hoisted. A sloop, because her mainsail is farther aft, is more likely to lie patiently on the hook with the main hoisted, giving you leisure to coil your halyards, tie off the dinghy, etc. Dropping the jib before approaching the mooring also makes the end of the sail easier.

The plans show a self-tending jib, but I am a bit conflicted over this. Yes, it means that tacking involves little more than a push of the tiller, and makes short tacking up a narrow inlet a joy. If you are used to being the one on the end of a winch handle while trying to do this with a big overlapping masthead jib, you will marvel that life can be so easy. On the other hand, a jib on a club tends to take over the foredeck, complicates anchoring or picking up a mooring, and is harder to furl and cover at the end of a sail.

I think for my boat, I would have two jibs of the more usual variety. The first would be about the size of the self-tending jib shown, for days when the wind is sufficient. For light air days I would have a second jib with modest overlap, high cut for good visibility to leeward, and made from fairly light fabric. These jibs will come across in a jiffy, and can be quickly sheeted in with a tiny snubbing winch/cam cleat combination.

With SELKIE's rig, the mainsail is just that. It is big, as it is the easiest sail to handle, and will provide downwind horsepower when the jib is blanketed anyway, reducing the desire for a spinnaker.

Cockpit -- I like to be comfortable while I am being lazy, so a deep cockpit with sloped seats and slanted coamings is called for. The seats must be wide enough so that my butt is not perched on the edge when the boat is heeled, and the coamings must be high enough to provide real back support and a bit of shelter on chilly days. SELKIE's cockpit is big enough to hold six and still allow a bit of movement.

Down below -- SELKIE has a tiny cabin that will easily hold the myriad junk of even short day sails. The younger grandkids will prefer this area to the cockpit while sailing, and the adults will be grateful. Older kids will find it sufficient for weekend cruising. Who knows; if I were to suffer an attack of youthful exuberance, I might even pack a couple sandwiches and a thermos and go for an overnight myself!





Also appears in: The Right Boat

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