Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
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  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

Note this article appeared (with photos!) in Practical Boat Owner magazine. You can get a back copy by visiting their web site

In June 2002 my 32ft catamaran Eclipse won her class in the Round the Island Race and was second catamaran to finish (first was Maiden!) - although I was helped by an all star crew including PBO boat tester David Harding. In July I moved on board full time and then in late October I set off south and west "until the butter melts".

Unlike most designers I'm mainly interested in the final product - the sailing - rather than just in the design stage. I wanted to sail to the sun, but I also felt that it was time to promote my designs more in the USA and what better way than to sail there? I am not a tough go anywhere sailor. If I race I prefer to do it in daylight. If I cruise I prefer to do it downwind. Although I had crossed the Atlantic 3 times before (both on monohulls and catamarans) this would be my first time as skipper. Finally, although I can sail my boat singlehanded quite easily I don't like sailing without anyone on watch.

So while some people might sail to the USA across the North Atlantic I preferred to take the scenic route, via Spain, Portugal, Canaries, the Caribbean and the Bahamas.

But first, how did I convert a race-winning catamaran into a live aboard ocean cruiser? I had already sailed Eclipse 3500 miles since her launching in 2001 and spent several months living on board - including being the only yacht to spend Christmas 2001 in the Scillies. So I didn't have any major jobs to do. But I quickly wrote a four-page list of little jobs.

Of these probably the most important was to set the boat up for easy singlehanded sailing. I don't call any boat a proper cruising boat unless it is possible for one person to reef or lower sails, even downwind or in a gale at night. Eclipse has a big full battened mainsail and swept back shrouds. Most people consider such rigs a recipe for disaster, but its not necessarily true. To help tame it, I use Bainbridge Sailman 2000 slides, which are excellent, strong, low friction plastic slides. Even so, if I had a luff length much over 50 feet I would probably go for ball bearing cars on a full length "mainsheet track".

But the real key to easy mainsail lowering is to have a mainsail downhaul. This is an 8mm rope tied to the headboard. I lead it through alternate sail slides so that it doesn't catch in the rigging. It's tied off slackly to the gooseneck when the sail is fully hoisted. On releasing the halyard I pull on the downhaul and the top part of the sail drops. Works every time. I fitted single line reefing on my first two reefs. By using large ball bearing blocks attached to the clew and tack rings I reduce friction and chafe. Once the reef is pulled in I snapshackle the clew ring directly to the boom. Cunningham holes above each tack point mean I can use a 4:1 purchase to tension the luff. MUCH easier than using the tack hooks. When that's set up I release the reefing pendant, so there is no chance of chafe. Incidentally, Mike Golding told me to use spectra reefing pendants, as they don't chafe - and he's right.

After beating to windward in a gale across Biscay, I decided that I also wanted a big roller furling line on the genoa, so use an 8mm spectra line there as well. After all it's probably the one line that must never, ever, break. But its not just ropes that can chafe, sails wear out fast if they are allowed to rub on the shrouds. To prevent this, but mainly to improve boat speed, I always use a 4:1 boom vang and a barber hauler on the genoa. The boom vang rope is the only one on board in which I don't tie a stopper knot. That way if I have to gybe and release the vang in a hurry it can run out freely.

A boom vang is also a good safety feature. I have a friend who didn't fit one. He tried to prevent a gybe all standing and broke his wrist. As he was 300 miles from land at the time and had a young family on board it was a distressing and painful experience for them all.

Many cruisers will be surprised to hear that I regularly fly a spinnaker when single handed. Of course as I have a catamaran I don't need a spinnaker pole (see PBO for a full account of how to rig spinnakers on multihulls). I don't use a spinnaker sock as I find them frustratingly slow; instead I trip the guy in the "old fashioned" way and pull the sail down into the cockpit.

My racing sails are made in high tech spectra by Dolphin Sails, not what you'd normally see on a cruising boat and far too good to waste. So I acquired some cheap cut down sails for the Atlantic crossing. However I found that after 3 months the cheap sails had stretched more than the Dolphin ones did after three years, so I changed back to my good sails. Proof that it's never worth economizing on sails.

Although it is a major cost and lots of hassle, don't even think of going off sailing without a reliable engine. I know Slocum did it, but re-read his book and count up the number of collisions he had. (For a clue start on chapter 2!) These days the Pardeys are the great "no engine" advocates. But the first time I met them they were anchored at the mouth of a crowded creek in Annapolis, clearly unable to sail further in. A bit like anchoring off Hamble Point. Not very seamanlike... And remember you don't HAVE to use the engine just because it's there.

I only have a 9.9hp Yamaha 4 stroke outboard but it powers me at 5.5 knots in a calm and I can always make headway. But as it is an outboard I have to rely on alternative energy for battery charging. I find wind chargers noisy, heavy and dangerous (if you do fit one avoid the make with the downpointing tail as they are consistently the noisiest, to the extent I avoid anchoring near any boat with one fitted). Instead I use solar panels. I have four 50w panels, two over the davits and one on each side of the cabin roof. That way at least 2 are always in sun.

I took off the supplied regulators and fitted an ammeter and separate switches on each panel instead. That was an interesting experiment. I had thought that angling the panels would bring benefits. Not so, between 10am and 4pm my panels put out 12-14 amps in bright tropical sun. In the mornings and evenings even after turning the panels to face the sun the output is less than two amps, so its not really worth having swiveling panel mounts. The switches mean that if the batteries start to overcharge I can always turn off the panels.

One of main reasons for being paranoid about having enough electrical power is that I have a fridge freezer. It has transformed my life. I really don't know how I would cope in the tropics without one. Certainly I'd have to shop every day instead of once a week. I was lucky that for once I was in the right place at the right time and bought an Isotherm watercooled fridge very cheap! Fortunately I haven't dried out since leaving the UK, whereas in Plymouth Eclipse was on a drying mooring and I kept having to turn the fridge off. I have found that the best way to keep running costs down is to keep the fridge full. Anything will do, tins of fruit, even beer at a pinch!

Initially Eclipse had a 160L flexible water tank, which was fine for coastal cruising and singlehanded sailing. But with more crew and longer passages I needed to carry more water. I debated long and hard about fitting a water maker, but the more I read the more I got put off. It is not just the initial cost, but the maintenance has to be rigorous, while cleaning materials and spares are expensive. It is unwise to use them in port as dirty water can destroy the membrane. So using one would be fine in the clear waters of the Caribbean or Bahamas, but I wrote this up a creek in S Georgia with water so full of tannin I can't even see the dinghy outboard propeller. Another fact weighing heavily on my mind is that I've only once sailed on a boat with a watermaker. It broke down when we were in the S Atlantic and St Helena was the nearest land, 800 miles away. Fortunately we got it working again, but it was a very scary experience.

I know people who have had to bale water out of their tanks because the electric water pump broke down, so when I fitted an extra rigid plastic tank I also installed two completely separate systems, the one to the galley relying on a hand pump. That way it also means less water is wasted. So I now carry 250L plus 4 x 25L loose containers which is OK for 3 people for 25 days (if only drinking the water). In practice I've found refilling tanks not a problem. In the first 6 months I spent only £5 on water and never went thirsty. Incidentally, you can't count on rain water. It only rained for 5 minutes crossing the Atlantic, while in Georgia it rained most days but I could get water whenever I needed more fuel.

I have been surprised to find that many ocean cruisers carry the same size gas bottles as when coastal sailing, whereas I carry two 30lb bottles, each one lasting about two months. Usually the filling stations are out of town and a major hassle to get to, but in the two months breathing space I can usually meet someone prepared to take me. I also carry a cheap gas BBQ (in the tropics the cabin temperature is high enough anyway without cooking inside as well) and a portable camping gas stove for emergencies. Fortunately I also carry a spare regulator, which was needed when one died in mid Atlantic.

Crew comfort is vitally important and comfy cushions in the cockpit are essential. Think about it, when was the last time you drove a car with wooden seats? A three hour car drive is a long trip - but that's only one night watch. I spent a long time trying to design a bimini that would still allow me to sheet and view the sails - but without success. So I ended up with a parasol that I can "tack" from hull to hull, and it works really well!

I think its crazy to insist on the crew hand steering at all times. It just makes everyone really tired and that's dangerous. Many people still want to use a windvane, but I met several cruisers who had problems with theirs (all makes) sometimes due to corrosion, or after a collision with flotsam or just by bad design. Even with a windvane you'll still want to use an autopilot when motoring. Considering the number of autopilots you can buy for one windvane it must now make sense to only use an autopilot. Over the last 25 years I've used more than a dozen autopilots of various makes, and I've found the most reliable to be Autohelm/Raytheon/Raymarine units. So they are the only ones I carry these days. Mind you I carry a spare - just in case! My main unit is an ST2000+ (it's done over 10,000 miles now) and the back up a ST1000+. I also have a remote control, which I find absolutely essential. I can sit below and steer to windward in a gale (I have all round vision from the saloon), or steer from the foredeck away from the engine noise when motoring, or even steer on the cabin top when navigating through coral reefs. If only they weren't so over priced….

So by August 2002 the boat was ready. In my next article I will discuss which charts and pilots to buy, the best free software to download, what food to take etc.