John Welsford’s Pilgrim – by the man himself

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John Welsford’s Pilgrim takes shape on the drawing board

Inspired by my post yesterday, John Welsford has kindly written a short essay about his Pilgrim project, and about his long-standing admiration for the fishing boats of the English South Coast. It seems my remark about convergent evolution was quite wide of the mark, for John knew what direction he was travelling all along!

Pilgrim, a history and what I am aiming at

For many years I have had a real interest in the small fishing craft of the English South Coast. This area is one where high inshore winds, fast currents and rough seas have bred a type of small craft of exceptional seaworthiness, very smooth motion and surprising speed under sail.

The Falmouth quay punt is one at the larger end of the scale, and smaller boats were beach launched or sailed from the many tiny fishing ports between Falmouth and the Solent. Many of the distinctive types are closely related in hull shape, and I so envied their ability that I took a set of lines from a Falmouth quay punt, drew them up at ¼ scale and set out to reduce the shape to a set of numbers.

On completing that analysis it was evident that the boat fitted right in the middle of all the desirable statistics for comfortable and able cruising yachts plus some interesting characteristics that are not so common in todays production boats. With the design of small serious blue water cruisers in mind I set out to design a boat that would have those characteristics, but which would be easier for an unskilled backyard boatbuilder to produce than the original shape would be.

I drew up a design called Houdini, half the length of what I had in mind, but wider due to the scale effect that reduces stability as a boat gets smaller. This is a plywood boat, quite easy to build, a centreboarder rather than a deep keel boat, and both comfortable and roomy for her size but still right on the “numbers” so a valid vehicle for testing the theory.

I sailed Houdini for three summers, went out in conditions ranging from flat calm to seriously bad and she was wonderful! Just what I’d hoped for, and a real reward for all the figure work and the tow test models that had lead to the design.

Since then I have drawn Swaggie, junk-rigged and just over 18ft long, intended for offshore work and just big enough for a couple to cruise long distances in; Sundowner, which at 21ft 4in on deck is about the size of the smaller Falmouth quay punts; and now Pilgrim, which is for my own use.

Swaggie and Sundowner are interesting boats, much more roomy than you’d expect, better sailers than their considerable beam and weight would suggest, and they both have very comfortable motion in a seaway. More confirmation that the theory is in the right direction.

With that experience in mind, and the prospect of a bigger build ahead of me that will take five years or more to complete, I decided to build myself a cruising open boat so that I’d have a sanity machine to get away in when the combination of a fulltime day job (which I need to pay for the big boat),a design business, and the pressure of building a 12 ton cruiser gets a bit much.

I first set a target of March 2010 for a trip in the new boat. That’s our late summer, and generally a time of settled weather and mild temperatures.

The trip is a bit over 200 miles along a coast where at that time of year there can be strong onshore winds, and where there are long stretches with no harbours, which set the criteria, stable, very able, strong to windward in open sea conditions, and all of the other desireable things for a boat intended for a week on board in near blue water conditions.

Pilgrim is the result, descended from the small fishing boats of the English South Coast, set up for comfortable sleeping on board, with bouyancy enough to enable self-rescuing in the event of a swamping, with about 300 kg of ballast to hold her up in a blow. Some of that weight is lead bolted to the boats keel, some is in the steel centerboard and some is internal water ballast to get the boat back to a weight that I can tow with my 2-litre car.

The structure is as simple as I can make it so that I have a chance of building it in the timeframe allowed. In materials it required about what I had already in my workshop, so she has a rig that was drawn up from spars that I already have, and will use fittings that I’ve collected over the years and have kept for just this sort of project. This is a shoestring, no frills building project!

I have begun a diary on her design build so that people can follow the process of a designer thinking aloud on paper, then drawing the plans, and then the boat growing as she is put together, and at the end I’ll be writing of the adventures we have on the way up the coast.

There are three diary notes there now, and you can read them here:

I’ll be keeping your editor up to date as well, so, watch this space too.

John Welsford. designer

See John’s website or contact him at

(Top) A gaff sloop-rigged Houdini, the first of this style of boat. Even though she’s a sheet plywood amateur built 14 footer she still evokes a sense of her parentage. This one is of builder Herco and friends sailing Kurkprop (think of the sound the cork makes when you open a bottle of champagne) in the South African sun; (Second row, left) Swaggie, sailing near her builder Luis‘ home port in Uruguay, bigger, a lot heavier and rigged very differently. But still the same numbers, and proportions (Second row, right, and bottom) Resolution, built to the Sundowner design, showing her underwater lines, and sitting at her berth waiting to be rigged. Designed to cope with Cape Horn, the first of the Sundowner boats to be launched she sails and handles like a much much bigger boat. She’s based on the same line of thinking, with similar numbers and ratios, and again produced the same result. Pilgrim should be more of the same, says John

Restored Cuban fishing boat was used by refugees fleeing to Florida

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Fishing boat used by Cuban refugees restored

Fishing boat used by Cuban refugees restored Restored fishing boat used by Cuban refugees Restored Cuban fishing boat used by refugees

Esperanza, the day she was relaunched and at earlier stages in her restoration

It’s been a great few days for people sending me photographs, and here are some more. If any of you happen to have any stories to tell and photographs to share, please send them in!

Robin Marshall, a supporter of the Florida Gulf Coast Maritime Museum sent us these photos of a little flat-bottomed fishing boat that someone had used to sail from Cuba to the USA.

I’ve tried imagining what it must have been like so far from land in such a small boat – a flatiron skiff so small and limited in terms of seaworthiness that most of us wouldn’t sail more than a mile or two out in it, let alone the 90-plus these this brave crew must have covered.

It was all years ago, so I hope the weather was good and that what they thought they wanted really was what they wanted after all!

Here’s what Robin has to say:

‘Hi Gavin.

‘I thought you might be interested in an unusual restoration.

‘Our local maritime museum the Florida Gulf Coast Maritime Museum in Cortez took on this project – the remains of a Cuban refugee fishing boat.

‘It had been left to rot in someones yard down in southern Florida and was almost rotted away.

‘Under the guidance of Bob Pitt, who is in charge of the workshop, the museum restored her using as much as possible of her original timbers. She was re-launched this weekend at our annual wooden boat festival.

‘Robin Marshall a member of the museum’

Many thanks Robin!

For more on boat restoration in the area, check this lot: Great Florida Gulf Coast Traditional Small Craft Assn

For more on flatiron skiffs and a whole range of other North American boat types, I recommend the classic work by Howard Irving Chappelle, Small American Sailing Craft. For material on building them try The Sharpie Book.

Biche – France’s last sailing tuna fisherman

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Sailing French tunny fisherman Biche

Biche, the last sailing French tuna fishing boat is scheduled
to be relaunched in two years.

Googling around for Parisian boat-related material led me to the website of Les Amis du Biche – a society devoted to restoring and relaunching the historic sailing tuna fisherman. The grand old boat is due to be back in the water by 2010, and from the photos there has been a lot of work to do.

I’d also draw readers’ attention to the quaintly entertaining name on the side of the crane. This kind of light-hearted humour seems to happen around these machines: the crane that’s about to put our little boat in the water proclaims itself to be an Iron Fairy. It’s obviously been around long time, but I gather they are still available if you want to buy one – though the more convenient Matchbox toy version is apparently a rarity .

I was entertained by this ingeniously made video appealing for new supporters for the Biche project.

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