Sea-Boats, Oars and Sails by Conor O’Brien


Many readers will know that gun-runner, naval officer and circumnavigator Conor O’Brien’s book Sea-Boats Oars and Sails is a classic of small boat sailing and cruising – the good news is that it is now available again in an elegant paperback format from the Lodestar Books.

The prices are £12 sent to the UK, £13 to Europe, and £15 to areas of the world beyond Europe.

The photo above is of a François Vivier-designed Ilur, which is said to embody the qualities advanced by O’Brien in this book – the boat in the shot belongs to Tim Cooke and is sailed by him in the waters of south-west Ireland.

If you’re not convinced you need a copy, perhaps the following few sentences (and the link to a chapter below) will help demonstrate why it deserves a place on the bookshelf.

Just in these few lines, you’ll likely find he’s dogmatic about something he has experience of, reveals a little sense (on luffing) that may not be as common as it should be and, of course, in his spare style, he draws a picture that’s only too easy to conjure in your imagination. (He was writing in 1941, a time when taut writing was coming much more into fashion.)

‘The sailing boat referred to in this book, which excludes all racing craft, is not a miniature yacht. Their functions are different; the boatman is dependent on the shore, and has to make his port in good time, the yachtsman can keep the sea as long as he likes. But a sailing boat, as I define the term, is not merely a small yacht stripped for action; the significant difference is in the method of handling them. The yacht is almost uncapsizable, and, if luffed head to wind, heavy enough to carry her headway for some little time after the sails have ceased to draw. The boat stops immediately the propelling force fails. In a yacht the main sheet is belayed, keeping the sail at a constant angle with her keel, and to spill the wind out of the sail in a squall she is luffed, or turned towards the wind’s eye with the helm. In a boat the main sheet must be held in the hand, and with it she is played through a squall as a fish is played with rod and line, while she is kept sailing smartly all the time. It is fatal to luff, for if she loses headway she will not recover it till she has fallen off broadside to the wind, and if she is caught in that position with no way on she is easily capsized. Then, if the boat’s sails have to be taken in, they must come in at once, while in a yacht there is never great hurry about reducing canvas. These considerations limit the size of a boat’s mainsail and enjoin simplicity and certainty in working on her gear. As a set-off it should be remembered that the crew can get about their work with far more ease and safety in an open boat than on a small yacht’s deck.’

Read more on this topic in a chapter from Sea-Boats, Oars and Sails here.


Photos from the Festival du Bois Salé

These photos of what looks like some very relaxed late summer sailing were taken by the outstanding boat designer François Vivier at the recent (and splendidly-named Festival du Bois Salé) organised by the Le Défi du Traict, which is based around the Traict de Merquel.

The event is a rally of traditional boats and craft derived from traditional types, and seems to involve a fair amount of activity in Vivier’s sail-and-oar boat designs. The event seems to take place each September and I only wish it was nearer!

Le Défi du Traict was originally formed in 1997 to enter a competition sponsored by the magazine Chasse Marée to build a replica of 1796-style yole recovered from a ship that foundered in Bantry Bay – and it looks to me as though that yole appears in one of the photos.

François Vivier’s brilliant Pen-Hir small sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser Vivier Pen-Hir coastal sailing cruiser

François Vivier’s sailing cruiser Pen-Hir

Many of François Vivier’s revered ply and epoxy boat designs draw somewhat on the traditional boats of the Breton coast. We had a priceless opportunity to appreciate how attractive and well worked out they really are this summer when we were invited over for lunch with him and his charming wife Veronique.

That meeting over a lovely lunch was a great pleasure for both Julie and I. François’ English is excellent and his conversation is marked by strong views and clear, well argued and original insights – they’re just as well made as his boat plans themselves.

Looking at his own coastal sailing cruiser Pen-Hir as built by his son’s boatyard, we were struck not only by attractive and well made the boat was, but also by how well everything is worked out.

For example I often joke about the ‘long things’ that make life difficult in most small boats – the boat hooks, the unused spars, the odd oar or sweep, and so on – but I was impressed to find that François hadn’t just found places for them on his boat, but had designed-in spaces for each one that meant they could be kept accessible but out of the way and secure.

The smart equipment was good too. I particularly liked the diesel cooker that doubled as a heater, and the electric outboard. It was only a shame that it was too windy to go sailing – and boy was it windy. We’d heard stories about how the French will sail in any sort of weather, but from our experience they aren’t true – at least not at Pornichet, for no-one else was out on the water that day either.

I was interested to learn that François has been involved in establishing a new French boat building school, and very much look forward to learning how it goes in the coming years.

More information about the Vivier Pen-Hir design and many more photos can be found here.