In a few hours I fly to the Pacific Northwest to inspect five prospective Figure 8 Voyage boats. This article describes the search to date, including how my thoughts have evolved since this summer’s Northwest Passage.
“The best boat is the one you have,” is often quoted to illustrate a basic truth about voyaging: as vital as dreams are to adventure, too much dreaming, planning, revising, and perfecting can kill a cruise. At some point improvement is nothing but delay, and one must get going or risk not going at all.
In my case, however, the old saw is wrong. I have a boat, a much adored, 31 foot, full-keel ketch, named Murre. She has proven her abilities by safely transporting me over large reaches of the open Pacific (see Murre and the Pacific, one boat, one guy, two years on a big ocean). But the differences between a mostly middle latitude voyage of 15,000 miles and a 40,000 mile voyage that will spend half its time in high latitudes is vast. Compare the physical requirements on a plane flying from San Francisco to New York to a space ship’s flight to the moon. Both are technically difficult feats, but one is orders of magnitude more so. Murre is the jumbo jet in this analogy; she’s just not designed for the rigors of the Figure 8 course.
Much of my focus in recent months has been on defining the characteristics of the right boat.
And what are those?
Succinctly put, the vessel must be:
While these are interrelated requirements, the last is far and away the most important and has been the cause of the much recent contemplation.
Here are two visual examples of the extremes a Figure 8 boat must survive:
And how I’ve thought about these characteristics has changed dramatically of late. It may be helpful to know that the idea for the Figure 8 came to me while reading of Matt Rutherford’s solo of the Americas in 2011. His impressive passage was accomplished in an unlikely vessel, an old, fiberglass Albin Vega that survived both the Arctic and the Horn. Murre is also made of fiberglass; it’s a material I’ve worked with extensively during her restoration. Thus, until recently, my Figure 8 focus has been on a range of vintage, heavy-displacement, fiberglass boats, like the Westsail 32.
This is a design I’ve admired for years. Built throughout the 1970s in Costa Mesa, California, Westsails are legendary for their heft, their robustness and ability to survive even the most ridiculous of dirty weather. One now famous example is that of Sartori, the boat caught in The Perfect Storm of 1991 (you’ve probably seen the movie or read the book), which survived being rolled and abandoned only to wash up on a New Jersey beach intact.
And boats like this are not unheard of in the Arctic. Cloud Nine, Fiona, Saint Brenden, Belzebub, Dodo, and Gitana are different boats of different sizes but have two things in common: they’ve all completed the Northwest Passage since 2009, and they are all made of fiberglass.
So, during the spring of this year I researched a number of stout fiberglass designs. I combed marinas in my area, flew to San Diego and Florida, and inspected vessels like the Westsail 32, 39 and 42; the Valiant 40, the Corbin 39, the Lafitte 44, the Noresman 447.
This search was interrupted by the summer’s Northwest Passage adventure with Les and Ali on Arctic Tern, and here I learned first-hand that one year in the Arctic is not like the other. In 2011, when Matt Rutherford completed his Northwest Passage, ice extents along the route were at historic minimums, and this allowed Matt to work through with relative ease. Ditto for yachts in 2012. But in 2013 the course was choked with ice much of the season, and all fiberglass yachts starting in 2014 turned back, their skippers judging conditions to be too dangerous for their vessels’ design.
Seeing the Arctic in person and feeling the immense force of ice against hull convinced me to shift gears. Since my return, I’ve been exploring only boats with hulls of steel or aluminum.
But how big? Of what design?
Let’s go back and explore the four requirements.
To complete the Figure 8 course in one season will require that I maintain an average speed of 115 miles a day. (More on the course and mileages here.) This may not seem fast to you (it is, after all, only 4.79 miles an hour), but it does to me. Keeping up solid daily runs over time can be hard work. By way of comparison, Murre has made three, month-long Pacific crossings, and her average speed over the total of those 8,000 miles was 110 miles a day. The emphasis here is on average speed over weeks and months, as with wind-ships one day is rarely like the next.
For keel boats, speed’s limiting factor is boat size. Given similar conditions of wind and wave, larger boats can go faster than smaller ones, and size, where speed is concerned, is usually expressed as the boat’s length at the water line. This isn’t the place to get into the calculation, so let me jump to the result: the Figure 8 needs a boat whose minimum waterline is 33 feet, plus or minus, and this equates to a boat of about 40 feet in length overall.
We’re not talking cupboard space here, but rather the balance between the overall weight of provisions (the payload) and the boat’s ability to safely carry weight (carrying capacity).
These numbers add up quickly. For ship’s stores (food, beverage, galley supplies, etc.), I’ve used Niger Calder’s “Personal Increment” calculation (See Cruising Handbook, p. 13), which provides, among other things, an estimation of the weight of supplies one person requires per day of voyaging. This number, plus 100 gallons of water and 300 gallons of fuel (a range of 1000 miles under power in the Northwest Passage is not unreasonable), brings my payload to around 5,500 pounds for a year’s voyaging.
It’s not just any boat that can carry so much weight and be safe on the high seas. Again, I’ll forgo the details of ballast, displacement and their ratios and say here that this payload requires a moderate to heavy displacement boat of around 40 feet overall, and bigger would be better.
Though smaller boats are often easier to manage, simplicity is more a function of how the boat is arranged and outfitted. Here are just a few examples:
Below decks, the layout must allow for comfortable and efficient living. Where soloing is concerned, these two terms are almost synonymous and, for me, include features like:
Mechanical systems must be easy to access and reparable anywhere. This excludes boats with devices like saildrives and dedicated hydraulic steering.
This is a can of worms. Don’t believe me? Then I’d recommend you retrieve from your local library Seaworthiness, The Forgotten Factor by C. A. Marchaj. It’s a serious work, as indicated by the header quote to Chapter 1, “The Nature of the Problem.”
“I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account there of in the day of judgement. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by they words thou shalt be condemned.”
This book is 372 pages of no foolin’ around, but before Marachaj gets into the mind-boggling math, he lays out the definition simply and clearly:
“Seaworthiness–strong durable and watertight construction, structurally sound rig, good survival characteristics in extreme weather conditions.”
Given my destination (see graphics at the top of this article), this means two specific things:
1. Stays upright: the ballast, displacement, and capsize ratios yield a boat with maximum stability in large seas. If capsize occurs (far from impossible), the boat does not stay inverted. Why is this important? Here’s a good reason.
2. Survives collision: hull construction must withstand heavy ice impacts and severe groundings; better if it has watertight bulkheads fore and aft. Overhangs should be minimal; bow sprits and aft hung rudders (easily damaged by ice) are to be avoided.
Clearly there’s much more to seaworthiness, but for the Figure 8, these are the core design characteristics.
So, to summarize, the Figure 8 boat will be of steel or aluminum, about 40 feet long, medium to heavy displacement, bullet-proof, simply laid out and rigged for single handing.
Well that was easy.
Except for one thing.
In the States, the market for boats like this is small. Relative to production glass boats, few are made, and fewer still are available used. Thus far my internet research has taken me to such disparate places as Malaysia and the Netherlands, Cape Town and Turkey. I’ve looked into designs with names like Amazon, Atlantis, Boreal, Damien, Dix, Garcia, Koopmans, Kanter, Offshore, and Van de Stadt.
The cluster of boats to be inspected next week in Washington and British Columbia are the nearest to home I’ve found and include two Amazon 44s, a Waterline 38, and a Kanter.
Wish me luck!
Here are two of my favorite designs to date:
The Amazon 44