Vixen


A Craft Inspired by The Kingston Lobster Boat, Chapelle’s Figure 59…

It’s been over forty years since I first laid eyes on this page in Howard Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft. While in boat school I built a half model, thirty-six inches long, of White Pine…. I even lofted the body plan.

I never did build one; but this design has continued to fascinate me. I still get a thrill every time I turn to the page….

“Figure 59 shows a later boat, measured at Duxbury in 1937. This plan shows the “improved” model, having a fishing schooner’s counter and the altered run in which the deadwood is planked and hollow garboards are used. The model was now more like that of a sloop-yacht of the late 1880’s.

Chapelle’s sober warning against excesses driven by fashion still rings true. This design does seem…, just a bit too much…. He’s right, but still….

It’s taken this long to attempt my own interpretation. I did loosely base the hull form of the Arey’s Pond Daysailer on these boats, but that’s not the same thing…. This time I wanted to stick as close to the original as I could. Try as one might to cleave to a source of inspiration, if, as we work, we’re honest about what strikes us as fitting, changes will creep in.

Here we have their lines superimposed.

I’ve seen a replica of Ransom’s boat. It’s all I hoped for. Severe as well as extreme. It carries a purposeful air. We can see how this lobsterboat was as much the pride and joy of its master as it was the locus of his many hours of unremitting labor. Pride shone in her form, rakish and confident. In its modest materials: oak and cedar and pine; finished in pine-tar and linseed oil, it glowed from a patina of wear and exposure that matched the lines and calluses on its master’s hands. This was no frivolous craft.

A design needs a reason. What mission will this craft take on?

Not an easy question although one that is commonly simply taken for granted. Developing a boat from a traditional type and imagining how it might fit into today’s world takes some effort. Too often, to my eye, this leads to a flurry of cut & paste. A traditional profile stuck between a contemporary underbody and rig. The whole intended to flatter everyone involved without challenging anyone to consider what we might actually learn from letting our selves be touched by our past.

My life-long fascination with boats has been fed by the power they have over us to bend us to their circumstances, get us to accommodate to their world. Step aboard any boat and we cannot help but have its needs and possibilities grab hold of us. This is true of any boat, something to do with the mortal immediacy of being afloat perhaps.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlight, 1887
Albert Pinkham Ryder, Moonlight, 1887

What continues to intrigue me is the opportunity to channel our imaginations that this power to affect us gives us. Maybe not channel, so much as free…. Not free in the sense of being without restraints, a fool’s errand…. A boat we engage with as a choice; a boat we must then commit effort and sacrifice other demands to afford; such a boat transports us imaginatively.

This is not about acting out a fantasy. It’s not playing-at some thing. When a boat embodies certain values of integrity and puts us into situations that rhyme with and reflect the lives of those who came before us….

It’s best not to try too hard to pin this down. The important thing is that we be aware that this imaginative connection fills our every fiber as we tend to our vessel.

A replica has its own justifications and rewards, but to develop a new design, we must find a way for it to engage us differently.

One way to peer through these ephemeral wisps of intangibles, is to grasp the fundamentals. No, not hydro-dynamic theory, or material-engineering. What does a boat do? It holds us, carries us.

How will this boat transport us?

Twenty feet is an in-between size. We perch atop smaller boats. Larger craft carry us on their broad backs. On a small, open boat our every twitch brings a reaction. Large craft are indifferent to where we sit, windward or leeward. We spend a few hours at a time in small boats. We inhabit large craft for weeks, months, years at a time. This size of boat can be too much boat and not enough boat all at the same time. But if we approach it right this size can combine benefits found at both ends of the spectrum. Small enough to be responsive and relatively easy to deal with, yet large enough to give us some shelter and extend our range.

What is the smallest usable cabin? This design aims at an answer, providing a place to sit upright below and have room to lie out flat beneath a solid shelter, protecting us from the elements. Such a cabin can be squeezed into a boat under twenty feet. I’ve done it. Though I’ve always felt that unless some hard-and-fast, drop-dead limitation holds us to eighteen feet –

and not just a frantic wish to limit the cost! Length is not as great a controlling factor in this as we might think. In fact it can be more reasonable not to over-constrain length against other parameters in the long-run. We are most likely better-off if we let a boat be the length it needs to be. And a bit of lankiness brings its own rewards. Especially when we’re so close to a hard-and-fast limitation imposed on us by the un-scalability of the human body. We require about thirty-six inches of height to sit up straight. Around six-feet of length to lie down flat.

This cabin meets these minimum requirements. There is a bench seat across the after end under the companionway where we can sit under cover while working on something, or just gathering our thoughts. We can sprawl on the sole propped on cushions to read or nap. For a good night’s rest we can swing a pair of hammocks, port & starboard. They do take up the entire cabin, but then we only need to fulfill one of these functions at a time.

This cockpit is also a place of habitation. A deep space with room under the seats to stow gear and provisions. Room to sprawl and room to bring three, four, even five friends out for an afternoon romp.

“It’s not self-bailing….” We’ll hear that from just about everyone we meet even as they settle-in, arms spread wide on the coaming, stretching their legs, sighing from the rightness of the space.

“No, but….” We begin to answer, waiting for the realization to sink in that a wholesome craft does not have to have such a thing. Especially at this size. To force the cockpit upwards six, eight, twelve inches above the waterline to accommodate the drains? How much is enough? This is not a boat intended for an outside passage. A sump with a bilge-pump will handle spray and rain, and a cockpit cover protects the whole structure from sun and weather while on a mooring.

So, to get back to the character of the way this particular boat holds us we could say it is embracing and intimate. Enough, not less, not more. At least to venture upon the right sort of waters. In this case, looking back to her ancestor, the creek on which she was built leads into a series of bays nesting one inside the other, Kingston Bay, Duxbury Bay, Plymouth Bay. All within the grand embrace of Cape Cod Bay. These can be boisterous waters. The summer’s southwest breeze blowing twenty knots raises a square, four foot chop; but shelter is never too far off. Anyplace with comparable conditions would be a suitable base for our Vixen.

A quick note on this name.

“A few of the Kingston boats had some outside ballast; the Vixen, a Ransom-built boat, whose lines were taken off by Erismann, was one of these.”

Chapelle’s writings are full of these laconically specific notes, often followed by a pronouncement like this one,

“The quantity of weight carried in the ballast shoe seems small, and it is very doubtful if any marked advantage was obtained.”

And so closes the short section, a matter of a couple of pages, in which he gathered and preserved the record of one out of the hundreds of local types, spanning three centuries, he bound in American Small Sailing Craft. Along with his Elements of Yacht Design and The American Fishing Schooner, this volume has been a touchstone for my ruminations on our maritime cultural heritage. Old enough to have been my father, dying the same year and at the same age as my actual father, I’ve held Howard Chapelle close to my heart all these years.

So, from this little note, and a conflation of this other boat named Vixen in my mind with the design illustrated in figure 59, Vixen has always just seemed the right name for this boat. That foxes frequent the rippling expanses of marsh grass fringing Cape Cod Bay, on “my side” as well as on Ransom’s, seems fitting….

Beside the non-bailing cockpit, and if my experience at boat shows from Portland Maine to Mystic Connecticut and beyond is any guide, the most “problematic” aspect of this design, the thing you’ll likely expend the most breath trying to explain – at least until you learn to just smile and go on about the weather – will be the winged rudder.

I first developed it on the Arey’s Pond Daysailer mentioned above. The Kingston/Cape Cod connection is not the only reason it shows up again here. This short video of the AP Daysailer shows this feature’s astonishing effect on performance. It is particularly suited to relatively shoal craft. I do want to develop a related configuration for use on deeper and larger vessels at some point. You can read about the boat and my description of the concept in this back-issue of WoodenBoat Magazine.

Along with the cut-away dead-wood aft and a ballast shoe Chapelle would raise a bushy eyebrow over, this rudder is the most visible effort to build on developments made during the century I grew up in and the one we find ourselves in now. Others are more subtle: massaging the hull’s volume and form to generate the least drag-inducing wake and provide the most stable platform for rig and crew. In these I don’t follow any particular dogma. Traditionalists and high-performance techies alike may find much to disagree with in my approach, reflecting on aero- and hydro-dynamics and following my own intuitions as they have played-out in models and prototypes over the years. I’ve attempted to be open to new research while remaining mindful of the deep wisdom captured in centuries of incremental evolution embodied in the boats of our ancestors.

Starting out, and even today, if it hadn’t been for Chapelle, and a handful of other designers and historians willing to publish their lines plans, I would not have been able to find a way into the complexities of form depicted in what my wife Kay calls, “The Spaghetti!” These tangles of crisscrossing lines, a basket weave that captures a three dimensional form on a sheet or screen, are not just a record and repository of hull-forms. They provide a way to interpret and question the hull-form depicted. After years of staring, drawing, and staring some more, it’s possible to learn to think our way into a new form, learning to fit it to the water and the tasks we ask it to perform. This is why, as much as I feel the need to “protect my work,” I can’t not show at least a partial view of the lines at the heart of each design.

As well as being in-between in length this design has an in-between draft. Two foot three with a stub keel and a metal centerboard, for lift and to drop the center of gravity that much deeper, this boat could be shallower. The AP Daysailer draws 13″ and is only a bit smaller. But that is a pure daysailer while this one has accommodations to fit in below. Achieving sitting headroom and sleeping space, without going to a slab-sided high sheer line, requires a little more boat in the water.

In small open boats I tend to prefer not adding any ballast. In a tender boat with live-weight ballast in the form of a crew on the rail extra weight just adds inertia, slowing acceleration and increasing heeling force. Since the boat won’t stand-up on its own anyway, you just end up fighting against the ballast, hiking out more desperately to counter the excess heeling force resulting from the sails leaning to the wind instead of squirting the boat ahead.

Once a craft is too large to fit this type of sailing, even if, as in this case, crew weight to windward is still a factor in balancing the heeling forces, ballast is a necessity and the answer lies in finding the best mix of features, behaviors, and limitations that best fit the overall craft. We want every aspect of the design to express and add to the over-all character of the vessel we intend. In this case, this mix of moderately shallow draft with some inside and some outside ballast and a heavy centerboard, brings us an interesting, and in these days rare, opportunity to experience a boat that is both fast and comfortable.

When we talk of the potential performance of a boat we tend to ignore the two most salient factors: Good sails and a crew that stays awake and stays ahead of the situation, never falling into dull complacency; always willing to see if they can’t do a little better, meeting the demands of the moment and making winnable bets on how conditions might be changing. These life-lessons make sailing a unique crucible in which youth is transmuted, sparking sentience to life!

Vixen‘s rig is a high-peaked gaff sloop. The original Kingston Lobster Boats flew sprits’l cat-ketch rigs. I’ll be adding an open, half-decked version without the cabin with a cat-ketch rig, but I think that for this arrangement the gaff sloop is the best choice. These boats can be weatherly. BitterSweet, at 23 feet, walks away from high-performance Marconi rigged boats and refuses to be run down by anything under around forty feet! My own Little Cat, Harry, outpoints lots of boats that should be able to wipe the bay with him….

The key to powering a boat with more than minimal wetted surface and some extra heft is to have enough sail area. This rig does this simply and with low-tech materials. A boat with enough sail, and a straightforward method of reefing and taking in area as the breeze picks up, can ghost. It’s one of my greatest pleasures out on the water, to take whatever stray zephyr might hit the sails and watch the slightest ripples peel away from the hull registering that we’re making headway. Heel the boat down to leeward, sit still, and feel…, everything.

This brings up something else about the sails. These sails are cotton. Not Like-Cotton-Colored™ plastic. Cotton.

If you’re ever at Mystic Seaport on a summer’s day find a cool spot and just watch the Catboat Breck Marshall sail around for a time. His sails are cotton, a dull off-gray color from the effects of sun and rain and maybe just a hint of mildew. It’s easy on the eyes. No glare. Easy on the hands. The sailcloth behaves like…, well, cloth. Not boardy, woven-plastic. But the thing that caught my attention one particular day, watching her incredibly skilled and practiced skipper nose in and out of his berth, taking on passengers while single-handing in a crowded cockpit. He coaxes the Marshall, shooting straight into the wind and then tacking on an Indian Head Dime. Part of this is timing, and all that practice, knowing his boat. And part of it is the weight of a heavier displacement boat. But another part, something I’d never seen before, was the way the soft canvas seemed to caress the air, maintaining flow and lift in the fluky, fluttering backdraft off the lee of a nearby fish-house.

No Dacron sail can do that! I thought. It won’t. It can’t. Dacron is made specifically not to stretch, That’s good right?

Well, there might be another side to the question.

This glorious cotton catboat sail responds like the soft wings of an owl, catching and holding onto airflow in turbulent and marginal conditions, getting drive out of the sail when any more, so-called, efficient sail would just flap. Dead. That’s the kind of sail I want for Vixen. That’s the kind of sail that should work best with the blend of features and capacities this boat has on offer.

We haven’t touched on a few more oddities in this design. The biggest question left hanging might be, “Where’s the engine?”

This is related to the construction type specified and also to those large cotton sails….

See the twelve foot sweep in the Construction Plan? There only need be one. A couple of paddles would be nice at times.

We tend to see an engine on a sail boat as a “Safety Feature!” I don’t agree. What brings us the most security on the water is sound seamanship, an awareness of limits, letting go of any get-there-itis. People call for a tow today because their engine has failed – on a sail boat! They are not safer for having that engine. None of us are ever safer for breathing its fumes…. And even the warm and fuzzy aura of an electric motor comes with its price in industrial pollution and waste….

I can’t think of a more important and less addressed virtue for us to work on today than learning to adapt to limitations by using our wits and yes, practicing patience.

It’s not patience until we have taxed our willingness to wait, is it? Not having a motor, having to resort to the pleasurable exercise of pulling on a sweep or simply anchoring out and waiting for conditions to change, these can add to the satisfaction we gain from our time on the water.

Does that mean that sometimes we need to stay ashore? Maybe. Probably.

Patience!

What is the construction?

Chapelle tells us that the original boats tended to be strip-planked. White Pine, a local wood in southeastern Massachusetts, was often used. The frames and backbone were White Oak. The strips were beveled to a close-fit and then edge nailed together with galvanized, wrought-iron cut-nails. This made for a boat with a smooth inside that didn’t need closely spaced frames. They could be winched up the beach on rollers during stretches of bad weather and they would stay tight. It’s not a bad way to go even now. If you can get good wood and the right sort of nails….

We could go with epoxied strips, although at this size I’d also edge-nail them some. If so, then the backbone will need to be a wood compatible with epoxy, something like Douglas Fir instead of White Oak. Its acid and sheer strength and propensity to move when wet does not make for a good, lasting epoxy joint. I’d also avoid White Pine for the planking. Probably because the wood available now is fast growing, it’s my experience that White Pine is prone to fracture with little reason and no warning. Kind of like an epoxied joint….

I’d use more Fir for the planking. This boat can use the extra weight and Fir has a much harder surface than Cedar.

In the end I’d like to see the construction done as traditionally as possible. There is a quality to a boat finished in Pine Tar and Linseed Oil that is simply lacking in our lives today. Take a look at this line of paints and stains….

Let’s leave it at that.

As a final provocation let me say that this boat would be a fine candidate for a minimal composting head, a cedar bucket, White Cedar, soft, with a tight-fitting lid. We’d carry a duffel filled with fragrant peat moss and stow it forward. The whole rig is quite suitable for a boat whose sorties are of short duration. Our bucket resides under a cockpit seat, lashed in place, sporting a hempen-line bail. Before and after each use a generous layer of peat moss is added. At the end of our short voyage, we take the bucket ashore and till its contents into our compost pile. Anyone who considers this to be beyond what their squeamishness will allow needs to try emptying a conventional port-a-pot or attending the pump-out of a holding tank…. It’s not the waste itself, but how we treat it…. There’s nothing more telling than our lack of a relationship with our own waste.

You may complain that we’ve gone pretty far afield! Not so. I can still hear L. Francis Herresshoff entreating us, “Gentle reader…” to consider the joys of the cedar bucket before going on to suggest we carry a sounding lead, a good time-piece, and a slate with some chalk to help us navigate a coastal fog. Today we know it’s not prudent to pour our bucket’s contents into the bay. Those nutrients are better utilized elsewhere. But let us focus on what our boats are for. When we consider how they hold us; how they help form us; these questions strike to the heart of the matter.

I did think that it might be a stretch to consider this a boat for difficult times. Perhaps because I tend to expect such craft to have some further utility…. It appears to me now that this is very much a boat for our difficult times. Or, at least it could be. If while we build, tend, and sail her we hold these transformative capacities in mind.

 

Click on any image below for a slideshow.

Dimensions:

LBP              20′ – 3″

LWL             17′ – 6″

Beam           7′ – 2″

Draft             2′ – 3″/4′ – 3″

Displacement   3,700 lbs.

Sail Area:

High-Peaked Gaff Sloop:

Main                          216 sq. ft.

Jib                                73 sq. ft.

Total (Working)  289 sq. ft.

Genoa                        95 sq. ft.

Total (Light Air)    311 sq. ft.

 

Construction is either strip or carvel.

Plans

Plans are available as .pdf downloads. Five sheets of drawings and a table of offsets.

Cost for amateur construction is $850 USD plus a $75 PayPal transfer fee.

Price includes permission to build one boat for personal use.

Commercial builders contact me to work out an arrangement.

 

This is a challenging design to build. Not suitable for a beginner.

It is offered in the spirit outlined at the masthead of this site:

Design is a distillation of Craft

The best design is not a set of instructions

Good design inspires us to relate both to the materials at hand and our place in the world: physically, socially, and spiritually

Design provides a framework for Craft where we may develop our skills

Design is not a prison of intention

Design is a trellis

 

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