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(First published in Boatbuilder Magazine, Sept./Oct. 1994)
This strip-planked beach cruiser, based on the traditional Whitehall pulling boat, promises to inspire a new generation of openboat voyagers.
Somewhere in every cruising sailors heart there is probably a "Cape Horn", but it's not always necessary to go very far or spend very much to find it. A circumnavigation of Vancouver Island or a summer voyage up the inside passage from Seattle to Skagway can provide a lifetime of adventure for most, with the challenge of sailing a small open boat up a wild and rugged coast being every bit as exciting as a major ocean crossing.
Kayakers discovered this long ago, as did the "canoe clubs" of the past century whose members traveled far afield aboard small engineless yawls and came away with tales rivaling any world cruise in far larger vessels. Closer to our time, the remarkable voyages of Frank and Margaret Dye around the British Isles and Europe aboard their 16' Wayfarer certainly attest to the feasibility of making long coastal passages in small, undecked sail boats.
Of course, the allure of passage making is not for everyone. Many may simply prefer poking around creeks and estuaries or knocking about the local harbor with the option of camping aboard the occasional weekend, or spending a couple of weeks meandering through the countryside on a quiet river traversing a network of canals and locks. Either way, a well found small craft can provide the ways and means to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of many would-be adventurers who could otherwise never afford the time or money to do it any other way.
Alaska is meant to be just such a boat. She was designed primarily for beach cruising and long distance voyaging under oar and sail, but would also make a fine day sailer. Modeled on the lines of the traditional American Whitehall pulling boat, she is a versatile and seaworthy craft capable of carrying considerable weight of gear and stores and able to take most weather with reasonable safety and speed. She can be trailered or shipped as deck cargo to the cruising grounds, and has provision for a small outboard motor for extended range.
Historically, the working Whitehall's of the past century were renowned for their seaworthiness and speed and were adapted to many uses, most notably as water "taxis" in the great harbors of Boston and New York. As crimp boats and runners, they ranged miles offshore in search of inbound sailing ships to solicit business for local merchants and chandlers, or the infamous "boarding houses" that once lined the waterfronts. Competition was fierce and honed the performance and beauty of the type to a high degree.
At their zenith at the turn of the century, Whitehall's were probably among the most prominent watercraft of their kind in America - testament to their remarkable versatility and outstanding characteristics as rowing and sailing boats. Sadly, the coming of the gasoline engine cut their development short at about the time of the First World War and they went into decline. However, they are now enjoying a bit of a revival as more and more people come to appreciate this old, albeit highly evolved, type for recreational use today.
In adapting the Whitehall form to the rigors of modern day beach cruising, Alaska has been altered considerably in an effort to make her more suited to the task. She has been stretched a little to give the stem and stern a bit more rake than the usual plumb profile of the traditional Whitehall skiff, resulting in a more rounded forefoot that makes beaching a little easier. A wide flat keel, rather than the more common plank-on-edge type, lets the hull take the ground and remain upright without attention, rendering it virtually self-tending on a mooring that dries out with the tide - an important consideration for the voyager who may elect to camp ashore or need to leave the boat unattended for long periods of time. A replaceable, sacrificial, hardwood shoe on the bottom of the keel takes care of any abrasion from rocks and shells that may occur.
A deep daggerboard and rudder have been fitted for positive control in rough seas, but can be replaced with a narrow centerboard and shoal draft rudder if much sailing is to be done in shallow waters. Either will provide adequate lateral plane, though the daggerboard will probably be more effective when sailing hard on the wind. The slot through the hull for the daggerboard can be plugged with an optional "short" board, trimmed flush with the bottom of the keel, to eliminate turbulence and drag when the deep board is not being used. The daggerboard case also encroaches a lot less upon interior space compared to a centerboard trunk. Both fit level with the top of the thwarts for comfort and convenience.
A flexible and efficient unstayed lug rig that stows all inboard when not in use provides plenty of power to keep the boat moving in the lightest airs, yet is easy to reduce when necessary. The mast steps are boxed, whale boat fashion, and the masts are interchangeable to aid in stepping and unstepping the spars in a seaway. Modern fittings, such as sail track, adjustable fairleads and camcleats are used where possible to assist in trimming and handling the sails.
Reefing can be accomplished in the conventional manner or by simply striking one of the masts and sails entirely and carrying on with the other stepped in one of the forward positions. The reefing sequence diagram illustrates the versatility of the two masted lug and shows some of the reefing combinations possible for coping with weather.
If winds fail or schedules change, a small motor can be fitted to the transom to move Alaska along at 5 - 6 knots. The self-draining, watertight motor box was designed to accept the British Seagull 3 h.p., model 55 outboard motor with a 20" long shaft. Though somewhat archaic, this is still an excellent engine for non-planing, displacement hulls. It is simple, reliable, easy to maintain, and can take a dunking without serious consequences - a factor to consider when cruising in out of the way places. More modern outboards with a long shaft are perfectly acceptable as well.
In spite of the large sailing rig and the optional outboard auxiliary, it is likely that oars will remain the main source of motive power on any summer cruise - winds being as fickle as they are and fuel capacity as limited as it is. Under oars, Alaska can easily maintain 2 to 3 knots with one person rowing and the other steering and resting. Except for short bursts, its not worthwhile for two people to row at the same time for long intervals, unless, of course, there are three or more in the crew. To encourage rowing as much as possible, custom oars, oar locks and oar lock sockets have been designed to maximize efficiency and minimize fatigue over long distance pulls.
Inside, the boat is laid out in the conventional manner with three rowing stations and a stern bench, but, unlike most row boats where the thwart risers follow the sweep of the sheer, Alaska's thwarts are laid out along a single, flat plane to allow for the fitting of removable longitudinal "thwarts". These thwarts, or more appropriately benches, are temporarily fastened in place and are intended to be used only when cruising. They are hinged to open so that all loose gear can be lashed underneath them and out of the way in waterproof bags and containers, leaving a clear, open space above for tending the boat. They also provide an enormous sleeping area - unheard of in most small beach cruisers, where the crew is usually forced to sleep underfoot on the floor boards amidst a clutter of gear and rigging. This "berth", on the other hand, will make the boat most habitable at anchor, or even underway when the crew off watch may need to rest.
A good boom tent is also an indispensable item for the beach cruiser. Camping ashore is great, but not always possible or even desirable, so a boom tent with a workable sleeping arrangement goes a long way towards making the cruiser self-sufficient and independent. To accommodate a boom tent, small deck areas with low coamings to deflect rainwater have been added fore and aft, along with an extra mast step through the after deck for the mizzen. The tent is set up from a rope tied between the main mast and the mizzen, providing a snug and dry place out of the weather for the crew.
A secure two-point mooring system, developed from experience cruising the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia and Washington State, will assure that Alaska stays put at anchor, no matter what the weather may bring. It consists of a clothesline-like traveler on an endless loop that runs from shore out to an anchor and buoyed rode. This permits the boat to be hauled in or out from the beach regardless of the state of the tide, with little possibility of the rode fouling the anchor or dragging. When the ground tackle is not required, it stows neatly out of the way under the teak grate forward, with plenty of ventilation to keep things sweet.
Stout eye straps are throughbolted to the keel fore and aft, so that hoisting gear can be hooked into the boat for hauling out or lifting aboard larger vessels. A specially made up sling can be carried for this purpose when it might be possible to hitch a ride on the deck of a friendly fishing boat or a small coaster heading for some distant or inaccessible cruising ground.
In a hard chance, positive flotation is taken care of by foam blocks fitted under the thwarts and in the ends of the hull. This, coupled with the extra buoyancy added by watertight stowage bags lashed down inside, should virtually guarantee unsinkability.
There are plenty of tiedowns built into the structure so that everything can be well secured in case the worst happens and the boat does capsize. That way, the crew can tend to themselves and righting the boat without having to deal with gear floating loose, especially if hypothermia in cold water is a serious consideration.
A bucket is probably the most effective device for bailing out a swamped boat of this size, but dual bilge pumps have been fitted to take care of any water that comes aboard under normal circumstances. They are through-bolted to the aft thwart webs, within easy reach of the helm, and are operable on either tack, or from overboard if required. With a well practiced crew, Alaska will not be difficult to right or bail out quickly and is, for all intents and purposes, self-rescuing.
Construction is epoxy-glued strip-planking over laminated frames and longitudinals and was chosen specifically for home building. This is a very forgiving construction method that is well suited to the abilities of most backyard boatbuilders. It is clearly laid out in the many excellent books on boat building available today and can produce an attractive and functional craft at reasonable cost.
The beach cruiser Alaska is an attempt to rekindle the adventuring spirit of the past and inspire a new generation of open boat voyagers. Based on my own experience and that of others in similar boats, I have endeavored to design Alaska to meet the requirements of the modern day cruiser and to incorporate features into the boat that would make voyaging, or just plain day sailing and rowing, an enjoyable, exciting and safe experience.
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