Craft­ing a Sharpie

While the Scan­di­na­vians have the Folk­boat and New Zealan­ders their Mul­let boats, it is the Sharpie that has de­fined the work­ing class sailor’s dream in the United States.

Boating NZ - - New Build - Words rds and pho­tos by MattvanceMatt Vance

The con­cept of an eas­ily built, sim­ple and sea­wor­thy boat had its ge­n­e­sis in the New Haven oys­ter flats in the mid-1800s. Orig­i­nally de­signed as a load-car­ry­ing work­boat, the shal­low draft Sharpie quickly be­came pop­u­lar as a cruis­ing yacht.

In the space of 50 years the con­cept of the Sharpie spread fur­ther and faster than any sin­gle yacht de­sign in his­tory. There are many su­perla­tives when Sharpies are men­tioned, but it is the “easy, cheap and fast to build” that has given the Sharpie a cult fol­low­ing of sailors and builders alike.

Neville Watkinson had al­ways been a fan of the Sharpie de­sign and it was the shake up of the Can­ter­bury earth­quakes that fi­nally pushed him into build­ing one. As the CBD of Christchurch came down, his com­mer­cial join­ery busi­ness that sup­plied res­tau­rants dried up overnight; this left him with a keen sense of mor­tal­ity, and the tools and the time to take on the project.

The de­sign he chose was an adap­ta­tion of a Flori­days Sharpie by Mark Fitzger­ald. Af­ter track­ing the de­signer down through per­sis­tent de­tec­tive work that in­volved some con­vo­luted clues around a can of Tui’s beer, Neville even­tu­ally agreed to part­ner

with Fitzger­ald and com­mer­cialise the de­sign for ama­teur con­struc­tion. The re­sult was a metic­u­lous set of plans and the first Mil­ford 20 – Oys­ter – built un­der the low ceil­ing of the mez­za­nine above the join­ery work­shop.


Oys­ter’s con­struc­tion is sim­ple and el­e­gant. The keel­son, chine log, sheer clamp, side frames, floors and all bright-fin­ished trim are in African ma­hogany (sapele). The deck sub frames are in Pa­cific kauri and the whole struc­ture is fin­ished in AA grade Ga­boon ma­rine ply, 9mm for the sides and 12mm for the bot­tom and bulk­heads. The en­tire boat’s fin­ished off with Dynel and epoxy to cre­ate a ro­bust plat­form.

As Neville was con­struct­ing Oys­ter he recorded and mea­sured ev­ery­thing along the way. The re­sult is an easy-to-fol­low build­ing guide that even I can un­der­stand. The flat bot­tom and near square frames mean that the de­sign is bless­edly free of those com­plex com­pound curves that can vex the true ama­teur builder.

Hav­ing said that you’d ex­pect the fi­nal shape to be boxy and hard on the eyes. Some­how be­tween the sim­plic­ity of the build and the fi­nal prod­uct there has been some magic as the lines of Oys­ter are some of the most cur­va­ceous you will see on the wa­ter.

Sharpies are known for their abil­ity to han­dle shal­low wa­ter and take the bot­tom com­fort­ably. To achieve this Oys­ter has a re­tractable cen­tre­board of lam­i­nated white oak and lead shaped in a NACA sec­tion and on a sim­ple pul­ley pur­chase for rais­ing and low­er­ing.

The bal­anced rud­der is de­signed to line up with the skeg and the wings that run along the lower edge pro­vide a solid plat­form for the

hard­wood grat­ings to pro­duce a very com­fort­able and dry sailing po­si­tion. Any guests aboard are ac­com­mo­dated in the for­ward cock­pit, where they can have the pro­tec­tion of the cuddy or en­joy the sailing with­out be­ing in the way of the ac­tion.

Un­der sail the true ge­nius of the Sharpie de­sign be­comes ap­par­ent. The feel at the helm is of an elon­gated dinghy. She is light and re­spon­sive, yet per­fectly for­giv­ing of the novice helmsper­son. The low free­board gives you a real sen­sa­tion of be­ing on the wa­ter.

Up­wind the trick seems to be to let her heel a lit­tle, dig­ging the lee­ward chine in and pre­sent­ing the vee of the nose to the chop. Sharpies are not noted for their wind­ward abil­ity, but I was im­pressed with Oys­ter as her long wa­ter­line and tweak­able rig meant she did not dis­ap­point on this an­gle of sail.

With the sheets eased, Oys­ter re­ally comes into her own. Like many skinny boats she tracks qui­etly but quickly down­wind, with a re­as­sur­ing lift from the flat bot­tom sec­tions. Oys­ter’s shal­low draft of 200mm with the cen­tre board up means that she will be able to ex­plore parts of the coast that are off lim­its to most boats. Com­bine this with her looks and bal­ance and you have pure unadul­ter­ated plea­sur­able sailing, the kind you read about in Arthur Ran­some nov­els.

Oys­ter is a boat of many hid­den tal­ents, one of which was demon­strated nicely as her flat bot­tom al­lowed her to sit up­right on the se­cluded beach while we en­joyed a cup of tea, ad­mired her lines and dis­cussed the places you could go in such a wellde­signed and well-built boat. B

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