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.
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