Con­vert­ing a ketch into a schooner

Roger Hughes ex­plains how – and why – he con­verted his Down East 45 Bri­tan­nia from a ketch into a stay­sail schooner

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

A change of rig for reader Roger Hughes’ Down East 45

She was born in 1977 and grew up as a ketch. It was only after she met me that her life and her name changed – a bit like the wife, I sup­pose.

Peo­ple have asked why I de­cided to change a per­fectly good ketch into a stay­sail schooner? This is a rea­son­able ques­tion, and the an­swer is ‘be­cause I re­ally wanted a brig­an­tine, and I don’t like the sound of a her­maph­ro­dite ketch’. A brig­an­tine is a two-masted sail­ing ves­sel, tra­di­tion­ally a schooner, with the fore­mast square-rigged and all other sails fore and aft. The name con­jures up vi­sions of brig­ands pi­rat­ing their trade along the Mediter­ranean Bar­bary Coast – which is what I might have to re­sort to after spend­ing all my money on this boat!

To me, a brig­an­tine is the ideal small boat cruis­ing rig, the best of all worlds – ca­pa­ble of haul­ing tol­er­a­bly close to the wind with its fore and aft sails (although not as high as with an 85hp Perkins diesel), hav­ing fast reach­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties and un­be­liev­able down­wind sta­bil­ity us­ing the square sail(s). Also, like a ketch, the sails are di­vided into smaller, man­age­able sizes.

Square sails have been used on boats for cen­turies, and when the wind is astern or a few points ei­ther side, it is still a very ef­fi­cient way to pro­pel a boat of any size, even today. Any­one with Ber­mu­dan sails knows how tricky it can be to hold a

steady course when run­ning be­fore the wind, es­pe­cially when a big sea is rolling up astern. Even with poles and pre­ven­ters, the helms­man still needs to keep a keen eye on the wind and course to pre­vent the sails col­laps­ing then re-fill­ing with a loud crack, im­pos­ing great strain on the sail.

With square sails cor­rectly braced there is ab­so­lutely none of this: the boat be­comes very sta­ble and the course can even fluc­tu­ate widely. There is no con­cern about gy­bing or broach­ing, and the helms­man or au­topi­lot will have lit­tle dif­fi­culty in keep­ing a steady down­wind run. The boat will also roll less.

How­ever, there is a sig­nif­i­cant and nor­mally in­sur­mount­able prob­lem with hav­ing a whop­ping great flat sheet of can­vas bil­low­ing out from a yard high up a mast – that is, furl­ing and un­furl­ing (not to men­tion reef­ing) the darn thing. This sin­gle is­sue pre­cludes the use of square sails on all but vessels with large crews, such as sail train­ing ships, with lots of young peo­ple pre­pared to scale the rat­lines and edge out along a flimsy footrope to se­cure or re­lease the can­vas from the yard. Even if they are har­nessed to the yard, it is still a very, very dan­ger­ous op­er­a­tion.

But what if you could eas­ily furl, un­furl and reef a square sail from the safety of the deck, or even the cock­pit, with­out a sin­gle per­son hav­ing to go aloft? Now that would bring a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to their use on a short-handed sail­boat. I spent two years de­sign­ing and build­ing such a sys­tem, with a square sail, called the fore course, which rolls up in­side the yard. It’s a sys­tem not un­like a roller furl­ing main­sail, but mounted hor­i­zon­tally with con­trol lines com­ing back to the cock­pit, where the sail can be pro­gres­sively reefed by one per­son. The ram­i­fi­ca­tions, and how this was de­signed and con­structed, are out­side the scope of this ar­ti­cle: in fact, it is a long ar­ti­cle in it­self, full of twists and turns (for­give the pun) and a lot of swear­ing.

I con­sulted two naval architects and an in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned rig­ging ex­pert, but none could ad­vise me (or per­haps they didn’t want to be in­volved) on how to change a ketch to a stay­sail schooner, never mind a brig­an­tine. ‘Why don’t you just buy a ready-made schooner?’ peo­ple asked. I cer­tainly would have, if I could have found one within my bud­get.

The big heave

Chang­ing the rig meant mov­ing the po­si­tions of the ex­ist­ing main and mizzen masts – in fact, swap­ping them over, so the mizzen went for­ward and the main aft. Then, just to com­pli­cate things, the for­ward mast be­comes the fore, but the rear is still called the main. It also meant repo­si­tion­ing all the chain­plates to the new rig­ging po­si­tions. Luck­ily, these were sim­ply bolted through the hull with stain­less 12mm bolts. All these were done be­fore the masts were to be lifted.

The mas­sive mo­bile crane ar­rived promptly at 1.30pm. We had moved the boat to the lift­ing dock and pre­vi­ously re­moved the booms, loos­ened all the rig­ging screws from both masts and re­moved all other fix­ings. It had taken four days, but now we were ready for the big heave. A thick hawser noose was slipped round the main­mast from the crane, and the ten­sion taken up. The crane op­er­a­tor in­di­cated the load from his cab – one fin­ger for each 500kg of lift. He said it nor­mally took be­tween 500 and 1,000kg to break an old em­bed­ded mast out of its step. How­ever, we sailed right past 1,000 to 1,500kg, and the only thing that hap­pened was the boat lifted about 20cm out of the wa­ter! I went be­low and whacked the mast with a ham­mer, hop­ing to break it free on its step. My helpers wag­gled the mast as best they could from on deck: still noth­ing.

The crane op­er­a­tor said it was my call, if I wanted to go to a greater load, be­cause his crane was ca­pa­ble of lift­ing the whole 20,400kg boat out of the wa­ter if nec­es­sary! I de­cided to try one more 500kg heave: at 2,000kg of lift there was

still ab­so­lutely no move­ment in the mast, but the boat lifted even higher. I had vi­sions of pulling the mast and half the keel out of the bot­tom of the boat, so I chick­ened out and stopped the lift­ing.

After some de­lib­er­a­tion, I de­cided that dras­tic re­sults re­quire dras­tic mea­sures. A crowd had gath­ered by this time (don’t they al­ways), and were as­ton­ished when I ap­peared on deck with the hefty elec­tric re­cip­ro­cat­ing saw, fit­ted with a 23cm metal cut­ting blade, and started to mer­rily chop the mast in half. It must have looked very strange, but what the on­look­ers didn’t know was that I in­tended to have the mast fin­ish at deck level any­way, then splice it to a com­pres­sion post down to the keel.

The crane held the weight, and as the last cut went through the mast it lifted a mere 3cm. The rest was out­side my con­trol. The yard crew low­ered the sway­ing stick on the fork truck arms, and off it went to be laid down on al­ready pre­pared tres­tles. Next, the mizzen was eas­ily lifted off its deck-stepped lo­ca­tion, and laid next to the main. The whole op­er­a­tion only took two hours, but it seemed longer to me; and I was very re­lieved when it was over.

Com­pres­sion post

I then had to think of a way to pull the re­main­ing mast sec­tion out of the boat. It was sug­gested I pour 1lt of mer­curic acid down the pipe in the hope it would dis­solve the corrosion which was the only thing glu­ing the mast to the keel. For a while the boat looked as though it had a steam en­gine, with fumes com­ing out of the mast smoke­stack, stick­ing out of the deck.

After a few hours I set up two heavy wooden sleeper blocks each side of the mast, then placed my heavy trol­ley jack across the gap. I drilled holes at ei­ther end of the mast stub and shack­led a strong chain from one hole to the other, and over the lift­ing end of the jack. It was then just a ques­tion of pumping the jack un­til some­thing hap­pened. It is a 900kg jack, and it took all of that to break the joint at the mast step, which fi­nally sep­a­rated with an in­dif­fer­ent ‘pop’, and the corrosion brute was beaten. The rea­son the jack was able to break the joint was be­cause it was ac­tu­ally pulling the mast up be­tween the rigid deck and the im­mov­able keel, whereas the crane was re­ly­ing on the weight of the boat to sep­a­rate the joint, and that was float­ing.

Masts and booms

I worked on both masts and their booms for six months, first strip­ping them of all at­tach­ments – winches, rig­ging, wiring, radar, wind gen­er­a­tor, spread­ers, lamps etc. All the old paint was then stripped off: no small job for an 18m mast. Brack­ets were then welded on to take the new rig­ging and stays. The main­mast would now come through the sa­loon, but I didn’t want a 30 x 20cm ob­struc­tion right in the mid­dle of the cabin, so I spliced a 10cm square com­pres­sion post to the mast, us­ing splic­ing pieces supplied by the mast maker. This ex­tended the mast by 3.6m to the bot­tom of the boat, where it sits on a heavy, wide spreader plate di­rectly on the bilge floor.

The schooner fore­mast stepped for­ward of the ketch main­mast, which needed a sub­stan­tial new mast step, which I made by pour­ing in­dus­trial ce­ment into a wooden mould di­rectly on to the keel­son. I also wanted to ex­tend the fore­mast height by 2.9m to pro­duce a wider ‘slot’ be­tween the jib and fore stay­sail. The taller fore­mast also in­creased the jib luff by around 3.0m, which im­proves her up­wind per­for­mance. I also needed a taller fore­mast to be able to carry a sec­ond square tops’l above the course, if ever I got round to it in the fu­ture. The fore­mast was ex­tended with a 2.4m length of the same sec­tion, and in­ter­nal splices.

All the spars were then re­painted, firstly with alu­minium primer un­der­coat, then two coats of un­der­coat, then about seven

lay­ers (we ac­tu­ally for­got how many) of navy blue two-part polyurethane from In­ter­lux. The orig­i­nal spread­ers were made of spruce and very worn and cracked. I bought new, longer alu­minium spread­ers for both masts. The for­ward ones on the fore­mast were also raked aft 30° to al­low for brac­ing the yards.

I then fit­ted the French-made Fac­nor roller furl­ing sys­tem to the back of the main­mast, which ef­fec­tively con­verted it into a roller furl­ing main­sail. Orig­i­nally only the jib was roller furled, but I wanted to con­trol all sails from the safety of the cock­pit so I also con­verted both the fore stay­sail and the ‘tween­mast stay­sail to roller furl­ing. That made all five sails roller furl­ing, in­clud­ing the square sail, with furl­ing lines all com­ing back to the cock­pit.

I also riv­eted alu­minium mast climb­ing steps all the way up both masts at 50cm cen­tres, with a dou­ble step near the top. These do in­crease windage, but they’re so con­ve­nient for sin­gle-handed mast work.

New lo­ca­tions

I never thought it would be over a year be­fore we slid the masts back into their new lo­ca­tions. In fact, the ac­tual work didn’t take that long, be­cause in the mid­dle of Florida’s sum­mer we de­cided to leave them in the yard when it was sim­ply too hot to work on them. Hav­ing air con­di­tion­ing in­side the boat made it more sen­si­ble to work in­side, and we weren’t go­ing any­where any­way – we had no rig. Re-step­ping both masts was ba­si­cally the re­verse of lift­ing them and went rel­a­tively smoothly, with much less stress. Bri­tan­nia is reg­is­tered as a Bri­tish ves­sel, so

I placed the tra­di­tional an­tique Bri­tish penny un­der both masts be­fore they were low­ered on to their mast step.

One thing which con­cerned me was whether the boat’s bal­ance would change by switch­ing the mast po­si­tions, but noth­ing was per­cep­ti­ble at the wa­ter­line after both masts were in place. There are ad­van­tages in hav­ing a heavy, long-keel cruis­ing boat with a 4.2m beam: you can add more or less any weight with­out ill ef­fect.

Ini­tially, the masts were stayed with rope lines in place of the steel rig­ging which had yet to be mea­sured and or­dered. I then had to go up both masts and mea­sure from each wire at­tach­ment point down to their turn­buck­les. The orig­i­nal wires were 8mm and 6.3mm, but I or­dered new wires us­ing 10mm stain­less through­out. I had also in­stalled twin main back­stay chain­plates in­stead of the sin­gle one for the orig­i­nal mizzen mast. I be­lieve in a belt-and-braces ap­proach for an ocean cruis­ing boat.

While wait­ing for the stand­ing rig­ging to be de­liv­ered I had all the rig­ging screws and turn­buck­les chrome-plated along with all the winches and cleats. Within a few weeks the new wires ar­rived and I was hoisted up the mast a dozen or so times, bolt­ing them in place. Thank good­ness for the brand new Maxwell elec­tric wind­lass, which made the job ef­fort­less for the deck crew.

Even­tu­ally, with both masts se­curely stayed, the day came to hoist the yard, which had been sit­ting in my garage for over a year. I trans­ported it 145km to the boat on a special wooden ex­ten­sion frame­work I fit­ted on the roof rack of my van. It mea­sures 7.3m and stuck out 1.8m from the front and 0.9m from the back of my van.

With help I fi­nally ma­noeu­vred the long yard into po­si­tion across the boat and set up the var­i­ous con­trol lines. Then up she went, on the track I had riv­eted to the front of the mast. The com­bined yard and sail weighed 59kg, but it was easy with the help of the wind­lass.

There are nine con­trol lines for the yard and course: a hoist at the goose­neck; a lift each side; braces each side; two lines for the sail furl­ing mech­a­nism, and two sheets from the clews of the sail. All these lines had to have run­ning blocks at­tached to their re­spec­tive mast lugs, lines rove and cleats at­tached to the masts to se­cure them. The beau­ti­ful chrome winches were then riv­eted and screwed to the masts.

To sep­a­rate and iden­tify all the lines com­ing down the masts I made four teak pin­rails and turned 16 be­lay­ing pins on a lathe. These make for a very clean deck with no loose lines ly­ing around. They also add an air of tra­di­tion­al­ism to an oth­er­wise mod­ern boat.

Look­ing the part

We have yet to man­age to take the ul­ti­mate photograph of Bri­tan­nia un­der full sail, but she cer­tainly looks the part, sit­ting qui­etly at an­chor. The red cross on the fore course is not only the Cross of St. Ge­orge, which forms part of the Union flag: it is also the Tem­plar’s Cross, and the em­blem of the Red Cross As­so­ci­a­tion. But that just adds to the mys­tery when my lit­tle tall ship ap­pears on the hori­zon.

The crane couldn’t lift the main­mast and break the joint be­tween the mast and mast step...

When the wind is astern, a square sail is still a very ef­fi­cient way to pro­pel a ves­sel, even today Roger had to cut the mast at deck level. One of the nec­es­sary jobs when chang­ing a rig is the repo­si­tion­ing of chain­plates

The fork­lift truck car­ried the masts to tres­tles al­ready set up in the boat­yard

The main­mast step was so cor­roded it ac­tu­ally split when the mast was pulled out of the bot­tom of the boat

The main­mast was care­fully low­ered through the deck…

The winches were also re-chromed while they were off the masts

...onto its new stain­less steel mast step, which was bolted to the keel­son

All the rig­ging screws were re-chromed while the masts were be­ing painted

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