Rigging a Victoria 26
Nic Compton outlines the real cost of recomissioning a bargain boat that had spent six years lying unused in a barn
How much do you really have to spend to renovate a barnfind project boat?
It’s fair to say we had no idea what we were taking on when we bought our Victoria 26 in a dusty barn just outside Basingstoke in March 2018. The boat had been out of the water for six years and, while I had done my own out-of-the-water survey, there were certain things that could only be tested once the boat was in the water. So, after a month’s work sorting out the obvious cosmetic issues and fixing various engine problems, courtesy of Avocet Marine in deepest, darkest Devon, we flung the renamed Ronja into the waters of the River Dart and hoped for the best.
In the event, it all came together without any major mishaps and we headed downriver to our new mooring off Dittisham with considerable excitement.
The 20hp Beta engine purred like a contented tiger, using only a fraction of its potential power to push us downstream. Even our first sail, made more eventful by unexpectedly strong winds off Dartmouth, went relatively smoothly. It was only in the following weeks, as we worked our way through the boat, that the problems began to emerge. After all, a boat doesn’t sit unused for six years without developing some ailments.
The first and most urgent problem was the leaking heads – which we discovered during our first weekend on board. I assured my wife, Anna, it must be the fresh water intake leaking onto the cabin sole, although her suggestion it was the dirty water outlet was probably nearer the truth. Worse still, when I tried to pump the resulting water out of the bilge, the bilge pump leaked too. Conclusion: rubber seals perish if left out of the water for too long, so we should have factored in new seals for all the pumps, along with a raw water impeller for the engine.
It wasn’t a big deal though, and I duly ordered the service kits online: £50.34 for the RM69 toilet and £40.74 for the Henderson Mk5 bilge pump. I then spent a day or so on board dismantling both items and fitting the new parts. The bilge
pump worked perfectly right away, but imagine my disappointment when I put the heads back in and it still leaked! The problem turned out to be the outtake pipe which had stiffened either due to age or lack of use – another possible casualty of her time on land. A quick solution was to cut the pipe back, stick the end in boiling water to soften it, before shoving it back on as best I could and tightening with a jubilee clip.
Even with the outtake fixed, the flush pump still lacked suction, and I eventually worked out the intake was leaking very slightly too – just enough to lose suction. A few turns of the jubilee clip fixed that, but it was clear all the piping would need to be replaced in due course – an inexpensive but fiddly job.
I next turned my attention to the rig. One of the big unknowns when we bought the boat was the in-mast furling mainsail. Had I done my research properly, I’d have found that the Easyreef furling system and Maxi Roach mainsail retrofitted to the boat in the late 1990s have a decidedly mixed press: people either love them or hate them. I had no experience of in-mast furling so went into it a complete innocent – or perhaps more like a lamb to slaughter.
In fact, although the mainsail had got into a tangle a couple of times during our first brief outing, on both occasions it was due to user error rather than any intrinsic fault of its own – once the loose genoa halyard got wrapped up in the sail as it furled and another time a defunct jammer locked without me noticing. Over the weeks that followed, that situation stayed consistent: used correctly, the in-mast furler worked perfectly every time, and any problems were always my fault. The system was a bit stiff to start with, but
‘One of the big unknowns when we bought the boat was the in-mast furling mainsail’
even that improved the more it was used – or perhaps more accurately, the more we got used to it.
The real problems lay with the roller-furling genoa. This had seemed extremely stiff and temperamental on our first outing and after a couple more short sails had seized up altogether. I persuaded my wife to winch me up the mast using a friend’s tree climbing harness (we hadn’t got a bosun’s chair yet) and discovered the deflector – the block that holds the halyard away from the top of the foil – had broken off the mast and was catching on the foil, tangling everything up. When we lowered the sail, I also spotted that half the ball bearings in the swivel were missing, which explained why it had been stiff in the first place.
These would have been minor problems to deal with had the mast been down, but having to climb up and down 30ft while the boat was on a mooring turned a quick job into a major ordeal. Had I tested the rig while the boat was still in the boatyard, as I’d originally planned, life would have been much easier – but then I wouldn’t have learned how to climb a mast on my own. There are only so many times you can ask family and friends to winch you up a mast, and eventually someone lent me their Topclimber Solo system which was a revelation.
Once I got the hang of it I was shooting up and down the mast in minutes, feeling much more secure than I ever have in a bosun’s chair. The trick, for me, was to only use the short leg strap, which is the fast ‘gear’, and keep the other leg free to steady myself against the mast.
Riveting the deflector back onto the mast was quickly done – even if I did have to redo it when I decided my first attempt was too loose – but replacing the ball bearings in the Rotostay swivel was another matter. In theory, you just have to loosen the grub screw and the whole thing unscrews and opens in situ and you can pop in the new Delrin ball bearings, easily available from various online shops. But of course, after 28 years’ use, the stainless steel grub screw was completely
seized in the aluminium casing (one rigger told me he’d never known one come out intact). To make matters worse, the allen key snapped, leaving a nasty stub, and I foolishly tried to drill that out with a rechargeable hand drill. Big mistake.
Eventually I realised I’d have to detach the foil (and therefore the forestay), slide the swivel off and take it to an engineer to have the grub screw drilled out. That’s easier said than done on your own at a mooring, but eventually I rigged a spare halyard as a temporary forestay, detached the forestay at the top of the mast and lowered the foil down onto the deck – only to discover the swivel wouldn’t slide off the end of the foil! The whole thing is a sealed unit held together by the swage at the top of the forestay, so the only way to get the swivel to a mechanic was to take the whole foil ashore – all 35ft of it.
By now we were running out of time to have the boat ready for our planned first cruise during the May half-term. So, rather than wait for the afternoon high tide, I borrowed a paddle board from my local boating club and balanced the foil between my skiff and the board. The whole contraption was slightly awkward to steer, but I managed to get it ashore without crashing into anything. Once ashore, the mechanic took one look and told me he couldn’t drill the grub screw out because I’d made such a mess of it with the battery drill.
Undaunted, I contacted the local rigger, just a few yards up the road, who happened to have a couple of old Rotostay rollers which he cannibalised to make one good one (with stainless steel bearings this time!).
The day before we were due to leave, I found myself up the mast for the sixth time in as many weeks, fitting the foil back on. While I was at it, I slackened the forestay and tightened the backstay, to get rid of a slight forward bend in the mast. I also made sure the mast was centred athwartships by counting the number of threads showing in the shroud bottlescrews and making sure they were the same on each side. By the time I’d finished, the whole set up looked much better than my first attempt, and I spun the roller furling full of hope. It caught on something right away. Looking up, I saw the spare halyard was catching on the roller furling swivel. I flicked it out of the way behind the spreader, and the roller furling
worked perfectly. Was that the problem all along? We’ll never know, but in any case I wouldn’t have risked a major sea passage with those missing bearings…
We spent the night on board on the Sunday, and early Monday morning motored down to Dartmouth to fill up with water, before heading off towards Salcombe. Incredibly, even though Anna and I had been together for 10 years and I’ve sailed thousands of miles on dozens of different boats, this was our first cruise together. I had a feeling that if this trip went badly, we might never sail together again, so I’d scrutinised the Met Office website to check the weather at half term.
Window of opportunity
Sure enough a perfect ‘window’ appeared, showing easterly winds for four days, turning westerly on the Friday. Not only that, but the first day was supposed to be sunny!
And so we found ourselves drifting downwind in Start Bay with the genoa set – I wasn’t going to risk setting the mainsail yet – enjoying the first day of our first cruise as a family.
This was what I’d hoped for: the kind of sailing you always imagine but which actually happens all too infrequently. What’s more, even under reduced rig the boat was performing surprisingly well, easily overtaking a wooden 24-footer and keeping up with a much bigger boat.
With the current in our favour, we came in close to Start Point and, as we hit the famous tidal race, unfurled the mainsail to steady the boat. We didn’t risk taking the short cut between the headland and the rocks, even though the sea looked flat calm there.
Even downwind, the mainsail added a good knot of speed, so we kept it up for the rest of the passage, eventually clocking up 5.8 knots tacking towards Salcombe.
Once there, we picked up a visitor mooring in the main harbour and, in a bid to keep everyone happy (not least our long-suffering dog), headed straight for a well-earned ice cream and paddle on the perfect sandy beaches of East Portlemouth. Across the way, Salcombe was buzzing as only Salcombe can on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday, with a crazy variety of boats – quite a change from our sleepy mooring on the Dart. And no wonder: we counted 200 inflatables and RIBs moored next to the main pontoon when we went ashore that evening.
The following day was windy and rainy – perfect for wandering around Salcombe and buying some kit from the chandlery on Island Street – including a swimming ladder, which I spent most of the afternoon installing. We also discovered the joys of Salcombe library: a single room in the historic Cliff House (right next to Salcombe Yacht Club) with stunning views of the harbour, which is a haven of orderly calm and quiet – fellow sailors with children take heed.
It was grey the following day, but the gentle easterly breeze promised an easy sail down the coast to Newton Ferrers, so we headed out anyway – first under engine, then under genoa and then, a little at a time, under mainsail too. This business of letting out the mainsail a little at a time to suit the prevailing conditions, and the prevailing crew, would have been unthinkable with a conventional slabreefing mainsail, where varying the sail size is a chore. And of course I could do it all from the comfort of the cockpit, which pleased my wife.
‘The gentle easterly breeze promised an easy sail down the coast to Newton Ferrers’
Eventually, we had both sails fully out, and I was able to experiment with changing the shape of the mainsail, easing the outhaul to give it a fuller shape. You can of course do this with a conventional sail, but it’s likely to require a lot more effort and, if the sail is attached to the boom, it won’t be very effective. In practice, I’ve rarely bothered doing this on my previous boats, unless sailing a dinghy, so it was fun to have another toy to play with.
While I was fiddling with the sails (as is my wont), something far more important was happening at the back of the cockpit. Anna had taken the helm as we headed out of Salcombe and, as we sailed peacefully on a broad reach, she settled into the boat’s gentle rhythm. It wasn’t the idyllic sunny sailing weather I had hoped for, but there was something supremely restful about sailing with a gentle breeze on your starboard quarter and a big grey sky overhead. Perhaps it helped that we were sailing past all our favourite coastal haunts: Hope Cove, South Milton, Thurlestone, Bantham, Bigbury – all those places we usually drove down long winding country roads to get to, suddenly laid out side by side and plain to see.
“I love being out in nature like this,” said Anna. “If sailing is like this, I think I like it.”
It was a quietly momentous moment. Finally, after years of me banging on about the joys of sailing, Anna was finally experiencing that pleasure for herself. If she’d said she’d won the Lottery, she couldn’t have made me happier. Would it last? Only time would tell, but it was certainly an auspicious beginning.
After negotiating the channel into Newton Ferrers – a fun challenge on a clear day, though it might be tricky in bad weather – we moored up on the visitor’s pontoon, which was empty apart from another cruising yacht which joined us later. It so happened that there were three children on board that boat, and they had brought all the gadgets we were missing – inflatable canoe, paddle board, fishing lines, etc – so the kids made fast friends and vanished for the next 24 hours. Who needs an iPad when you’ve got a river to explore?
We had thought of heading into Plymouth the following day, but when I woke up at 5am knowing there was 6 hours of eastgoing tide to come, I decided to ‘go with the flow’. I got up, quietly slipped the mooring lines and motored out of Newton Ferrers, with the rest of the family still fast asleep down below. Perhaps on some level I was recreating the countless occasions my parents had done the same thing when I was a child, and remembering how much I loved snuggling down in my bunk while the engine throbbed reassuringly.
What I hadn’t counted on was the thick fog, which completely hid the dangerous Mew Stone rocks lying off the harbour entrance as well as the all-important church tower which I needed to give me a safe course out. I was just considering my options, when the tower appeared briefly out of the fog – proving what a good choice of landmark it was – and I managed to get a bearing, which confirmed it was safe to turn south-west
and head out to sea.
I motored on my own for the next two hours, seeing only about 30 yards ahead and, as I fought off the overwhelming feeling that we were sailing in circles, I was reminded how the sea can play tricks with the mind (the subject of my most recent book, Off the Deep End, as it happens!). It was a relief when the fog lifted a little and Bolt Tail appeared off the port bow. By the time the family finally emerged from their slumbers, Bolt Head was clearly visible to port, although Start Point remained shrouded in mist until we’d nearly passed it. As the sound of the foghorn faded mournfully behind us, we were treated to one of those sublime glassy calm mornings, motoring home across Start Bay.
I took it as a sign of success that none of us was desperate to go ashore after we picked up our mooring, and we could have happily spent longer on board.
There were still plenty of jobs to be done – as witnessed by the fact that our ‘To Do’ list was longer at the end of the cruise than at the beginning – but we’d found no major flaws to make us regret buying such an unknown and untested boat. Even the decision to put her in the water so quickly was, on balance, a good one, as it brought to light the important issues in a real and immediate way.
The fact we had all enjoyed sailing the boat during a rather rainy week in May was also encouraging – a sunny week in August should be even better.
For now, then, we have no regrets.
LEFT Approaching Salcombe, just before a gust hit and we reached our top speed (so far!) of 5.8 knots
ABOVE Sailing out of Newton Ferrers – the swimming ladder has been raised since this photo was taken!
This is the life... Nic Compton’s family have quickly grown to love sailing on their Victoria 26 Ronja
Alongside the visitors’ pontoon at Newton Ferrers where the kids befriended the neighbouring boat
Nic scaled the mast with a tree-climbing harness to fix seized roller reefing
View from the top: Nic at the masthead
RIGHT Motoring out of Newton Ferrers on a foggy morning
This is when Anna decided she liked sailing, on a beam reach off the South Hams...
Sailing off Newton Ferrers again – trying to keep off the sand bank while we took some pictures!
Swimming ladder bought in Salcombe was installed in an afternoon
A good supply of books borrowed from Salcombe Library kept the author’s children amused