The Rugged As­tra

Passage Maker - - Contents - Dag Pike

Swedish Lifeboat Con­ver­sion

We are all used to pas­sage­mak­ers where the fo­cus is on the in­te­rior rather than the per­for­mance. Even from the out­side these boats have to look the part, and the fo­cus on per­for­mance in ad­verse con­di­tions tends to take se­cond place. With As­tra, it is the re­verse. For this pas­sagemaker the fo­cus is en­tirely on its seago­ing abil­i­ties and re­li­a­bil­ity. In fact, I would put this 80-footer in the cat­e­gory of the ul­ti­mate pas­sagemaker—a ves­sel ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the world’s tough­est oceans and com­ing out on top.

It is not sur­pris­ing, re­ally, when you look at As­tra’s her­itage. She was built back in 1994 for the Swedish Lifeboat So­ci­ety as an all-weather lifeboat com­plete with an ice­break­ing hull. She has to be one of the tough­est boats of her size ever built, and what’s more, she looks the part. Sit­ting along­side in the ma­rina when I first saw her, As­tra looked the per­fect match for rough seas with her tra­di­tional sheer lines and pur­pose­ful su­per­struc­ture. No frills here, just a proper func­tional boat built for one of the tough­est jobs in the world.

De­sign Char­ac­ter­is­tics

Let’s look first at her hull de­sign be­cause for many that is the key to rough-weather per­for­mance. As­tra sits in the wa­ter rather than on it, and with a nine-foot draft she cer­tainly takes up her share of the ocean. She is built of steel with plat­ing close to ½-inch thick and close fram­ing to match. There is not a flat piece of steel in the plat­ing, and the de­signer ap­pears to have thrown away the straight­edge when work­ing on her hull. It has been shaped in beau­ti­ful curves to match the re­quire­ments of rough-sea per­for­mance rather than to sim­plify con­struc­tion. Im­me­di­ately un­der the wa­ter­line at the bow the keel slopes away in ice­breaker style so that she can ride up over ice and use her weight to break it up. I would guess that she could cope with ice up to two feet thick and pos­si­bly even thicker ice. Bilge keels were added on at the turn of the bilge to help re­duce the rolling of this round-bilge hull.

The cur­rent owner bought As­tra when she be­came re­dun­dant as a lifeboat, with the aim of con­vert­ing her into a cruis­ing yacht that could go any­where in the world. The con­ver­sion has hardly changed the out­side ap­pear­ance of the boat; the main dif­fer­ence is the ad­di­tion of a Por­tuguese bridge around the sides and front of the pilot­house. This was de­signed to blend in with the orig­i­nal and it does nearly seam­lessly—you can hardly be­lieve that this fea­ture was part of a re­fit. On the in­side, changes were only made to im­prove the equip­ment and fa­cil­i­ties for en­hanced cruis­ing com­fort.

With vir­tu­ally no changes to the out­side, As­tra re­tains her abil­ity to sel­f­right in the event of a cap­size. And with its orig­i­nal alu­minum su­per­struc­ture in­tact and a large Palfin­ger hy­draulic crane on the af­ter­deck, a pow­er­ful 15-ton tow­ing winch, and a sal­vage pump all left on­board, she is well equipped to aid an­other ves­sel in dis­tress if called upon.


As a lifeboat As­tra was painted in bright colors to be eas­ily iden­ti­fied at sea. But for her role as a cruis­ing yacht As­tra has been painted a low-pro­file gray. This way she looks less like a yacht and more like a work­ing ship, which will be ben­e­fi­cial in some of the re­mote ar­eas she is ca­pa­ble of reach­ing that may be more sen­si­tive in terms of se­cu­rity. As an ex­tra pre­cau­tion, and to de­ter pos­si­ble crim­i­nals, there are blue flash­ing lights on the mast.

The cur­rent owner was tempted to strip out the ac­com­mo­da­tions and start again with some­thing more lux­u­ri­ous, but in the end he de­cided to re­tain the ba­sic two-bunk cab­ins down be­low as these bunks, with their lee­boards, would be more suit­able for long-dis­tance cruis­ing. There are five of these cab­ins built in around a lower sa­loon that has been re­duced in size so that a bath­room could be added. This head com­ple­ments the one on the main deck, which is at the for­ward end of the main sa­loon. The owner/cap­tain has his own sin­gle-berth cabin lo­cated abaft the main sa­loon, and this is all pretty ba­sic “lifeboa­ton-duty” ac­com­mo­da­tion. That said, there is con­sid­er­able scope to ex­pand the ba­sic, func­tional lay­out.


Nearly half of the hull is taken up with the ma­chin­ery space. Here, the main en­gine is a mas­sive 1,350 hp Mit­subishi diesel that is a pure me­chan­i­cal unit with no elec­tron­ics and no elec­tric start. Com­pressed-air start­ing is used to keep things sim­ple and re­li­able, and the en­gine turns at just 1060 rpm to pro­duce the re­li­able “thump, thump” noise that is so much more re­as­sur­ing when you are at sea than the high-speed buzz of mod­ern en­gines.

The en­gine drives a Berg con­trol­lable-pitch pro­pel­ler so it runs at a con­stant speed when the boat is be­ing ma­neu­vered. There is a re­duc­tion gear­box of 3:1 so the six-foot di­am­e­ter pro­pel­ler is turn­ing at around 300 rpm. All ma­neu­ver­ing is done with the pro­pel­ler pitch con­trol, both ahead and astern. Just in case the main en­gine should fail, there is an aux­il­iary drive con­nected to the pro­pel­ler shaft that is pow­ered by a hy­draulic mo­tor with power com­ing from the Volvo Penta–pow­ered aux­il­iary gen­er­a­tor. Also driven from the pro­pel­ler shaft is a shaft gen­er­a­tor that pro­vides the main power sup­ply when un­der­way. This is a real belt-and-braces in­stal­la­tion that is de­signed for re­li­a­bil­ity above all else. The en­gine room looks a bit like me­chan­i­cal spaghetti with all the pipework from the com­plex hy­draulic sys­tems, and most of it is stain­less steel.

When cruis­ing to re­mote ar­eas you can­not al­ways guar­an­tee the qual­ity of fuel taken on board so As­tra has an Alfa Laval cen­trifu­gal fuel sep­a­ra­tor that doesn’t rely on pa­per fil­ters to re­move dirt and wa­ter. It is one more safety fea­ture on board As­tra. And if things don’t work ac­cord­ing to plan, there is even a fully equipped work­shop with a lathe and drill for ex­pe­dit­ing re­pairs.

De­spite just a sin­gle propul­sion en­gine As­tra han­dles like a dream. Be­hind the pro­pel­ler is a Schilling high-lift rud­der that can swing over to nearly 70° (in­stead of the nor­mal 35° max­i­mum an­gle) with a rear flap added to pre­vent stalling. This rud­der means that she can vir­tu­ally turn in her own length, and com­bined with the pow­er­ful bow thruster, you have all the con­trol that you need to make this ves­sel per­form as re­quired.


The pilot­house re­flects the owner’s pas­sion for ocean nav­i­ga­tion. It is a mix­ture of the old and new, with a large an­gled chart ta­ble for the pa­per chart and a large elec­tronic chart dis­play above. The radar dis­play takes prime po­si­tion in front of the helm, and As­tra has three radars to en­sure con­ti­nu­ity. Then there is an­other chart dis­play over to port, so, in ef­fect, each of the three helm seats can have its own dis­play tai­lored to in­di­vid­ual re­quire­ments. There are con­trols at each helm po­si­tion with the two side po­si­tions mainly ded­i­cated for use when com­ing along­side. Fi­nally, there is a fourth con­trol po­si­tion aft in the pilot­house with a view over the af­ter­deck, which was in­stalled mainly for use when con­nect­ing a tow.

Sen­si­bly all of the en­gine mon­i­tor­ing dis­plays are in an over­head panel above the front win­dows so that they are read­ily avail­able but do not dis­tract from nav­i­ga­tion. An­other over­head panel slightly be­hind the helm con­tains com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment as well as fire and bilge mon­i­tor­ing. As­tra is equipped with the usual VHF com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and for long-range pas­sages there is an Irid­ium phone. As a re­flec­tion of her lifeboat past, there is even a VHF di­rec­tion finder. I don’t think I have seen so many elec­tron­ics in one pilot­house be­fore, but it is all log­i­cally ar­ranged and makes sense when you get to know it.

At Sea

I looked for­ward to the sea trial the most. Fir­ing up the big diesel was an emo­tion it­self, and you could feel it throb­bing pur­pose­fully in the bow­els of the ves­sel. With the con­trol­lable-pitch prop, the en­gine runs at a con­stant speed, and there is some­thing about a slow-speed diesel that ex­actly matches the feel of As­tra. The chan­nel out to sea from La­gos, Por­tu­gal, is quite nar­row and there is a lift­ing bridge to nav­i­gate where the width nar­rows to 35 feet— quite a tight fit on boat with a beam of 22 feet! This was where we could ap­pre­ci­ate As­tra’s pre­cise han­dling at slow speed.

From there we headed out to sea past the an­cient build­ings of the port into a be­nign blue sea. These days you rarely get the chance to head out to sea in a ves­sel that is de­signed to cope with ev­ery­thing the sea can throw at it. In south­ern Por­tu­gal we were close to the fringes of the At­lantic, but the weather was not co­op­er­at­ing (or rather it was co­op­er­at­ing too well!) and there was hardly a rip­ple on the wa­ter once we cleared the pier heads at La­gos. Even far­ther out away from the land it seemed calm, but maybe that was the ef­fect of As­tra, the con­fi­dence it gives you that it can han­dle any­thing. Gear­ing up to the cruis­ing speed of 8.5 knots she just felt very com­fort­able, easy through the sea with a min­i­mal wake. At this speed she can cruise for weeks burn­ing just 12.5 GPH, and the fuel tanks give the ves­sel a range ex­ceed­ing 5,000 miles, enough to cross the Pa­cific. Wind­ing the en­gine up to full power pro­duced a speed of 13 knots, so you have a good re­serve if you want to hurry to catch a tide.

One of the fea­tures in­stalled in the re­fit was a mag­i­cal set of Mag­nusMaster sta­bi­liz­ers. These com­prise four arms that swing out when re­quired and use the Mag­nus ef­fect to keep the boat up­right. The arms, slim ro­tat­ing cylin­ders that pro­duce lift un­der the con­trol of an elec­tronic sys­tem, are very ef­fec­tive. On the sea trial there was lit­tle move­ment from the waves, so to see the ef­fect of the sta­bi­liz­ers we re­versed them to make the boat heel. As­tra im­me­di­ately rolled to 15° just un­der the power of these sta­bi­liz­ers, so I would be very com­fort­able us­ing them in rough seas. You can never stop all move­ment—and you would not want to—but to re­duce heavy rolling to a com­fort­able mo­tion would be well within the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of this sys­tem.

We were also able to try out the steer­ing, and this was very im­pres­sive with the boat turn­ing a full cir­cle in lit­tle more that its own length. For nor­mal straight-line pas­sage­mak­ing, you can set the rud­der to have the nor­mal 35° steer­ing an­gle. With this in place, the au­topi­lot steered a very pre­cise course. You are only likely to want the full steer­ing ef­fect in tight ma­neu­vers in har­bor or per­haps if you were on a res­cue mis­sion.

When we were out on the sea trial, there was a strong temp­ta­tion to just keep go­ing. We even dis­cussed if there was enough fuel on board to make the Azores, about 100 miles to the west. It would have been food we were short of, so com­mon sense pre­vailed in the end. But this is a ves­sel where you feel hap­pi­est out on the ocean. Other ad­di­tions since her lifeboat days in­clude air-con­di­tion­ing through­out be­cause the ves­sel was not de­signed for trop­i­cal wa­ters. A wa­ter­maker and ex­tra bat­ter­ies have been added to in­crease self-suf­fi­ciency, and as they say in the Navy, “She is in all re­spects ready for sea.”

As­tra is a won­der­ful “lit­tle ship” built to per­form res­cue mis­sions in ad­verse con­di­tions, but the way she has been con­verted with the sim­plest nods to cruis­ing show just how fea­si­ble it is to take a work­ing ves­sel and make it into a se­ri­ous pas­sagemaker. Ships­for­sale Swe­den, the bro­ker­age that did the mar­ket­ing of As­tra, has sold sev­eral of these se­ri­ous com­mer­cial ves­sels for con­ver­sion. They are fully aware of the po­ten­tial of these re­dun­dant work­ing ves­sels. The com­pact size of lifeboats makes them an ideal choice for the per­son who wants to ex­plore some of the more re­mote parts of the world. As­tra is a go-any­where yacht that will at­tract ad­mir­ing glances wher­ever she goes, and for me it was a step back in time to board this proper lit­tle ship.

Like a proper work­boat, As­tra’s safety equip­ment, helm vis­i­bil­ity, and re­dun­dan­cies are top-notch for run­ning a ship in all kinds of weather, day in and day out.

Top: As­tra’s me­chan­i­cals are the def­i­ni­tion of work­man­like. Ev­ery­thing is ar­ranged in log­i­cal runs and or­derly fash­ion. Right: The out­fit­ting is sim­ple and no-frills, easy to main­tain with­out feel­ing cold or ster­ile.

Left: As­tra chugs along con­fi­dently, and with her deep keel she can achieve up to 13 knots and a slower-speed range ex­ceed­ing 5,000 miles. Above: A few de­tails that make As­tra feel like a real ship.

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