Build your own daysailer

Nic Comp­ton is bowled over by the crafts­man­ship and ex­cel­lent sail­ing he en­coun­tered aboard the self-build Mi­na­hou‘t off St Malo

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Nic Comp­ton is de­lighted by the 15ft home-build Mi­na­houët kit boat

We all know you can have just as much fun on a small boat as a big one – there’s even a well-worn say­ing to prove the point: ‘the amount of fun you have on a boat is in in­verse pro­por­tion to its size’.

Yet I have to ad­mit that when I headed out to Brit­tany to try out three boats by pop­u­lar French de­signer François Vivier, it was the slightly big­ger de­signs I was ex­cited about sail­ing. There was the 22ft Stir Ven, an open day boat which I’d seen brav­ing some se­ri­ous weather off the south coast of Swe­den a few years be­fore, and the 19ft Beniguet, a pocket cruiser which looked ideal for some pared-down coastal cruis­ing, or gunkhol­ing, as the Amer­i­cans call it.

And then there was the 15ft Mi­na­houët, a seem­ingly ba­sic sail and oar dinghy which I’d asked to see just to com­plete the range. The boat looked nice enough in the pic­tures, but my heart wasn’t ex­actly pound­ing to get out on her. All that was to change dur­ing a two-hour sail on a gusty day off St Malo.

It started pre­dictably enough on the slip­way at the Anse des Sablons ma­rina near the his­toric old town. That’s where I met the boat’s builder Pierre-Yves de la Riviere, founder of the Grand-Lar­gue boat­yard at nearby St Briac. The be­spec­ta­cled French­man had brought Pianis­simo on a trailer and was un­cov­er­ing her and pre­par­ing to launch. This ver­sion of the de­sign was rather un­der­stated, with a good deal of paint and the bright­work fin­ished with oil stain rather than var­nish (apart from the spars). It all looked very work­man­like and I tried to look suit­ably im­pressed.

Things re­ally started to get in­ter­est­ing once Pierre-Yves had launched the boat and was set­ting her up ready to sail. Firstly, there was the in­ge­nious cen­tre­board ar­range­ment. The cen­tre­board it­self is fit­ted with a built-in pin which slides down match­ing slots in­side the case so that, once low­ered, it can pivot like a con­ven­tional cen­ter­board, or it can be raised and re­moved en­tirely, like a dag­ger­board – the idea be­ing that you have the con­ve­nience of a cen­tre­board with the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of a dag­ger­board.

Next I no­ticed the boat had two mast steps, so it can be rigged ei­ther as a sloop with the mast set in the aft po­si­tion, or cat-rigged with the mast in the for­ward po­si­tion. With two or more peo­ple in the boat, the sloop op­tion is probably more ef­fi­cient, while the cat rig is eas­ier for sin­gle-handed sail­ing. Ei­ther way, as the boat is lug-rigged, there’s no need for stays, so rig­ging is sim­ple and fast.

An­other in­ter­est­ing de­tail was the way the bowsprit locked into place be­tween

the heel and stem­head fit­tings, with just a sim­ple lash­ing to hold it in place. Like­wise the tiller, which had a lug in­side the slot which locked into a notch in the rud­der head as the tiller was low­ered into place, do­ing away with the need for a pin.

It’s pretty ba­sic stuff, but there was an over-rid­ing pur­pose to it all, a wor­thy mas­ter­plan to this slightly fetishis­tic at­ten­tion to de­tail: to get peo­ple on the wa­ter as quickly and eas­ily as pos­si­ble.

“The great ad­van­tage of the Mi­na­houët is the ease of launch­ing,” says Pier­reYves. “You can do it on your own, with the min­i­mum amount of im­ped­i­ment. So if it’s a nice day and you’ve got a cou­ple of hours to spare, you can put the boat in the wa­ter on your own – and baff, off you go, be­cause it’s re­ally very easy.”

It’s an at­ti­tude that goes to the heart of the de­sign and which in­formed ev­ery step of its de­vel­op­ment. Pierre-Yves and François had been work­ing to­gether for a num­ber of years – mainly build­ing the 22ft Stir Ven and the 11ft 10in pram dinghy Laïta – when they de­cided the next ad­di­tion to the range should be a ‘voile-av­i­ron’ (sail/oar) boat. François had al­ready de­signed sev­eral boats of this type, such as the Aber and the Ilur, so knew what the chal­lenge was.

“I tried to make a de­sign which was as bal­anced as pos­si­ble,” he says. “Sta­ble enough for fam­ily sail­ing, but also light and nar­row enough to be en­joy­able to row.”

Part of the plan was to make the boat ac­ces­si­ble to as many ama­teur builders as pos­si­ble in the form of dig­i­tal cut­ting files or a kit, so to this end the com­po­nents were de­signed to be cut out by a CNC cut­ter. The ap­proach marked a sig­nif­i­cant shift from the boat­build­ing meth­ods the pair had used up un­til then.

“It was first time we re­ally ex­plored po­ten­tial of CNC cut­ting and of mod­ern ply­wood con­struc­tion,” says Pierre-Yves.

“All the parts lock to­gether. The lon­gi­tu­di­nal pieces lock into the trans­verse parts; you sim­ply click them into place and ev­ery­thing falls into place nat­u­rally. When you build a boat man­u­ally, there’s al­ways the risk of mak­ing mis­takes when you line up the planks and the bulk­heads can move. But with a com­puter de­sign, there’s no pos­si­bil­ity of er­ror.”

Or as the sales lit­er­a­ture puts it: ‘Tra­di­tion does not exclude mod­ernism… Moulds which slot to­gether means you can put to­gether a build­ing jig of great ac­cu­racy from day one. The ply­wood parts [of the kit] come cut to size and don’t re­quire any ad­just­ment: so it’s good­bye to the usual doubts and ag­o­niz­ing about lin­ing up and fair­ing… Ply­wood gives the boat longevity and low main­te­nance, while the solid tim­ber trim dis­guises the use of mod­ern ma­te­ri­als and build­ing tech­niques.’

The plan seems to have worked and, since the Mi­na­houët was launched in 2002, about 30 of the 40 boats launched were built by am­a­teurs (mostly from kits), while the rest were built by Grand-Lar­gue.

Out on the bay off St Malo, a brisk off­shore wind was ruf­fling the sur­face of the sea, and omi­nous black clouds were piled up on the hori­zon. Alone on the boat, while I took pho­tos, Pierre-Yves shot across the bay, the very pic­ture of in­sou­ciance.

As I clicked away hap­pily, the wind con­tin­ued to build, and af­ter a cou­ple of close calls Pierre-Yves low­ered the main­sail and put a reef in. With the sail area re­duced, the boat set­tled down and be­came more man­age­able.

Af­ter a lit­tle while, we swapped over and I tried row­ing the boat with the sails low­ered. The owner of Pianis­simo had opted for a thole pin and grom­met ar­range­ment in­stead of rowlocks, which took a bit of get­ting used to. I’m not con­vinced there’s any real ad­van­tage to

this set up, though it does look good and, pro­vid­ing you row against the grom­met rather than the pin, the oar will rest along­side the boat if you let it go.

More to my lik­ing were the ad­justable foot­braces fit­ted on ei­ther side of the cen­tre­board case to give you some­thing to push against while row­ing.

Once un­der way, I made good progress row­ing against wind and tide and man­aged to row a fair dis­tance back up the bay to­wards St Malo. I’m ex­tremely spoilt by hav­ing my West­ern Sk­iff to row, which is con­sid­er­ably lighter than the Mi­na­houët and there­fore eas­ier to row. How­ever, even I had to ad­mit that, in the windy con­di­tions off St Malo that day, the Mi­na­houët car­ried her way bet­ter than my sk­iff would have. I could quite imag­ine row­ing her sev­eral miles up an es­tu­ary or into har­bour – al­though sail­ing probably is her best mode of propul­sion.

When not in use, the oars stow on the side benches, which have been cun­ningly made lower than the thwarts, to cre­ate a gap be­tween the two for ex­actly that pur­pose. The boxed-in side benches also pro­vide nec­es­sary buoy­ancy in case of cap­size, along with fur­ther buoy­ancy com­part­ments in the bow and stern.

Stowage is pro­vided un­der the fore­deck, on ei­ther side of the mast step box, and is ac­cessed through a pair of cir­cu­lar hatches in the for­ward bulk­head.

Even­tu­ally, Pierre-Yves came back on board and we shook the reef out of the main and raised the sails again. With the wind abat­ing slightly, we eased onto a reach and headed to­wards the offly­ing is­lands of Le Petit Bé and Le Grand Bé, I felt im­me­di­ately at ease with the boat, as if I’d been sail­ing her all my life. There was noth­ing un­ex­pected, noth­ing to worry about; ev­ery­thing was where it should be.

Her per­for­mance un­der sail was bet­ter than I ex­pected: she was faster and pointed higher than I’d imag­ined – and per­haps that was why I felt so re­laxed on board. From the mo­ment we set off, she per­formed im­pec­ca­bly and made me feel I was do­ing a good job; I didn’t need to squeeze that bit of ex­tra speed, to worry

about the set of the sail, or try to point that lit­tle bit higher – she did it all her­self without be­ing asked. It helped that we were go­ing nowhere in par­tic­u­lar and that it was a per­fect au­tumn day and the coast was aglow with late af­ter­noon sun – what was not to like?

I came ashore feel­ing rather pleased with my­self. The boat had han­dled well, un­der both sail and oar, and I felt I’d got her num­ber. It was only later I re­alised this feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion was what François and Pierre-Yves were aim­ing to achieve all along. It was thanks to their de­cep­tively sim­ple de­sign, ex­e­cuted with ad­mirable mod­esty, and a whole host of clever lit­tle de­tails that I was able to jump in the boat and sail her with such ease. In fact, my feel­ing of well-be­ing was a di­rect re­sult of their hard work!

There was one de­tail which looked like it might cause a mi­nor prob­lem while we were tak­ing the boat out of the wa­ter. Un­like the Stir Ven, which has a rounded bow which lifts it­self onto the trailer with ease, the Mi­na­houët has an up­right stem which means you would have to lift it man­u­ally to get it onto a nor­mal trailer.

The so­lu­tion turned out to be a break-back trailer, which hinges in the mid­dle un­til the roller is un­der the stem and then straight­ened and locked into po­si­tion be­fore winch­ing the boat the rest of the way up. Once on the trailer, there’s a con­ve­nient slot cut into the stem to lash the boat in place. Job done.

And so, hav­ing started feel­ing de­cid­edly scep­ti­cal, by the end of two hours’ sail­ing I was com­pletely con­verted to this de­cep­tively sim­ple lit­tle boat.

Not only that, but I was pretty well con­vinced this was the boat ev­ery­one should own. Park it in your drive and the next sunny day, “baff, off you go…”

■ The Mi­na­houët is avail­able as a set of build­ing plans from François Vivier

(r240, www.vivier­boats.com), as a kit boat from Grand Lar­gue (from r3,060, www.grand-lar­gue.fr), or as a fin­ished boat through UK agents Go Ma­rine (£15,840, www.go­ma­rine.co.uk)

‘Per­for­mance un­der sail was bet­ter than I ex­pected: she was faster and pointed higher’

Pierre-Yves de la Riviere sails his Mi­na­houët off St Malo

Stain rather than var­nish and plenty of paint makes Pianis­simo look fairly work­man­like

Easy rig­ging and launch­ing by one per­son was a pre­req­ui­site when the Mi­na­houët was orig­i­nally be­ing de­signed

Mi­na­houët was de­signed from the out­set to be eas­ily rowed

Sloop rig setup. Cat rig places mast even fur­ther for­ward

Cen­tre­board/dag­ger­board and tiller are held in place by sim­ple notches and pins

Sim­ple but very ef­fec­tive, the Mi­na­houët is al­most guar­an­teed to put a smile on your face

Mi­na­houët is a beau­ti­fully bal­anced boat to sail

You’ll get a re­spectable turn of speed un­der full sail

A cou­ple of lash­ings are all that’s re­quired to hold the sprit in place

The Mi­na­houët is thought­fully crafted in ev­ery de­tail

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