Making a model
When he’s not restoring or sailing his Down East 45 Britannia, Roger Hughes likes to build and sail yachts of a different scale
A radio-controlled Colin Archer RS1 model sailboat that performs like the real deal
Ihave always been a model maker since being an active member of my school flying club. I always found model making to be therapeutic, even when the rubber band-powered Spitfire, which had taken hours to perfect, smashed into the sides of the gym wall.
Later I built a few showcase ships: Cook’s Endeavour and the sail training ship, Sir Winston Churchill – which I actually sailed on as a trainer. I also made a half deck model of Nelson’s Flagship Victory which is now residing on my own schooner, Britannia.
After becoming a yacht owner it intrigued me whether I could build a radio controlled model sailboat which performed like the real thing. After all, what father doesn’t want to sail a little boat on the local pond with his children?
The multi-channel radio control equipment was readily available, but the thought of building a boat from scratch, big enough to accommodate it all, was a bit daunting. Therefore, When I found a large scale (1:15) kit of a Colin Archer ketch, with a ready made ABS plastic hull and all fittings I bought it, even at $550!
Colin Archer was a Norwegian marine architect who seemed to like boats with canoe sterns, known as double-enders. Without their immensely long bowsprits, (which were designed to retract on deck), it would be difficult to know the bow from the stern. This particular boat was designated RS1 and designed as a lifeboat. The original is in the Norwegian Maritime Museum in Oslo.
The term ‘kit’ is perhaps a little misleading because apart from certain pre-shaped items like the hull and bulkheads etc, it consisted of a pile of wood and instructions that I didn’t find particularly informative. So it was to be a proper test of boatbuilding skills.
But before even beginning to build the boat I spent a lot of time at my local model shop, picking their brains about radio control equipment. Unfortunately nobody had built a sailboat with the sophistication I was planning. They were mostly speedboat enthusiasts.
Eventually I left the store clutching an eight channel transmitter and receiver, three winches, an electric motor and heavy 12V battery – similar to a motor bike battery – and my pocket another $500 lighter.
With the ready made hull, construction was remarkably like building a full size boat with a fibreglass hull.
Firstly, I glued the main bulkheads to the hull with epoxy and installed the motor mount and stern tube. The motor was then bolted to its mount and the stern shaft connected with a universal coupling.
Like on a full size boat the next stage was to install the ballast – but how much?
The model was one fifteenth the size of the original, but ballast ratios don’t scale down like that and there was nothing in the instructions to give any clues. I could think of only one way to ballast her to the waterline shown on the hull. I bought a 5lb coil of lead from a local surplus store and cut it into 2in wide by 12in long strips, then laid them in the bottom of the hull, placing the 3lb battery on top.
I then filled our bath tub with water and lowered the hull in to see how it floated – she was hopelessly high.
I bought another 15lb of lead and kept adding it until the hull sat at approximately the waterline. I then placed all the radio control equipment on top, along with other bits and pieces, deck timbers, masts, and even the sailcloth. When I had her floating at the correct waterline I
sealed the ballast with epoxy resin and built a floor for the battery to sit on. The model draws 6in, equivalent to 7ft 6in. The real boat actually draws 7ft 3in – so we’re not far out.
Before laying the deck beams it was easier to position all the radio control equipment, principally the steering servo, the receiver, and three winches which would control the jib, staysail, mainsail and mizzen. The continuous coil drum winches were positioned forward: as the jib winch rotates, the sheets are pulled in one side and let out the other, hauling the jib from one tack to the other.
It’s also worth mentioning here that all the tiny blocks through which the lines pass actually have rotating sheaves.
Having installed and connected all the controls, I decided to test the boat ‘at sea’ before laying the deck. There is a lake behind my house in South Orlando, Florida, which would seem to be ideal for testing model boats, except for one slight problem – it has a resident alligator and I had absolutely no idea how it might react to having an intruder in its ‘loch.’
However, the test went without interruption from the ‘gator, and I found the engine drove her along at a brisk walking pace.
Back in dry dock I fitted the deck beams, then glued separate planks over the plywood deck, caulking them individually, just like the real thing.
In order to be transported anywhere the masts and sails had to be removable, so both masts were keel stepped and the rigging hooked to the deadeyes. The masts can now be lifted out of the deck.
The sail cloth supplied was white, but I wanted tanbark sails, so I boiled the cloth in water with ten teabags, which stained the cloth perfectly.
The patterns were then delivered to a seamstress who worked in the Walt Disney costume department near where I live, and who did a superb job double stitching them to simulate individual panels. The sails are hanked on and halyards run through sheaves down to belaying pins. The tops’ls are located in pintles and can be removed if the wind is too strong.
As the model came near to completion someone asked me: ‘Shouldn’t there be a crew?’ This simple question set me on a search for sailor figurines. I could easily have crewed her with American Civil War soldiers, cowboys on horseback or World War II soldiers, but not sailors.
I worried the boat would remain crewless, until someone suggested I try The Doll’s House. Well, there is a Thee Dollhouse in the red light area in Orlando, but I don’t think they sell model sailors...
The name I was looking for was Ron’s Miniature Shop, but as I entered this amazing magical emporium of doll’s house furniture I was still not at all hopeful for my specific requirement.
‘Yes, we sure do,’ replied the assistant to my question. I could hardly believe my eyes when she slid open a drawer full of sailing figurines of all shapes and sizes. There were naval officers, pirates and
even ship’s cats. I came out with a skipper, three crew and two cats, all very close to scale size. They do add a certain something, especially the captain as he studies the set of his jib.
As a final touch I had also fitted working navigation and cabin lights, which shine through the cabin windows.
I also have a spare unused radio channel, and wonder to what use it might be put on the boat? Perhaps PBO readers might have some ideas.
As with all sailing boats, there comes a time for the maiden launch.
I first pre-tested all the electronics, steering, sheet winches and motor, then gently lowered The Old Gaffer, as I had christened her, into the water. The breeze, perhaps an actual Force 3, created slight ripples on the surface, and I had no idea if this would be too little or too much to sail in.
I eased the sheets until the sails shook and started the motor to power Gaffer away from the shore under engine on a broad reach. I then shut down the engine and slowly hauled in the sails until she heeled, ever so slightly, and began to actually sail.
It was an emotional moment, seeing her sail away on her own for the first time. As I slowly sheeted the sails home she heeled more and started to move quickly, when it suddenly struck me that I didn’t know what the actual radio control range was...
She needed to be brought about now, to head back. I eased the tiller control to starboard and as she swung into wind I tacked the jib, and within seconds she was on an opposite course, having made a flawless tack.
Since that first intrepid trial I have learned to handle the boat on any point of sailing, including goose-winged and hard on the wind in quite big seas – well, at least three inches!
The boat is a delight to handle and I have not had to make any adjustments to ballast or sails. When the wind gets up, I ship the tops’l and she behaves handily under gaff main, mizzen and jib. I hardly ever use the motor, but it might be needed if our resident alligator ever shows his annoyance.
When on a delivery to the Mediterranean a few years ago, I called in at Gibraltar and in the marina was a real RS1 called Capricornus from Stavanger, Norway. It turns out my model bore a very close resemblance to the real thing.
Roger Hughes’s model is very faithful to the original
Shiver me timbers... Roger gets face to face with his model ship’s captain
Endeavour was one of my first attempts at intricate model boatbuilding, but remote control added another dimension altogether
The radio control equipment laid out inside the boat before the deck was laid
Individual planks were laid over plywood, just like in a real boat, and then the planks were caulked
The continuous coil drum winches pull the sheets in and out and tack the jib
A careful float test was conducted, in case anything needed to be altered before the deck was laid
Roger found sailor figurines which were very near the scale of the model
Roger Hughes gives some scale to his 1:15 model
These pictures show the different points of sail that can be achieved, even remotely controlling the boat from a distance
Roger spotted this Colin Archer RS1 in a Gibraltar marina and was pleased to see his model bore a very close resemblance