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Proxxon BBS/S Mini belt sander review

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Hard to see the scale of the sander in this picture. See the next pic below to see how small it really is.

It’s often crossed my mind that many power tools are just too big for my needs. Boat building is a unique trade and often tools that are fine for construction tasks on a building site are either not up the task or are too bulky or heavy to be practical.

Many years ago I had a small Bosch belt sander that was excellent. It was powerful yet small and light, both useful traits when holding a power tool above your head in the small and awkward places often found on boats. When it expired I felt its loss keenly. I bought a bigger Bosch belt sander and although it is an excellent tool and is still going strong I do miss that little tool. Bosch stopped making it and I have not been able to find another since.

Enter Proxxon, a German company who have been making miniature tools for 30 years. In their catalogue of amusing tools I found a small belt sander. It is hard to see how small it is from the pictures on their website but you can get an idea from the belt size and contact area. It uses belts 40 x 265 mm in size and they are available in grits from 80 to 240. The contact area is a tiny 40 x 60mm.

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Tiny little machine. Belt cover off for inspection.

The motor is 150 Watts which isn’t much but then it’s not bad either for so small a power tool. At 175 mm long and just 700 grams it fits perfectly in one hand. There is a rocker switch on the top/back of the tool. The rollers are alloy and seem high quality. The belt is held in by spring pressure alone and is easy to change. The backing plate is made from some kind of hard plastic. There is an adjuster on one side that adjusts the belt’s position.

It comes in a plastic carry case which even has holes for a padlock which makes me laugh. It can be mounted upside down on a bench and comes with the necessary clamp. It also has a dust extraction pipe and adapter. It is delivered with a selection of belts. The power cable is not very long but I forgive that in a small tool.

It’s quiet and does not seem to spin that fast. Proxxon claim 160 metres a minute. That’s about half the speed of a full sized model, despite this, it is surprisingly effective at removing material with the 80 grit belts on it. It seems to be made from nice quality parts and it feels like a serious machine despite its toy-like look. It costs about £130.

The reality though is that I broke it after just a few minutes work! The belt lost a tooth and that was that. I did not use excessive pressure on the tool yet it stripped a belt. On inspection it seems that there is not enough tension on the belt and of course there is no way to adjust it. I could be wrong, it could be that I have just been unlucky to get a machine with a defective belt. However the motor’s cog is made of plastic and the teeth do not seem to grip the belt very well.

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Despite hardly any use at all the belt has already lost a tooth rendering the tool unusable.

Before it broke I was already disappointed with the machine. I looks great and is very quiet but I can’t really say anything else positive about it. It has a host of issues that were apparent right out of the box. The first thing is the on/off switch. It should be housed at the front of the machine where a finger can operate it. It has very little resistance and can switch on very easily, a potential hazard.

The plastic moulded base plate is far from flat. This is very poor especially for a miniature tool which will do a lot of delicate work.

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The backing plate was nowhere near flat. I had to do that with a block and some sandpaper!

The belt adjuster screw is far too sensitive and it is hard to get the belt to run centrally without it wandering off. The tiniest touch of the screw will move the belt which is really annoying. The screw is also a very loose fit and it has the habit of undoing itself. This is not so easy to rectify.

 

Conclusion:

A really disappointing experience. A very poor tool let down by a over sensitive belt adjuster which comes undone, a poorly moulded base plate and a switch which does not naturally fall to hand.

The belt lost a tooth after a few minutes of gentle use. It is possible that I was sold a duff machine with a weak belt but even still, there is far too much that is wrong with this machine.

A real shame as there is a place for a decent quality mini belt sander in my tool kit but  it’s not this one!

Update 30/12/12

It’s been two months and I still do not have a working machine. Proxxon have been as useful as a chocolate fireguard and love to tell me how they have not had any reports of problems with belts on the machine. Axminster power tools in the UK (where I bought the machine) have been no better. They sent me a replacement belt which had teeth missing!!! This may go some way to explain the problem with mine. It’s likely that there are a few dodgy belts out there although Proxxon say they have checked all theirs and they are fine.

So the sander will go back and I will never buy another Proxxon tool again. That’s twice I have tried buying Proxxon tools and twice I have been disappointed. They look like such clever little tools but in reality they are a complete joke. Proxxon do not seem very interested in proving that I am wrong but keep blathering on about how many units they have sold with no problems. Why do companies do this? Do they not realise that I couldn’t give a toss about other customer’s machines. I have spent good money for a quality tool that turns out to not be quality at all ( for many reasons) and doesn’t even work at all. Months have passed and it still isn’t working. Pathetic.

Categories
boats

Prebit LED lights review

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The Prebit R1-1 NV Golden Gloss, Glass Brown, Dimmable, Warm white led lamp

 

After nearly 8 years Doolittle’s original Cantalupi bunk lights were looking a bit worse for wear. The lacquer that protected the brass finish had come off in patches and where the brass was exposed to the air the colour had changed from gold to silver. These lights were not even real brass, they just had a thin coating of something. They looked OK when they were new but now they just looked really scruffy. And since they were not even brass they couldn’t even be polished. All I could do was paint them but that was not a very pleasant option.

It was time to replace the lights. Because we live on the boat it’s nice to have good lighting so I decided I wanted to try and buy something of real quality that would hopefully last a bit longer than 8 years or could at least be polished when it looked tired. The search was long. There is a staggering array of choice for bunk lights. There are also many companies who make lights but nothing I could find looked any better than the old ones.

Then I came across a German company called Prebit who make a range of high quality lamps with Led bulbs. I chose their R1 design as it is the closest to the size of lamp I had before although I decided to go with their glass shade option which illuminates when the lamp is on. One of the problems with the lamps I had before was that they were very directional with their metal shades and I wanted something that would spread light around the boat a bit more evenly.

They are beautifully made in solid brass and then gold plated. Gold might seem a bit extravagant but it is very resistant to the marine environment. They certainly have a lovely finish and a very high gloss. The hand painted (every one is slightly different) glass shade is white on the inside and brown on the outside. During the day the shades appear a uniform brown but when the lamp is on it glows with a pleasant colour and the striped pattern becomes visible.

Fitting the lamps was straightforward. The bases are a bit narrower than the old ones so there is a slight ring of darker coloured teak showing now but it will fade soon enough and in a couple of months will hardly notice. I was fortunate that I was able to use the same mounting holes as the old lamps. The new lamp has a metal mounting bracket, not a plastic one as with the old lights. This gives a much more solid base. The lamp body is held to this bracket by a couple of countersunk screws which pull the lamp body tight to the surface effectively locking the lamp to the wall. The tiny Allen key screws were fiddly to fit as the body needs to be touching the wall before you can get the screw to thread but once tight are almost invisible. The lamp is held very well and there is no play at all. This is a vast improvement over the old ones which always wobbled. Each lamp comes with its own Allen key. Even wiring the lamps was easy as there is a fitted block clearly marked + and – all you need is a small screwdriver.

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Visible here is the push button that switches on and dims the lamp. The software was designed by Prebit. Almost invisible is the small countersunk Allen screw in the side that holds the lamp to the surface. Very tidy. Note also how snug the lamp base fits to the surface. The mounted lamp is very solid and has no play.

The lamps articulate and can be rotated to almost 180 degrees and pulled out to 90 degrees. What this means is that the lamps can be pointed in almost any desired direction. Because they are so solidly mounted they turn easily and the action is smooth and quiet. The old lamps used to squeak when being turned.

Press the button on the front and the lamps illuminate with a soft start. This is a nice touch. Naturally when you turn them off they simply fade down to nothing. If you want to dim the lamp simply hold the button down. When you release your finger the lamp stops dimming. The lamp always turns on using the previous dimmed setting. What is interesting is that the supply can be cut and the lamps will still remember what level they were at before.

The colour of the light is very warm, partly due to the led itself and partly due to the warmth of the light shade. The effect on the boat is quite something. The ambiance has changed and the boat feels warmer and more relaxing. The lamps give off plenty of light. When they are pointed at the ceiling, they reflect the light and the boat can be well illuminated without having any light in your eyes. This is important. With the old lamps I was constantly having to move them so that they did not shine in my eyes. Because the bulbs are deep within the new ones they do not suffer the same issue.

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This shows the lamp’s glass shade illuminated. The lamp is dimmed.

Used as reading lamps they have a fairly narrow beam but the light is intense and very effective. Quite literally head and shoulders above the old lamps with the added advantage of being able to dim them to suit. The dimmer allows the light to be reduced by 90% which is excellent for night sailing. It means that the on watch crew can come below and switch on a lamp without disturbing the off watch crew or ruining their night vision.

One surprising thing is that the bulbs cannot be changed! They are made by Phillips for Prebit and are very small and flat. They are quite unlike the bulbs I have been using. Slightly concerned, I contacted the company I bought the lamps from asking about this. The reply I got said that they have been using these bulbs since 2009 and have not had any failures. I asked about the intensity of the light fading as I have seen this with leds too. I was told that the bulbs will not fade and they will last 50,000 hours. That’s confidence for you! Only time will tell if this is true.

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The non replaceable bulb. This shot was taken with the lamp dimmed down to 10%. Although the bulbs are supplied by Phillips they have Prebit printed on the PCB. Just three tiny bulbs yet they give off a surprising amount of light

Considering how bright they are they take very little power. With all 4 on at full power they consume 1.4 amp/hrs which is more than the old lamps but then they are much brighter and in any case this is not a lot of power for such a lot of light. If I wish to reduce power consumption, all I have to do is dim the lights. The power used goes down proportionally as the lights dim. The head of the lamps gets quite warm when the lamps are set on max brightness but the bulbs themselves and the glass shade remain cool.

Apart from the bulb the entire lamp is made by Prebit. They even designed the software that controls the lamp. There is no flickering when the lamps are dimmed, even when reduced right down but they do make a very slight buzzing sound. The noise is audible but whether this will be annoying on very quiet nights remains to be seen.

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A lovely warm glow from the hand painted glass shades

Conclusion

This is a beautiful product. It is made in Germany. The finish is superb. The action of the moving parts is quiet and smooth. The articulation is very good. The lamps mount very solidly to the surface. They are easy to connect. They look really nice during the day and especially at night.

The light is warm and bright and the hand painted shades give off a friendly glow. The push button operation is simple and effective and easy to use. The lamps always remember the last setting they were on.

Of course these lights are not cheap but I do think they represent good value. Because they are made of solid brass if they ever start to look a bit rough, at least they can be polished so in theory at least they should last much longer than the cheap ones I had before.

What Prebit have done is to take the humble reading lamp and completely redesign it using the best technologies available to create a truly fabulous lamp. Lighting has come on in the last few years thanks to led bulbs. We’ve come a mighty long way from the caveman’s fire to touch button led lighting!

Categories
boats

Thoughts on fitting an under deck autopilot

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The Garmin GHP 12 Autopilot system. On the left the compass, next the ‘Brains’ and the display unit.

My Pacific Seacraft Dana 24 uses a Simrad TP30 tiller pilot which copes most of the time but just can’t cope when the conditions worsen or the boat is a bit over canvased. What this means in reality is that we tend to reef early to keep ‘Dave’ happy when we could be sailing faster if we had a more powerful autopilot. Since no one makes a serious tiller pilot I have recently been thinking about fitting an under deck pilot even though it would be far from an easy installation.

My first thoughts were that it could be possible although extremely difficult and even if a unit could be fitted it would use too much power. However, after much thinking and research I now think it is doable and feasible even. A system like this will be complicated to install, it will add weight and it will consume more power than the tiller pilot. That’s the down side. On the up side we get half the cockpit back and would even be able to lift the tiller up out of the way while sailing or motoring. The TP 30 is also noisy and its sounds can be irritating when quietly sailing. An under deck unit would be almost silent.

Because the unit is hidden under the deck it is not going to get wet and does not need to be placed on the tiller each time you want to use it. It would be much more powerful and able to cope with heavy tiller loads and unlike the TP30 could be adjusted in many different ways to maximise the performance and power usage.

One of the main problems with tiller pilots is that they are always situated right at the back of the boat and because the compass is inside the pilot it cannot react as quickly as a compass paced more forwards and at a lower level. It’s true that the TP30 can use a remote compass but that doesn’t disguise the fact that it is noisy and not very powerful. Read a review of the TP30 here

Is it even possible?

This discussion is about the possibility of fitting an under deck pilot to the Pacific Seacraft Dana 24 (read a review here) although many of the same principals will apply to most small yachts.

The first thing we need is a tiller arm mounted on the shaft under the deck to link to the autopilot drive unit. But how to attach a tiller arm to the rudder shaft? In order to do this, the rudder log (the fibreglass tube that runs from hull to deck level) would have to be cut down. So, drop the rudder about a foot and cut it down about 4" or 5" down from deck level. Then a stern gland would need to be fitted to the log much like the engine shaft in order to ensure that water cannot get into the boat. Even cut down the rudder log would be well above the waterline so it is possible that a gland could be dispensed with but fitting one would be the right thing to do.

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This is the rudder log. It will need to be cut down to allow the fitting of an aft facing tiller arm. Cutting the log will weaken the boat but since the Dana is so over built and the gas locker is moulded in just next to it I doubt it will be a problem!

The tiller arm would then be mounted above the gland facing aft on the rudder shaft. I have found a company Jefa who make lovely alloy arms that will never break. Now, because the rudder log is no longer attached at the deck we have weakened the structure and are now relying solely on the bronze deck fitting to take the strain. This is no problem as it is ridiculously over engineered. Recently I have noticed some play at the top of my rudder and sometimes it makes a clicking noise as it moves. So what it really needs is a nylon bearing instead of a metal to metal loose fit.

Jefa Alloy Tiller lever

A typical Jefa arm. Made of solid Alloy, not cast. It splits apart for fitting. This model shows a slot for locking the arm in place but this won’t work on the Dana as the rudder shaft is a hollow tube. A different system for locking it on must be found.

The deck fitting would need to be removed and machined out to accept a nylon (or delrin or whatever would work best) bearing that could be easily replaced when worn.

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This is the ridiculously oversized rudder guide. It will need to be removed and machined out to accept a bearing. This will make it very smooth and quiet and take any slight play out of the system.

So now we have a tiller arm. The battle is half won. All we have to do now is connect a drive unit to it. Sounds simple doesn’t it. Well it isn’t. Most drive units are only designed to move the helm 35 degrees either side of straight ahead making a total tiller arc of 70 degrees. Obviously this is enough for any boat when actually steering the boat when under way but the Dana has a very large tiller movement and in fact, when reversing every bit of that movement is required. This is a problem.

There are solutions but they are all compromises and it all comes back to the tiller arc. The way to increase the arc is to attach the drive unit on the tiller arm closer to the rudder. This will give us enough movement so that when we are mooring and need the full sweep of the rudder we can have it. But there is a down side to this and that is that it will reduce the power and torque of the drive considerably. But this need not be a problem as most drive units (even the smallest ones) are very powerful and even with their power reduced by half would be at least twice as powerful as the TP30.

If it were only that simple. Unfortunately as well as reducing the power you speed up the movement of the drive unit so the corrections to the helm would be very sudden and it is possible that the boat would over steer and the pilot would not be able to catch up and no amount of adjustment would help.

A delicate balance needs to be found. Thankfully physics comes to our aid and immediately rules out certain types of drives. The most common type of drive seen is a linear drive either electric or hydraulic. It’s basically a cylinder with a powered rod that moves back and forth. The problem is that even if you moved the attachment in close to the rudder the drive unit would not be able to articulate with the extreme angle needed on the Dana which I have measured to be 60 degrees either side of straight ahead! Almost double the standard amount.

So linear units are out. What’s left? Well Jefa do some lovely drive units but they are heavy and expensive and use about 4 amps an hour on average which is too much for a small cruising sail boat. This unit has to mount close to the tiller arm and that means there would be an additional 12 kilos right at the back of the boat which is not ideal.

Here is the Jefa autopilot unit. Very strong, beautifully made and compact. Sadly also very heavy at 12 kilos. It also uses a lot of power. The clutch alone takes 1.4amp/hr making this unit a bit of an overkill for a 24 foot boat!

Now I was running out of ideas. Luckily I came across the Octopus cable drive unit from a Canadian company. In fact Simrad offer the exact same unit as a drive option on their autopilots so that must be a good sign. The unit weighs about 4 kilos and can be placed up to 6 feet away from the pilot. It is not as powerful as the Jefa unit but still adequate for the Dana. The plus points of this kind of unit are many.

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The Octopus Type RS for sailing boats. Allows remote mounting and a lighter weight. It uses a flexible cable to ‘push/pull’ the rudder. This is the most likely candidate so far.

Most autopilot systems need a rudder feedback unit installed but the Octopus unit has it already built in. This simplifies the installation considerably. Thanks to the push pull cable it can be fitted either vertically or horizontally well forward of the rudder keeping weight out of the stern. Plus it uses considerably less power. Average consumption should only be a couple of amps at most. Obviously the less work the pilot has to do the lower this figure will be.

 

The Autopilot brain

Having solved the tiller arm and drive issues we now have to decide which autopilot to use. Most pilots can be set up to work with any drive so you have a large choice. Personally I do not like the look of the Simrad autopilots or their displays and I have vowed never to have a Raymarine product on board my boat ever again there are fewer companies to choose from but there’s still a fine choice. There’s B&G, Jefa make one, Coursemaster from Australia do a range. There’s the French company NKE who supply most of the French racing boats but my favourite so far is the Garmin unit. It has a colour screen and many options to change all the settings to maximise the efficiency of the package.

This unit has a separate compass that can be placed in the optimum site for best performance, a separate CPU and the display. The display can be placed next to the engine controls to keep from cutting holes for it elsewhere. It will be a minor inconvenience to have to reach down to start and stop the autopilot but that’s about the only down side although there is a wireless remote control option which would make the unit even easier to use and offers the ability to steer the boat from the foredeck or from up the mast if solo and navigating through coral reefs. It has a range of 45 feet.

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The Garmin colour screen. It has different settings for day and night viewing.

The new pilot will enable tacks and gybes to be adjusted to suit the boat among other features. But best of all it will be powerful enough to leave a bit too much sail up if we feel like going fast and it will steer the boat better when it’s surfing down waves in a gale. The unit will be kept dry and this will ensure that it lasts a long time. The added bonus is that we get back one half of the cockpit which is normally taken up by Dave and his ugly cable.

 

Conclusion

There is a lot to be said for the TP30 tiller pilot. It does steer the boat most of the time using very little power. We would be lost without it. The down side is that it is not very adjustable and it is always in the way and out in the elements and when the conditions worsen it starts to struggle.

An under deck unit will work better, be more adjustable and able to steer the boat even in extreme situations. Being under the deck it is protected from the elements and this will ensure a good reliability. On the down side it weighs more, probably about 10 kilos all said and done and we’d surely keep Dave and Dave 2 as back ups anyway. The autopilot is the most essential bit of kit on the boat after the sails! It will use more power but because the unit is so adjustable it can be tuned so that it can keep the boat on course with the minimum of tiller movement.

Obviously it’s a costly item and I don’t suppose there will be much change from £2500 but that compares to the cost of a decent wind vane. It’s also quite a mission to install but I think it would be worth it in the end. It is at least possible. In any case when was anything worthwhile easy?

If anyone has any thoughts, comments or questions I’d love to here them.

Categories
boats

What is the perfect dinghy?

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OK, so that is a trick question because all dinghies are a compromise. In an ideal world we’d probably like a 4 metre rib with a 40 hp engine on the back that can carry 4 at high speed in the roughest weather. The reality is that a boat like this will be costly and impossible to use in the real world. I mean, for starters, where would you put it when it wasn’t being used?

Before you can decide which dinghy is best for you you’ll have a list of priorities. For example, here are a long list of features that are important. They are in no particular order. That is for you to decide.

Cost: Only you know how much you are willing to pay for a dinghy but remember that the more you pay, the more desirable your dinghy will be to thieves and the more upset you will be when it’s damaged or stolen.

Buoyancy: What will happen when your dinghy is swamped by waves and starts to fill with water? Will it stay afloat even with occupants? Of course buoyancy can be easily added at the cost of inconvenience. The best is built in buoyancy in the way of water tight compartments but having these adds weight and reduces options for storing.

Stability: Small boats are notoriously tippy and only careful use will keep them afloat. If you are light and nimble then this probably won’t matter to you but if not you will probably want something that is very stable such as an inflatable dinghy.

Stowage: It’s all very well having an 10 foot dinghy but only if you have somewhere to store it when not in use. A dinghy can be towed of course but when it gets rough it might become a liability, fill with water, flip over and sink or smash into the back of your yacht. The safest place to stow a dinghy is aboard the mother yacht be it in special davits, lashed to the deck or stowed below.

Rowing: Inflatable boats do not row well and this is why most owners also buy an outboard to go with it but outboards are noisy and smelly and pollute. They are heavy and hard to put on the dinghy and take up a lot of valuable stowage space. You will never offend anyone by rowing.

Sailing: Not all dinghies can sail, or be made to sail. Various attempts to make inflatables sail have been tried but the high drag, lack of lateral resistance and floppy structure makes the inflatable a poor sailor.

Outboards: They are costly, liable to theft, they can go wrong, take up space, pollute, make noise and smell. You may not need one if you buy something other than an inflatable.

Size: How many people do you need to carry? How able are they? How much do they weigh? Do you really want to carry all the extra weight of boat around for an occasional use? Would you be better with a smaller boat and make more trips to and from the shore?

Build your own: There are a lot of plans out there if you are the DIY type. This gives you the option of getting what you want although ultimately it may not be cheaper than buying a ready made boat.

So lets look in more detail at the options. First we’ll discuss the different types of dinghy and tenders available.

Inflatable beach toys: These are cheap inflatable boats with no safety features whatsoever. They are usually made of one continuous tube so if you get a hole in it, the entire boat will deflate and it will sink. They are not very tough and so easily damaged. They generally cannot take an outboard (petrol or electric) and will probably not have a decent system for attaching oars.

If you are in a warm environment and you never go more than a few metres from the mother ship and you can swim then a beach toy will get you to the shore and back. The reason why people buy them is because they are cheap. Generally a poor choice for a yacht tender.

PVC Inflatable dinghy: This is one up from a beach toy and will have at least two or more air chambers so that if the skin is punctured it will not sink. It will be made with a better quality, thicker skin that is more resistant. It may have the option to mount a small electric motor and will certainly have a system that allows it to be rowed.

They cost more than a beach toy and are generally no larger than 8 feet long. These are a bit safer than a beach toy but the PVC is relatively easily damaged and they will not be very resistant to damage from use or sunshine. Not a bad choice for a yacht tender as they are not expensive but far better to invest in a better quality inflatable made from Hypalon.

Hypalon inflatable dinghy: This is the most common choice of yacht tender. The Hypalon fabric is highly resistant to wear and UV damage. The boat will be made of several sections so will remain afloat even if one tube is punctured. They are very stable and good for heavy or clumsy people.

There are a host of advantages to inflatables which is probably why they are so popular as dinghies. They come with fabric floors, fabric floors with slats, inflatable floors or hard floors (RIBs)

They won’t damage the yacht when along side so they can be left in the water alongside the yacht. They can generally plane at speed with a big enough outboard. And of course they can be deflated for stowage although this takes some time. As does re-inflating them again later. A good pump is essential but even still, it can take a long time to pump it up. You can buy electric pumps which work well but are extremely loud and annoying.

On the down side, Inflatables are very heavy and hard to move about. Even deflated the smallest inflatable will be a bulky nuisance, either getting in the way on deck or struggling to stow it in a locker. This is probably why most people do not deflate them and either tow them or stow them on deck.

Towing an inflatable will cause drag and if the weather gets nasty it might even flip. Never tow an inflatable with a motor attached! If you decide to stow it on deck, you will have to get it there and most people use a halyard. In any case it’s almost always a two man job and when stowed on deck it’s likely to restrict vision and cause drag when sailing to windward or end up catching ropes and sheets. Not to mention restricting movement on deck. A complete pain in other words!

Inflatables are also very desirable to thieves because they are so common and they all look similar. They are not good to row and I have seen quite a few people get into trouble on windy days quite unable to get back to their yacht. This is why most are fitted with an outboard but then you are faced with the various problems that this brings, such as removal and storage on the boat, carrying yet another explosive fuel aboard not to mention the smell or the pollution and the fact that they can quite spoil an idyllic anchorage when there are dozens of them buzzing back and forth all day.

Sometimes it’s quicker to get the oars out and simply row to the shore but for some reason most owners just equate the inflatable with an outboard. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a couple struggling to get the engine off the boat and onto the dinghy, then of course the engine won’t start or needs filling with fuel. It really would have been much less effort to paddle ashore!

Inflatable kayaks: Some people like kayaks for a dinghy and in some ways they are much better than an inflatable. Their more boat like shape means that they paddle well so you do not need an outboard. They deflate and stow easier too as they generally do not have solid floors to worry about.

Hard dinghies: The best bet from a performance point of view is always a hard dinghy. They are tough, usually have built in buoyancy (which can double as waterproof containers) row well and take an outboard. The down side is that they are heavy and hard to stow. If you use a dinghy a lot and have space for it, a hard dinghy is the best. It can also be converted to a sailing boat and that is excellent fun.

Nesting dinghies: This is a hard dinghy in two (or more) parts. The idea is that one half fits inside the other for stowing. This gives all the advantages of a solid dinghy but with a few more options for stowing. Some can be converted to sailing boats but they are generally heavier.

Folding dinghies: There are a lot of folding dinghies and if well engineered can be just as good as a hard dinghy. The downside of the folding dinghy is usually that it cannot have built in buoyancy so will rely on an external system such as buoyancy bags. Some can also sail. Often they are complicated and slow to assemble and have essential pieces which can get lost. They can also be very costly.

The best choice for me?

With the above information, you should be able to work out what kind of dinghy would best suit you and your situation. For example, if you want a dinghy that can sail, then you won’t be choosing an inflatable dinghy. If you want one that also rows, again the inflatable is not your best choice.

For me, the best dinghy that I could have would be a solid one because it can row and sail well. But the problem I have is where would I store such a dinghy aboard my boat? The answer is that I can’t! I have tried inflatables and while I appreciate their stability and buoyancy I do not like the fact that they don’t row well and can’t sail. Nor do I like their folded bulk or weight, nor their popularity with thieves!

What is best for me is a hard dinghy that can stow. So I am looking at either a nesting or a folding dinghy. Over the last 20 years I have tried all of the above suggestions and each has its good and bad points. It’s for you to decide which features you can live with and those you can live without.

After the basic fact that I have to be able to stow and deploy my dinghy easily, there’s no doubt that the ability to row and sail is high on my list of priorities as is stability. At the end of the day I have had the most success with folding dinghies. They just make so much sense.

 

Looking in detail as some of the choices of dinghy

The Inflatable Dinghy

The inflatable is the most common form of tender. There are many reasons for this as we have already discussed but one of the main reasons for their popularity probably has to do with cost and availability. The market is saturated with models from many different companies, there’s so much competition that prices are kept generally low and you will find inflatables for sale in every ship chandlers the world over.

Prices start from about 300€ which is about as cheap as any dinghy on the market but because they do not row well and cannot generally sail one must also cost in the price of an outboard engine. Even the smallest outboard engine will cost at least 400€. Then you must ask yourself where will you store the outboard when it is not in use? You may have a locker you can put it in but outboards are smelly things and the smell can end up penetrating the rest of the boat which is not pleasant. Many people fit a bracket to the pushpit at the stern where the outboard is stowed. This will mean the addition of a bracket (and more cost) plus the outboard will be always out in the elements which will quickly degrade it and lower its value. You can of course get a cover made but again this all adds to the cost.

The outboard on a bracket also adds weight and windage where you don’t want it. It might even get in the way. It is also vulnerable to theft and makes the boat look fussy. It will certainly need a lock to deter thieves but unfortunately a lock will not stop a determined thief.

Blowing up and deflating an inflatable is a miserable experience. Most dinghies come with a foot pump but they are very annoying to use and it can take as much as 20 minutes to inflate even the smallest boat with one. They are also very badly made and generally break or leak after a very short time. An inflatable boat that cannot be inflated is as useful as a chocolate fireguard!

There are other options of course. The hand operated pumps that you stand on are a much better way to inflate a dinghy but again, it’s more cost and they are quite bulky. Or you can buy an electric inflator but they cost and need power and worst of all are extremely noisy. Making this kind of noise in a peaceful anchorage will not endear you to your neighbours.

Inflatables are generally pretty tough and hard wearing but they don’t like to be left out in the sun. Being regularly folded also puts creases in the fabric which in time can cause leaks. The most common problem with inflatables is that the transom comes unglued. Small holes can be repaired easily with a patch and there are products that can fix quite big tears with a clamping system.

So I think you can see that the inflatable seems like a good idea at first but once you consider the realities and extra costs and hassle involved you might want to think again. If you can leave the dinghy inflated at all times with the engine fitted then the inflatable makes a lot of sense but not many boats are big enough to allow this.

The cheaper inflatables have a simple rubber floor which is very flexible and very annoying because it is always moving. When water gets in (as it will) you will get wet feet as the weight of your body will always create a low spot where water runs to.

The next step up is a slatted floor. This adds cost and complexity and makes the stowed package a bit more bulky and heavy. It is still far from ideal as you will still have your feet in water. The nest step up from slats is an inflatable floor. This works very well giving the boat good stiffness and it also means that you have a chance of keeping your feet dry. The down side is that it adds weight and takes longer to inflate. An inflatable floor adds cost too.

The ultimate inflatable is the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) which is basically a narrow hard dinghy with inflatable sides. Obviously these are heavier, more costly and do not roll up although the sides can be deflated to reduce its size a little. They offer the best performance of all inflatables.

There is one last kind of small RIB that needs a mention, it’s a jet boat, a sort of mix between a RIB and a Jetski and I for one have never understood why anyone would buy one. They have an inboard engine which takes up loads of interior volume and are hopeless to manoeuvre. They are noisy and smelly and expensive and heavy and frankly make a very poor tender for any yacht.

 

The Hard dinghy

The hard dinghy is the best performer of all the dinghies you can have. They can be rowed, sailed, motored or even sculled along. They are tough and much better looking (generally) than inflatables and can be painted to match the mother ship. They are most often made in wood, ply, alloy, plastic or grp.

The biggest problem with a hard dinghy is that they are heavy and bulky in as much that they do not reduce in any way for stowing. Some hard dinghies can be modified in shape to fit on a certain place on deck. If you have space you can maybe store the dinghy inverted on the cabin top. The bigger boats store them upright and stow things in it and then use a cover to stop water getting in. Stowing the dinghy the right way up makes it quicker to deploy.

If there is no room on deck then you may be able to use davits. These are basically arms normally attached right at the back of the boat that are used to easily lift the dinghy out of the water even with an engine still fitted. It is a quick and easy system that often uses a purchase to make lifting the weight easier.

The problem with davits are many fold however. All that ease comes at a price. Firstly the davits will need to be attached to the boat. Because of the weight and leverage involved they will not only have to be strong but more importantly so will the boat where they are bolted on. It is entirely possible that the boat will need to be reinforced before davits can be used. This obviously adds cost and weight.

Once the davits are in place you will then discover that your rearward visibility has been seriously compromised. This is more than just an inconvenience, it is also potentially dangerous as you are just as likely to get run down from behind as anywhere else! Also if you moor stern to, such as in the Med a dinghy in davits off the stern will mean you will have no choice but to moor bows to.

The boat’s sailing performance will also be seriously hampered by a dinghy in davits, not only is that a fair bit of weight very poorly placed high up and right at the stern but it will create a lot of drag, no problem if you are always running downwind but as we all know reality just ain’t like that.

There is also a chance that the boat and the dinghy can be damaged by wave action as the boat is completely vulnerable stuck out the back as it is. A dinghy in davits must be very well attached and tied up to the davits so that it cannot move under any circumstances but it will also need a cover to keep water out.

The last point is that if you do have a problem with the dinghy in davits you might find yourself hanging out over the back of the boat to deal with the problem. This is not very wise and quite dangerous.

So as you can see, the main problem with a hard dinghy is where to put it when it’s not in use. Hard dinghies are available to buy ready made, in kit form or available for home build from plans.

 

Nesting dinghies

Nesting dinghies share most of the attributes of a hard dinghy but with the advantage that they can be effectively cut in two and stowed one half inside the other to reduce their size. They are probably going to be somewhat heavier than a standard hard dinghy as they have a join which tends to add complication and weight.

Sometimes the shape of the dinghy is compromised by the nesting action. Generally the bow section is made to fit into the stern section but this sometimes leads to a compromise bow shape that lacks buoyancy and reduces interior volume.

One of the biggest problems with nesting dinghies is the rowing position which is often logically placed above the join but is often too far forward. It may work fine with two occupants but it may be very bows down when rowing alone. It’s a small detail but where you sit when rowing in a small boat makes a fantastic difference to the way it rows.

Sometimes nesting dinghies can be somewhat complicated to assemble and it may not be possible to assemble the boat in the water. If this is the case, the dinghy cannot be launched easily in two halves so you will have to struggle with the weight of the complete boat.

Obviously nesting dinghies will be more costly than an ordinary hard dinghy. But if you insist on a hard dinghy but don’t have much space perhaps a nesting dinghy is the way to go. Even if it cannot be assembled in the water it will probably still be faster to assemble and launch than it would be to inflate and launch an inflatable dinghy.

Most nesting dinghies have some kind of built in buoyancy which is safe but reduces interior volume and adds weight.

Nesting dinghies are available to buy ready made, in kit form or available for home build from plans.

 

Folding dinghies

Ever since Noah, people have been looking for the perfect dinghy, one that does everything a good dinghy should do but weighs very little and packs away easily to a small package. In some respects folding dinghies are the closest mankind has ever come to this utopian dream. Not surprisingly there is a large choice of folding dinghies made from many different materials.

There are many designs to choose from some made of wood or alloy, some with a framework and a canvas type of material. The more solid versions are often heavy and take some time to assemble with many parts needed which make them difficult to assemble on the limited space of a yacht deck.

There are so many different types of folding dinghy that it is hard to generalise. Some can sail, some can take an engine, some can plane, some are extremely tough, others less so. Some can be assembled in moments, others take a bit longer. What they all share is the ability to reduce in size massively to make stowage easier. Most folding dinghies row well and certainly better than any inflatable.

Some folding dinghies are very tough but if they are tough it means that they are heavy. The lighter versions use a fabric that is similar to an inflatable and can be damaged through misuse but like the inflatable they can be quickly and easily repaired if holed.

Folding dinghies do not have built in buoyancy although they may float depending on the material they are made of. However it is easy enough to add buoyancy bags although this does make assembling them take a bit longer.

They are available to buy off the shelf, in kit form or even for home build from plans.

 

Looking at some available dinghies

 

Inflatable dinghies

Inflatables are available to buy anywhere in the world and the choice of boat is enormous. Generally they are all similar in shape, colour and ability but with differences in quality and details. Some of them are very high tech

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This is a typical inflatable boat. This one has slatted floors which offer some rigidity to the floor but not too much weight. It also allows the boat to be easily rolled up. Often inflatables have the oars always attached but more often than not the oars are not of a good quality. One of the reasons why an inflatable rows so badly is because the oars are too short.

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This is an inflatable boat with an inflatable floor. It makes for a much stiffer boat and it’s possible to keep your feet dry. The bulkiness of the floor (even deflated) makes the boat more bulky and heavy when rolled. If you add one feature, you lose another. This is true for all boats.

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Here is the classic Avon Redcrest. It’s been around for decades and has a dedicated following. What makes it different from most inflatables is that it has a rounded shape at the stern. The problem with this is that although you can add an outboard the force of the engine makes the tubes move and the motor can flop about. That is why most inflatables have pointed ends so that a solid wooden transom can be fitted.

Hard dinghies

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The clever Walker Bay range of hard dinghies. Made from super tough moulded plastic and easily converted to a sailing dinghy. The only real problem with hard dinghies is where to stow them. Even an 8 foot hard dinghy will be too hard to stow and lift aboard most cruising yachts.

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The Elterwater Pram dinghy. These can be built from plans or you can buy a kit of ready made pieces to glue together. Available from Fyne boat Kits.

There are a huge amount of hard dinghies available on the market in all shapes and sizes made from any number of materials. Most will row well and some can be sailed. If you have space and don’t mind the weight then a hard dinghy may be for you.

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For those who insist on a hard dinghy there is the Woodenwidget Deckster with its removable front section that allows it to be stowed around a mast. Even though the Deckster can be nicely stowed it still shares all the other issues that hard dinghies have such as being heavy and reducing forward visibility. It does however row, sail and motor and can even use the revolutionary Hobie Mirage drive.

Nesting dinghies

 

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This is a true hard dinghy but it comes in two pieces. One side nests inside the other. nesting dinghies share all of the issues with hard dinghies but often have additional issues. Sometimes the hull shape is compromised to allow one side to nest inside the other. The join adds complexity and weight. Nesting boats cannot always be assembled in the water. This one comes from Nestaway who have an impressive range of nesting boats. The weight of this boat is about 50 kilos which doesn’t sound much until you try and move it about.

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The Woodenwidget Stasha. The lightest nesting dinghy in the world. At just ten kilos it’s child’s play to move around. Made from an ash framework then covered with heat shrink Dacron it rows, motors and even sails extremely well.

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The Woodenwidget Stasha nested. The Stasha is unusual for two reasons, one; it can be assembled in moments either ashore or afloat and it’s the rear section which nests inside from front section. This makes for a much less compromised hull shape and a more balanced rowing position.

 

Folding dinghies

 

There is a huge range of folding dinghies. Some, like the Seahopper are more like hard dinghies that fold. Others like the Woodenwidget Fliptail are super lightweight for ease of use.

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The beautifully made Seahopper folding boat. This is like a hard dinghy that can fold though it must be said it is fairly longwinded and complicated to assemble and there are many pieces involved as you can see from the pic below.

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A great folding boat though a bit complicated but if you want a folding boat that behaves like a hard dinghy then this would be ideal.

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Here’s the Flapdoodle folding dinghy which can be built from plans.

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This is the Porta-Bote a polypropylene folding boat. It looks a bit strange but has sold in the thousands over many years. Super tough and light but it still has extra pieces that need to be put in place. Not the cheapest folding boat available but it is quality.

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Here is the classic Woodenwidget Origami folding dinghy. They don’t come much more simple than this. Available in two sizes (6’ & 8’) they are available in plan form only but the boat is so simple to make and the plans so comprehensive that almost anyone can build themselves one. They might look a bit box like but they are surprisingly stable and work very well indeed.

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Here is the Origami 6 when folded. At just 15 kilos it’s one of the lightest folding boats you can find. It has built in carry handles so is very easy to carry.

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Here is the Woodenwidget Fliptail 6 and 7 foot versions. Like all Woodenwidget designs they row, motor and sail. Pretty, light, stable, tough, easy to assemble with no extra parts to forget (all pieces needed to erect the dinghy are always attached to the boat) the Fliptail has to be one of the most versatile folding boats in the world. Available to build from plans.

So there you are. I hope a fairly comprehensive explanation about the compromises one has to make when choosing a dinghy and a basic oversight into what is available on the market. I hope it has been of help to you

Categories
boats

Modifying the Pacific Seacraft Dana’s bowsprit platform

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Doolittle’s modified bowsprit platform with Delta anchor (22lbs) in place.

There’s no doubt about it, the Dana is a fabulous boat and Pacific Seacraft built them well. However, one must not forget that the Dana is a production boat and as such she has her fair share of compromises. One of these compromises is the bowsprit platform.

As a platform and a housing for the anchors and the pulpit it works well but it could have been done differently. Of course, I understand why PSC did it that way. They did it like this because it is easy to make and fit.

So what’s wrong with it? I suppose the biggest problem is that it is placed on top of the bowsprit and bolted through. This does mean that it is strong but it covers most of the bowsprit and that means that it makes it very difficult to varnish and maintain the bowsprit. Since there have been some reports of rotting bowsprits it makes sense to find a way to have the same features while offering better accessibility to the bowsprit for maintenance.

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Much slimmer platform when bolted to the sides of the bowsprit and not bolted to the top. Less weight and windage.

It’s my belief that the majority of rotten bowsprits stem from the fact that they are extremely difficult to see and maintain. If something is hard to look after it tends to get neglected.

The main reason I modified my platform was because I am not a fan of the CQR anchor and wished to use a Delta instead. The problem is that a Delta won’t stow properly on a standard platform as the flukes of the anchor strike the underside of the bowsprit. In order to make the Delta fit correctly it is necessary to not only lower the platform but also to modify the anchor roller.

You might think that this is a lot of work just to allow the fitting of a certain anchor but we spend a lot of time at anchor so the need for the right ground tackle would have been justification enough but in fact there are a whole host of advantages to going down this road.

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The much slimmer new platform, now bolted to the sides of the bowsprit and not to the top as before.

The platform is basically taken off the top, a centre section (the width of the bowsprit) is cut out of it and then it is bolted to the sides of the bowsprit. This reduces weight right at the bows of the boat and that is always a good thing. After all, the bowsprit and platform is a massive and very heavy assembly so any weight that can be removed from it pays dividends in performance.

Also by placing the platform on the sides, it reduces windage as the bulk of the platform is massively reduced. There is an aesthetic component too which is that the teak capping where it meets the bowsprit is now visible where as before this nice nautical feature was completely hidden by the platform. The aft end of the platform also needs to be cut away to match the shape of the hull and the capping. See below.

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The back end of the platform will need to be cut at an angle to allow it to go in the right place. Three bolts hold the platform to the bowsprit. There are no bolts at the back end. It does mean that there is a little flexibility in the platform but it is held strongly enough with the other bolts so it’s not a problem. I also replaced the two thinner infill pieces with one wider piece of teak as they would not go back on well without looking too fussy.

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The underside aft of the platform showing the wood cut at an angle. There is no need to attach the platform to the hull at this point but you could use sikaflex if you wanted a bit of extra stiffness.

Does lowering the platform and the pulpit affect anything else? No, in fact it helps. I always felt that the life lines went up too far at the bows but by lowering them they look much better and follow the sheer of the boat much better.

Aesthetically, the whole bow of the boat looks better and less bulky. Even lowered the lifelines are still higher than at any other part of the deck and to my mind the whole thing just looks right.

The best part is that the top of the bowsprit is now visible and much easier to get to and maintain and varnish. It just looks so much better.

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The bowsprit is now fully visible and much easier to get to for varnishing. Plus it looks much better all round. The Metal plate with the holes cut in it for lightness is to protect the varnish and bowsprit from damage caused by deploying and retrieving the anchor.

There are a few other small advantages as well that may apply. For example the lower platform allows the jib furler to be attached without using an extra toggle. I can’t be sure about this and it may only apply to the Harken furlers that I fitted but I suspect that with the platform in the original position the furler drum would foul against it. With the platform lower, this is not an issue.

The staysail chainplate originally bolts to the top of the platform but with the platform bolted to the sides of the bowsprit it must be bolted directly onto the top of the bowsprit instead. This has the effect of making the inner forestay longer. Since the Harken furlers (which I have fitted to both stays) require that the stay be cut down by a couple of inches, it meant I did not have to cut it down! If you already have furlers fitted or do not wish to fit them you will have to either get the inner forestay made longer or add a toggle to extend it slightly.

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Staysail chainplate now bolts directly to the top of the bowsprit. Before it was bolted to the top of the platform. Its position is unchanged, just lower and uses the same holes. Note also the way the capping is now visible right up to the bowsprit. Before this nice feature was hidden.

Removing the platform is straight forward although you will find that PSC never skimped on sealant thus getting some of the bolts out can be hard work. The easiest way is to use washers and nuts to gradually wind the bolts out. It takes a while but is the easiest way and does no harm to the woodwork.

In order to get the platform off one needs to remove the lifelines that attach to the pulpit and unbolt it. The electric cable for the nav lights will need to be disconnected. You may have to cut the cable inside the boat and reconnect it later.

The bowsprit will have holes in it which will need plugging since the new mounting holes will be through the side. This is not a big deal.

The first thing to do having removed the platform is to cut out the centre section to the thickness of the bowsprit and cut the aft end to the shape of the bows. There is no need to remove the pulpit but it might be easier if you do. In any case the pulpit does not need to change its position on the platform.

Once this is done the platform can be temporarily clamped in place on the sides of the bowsprit. The height is determined by ensuring that the top of the platform is flush with the top surface of the bowsprit. The platform will be bolted through by three long bolts (studding) with dome nuts and washers through the athwartship sections. (see pics). Check that the original life lines are still the same length. There is no need to modify the lifeline length. You may find that the whisker stays interfere with the underside of the platform at the forward end of the sprit. Cut small grooves if necessary to clear them.

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Placing the platform on the sides of the bowsprit means that small grooves may need to be cut for the whisker stays.

Place the holes centrally in each athwartship section. First drill a 1” hole about 3/4” deep for the dome nuts. Then drill right through to the bowsprit. This is the tricky bit. I suggest drilling into the bowsprit an inch or so (or as far as you can with your drill bit) on both sides. Then remove the platform and making sure that the drill is perpendicular to the bowsprit carry on drilling about half way through the bowsprit. Do this from each side so that the holes meet in the middle. If you lack confidence you could set up a drilling jig to ensure that the drill bit cuts straight without wandering. It’s not too crucial if the hole ends up a bit enlarged as you try to find the hole on the other side as the sides of the bowsprit will be covered by the platform.

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The bolts that clamp the platform to the bowsprit have recessed dome nuts. This isn’t absolutely necessary of course, they could be left proud.

Once this is done I highly recommend varnishing the holes you have drilled. The easiest way is to drag a varnished soaked rag through the holes. Repeat until the holes are well saturated. The varnish will seal the holes and help to stop water getting in. Not sealing the holes is surely the main reason that Dana bowsprits rot in the first place but as I mentioned before the Dana is a production boat and if PSC took the time to everything to such a level they would be so expensive no one would ever buy one!

Now the bowsprit can be bolted on using new threaded studding cut to the appropriate length and tightened up. Now that the platform is bolted on you can reconnect the lifelines.

The deck gland for the nav lights should be moved from the top of the capping. I placed it un the side of the hull and plugged to holes where it was fitted.

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The deck gland is now placed on the hull and not on the top of the capping. This should be better as water cannot ‘stand’ on the gland as it could before reducing the chances of the gland leaking.

That is the basic procedure for the modifying of the platform itself. If you are using a CQR you may not need to do any more. If you wish to fit a Delta then unless you want the shaft of the anchor poking up through the hole at an angle you will have to lower the starboard bow roller. I left the port roller at the original height as I often use that for mooring lines in the Med.

For this you will need to modify the original brackets as shown in the pictures. The edges of the new brackets need to be well rounded or the anchor warp or chain will snag as the boat tacks at anchor making it very hard to pull in unless the chain is dead ahead.

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This is the stb bracket which had to be completely remade. The only part which remains is the axel for the anchor roller. It has been lowered considerably to allow the shank of the Delta to rest under the bowsprit without touching and to allow the shank of the anchor to lay almost flat on top. Note the bar welded onto the front edge of the bracket. This is needed so that the chain or rode can be brought back on board when raising anchor without it snagging.

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Here is a close up of the stb bracket. The axel is below the level of the bowsprit and so that needs supporting as the possible forces here are quite large. See the picture below for details.

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This picture shows the inboard side of the Stb bow roller. The axel is ‘locked’ in place by having a groove cut in it and a ‘C’ shaped piece of stainless which fits into the groove held in place by a couple of threaded bolts. This stops any lateral movement.

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The port side anchor roller. This is left at the original height using the original bracket. The end of the axel simply goes into a hole drilled into the bowsprit and that has proved more than strong enough as it goes in a good inch or so. Washers were placed either side of the roller to ensure that it never grips the woodwork, nor damages the varnish.

And that is about it really. Below are a few more images that may help with positioning etc.

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On Doolittle, the platform starts 2 and 1/8” behind the back edge of the bronze end fitting. It may be that each Dana is slightly different so use this measurement with caution.

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This picture shows the position of the athwartship pieces of the platform in relation to the top of the bowsprit. I made it 7/8” on Doolittle. It may be different on other Danas.

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One of the best advantages to this modification is that it is now possible to make a cover to protect the bowsprit from the sun. Admittedly it is somewhat elaborate but with poppers doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to fit.

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The bowsprit cover in place protecting the varnish. Being made of Sunbrella it is able to breathe and being of a light colour it keeps the heat off the bowsprit too reducing the amount it can move.

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Another shot of the new platform showing how the Delta lies almost flat on top.

Categories
boats

Fogbows in Portugal

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A classic fogbow in the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal

There we were motoring along through thick fog just off the coast of Portugal keeping our eyes and ears open for other craft when all of a sudden we saw a beautiful Fogbow. I couldn’t think of what else to call it. When we got into port I looked it up and it is actually called a Fogbow and it seems they are quite common.

Most of the pictures of other Fogbows I saw were on land. There were not that many images of Fogbows at sea but then I guess most people don’t get the opportunity to see them. Motoring along a coast in thick fog is a nerve wracking experience that I wouldn’t recommend but seeing such a beautiful Fogbow was a real treat.

This was the first Fogbow I had ever seen but then just a few weeks I woke to yet another, this time in the anchorage.

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Early one morning. Yet another Fogbow, this time in the anchorage.

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The Fogbow we saw in the anchorage, you can just see the land in the background.

Categories
boats

Between Two Seas (Traversing the Canal du Midi by yacht)

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A typical Canal du Midi view. All photos on this post: Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

The Canal du Midi is more than just a convenient way to get from the Med to the Atlantic by boat, it is also extremely beautiful and despite its age, most efficient. The max speed in the canal is just 8 kmh and with about 20 minutes per lock the average speed works out at about 4 kmh which is no more than a pleasant walking pace. You might think that you’ll never manage to do the 400 kms of its total length at that speed but even taking it relatively easy it can easily be done in two weeks.

If you love nature, peace and quiet, culture and history you will love the Canal du Midi. It was built 350 years ago and you will be amazed at the way it works. It really is a very impressive piece of engineering indeed and not a day went by when I did not reflect on the imagination and the foresight of the people who had the courage to make it happen all those years ago.

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Most of the locks on the Canal du Midi are oval like this one. It works on the same principal of an arch. The idea being that it stops the lock walls collapsing when there is no water in them to support them.

The Canal du Midi was originally designed with commerce in mind and it was used to transport such commodities as wine, grain and fuels  using barges pulled by horses. These barges, or Peniche as they are called in French were originally made of wood but more lately in steel. There are very few wooden ones left and almost all of the peniche on the Canal du Midi have been converted to house boats or tripper boats. Today the Canal du Midi is no longer used for transporting goods.

The way the French solved the many issues of just how to take a waterway through the whole country is fascinating. At the summit, some 650 feet above sea level are three lakes which feed the canal with the water that it needs and even today the canal is rarely short of water thanks to this. Along almost the entire length of the Canal du Midi were planted trees. These trees serve many purposes. The leaves provide shade from the southern French sun so that the horses did not over heat and reduce evaporation from the strong Midi summer sun but more than that, their roots hold the banks together and the leaves that fall line the canal bed and help to waterproof it.

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Every now and then we’d come across a line of dead trees like these.

Most of the trees today are plane trees which were planted about 150 years ago to replace the original trees which were mostly fruit trees. Today the trees are under threat from a fungus which is killing them off at a disturbing rate. I asked many of the lock keepers (eclusiers) about it and received a different answer each time. Some said that the fungus came over during the war in the wooden cases that the Americans used to hold ammo but however it got here the results of the fungus are clear to see in the many dead trees along the way. Quite how the fungus is passed from one tree to another is not clear either.

Some eclusiers said that the fungus is in the water, others said that it was caused by people tying up to the trees and then spreading the disease when they subsequently tied to another tree further down the way. However this doesn’t  seem very likely as many of the trees that are affected are on corners and in other places where it is very unlikely that anyone has ever tied to them. More likely is that the fungus is carried in the water. This is born out by the fact that after the summit at Toulouse headed towards the Atlantic most of the trees are fine as the fungus cannot climb beyond the summit as the flow of water is always downwards. Some said that it was the spikes that people use to tie their boats to the banks and in many of the locks in affected areas there were pots of disinfectant that you are supposed to wash your spikes in before using them somewhere else.

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In the round lock at Agde.

There were occasional signs at the effected areas instructing canal users not to tie up but since no one really knows what to do about it, all the measures are somewhat half hearted. It seems that the only remedy is to replace the trees with a more resistant species. The problem with this is that the old tree needs to be removed which in itself is no mean feat as many of these trees are a century and a half old and are a good 100 feet high! And the entire tree, roots and all needs to be removed before a new tree can be planted. One lock keeper said that it costs about 1000€ to replace one tree and if this is true the cost of doing so along the entire 400 km length of the Canal du Midi equates to one massive and hugely expensive project. I estimated that there are about 400 trees per one km so as you can see this could be a serious problem.

One wonders how the government will be able to justify such a huge expense when the canal is no longer used by commercial traffic. We paid just 66€ for a months stay in the canal which is nothing at all. It’s not the dues from the pleasure boats that will raise the money to replace the trees.

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Just one of the many narrow and low bridges on the Canal du Midi. Maximum air draft is 3 metres.

In an effort to reduce the cost of running the Canal du Midi many of the locks have been automated whereas before, every lock had a resident eclusier. The VNF (Voies Navigables de France) who run the Canal du Midi and the other canals in France have also managed to delegate much of the maintenance of the canal banks to another department who have created a fabulous cycle lane that runs the entire length of the canal and I’m delighted to say that not one day went by when we did not see a number of cyclists using the pathways.

According to many sources the Canal du Midi attracts 10,000 boats and two million visitors annually. I don’t know where they get those figures from but I would be amazed if there were that many boats in or using the Canal du Midi. The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO site but will this be enough to save the canal? An estimated 210 million € is needed to replace the trees.

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Chugging across one of the many aquaducts on the canal This one carries the canal over a river.

Anyway, enough of the sad news. It is my hope and belief that the Canal du Midi is too important and too beautiful for it to ever fall into disrepair. One way or another the trees will be replaced and it will go on for another 350 years at least. Let’s talk about the nice things.

If you love birds you will love the Canal du Midi. Because you are chugging quietly along you do not disturb the birds who nest in the trees. A sharp eye, a good pair of binoculars and a bird book are all that needed. In the two weeks we were in the canal we saw over 10% of all the bird species in France. That’s over 50 species!

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The mad and slightly hectic 7 lock ‘staircase’ at Bezier. This section is the busiest of the entire canal. Note the two ‘bumper boats’ on the right.

There are a lot of birds of prey in the canals and we once saw a buzzard swoop down to the surface of the water and grab a fish. Another time we saw a parent feeding a chick in the nest, and another we saw a buzzard fly down to the water’s edge and take a drink. We saw herons (grey, night and purple) we even got to see a Roller fly into its nest hole in a tree. One morning we were woken by the wonderful call of a Golden Oriole.

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Leaving the tunnel at Malpas. This tunnel was dug entirely by trained badgers.

Asides from the stunning bird life there are also all sorts of other creatures such as dragon and damsel flies, fish in the canal, frogs, water snakes and butterflies.

If nature’s not your thing then there are no end of fabulous and historic sites to see since the canal runs through some spectacular towns along the way, each with its own regional speciality. We stopped in Carcassonne where we had a genuine cassoulet. Where ever possible we always like to sample the local fare.

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A strange metal sculpture with a head made from a camping gaz bottle for sale at one of the locks.

So you fancy having a go? What kind of boat is best? Well, you can do the trip in a yacht with the mast down but if you draw more than 4 feet or 1.2 metres you may have a few problems. They say that a boat drawing 150 cm can make the trip but we draw 120 cm and we had some moments that were touch and go. At the entrance to the Canal du Midi at the Etang de Thau we were skimming the bottom. We could feel the boat rise up and slow down. A load of throttle saw us get by but I don’t think a boat drawing more than us would have managed. There is no shortage of water in the canal, at least there was not this year (2012) as there had been a lot of rain. All the sections of the canal were as full as they could have been but despite that the waters were shallow. I guess that the canal needs regular dredging now that the peniche no longer pass through.

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The amazing fortified Cité of Carcassonne.

We did the trip in a yacht but if I was going to do this again I would prefer a motor boat with rubber fendering all over. The biggest problem we had was getting to the bank when we wanted to stop. There is depth in the centre of the canal but it shelves quickly at the sides and we just couldn’t get close enough to tie up. Fortunately there was usually a dedicated waiting pontoon outside every lock that was built out away from the bank a little and this is where we generally stayed.

When we first did the canals I fendered the boat up completely and had fender boards the lot. This last time we just used the boat’s normal fenders placed only on the port side which was adequate if we took care. What I would suggest is as many fenders as you can get and put a fat ball fender on each corner then you should have no problems. A fender board would be a good idea especially if it can double up as a boarding plank. That way you can moor close to the bank and still get ashore.

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Doolittle tied up for the night on a pontoon outside a lock. Navigation ceases at 19-00 so you are assured of a quiet night.

You’ll need spikes to drive into the ground if you plan to tie up along a bank. But make sure you clean them in the tubs provided at each lock to prevent spreading the fungus that is killing the trees. A pair of ropes twice the length of your boat will be more than adequate for the Canal du Midi. Use old lines as they do get quite scuffed and dirty when rubbing on the lock walls. Other than that you need no special equipment.

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A triple staircase lock. Unusually the eclusier left all the gates open so as the water entered it rushed down. Click on this image to see it bigger. It was a bit scary although there wasn’t as much turbulence as you might have imagined.

There are numerous Halte Nautiques along the way which cost about 5€ a night and often have water and electricity and other facilities such as showers and Internet (wifi). Fuel was hard to find and existed only in Toulouse as far as we could tell. Mind you economy was good with the engine barely above tickover for most of the time. We stocked up on most food before we left and only needed to top up the supplies from time to time. Most French towns and villages have a small shop or a market where you can get good stuff.

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Picking wild cherries from the many trees along the banks (June) These cherries were excellent. We picked over a kilo and a half in all.

In all there are over 100 locks to negotiate between Agde and Bordeaux. About half of them are going up and about half are going down. Each lock raises (or lowers) the canal by about ten feet, although some of the locks do slightly less. Like most things in life going down is easier than going up. It is certainly easier to descend in a lock than to ascend as there is no turbulence so it’s all very mellow. There are tricks to make going up easier though and one of those is to make sure you are at the back of the lock. Often if we were with other boats we would let them go first. ‘How kind’ they must be thinking. Those English are so polite. Ha! Little did they know.

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Lovely rainbow at dusk.

A yacht with a keel is far more susceptible to being thrown around when a lock is filling and often it depends on the lock keeper. Some seem to operate them with more understanding. Some just open all the valves all at the same time and that can make it interesting. Even the most violent locks were not really a problem. Here’s how it works.

As you approach a lock (when ascending), drop a crew member off on the bank. There is usually a pontoon a few hundred metres before all the locks.  The crew member then takes the lines which are throw from the boat. The lines are placed around a bollard and dropped back to the crew member/s on the boat. We usually used the same bollard for both ropes. In other French canals there was usually a ledge and a staircase just outside the lock where a crew member could be dropped off when entering the lock but there are no locks like this on the Canal du Midi. When going down you enter a full lock so you don’t need to drop anyone off.

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Very strange to be motoring through a city. This is Toulouse.

The lock keeper will close the doors behind you using their remote control. This is a recent introduction. Before the eclusier had to stand in the same place and press buttons. Now they are free to roam. Whether this is safer is debateable as often the eclusier would simply open the sluices and bugger off. They would return some minutes later to let you out. I asked about the remote control units and discovered that they are neither waterproof nor do they float! I thought this very strange considering the environment they are used in.

All the locks are the same and yet different. What I mean by that is, sometimes they have a ladder on the left side, then all of a sudden it will be on the right. Sometimes there are poles that you can tie up to inside the lock, sometimes not. The bollards may be in the same place in each lock or they may not. You can be sure that as soon as you have got used to them being a certain way they will change when you least expect it.

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A night time view of the canals. A four minute exposure. Note the movement of the stars and the calmness of the water.

Another new feature is the beeping of the doors when they open or close. This is probably a safety issue although if I lived in one of the old lock keeper’s houses which are often rented out by the VNF I would probably try and disable the annoying beep. I wonder why it’s always such an annoying sound. Why can’t they program it to play the sound of birds or cows? It seems so out of place in the tranquillity of the canals.

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Twist the rubber hose that dangles over the water to set up the next lock.

Many of the locks are now automated. They are operated by a rubber pipe that hangs down over the canal that you must twist as you pass. Then you will see the lights change at the lock. When the light is green you enter. Nothing happens until you press the green button inside the lock. Then the doors close and the lock fills or empties. Simple and effective. Not once did we have a problem with any of the locks.

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Another night time resting place.

Navigation in the summer is from 09-00 to 19-00 hrs. The manual locks are closed for an hour at 12-30 for lunch. The automated locks don’t stop for lunch however.

You have to pay to use the canals. We paid 66€ for a month. The tariff is calculated by the area of your boat. Considering that you can stop anywhere, this is the only cost apart from fuel so it represents extremely good value for money in my opinion. Less than 3€ a day seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable sum.

You’ll need to buy a vignette to prove that you have paid and thankfully this can now be done via the VNF website vnf.fr The site is in English but you’ll still need to use your brain a bit as the translation leaves something to be desired!

You also need to have a certificate of competence from the RYI which must include the ‘Inland Waterway’ category. These days you have to take a Cevni test. All details can be found on the RYI site. You can do a practice test before taking the actual one. It couldn’t be easier really although the costs soon mount up. What is interesting is that you do not need the Cevni test to get a vignette, nor will anyone ask for it along the way! In the five times over the last decade or so that we have ‘done’ the canals no one has ever asked to see my CoC. This time we did have a check up on our vignette which surprised the lock keeper as he told us he had never known anyone bother.

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Idyllic is the word. Beautiful.

The only problems you are likely to have is when grass cuttings get into the water strainer and stop the water cooling the engine. Before you set off make sure you practice cleaning out the strainer. We got so good at it that we could cut the engine, shut the seacock, clean the strainer, open the seacock and get the engine going again all before the boat ran out of momentum.

The very best advice I can offer above and beyond all the boring practical stuff is that you MUST make an effort to speak French. Your entire experience will be VERY different if you do try. The French have a reputation for being arrogant but I can assure you this has not been our experience. Everyone, without exception was friendly and helpful and I am convinced this is because we speak French. If you can’t speak French, don’t worry. No one expects you to learn another language in a week but at least learn a few basic words like; Bonjour and Merci and when asking for help try and do it in French. When I first began I learned how to say ‘I don’t speak French very well’. The French always greet each other before asking a question so make sure you say hello first. Carry a small dictionary or phrase book at all times and whip it out at every occasion. They will be so impressed with your willingness to learn their language that they will bend over backwards to help you.

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The lock keeper’s house at the last lock on the canal where it enters the River Garonne. Note the tide gauge on the front of the building. This door at the bottom is already 5 metres above the normal level of the river. The highest it has been reaches the top of the stairs!!!! That’s 13 metres above normal levels. It is simply impossible to comprehend that amount of water.

I can’t stress this enough. Your whole experience in the canals will largely depend on you making an effort to speak French. It’s to your benefit.

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Passing through the ‘bridge of death’ as I call it. We were spat through at over ten knots such is the current!

You don’t have to have your own boat as you can hire a ‘penichette’ from any number of boat hire companies in all the canals. The canals are a very mellow place to be. Sometimes you need some patience and it does not pay to be in a hurry. You need to chill out and take what comes. If the lock keeper tells you that the lock is broken and they don’t know when it will be fixed. Simply tie up your boat and read a book, go for a walk or a cycle ride.

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Plenty of water this year. A typical view of the lock doors from the boat.

When you consider just how crowded the world is these days and how fast and hectic, it may come as a surprise that the canals can be so quiet and little used. No matter what your age I would heartily recommend a canal trip as a holiday.

Here are some helpful links to get you started.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canal_du_Midi

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/770/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/13/canal-du-midi-under-threat

Categories
boats

Variprop 4 blade prop review

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Variprop 4 blade feathering prop in feathered position.

Finally got to fit the new prop that had been sitting around so long I was considering nailing to a bulkhead for all to admire. After all, this prop is a beautiful thing. German engineering. What more do you need to say? Of course it is expensive, anything made with quality materials and machined to a high standard is always going to cost more. It is a shame though that now it’s fitted no one can see its beauty.

This cannot be a full review as the prop has only just been fitted and only used for a relatively short time but I have used it enough to be able to report on its character and operation  when fitted to a Dana 24.

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Beautiful engraving on the prop body. Leica M9 and Visoflex

The first prop was the original 15” 2 blade prop as fitted by PSC. It worked ok going forwards but couldn’t stop the boat at all and that’s no good in a crowded marine with a wayward 4 ton boat! Next up was the kiwiprop which all said and done was a disappointment. You can read more about what I thought of that here.

Unhappy with the Kiwiprop it seemed that the only way forward was to stump up for a 4 blader prop. The idea being, with more area, pitch can be reduced to stop cavitation and the dia. reduced to keep the blade tips further from the hull. In theory it should also be smoother and more powerful than a three blader.

Fitting the new prop was easy as it comes completely preassembled and greased up ready to fit. The pitch (which is adjustable) was pre set by the factory. The nut is tightened and a couple of locking screws hold it there. Then the anode is fitted. job done.

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The pitch adjustment situated at the boat end of the prop. Pitch can be adjusted as little or as much as you want and as all blades are linked, they remain always in perfect alignment.

The first thing I noticed when we motored away from the quay was a hefty bias to the helm. If I let go the tiller, the boat turns to the right fairly dramatically. This is no problem as Dave the autopilot can deal with that but I am surprised how strong the pull is.

This prop is so much smoother than the Kiwiprop. probably because there are more blades but also because each blade is electronically balanced at the factory. You can feel the difference. Vibration has been seriously reduced and the annoying way the tiller used to ‘wobble’ when motoring has disappeared.

Although the pitch was supposed to set at the factory so that the engine will produce max revs at hull speed, the best revs I can do are 2900 leaving 700 rpm I can’t use. However this is how I prefer to set the pitch anyway as it means much lower revs at cruising speeds. At 2000 rpm Doolittle now does 5.3 knots and at 2200 it does 5.6 which is very good.

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Beautifully machined. Almost too good to fit!

It’s early days yet but for some reason the new prop seems to make the engine more economical. I will confirm this after a few fill ups.

Sea trials revealed a strange noise at high revs. It sounds like a twin engined prop plane taking off. Quite odd. However even flat out the engine now sounds like it is running well and smooth even if it is revving high. Before I never liked to run the engine at high revs with the Kiwi as it felt unpleasant with the vibrations and roughness.

Naturally I tried a crash stop from top speed and here the Variprop got confused. I am sure the blades rotated into reverse position but for some reason they have no bite for a moment or two and seem to thrash the water with much noise and vibration but little effect. Once the blades bite however the boat stops well, though not as well as the Kiwiprop, who’s stopping power is awesome as the pitch is set so course in the astern position.

Of course I can try adjusting the pitch in astern but I think I will live with it for now and see how i get on. Sometimes the excessive pitch on the Kiwi overloaded the engine so at least if the pitch is finer now the engine can always produce the power needed without effort.

I have only had the occasion to manoeuvre the boat in a marina once so far but I had no trouble getting in and the prop did exactly what I needed it to. The neighbour even commented saying ‘that was very neatly done’. Well, I do have a lot of practice moving boats but having a prop that does what you expect it to do is very helpful.

Prop walk has been almost eliminated which may interest many people. Personally I like a bit of prop walk, I find I can spin the boat in tighter confines. Maybe if I adjust the pitch in reverse I can get the prop walk back. I’ll keep you posted on that later.

Sailing seems the same as the Kiwi. Drag is practically non existent as far as I can tell. Although it has 4 blades to the Kiwi’s three, they are very fine whereas the Kiwi’s blades are quite fat. When sailing, you need to stop the shaft spinning in order to get the blades to feather. With my engine, I just put the gearbox in astern with the engine off. Once the prop stops spinning, the blades feather easily.

There is still some noise between 1600 and 2000 rpm but as other Dana owners have reported cavitation noise at similar revs it must be due to the shape of the hull and the prop aperture rather than the prop itself. I may be able to reduce this some by setting a finer pitch. However it is still much quieter than the Kiwprop installation was on my boat.

When engaging forward gear there is a clattering noise that can be heard, give the engine just a few revs though and it passes quickly. It does not do this in astern. I wrote to Variprop to ask about this. They tell me that it is quite normal. What I am hearing are the plates of the built in shock absorber which is always compressed in astern. Fair enough. So long as I know what it is.

Going from forwards to astern or back again is very smooth and quiet, obviously the shock absorber is doing its job.

Conclusion

Not a cheap product but I believe you get what you pay for and the Variprop is no exception. It is beautifully designed and made. With its large blade bases it should last for many years.

It is easy to adjust the pitch forwards or aft. It is quiet and smooth in operation. It works very well in both directions and has very little drag when sailing.

Maintenance is a simple greasing job annually and a change of anode. the anodes cost about 35€ each which is expensive compared to other props.

The only down side is that clatter when you engage forwards but as this is not a fault of the prop and it soon passes, it’s not really an issue.

A lovely bit of kit.

Categories
boats

The Stasha ST (see-through) The lightest see-through nesting sailing dinghy in the world.

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Quite odd, a see-through dinghy but rather funky too. Leica M9 Elmar 50 2.8

It always seemed like a great idea, to cover a dinghy with see-through material rather than boring PVC so I finally got around to it. The dacron skin on the Stasha needed replacing so I thought a little experiment was in order.

There are no screws or staples holding the material down. It is all done with VHB tape. This is a double sided acrylic foam tape which has phenomenal sticking abilities. The advantages of using VHB is that it is so clean and so neat compared to trying to do the same thing with a sealant. The time saved is enormous.

The down side of VHB is the shocking cost of the stuff. 3M make the best but it can cost 80€ a roll (33m) or more! There are cheaper brands which are fine for this application, even they stick tenaciously to the window material. It comes in many colours including clear.

The window material adds about a kilo to the weight of the dinghy which is not much but it is noticeably heavier than when it had the dacron skin.

Now all I have to do is test it for a few months to see whether or not it is durable and safe.

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Quite hard to photograph and show the invisible covering. Here the Stasha ST (see-through) floats. Leica M9, Elmar 50 2.8

It certainly is a lot of fun using a transparent dinghy and the looks you get are most amusing. It must be said that there are not that many lightweight wooden see-through nesting dinghies out there.

Benjy27s

And like all Woodenwidget dinghies, the Stasha also sails and sails very well. Here’s a short video

 

For more info about the Stasha, click here

Categories
boats

Dark Corner

Recently while working on a large sailing yacht, time was getting short, the owner was due and there was still much to be done. As nice as it is to always do the very best possible job sometimes it’s not always possible. Finances or time constraints often heavily influence most jobs.

The job itself was to reinforce the boat in the deck area by the mast. In order to do this most of the interior of the boat had to removed and later modified to take into account the new beams. Most jobs on a boat always seem to take longer than one thought and this job was no exception.

There was so much to do and decisions had to be made as to just how far we should go along the road to perfection. Often I would come across an issue and then explain to the skipper what the problem was and the various options open to him. From this was born one of my favourite expressions.

It was the skipper who coined the expression ‘a dark corner’ and it refers to an area of the boat that is unlikely to receive close attention as it is poorly lit. Often in boats there are areas that are either rarely seen because of their location or because there is not much light. So these are referred to as ‘Dark Corners’.

‘Do you want me to remake this piece or shall I just do my best with what we’ve got?’

‘No, don’t worry, it’s a dark corner.

Here’s a time lapse video I made of the interior going back in. It was taken with a GoPro taking one picture every 60 seconds. It was taken over the period of about three weeks.