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Reflections of a Live Aboard

By David Skelhon

I have just spent over a year living aboard Rainbird and 20 years ago lived aboard a boat in the UK where I was born and raised. The boats are radically different and these two experiences have little in common, except perhaps, both were aboard wooden boats and both required the simplicity that living with less entails. The world has changed immensely in that time, and undoubtedly I have too, but it is fun to look back and compare the two experiences and see what can be learned.

My first “big” boat, a James Wharram, Tiki 26 catamaran, is not the sort of vessel that comes to mind as a “live aboard.” The Tiki 26 is an very sea worthy, moderately fast, open-deck trailer-sailor with many ocean crossings to its credit. In fact, Rory McDougall’s Tiki 21, Cooking Fat, (essentially a small 26) circumnavigated in the ‘90s and is the smallest catamaran to ever to do so. The 21, seems tiny in comparison with the 26 and I can’t help but admire McDougall’s push-the-limits minimalist approach. But even with the relatively spacious hulls of the Tiki 26, supplemented in my case with a heavy duty PVC deck-tent, living aboard Suilven II was more akin to camping than what the average West Coast sailor would consider as “civilized” comfort. Thankfully an old 13 foot travel trailer (“caravan” in Brit speak) parked in a nearby boat yard served as an office and galley whilst living aboard. Oh yes, I should add that I was younger and fitter back then!

The Tiki 26 was built in the attic of an old barn, in the middle of rural Oxfordshire, which is just about as far from the ocean you can get in the UK. It was the mid ‘80s and with the help of my partner at that time, we decided that the epoxy/glass/plywood Tiki – a relatively new and innovative design, with its distinctive soft wing-sail – would give us the “best bang for our buck.” Actually, we had never considered living aboard such a small boat except for short trips or expeditions, but economics soon dictated otherwise!

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A GRP Tiki 26 (right) and Suilven II, our epoxy/glass/ply Tiki 26, sailing in the Tamar Estuary near Plymouth, UK, in the late ’80s.

Once finished, we moved the boat and ourselves to the rural backwater of Foss Quay, Millbrook, in south east Cornwall which put us among multihull designers, builders and sailors. I found work building and repairing plywood multihulls and writing technical articles for sailing magazines such as Practical Boat Owner. With no expensive rent or mortgage to pay we had the time and funds to go sailing – culminating in a 3 month trip around the west coast of Britain, which had been the inspiration for building the Tiki 26 in the first place.

Without doubt, this was probably the most formative and exciting period of my life. I had left a science and engineering career and sold my house to follow a dream. In Cornwall I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of James Wharram, Richard and Lillian Woods, Pat Patterson and Darren Newton – all well known icons of multihull design and accomplished sailors. I also met some extraordinary young sailors (including Rory McDougall) who embarked on some remarkable voyages.

At this time I also had the privilege of editing Sea People/Sailorman the journal of the Polynesian Catamaran Association, and this, I must say, was one of the most enjoyable jobs I have ever undertaken. I received some incredibly exciting and inspiring stories from around the world which would turn up in dog-eared, salt stained envelopes with exotic looking postage stamps. These would almost certainly be hand written, full of jaw dropping tales of coral atolls, typhoons and ocean crossings in amateur built, plywood Wharram catamarans. This 30 page bi-annual magazine was put together using one of the first laptop computers (space was at a real premium!) running desk-top publishing software – we are talking late ‘80s here! Seventy-five back editions are currently available on line.

The Wharram community was truly amazing, and we spent many vacations cruising in company with other catamarans. The 26 drew less than 2 feet fully loaded and was just as happy sitting on a beach or at anchor. The deck space, stability and sense of security were fantastic and the elegant simplicity of the design made it a supremely practical sailing vessel. After all, Wharrams have their roots in boats that colonized the vast expanse of the Pacific.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable aspect of the seven years I spent in Cornwall was the amazing souls I met, the sincere friendships that were formed, and the strong sense of community. We were all operating on shoe-strings but help was always close at hand. If you needed help launching a boat or stepping a mast you would put the word out, stick the kettle on and folks would turn up. This was how we got things done – though big jobs like turning over a hull might just cost you a case of beer!

This ethos was always present when cruising. During my 3 month western Britain voyage, people were always willing to help in whatever way they could. Harbour masters always seemed interested in my exploits and often waived fees. Local sailors came for rides and were wonderfully generous, feeding me in their homes and taking me on local sight-seeing trips.

At the time, I lived and breathed sailing and could not imagine myself doing anything else; multihulls were my world and I could not imagine myself in a monohull.

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I moved to British Columbia in 1996. After a frustrating few years up-to-my-arm-pits in glass-fibre dust, building “mega” yachts, I changed course completely and became a commercial pilot, flying instructor, aerial photographer, aircraft builder and test pilot and bush pilot. This was exciting and challenging but financially insecure and by the time the recession started to bite, making a living was becoming as precarious as it was dangerous. A change was needed.

I had never lost the urge to go back to sea and at one point in the late ‘90s I did put down a deposit on a part-finished, 37’ steel monohull. The hull and deck were built and the engine installed. At $4,000 it was a steal but this boat was built to break ice and just about as heavy as they come. When I looked at the spars and equipment needed to complete it I realized I would need my own boatyard and crane to do it. I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger and I realized that without a strong, capable crew, I wouldn’t be going far in this boat even if my back held out long enough to complete the fit-out.

Fast forward another 10 years. I just happened to be looking at boats on Kijiji when I came across a Bill Garden 33’ pilot house sloop, cold-molded cedar and built 35 years ago as a live aboard. “Take a look at this – looks like a good deal,” I said to my wife rather innocently.

Rainbird on the ways at the Cowichan Wooden Boat Society for her annual haul out.

A few weeks went by and I started noticing sailing magazines laying around in the kitchen and living room and a sudden interest in sailing coming from my wife. This spurred me on and I started looking at designs with building in mind and one day I announced to her that I was going to send for some study plans for a 30’ cutter I had taken a liking to.

She suddenly looked relieved and terrified at the same time and blurted out that I shouldn’t do that as we already had a boat…

“What do you mean – we already have a boat?”

“Do you remember that cute Bill Garden you found on-line a few weeks ago?”

I had to think hard, but it started to come back. You could have knocked me over with a feather!

When the story finally tumbled out, she had sent the details to one of my Foss Quay friends who had finally thrown down the hook in New Zealand and asked for his opinion, which turned out to be very encouraging. She was going to keep the surprise until Christmas! What a woman!

Of course, my wife, being far more sensible and realistic than me, knew that I found it difficult to find the time to fix a leaking kitchen tap let alone find the time to build a 30’ boat. Besides, the cost of materials and equipment to build a similar boat would be more than she paid for Rainbird.

As far as I can determine, Rainbird’s lines were replicated in the Truant 33 and the Saturna 33, two popular and capable West Coast boats. Rainbird is exactly the live aboard Suilven II wasn’t – she has interior space and it is well laid out and very functional and comfortable. With her tall rig she also sails well and with a 30 HP Perkins diesel she has the power to make headway when the going gets tough.

In fact, Rainbird has proven to be a great choice for West Coast – much better than even a large Wharram would have been for these waters. One hull is easier to heat and keep dry than two. Finding live aboard moorage at a reasonable rate would be darn nearly impossible for a large catamaran in these crowded waters – it was tough enough finding moorage for Rainbird.

Living aboard, even in mid winter, is cozy thanks to a Dickinson Pacific stove (also a delight to cook with when you get the hang of it) and shore-side 110V power. I was working for the Cowichan Wooden Boat Society last winter and my commute was a one minute stroll down the dock. Doesn’t get better than that! No oozing, black, Foss Quay mud to wade through at low tide and in Cowichan Bay I could head down the street for coffee and fresh croissants. All very civilized but the flip side was that with the community lights I never got to see the stars and other than the occasional motion from a south easterly gale I hardly knew I was afloat!

With narrow channels, strong tides and fickle winds, reliable power – and preferably lots of it – is important in these waters. Wharrams generally rely on outboards which don’t always work well in a chop and windage and maneuverability can be challenging in blustery conditions. Some of the bigger Wharrams use twin outboards for this reason.

For live aboard comfort and cruising in the Pacific North West, a monohull like Rainbird is probably going to more comfortable than a Wharram. However, for extended, economical, blue water cruising in warmer climates I would definitely go for the Wharram. The deck space is liberating, and I enjoy being able to anchor in shallow water in busy anchorages, or even run up on a beach. Indeed, I suspect that there is a very good, underlying reason that multihulls evolved in the warm Pacific waters!

Of course, this is just my opinion, and as we know, we sailors can be quite opinionated when it comes to our boats! But an open mind and a sense of adventure are probably more important than the choice of boat when it comes to life afloat. Some people do amazing things with very little.

As for the sailing community, well, I haven’t quite found another “Foss Quay” yet. It is a fond memory but I occasionally have to remind myself we weren’t always happy campers – the sailing community has its infighting just like any other! But now as a member of the Cowichan Wooden Boat Society, I now have access to their workshop and ways and help is close at hand. For those of us sailing on a budget, the Society is a valuable resource. I am also a member of the Center For Wooden Boats in Port Townsend, as I believe it is important to keep the knowledge and skills of wooden boat building alive.

Piggy is a large “Classic” Wharram – a 45′ “Ariki”designed for ocean racing. She was photographed at the Ladysmith Maritime Society this summer. She was launched thirty-nine years ago and has made a circumnavigation. Her owner is currently getting her ready for a second.

Don’t expect secluded anchorages in Desolation Sound – this is Prideaux Haven in early August.

I had heard that Desolation Sound was “one” of the “Holy Grails” of the cruising world – a must see. Here the salt chuck is warm enough to languish in it for hours without a wetsuit. The summer days are long and balmy and rugged peaks thrust skywards amongst deep channels and cosy anchorages.

After a brief visit this summer I can attest that these facts are true. What is missing from this description of a cruising paradise is the fact that Desolation Sound can hardly be considered desolate when it comes to human visitation.

I’ll admit to being very naïve when I visualised sheltered, secluded anchorages. I hadn’t realised that it is probably one of the busiest yachting playgrounds in the world. The sheer numbers of boats, mainly US registered, and the numbers of very large boats (60′ plus), boggles the mind.

Well, it was August, and a long weekend, but I would guess that the majority of boaters here don’t have to organise their vacations around long weekends.

The sun scorched and the heat and humidity seemed tropical. Thankfully we found relief in the refreshing waters of Melanie Cove by swimming for half an hour while Rainbird was at anchor with a stern line ashore – the standard procedure in these waters to cram as many boats as possible into the tight space.

Power boats outnumbered sailboats by at least 5 to 1 and at one time I saw a raft of 4 substantial power boats being “driven” around the cove in what could have become an insurance assessors nightmare!

Boats came in various shapes and sizes too. A high performance 30 something foot power boat, all engine and very little cabin, anchored beside us. Without a dinghy the stern tie was achieved by backing up carefully to the steep shore and dropping off one of the kids with a rope. Later, dad hung over the stern barbequing supper – where they all slept I have no idea but it was an adventure they will no doubt remember for a long time.

Despite the crowds everyone seemed in good humour, although at times my patience was challenged. Like the time in Refuge Cove where we motored in lazy circles for 45 minutes waiting for dock space that never materialised. We needed some basic supplies and in the end gave up and headed across to Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island. More luck there although I had a last minute fight with a nimble power boat that tried to squeeze in ahead of me just as I was about to step ashore with my lines. Only a quick application of reverse saved the day.

“I have to find a mechanic to fix my boat,” was the excuse provided by the skipper. I very nearly suggested that he should also find himself a fibre-glass technician as he was obviously going to need one if his impatience continued. I pointed to a more than adequate space on the other side of the dock and he zoomed off to take it, leaving me space to take a second run at it.

We got all we needed from the Squirrel Cove Store and by the time our laundry was dry I decided to stay the night on the dock. Good choice, as early the following morning, “Song of Joy”, a very substantial sloop, adeptly squeezed into the space ahead of us. A rather weary skipper explained that it was blowing very hard in the cove during the night and a power boat dragged into them and their anchor rodes became entangled, requiring him to cut his chain to get free.

The power boat was still fouled up and I later saw the skipper flying across the bay in his 30hp centre-console tender to pick up a diver. I don’t know the final outcome but we did spend the following night in the inner cove despite the warning. My wife counted 100 boats before giving up and I saw one raft of 11 boats. That evening, I heard the tannoy of a very large boat, sufficiently loud to alert the whole cove, hail the skipper of a smaller boat in the process of anchoring; “We have 100′ of rode out and when we swing in the night you are the prime target!”

Desolation Sound has become a high-tech playground.

Twenty years ago when I cruised the west coast of Britain in an open-deck Wharram catamaran, I probably saw as many recreational boats in 3 months than I did in a day in Desolation Sound.

The experience has made me question my somewhat romantic notions of cruising. For many, climbing aboard a boat is now like climbing into any recreational vehicle. Engines are fundamentally reliable, the state of the tide can be found on the screen of an iPhone, and with chart plotters and radar, being lost is almost inexcusable. Radar antennas twirl relentlessly and GPS alarms beep and it’s possible to get from Seattle to Juneau without ever donning oil skins or getting a foot wet.

Two or three times daily I rowed our little dinghy ashore so that our Portuguese Water Dog could do what dogs need to do. I only saw two other tenders actually being rowed during the whole two-week trip – the internal combustion engine reigns supreme even when a pair of oars would be perfectly adequate.

In the cold winter months I will ruminate on this experience. In the end I will just probably conclude that the Slocums, Hiscocks and Smeetons of this world are long gone and with them a golden age of cruising. My romantic notions, seeded 25 years ago, are now probably a nonsense.

So do we want to head back up there? The answer is a conditional “yes”. We would do it out of season, when we could drop the hook where seamanship dictated and not where I had to squeeze into a space amongst other boats and would then spend the night worrying where I was swinging. But there is still the lure of the North. The Broughtons beckon – thousands of islands and surely less boats. Failing that, Patagonia perhaps?

Copyright David Skelhon, 2012

Rainbird at anchor in Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island…..just one of more than 100 boats in the cove.