Odds and Ends on Sail
by Alvan Eames

Practical Shoestring Sailing

Editor's note: We are proud to welcome a new columnist to Duckworks. Alvan Eames (see bio above) is an experienced sailor from Great Britian who has generously agreed to share his knowledge with us. This is the first of an ongoing series of essays which I'm sure you will fine most enlightening

I have maintained for several years a dinghy of the Oyster Class, for sailing in and around Morecambe Bay. The Oyster is 16ft 9ins overall, totally undecked, heavily clinker built, gunter rigged on solid wood spars, and ballasted by a heavy iron centre–plate. The design is by John Leather, and was sponsored by the Yachts and Yachting magazine some years ago.

The modifications and methods outlined here have all been used in the true practical sense and I shall try to show how the impecunious enthusiast can sail and maintain a cruising dinghy at a very low cost and with good efficiency.

My Oyster, Morag, has outsailed many Bermudan rigged cruisers both beating and running, and on the one and only occasion when I was cajoled into taking part in a cruiser race, I came in second, in spite of making a pot of coffee halfway through the course. Following the example of Hilaire Belloc, I do not approve of racing, believing that sailing is for pleasure, not for punishment.

Choosing a boat for someone else is rather like choosing someone’s wife, or buying him a pair of shoes, but having started sailing in a hard-chine, carvel built oddity, and progressing through a succession of plywood dinghies, I had formed a fair idea of my ideal boat. All sailing men seem to yearn for a bigger boat, but the Oyster, at under 17ft , can be sailed singlehanded and is also capable of carrying four or five adults with ease. On one notable occasion I sailed up the River Lune in a vigorous Force Four wind with twelve adults aboard. This was evidently too many, as I went aground and was unable to persuade the party to get out and push me off, so I was stuck for a full tide. It never happened again. This size, moreover, is easily handled ashore for maintenance, and given use of a handy beam overhead (or sheerlegs) for tackle, and a few old tyres to ease rolling over, may be kept up to a very acceptable standard without help.

The bookshops are full of works, which cater for the rank amateur, teaching him how to sail, and what to do so as not to make a fool of himself. These notes are more for the man who can sail, and seeks the reward of doing his own modification and maintenance, and is not frightened of innovation. Innovation not for its own sake, but in the constant search for efficiency at low cost.

So much for my choice of boat. Now on to the rigging and the methods used.


The modern pundits, almost without exception, preach the use of either 7x7 galvanised wire rope or 7x7 stainless steel. The disadvantage of both of these materials is that splicing is a job for the professional, or demands the use of a Talurit machine. Furthermore, the galvanised 7x7 uses such a fine gauge wire as a base, that the zinc coating is so thin that it does not last in service. The suggestion is that 7x1 iron wire is used. The reader will have noticed that there are large numbers of telegraph poles scattered about the country, and many of these poles are supported by iron stay wires of 7x1 construction. As the individual strands are so much thicker than the fine wires of 7x7, it must follow that that each strand can take a thicker coat of zinc.

Occasionally I have confided these views to chandlers and riggers, and they have all poured scorn on them, declaring that such wire could not possibly last, and would certainly not be strong enough. But chandlers and riggers do not all sail boats, and I respectfully submit that Conor O’Brien is a much more valid authority, to people who have heard of him. He sailed round the world using such wire for his standing rigging, and published a few books explaining the advantages. Unfortunately his books are not much read these days, with the modern passion for lightness, speed, and the everlasting seeking after publicity.

There is a certain flexibility in iron wire used for standing rigging, as it is not possible to remove all the kinks therefrom, but a little give, in shrouds, is permissible, rather than having them bar-tight, which can give rise to undue strain in a choppy sea.

It is not possible to buy such iron wire from your friendly neighbourhood yacht chandler, and even if it were, the price would be quadrupled. Rather go to your local Television and Radio retailer. The wire, of nominal 3/16ins diameter, is sold to TV aerial riggers for the purpose of holding aerials onto chimney stacks. A 200ft coil can be bought for a very modest price, and as like as not you will get a handful of thimbles thrown in.

click to enlarge

The galvanised 7x1 wire is child’s play to splice. The method is to turn up 10 or 12 inches round the thimble, push a spike (or a screwdriver) through the lay on the standing part, separating the seven strands into 4 and 3. Then unlay the tail into its separate strands and push three of them through the hole made by the spike. Next squeeze up the hole with pliers as tight as possible round the 3 inserted strands. Then put a half inch right angle bend in the ends of the 3 inserted strands, and spread the 7 ends evenly round the standing part, each end laid in line, and away from the thimble. Then, taking one of the inserted strands, wind it tightly round the rest until 1/4ins remains. Bend the 1/4ins stub to lie in line with the rest, and take the next available inserted strand lying near the 1/4ins stub; continue to wind as before. After the inserted strands have been dealt with, do the others in turn. The last strand is wound up as tight as possible without the ¼ins stub.

Standing rigging as described has lasted without attention on my Oyster for five years. Incidentally I use lanyards, not turnbuckles, for tensioning the rigging. For the lanyards I use 1/8ins dia pre-stretched terylene, and about 5 or 6 parts per side.

The same iron wire is in use for the span on the gunter yard. The use of a span makes adjustment of the peak halliard unnecessary whilst reefing. There is a special span shackle available, but I used an ordinary shackle until I was able to get the right part. I put a turk’s head, of small line, as a stopper on the span to prevent the shackle moving too far forward when setting or lowering the sail.

I also use the same iron wire for part of the throat halliard arrangement. In view of the need to have a tight mainsail luff, I use a 2:1 purchase. The end of the halliard is made fast to the masthead, then down to a block, on the end of a wire, with the other end of the wire shackled to the yard jaws. The halliard then goes up to a block at the masthead, and down to its belaying pin. The wire thus used saves a few feet of expensive pre-stretched terylene in the throat halliard.

Next Month: Running Rigging