Small Improvements  
By Gary Blankenship - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

One of the fun things about having a small boat is customizing and experimenting with improvements to make it more useable and comfortable. As Oaracle approaches her third birthday, some small changes have made her a more friendly and enjoyable craft.

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As Oaracle approaches her third birthday, some small changes have made her a more friendly and enjoyable craft

A couple ideas for improvement have come from Phil Bolger designs. Oaracle is a Jim Michalak-designed Frolic2, and follows Bolger’s lead on Birdwatcher and other designs that have incorporated a “slot-top” cabin, where an opening about two feet wide or so runs the length of the cabin. Great for allowing someone to walk upright the length of the cabin and for ventilation, but coming with the small problem of effectively covering the slot on a wet sailing day, or for sleeping on a rainy night. One common solution has been a segmented hard cover, but storing and handling the many sections can be a pain. A soft fabric cover, with curved battens to shed water, stores easily but can be harder to use and also is prone to damage if someone falls against it.

Bolger came up with a solution when he designed the raised-cabin version of his popular Chebacco boats – a modular hatch that’s hinged on one side and folds over flat on the deck. Incorporated into the unit are a sliding cover on the aft part and a hinged opening hatch on the forward part. The pictures show how it works better than I can describe it. This system allows the crew to use the sliding part when they need to reach into the cabin for something, or fold the entire hatch unit out of the way when they need the ventilation or to walk forward unobstructed.

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The modular hatch has a forward section that hinges open, and an aft sliding companionway hatch. You can see the hinges mounted on the hatch side.

I reused a hard hatch made for covering the slot when the boat is traveling on its trailer. The hatch sides are ply, but the top is quarter-inch foam sheathed in fiberglass and epoxy, because I wanted to experiment with the glass covered foam. It’s probably a bit lighter but not quite as strong than an all-ply version. The geometry of the existing hatch wasn’t quite right and the hatch won’t fold all the way over and lie flat on deck. There’s a line to stop the hatch before the edge hits the deck to save strain on the hinges. The hinges, by the way, are the nylon ones sold by Duckworks, and seem more than strong enough for the job.

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The whole unit hinges to starboard when the mast is stepped, someone needs to go forward, or just for ventilation.

So far the modular hatch seems to work well, including allowing unreefing the sail on a recent blustery day of sailing at Cedar Key. The sail can be raised and lowered by standing in the aft part of the cabin, with only the aft part of the hatch open.

A factor to keep in mind is the mast is raked, so the mast opening cut into the port side of the hatch has to be extra wide to clear the mast as it lifts up. The “collar” around the slot is to allow a mast boot to be installed to seal the slot in rainy weather.

The second recent change was redoing the oar port covers. Installing the ports – necessary to have the proper rowing geometry – is simple enough to do during construction but covering the oarports is another matter. (Not covering them is not an option; a modest gust will produce a moderate heel that combined with a passing wave will dump gallons into the cockpit through an open port.)

My first attempt was workable but slow to install or remove. A clear plexiglass cover with rubber gasketing around the edges goes on the outside and is held in place with a bolt and wingnut to a piece of half-inch ply that spans the oarport inside the cockpit. It’s not necessary to completely remove the wingnut to remove the port; it can be loosened enough to allow the ply piece to slide out the oarport. But care is necessary not to drop the whole assembly overboard.

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The old oarport cover required loosening the wingnut so the unit could be removed – slow and somewhat tricky.

A better idea surfaced when I discovered Bolger’s Anhinga design, which also has cockpit oarports. He used wooden turnbuttons to fasten the oarports in place, and small blocks to properly locate the ports. He also has a safety line to prevent loss of the ports if they are dropped. It was a couple hours work to modify the ports on Oaracle to this much improved design. Now it’s a matter of seconds to remove or install the ports.

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The new oarport cover has two turnbuttons and a safety line. Removal can be one-handed, if necessary. The white plastic blocks at the bottom help locate the port for easy installation.

The third improvement came from Chuck Leinweber following our racing Oaracle in the Everglades Challenge last March. He inquired why Oaracle didn’t have any sort of tiller locking mechanism. I replied I hadn’t found any simple and inexpensive way to install one. He described the system he used on his boats, but I couldn’t follow how it worked until he sent me a picture. It is simplicity itself. Perhaps it has been written about in Duckworks before, but if so, it deserves another mention. It’s that handy.

click to enlargeAn eyebolt and clam cleat are the main parts for a quick an easy tiller lock that adjustable without loosening anything. I used an eyestrap to anchor the tensioning line so it won't get lost, but you can use a hook or snap to attach it to the line that runs through the eyestrap. Note the cam cleat for the port line tie down. That ensures instantly releasing the line which is sometimes necessary in tacking because the rudder and tiller are offset to port.

Basically an eyebolt is installed in the tiller, with the eye facing fore and aft. A jam or clam cleat is installed several inches forward of the eyebolt. A slack line is run from gunwale to gunwale, just behind the eyebolt. Tie it so the line can be looped a couple inches through the eyebolt. A second line with a clip, hook or similar device tied to one end fastens to the loop of the first line. Pull forward on the second line until the first is tight in the eyebolt, and drop the second line in the clam cleat. Voila! The tiller is held in place. And part of the beauty, as Chuck noted, is the tiller remains adjustable with a firm push. That allows fine-tuning of the sail, leeboard, and rudder without having to recleat the tiller lock. I also use it to lock the tiller when the boat is on the trailer.

A small problem is Oaracle’s rudder is offset to port. When the tiller is pushed to port, the gunnel-to-gunnel line restricts its travel. I replaced the traditional tie down cleat on that side with a Duckworks’ cam cleat for a faster release and got a happy bonus. When the tiller is thrown to port, as it approaches the cleat, it pulls up on the line and yanks it out of the cleat – an automatic release.

So far, the tiller lock has done well, especially reaching and running where it has held course for several minutes at a time. Hard on the wind is trickier, but so far I’ve only tried it in choppy and fluky conditions. On a light, unballasted boat like Oaracle, it would be suitable for use close hauled only in light winds.

The fourth improvement really isn’t a finished product yet, call it a work in progress for accuracy. I’m passing it along in hopes of getting suggestions or inspiring someone else. And that’s making a carbon fiber mast for Oaracle. In this case, I got a broken, 18-foot two-piece Windsurfer mast. Two staggered layers of heavy carbon fiber (about the weight of light woven roving in regular fiberglass) interspersed with sleeves of biaxial carbon cloth fixed the break (which was just above the mast joint) and made the two-part mast a one-piece. A foot was cut off the top to match the designed height of Oaracle’s mast. Then the whole mast was covered with two layers of the biaxial sleeving, plus an additional layer on the top half, at the partners and the top foot of the mast. The final layer was a sleeve of regular fiberglass. The goal was to ensure the mast could take the strain of the 113-square foot balanced lug sail (which was about the size of the Windsurfer sail it originally carried) and add some stiffness to the mast, which was built to be very flexible to match the curved luff of the Windsurfer sail. The changes probably more than doubled the weight of the mast, but its still half or less of the wooden mast.

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The carbon fiber mast shows more bend than the original wooden spar, even through the wind, as this picture was taken, was moderate.

The test was on a blustery, one-reef day and the mast passed its strength test, but still seemed too flexible. That in turn appeared to degrade the drive of the sail on its “good” tack (when the sail is leeward of the mast) when hard on the wind. In retrospect, I think I should have used unidirectional sleeving (which is more expensive), rather that biaxial, which would have added both strength and stiffness. I might even have had to use less of the sleeving, which would have offset the higher cost of the unidirectional sleeve.

So far the total cost of the mast (include the $20 to buy the broken original) is around $200. That’s a lot more than the wooden one cost, but only a fraction of the price for a manufactured carbon fiber mast. I’m adding a layer of unidirectional sleeving. It will increase more weight (and I’m pretty sure it would be way overbuilt), but it will still be much lighter and easier to handle than the wooden one. (Note to anyone imitating this experiment: carbon fiber laminates better with thin, watery epoxy than with the thicker epoxies.)

Another upgrade was to install forward running lights. We have a nice set of AA-battery powered LED lights that work well. But it’s not always practical or easy – especially if underway in bumpy weather – to crawl through the cabin, open forward hatch and lean out over the foredeck to fasten them (with a velcro strap) to the forward cleat.

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The lights installed on Oaracle are plenty bright as darkness falls, even if the boat is on the trailer in the driveway.

Chuck said he could special order a bi-color LED bow light for around $50 that would wire into Oaracle’s small 12-volt battery. However, there’s no convenient place to install a single, permanent light where it would have good visibility without installing some sort of mount to the otherwise clear foredeck.

Finally I recalled that the regular Duckworks bi-colored bow lights use incandescent festoon bulbs, which are available from others sources (such as with LED lights. Two bi-colored bow lights were ordered. When they arrived, I took them apart and masked off the red lens on one light and the green lens on the other, and taped over the metal bulb contacts on both. Then the inside of the base and lenses were painted with several coats of white paint, in essence turning the bi-color lights into single red and green bow lights. Figuring the inside of these black plastic lights might get hot, a heat resistant paint was used. (For the life of me, I can’t understand that if the purpose of a running light is to put out illumination, why the inside parts are made of light-absorbing black plastic instead of light-reflecting white plastic.)

click to enlargeThe running light lenses are masked with tape on one side, and then the interior is painted with several coats of white paint. Here, the port light has been masked and painted, and the starboard light (with the green side masked) is ready to paint. Painting tip: set the lenses for painting and while drying so the paint can’t run behind the masking tape using the grooves of the lens.

The incandescent bulbs were replaced with bulbs having nine LED lights, which were aimed at the now white interior of the fixtures. The idea was a more uniform, even light would be reflected out, and it seems to work. The lights are brighter than the AA unit they replaced (which used only two LEDs each but still seemed plenty bright enough). And now all I have to do is reach into the cabin from the cockpit and flip a switch, and the bow lights are on.

(Get your lights before ordering the festoon bulbs. The first light I got from Chuck, which is on our 30-footer, used a 39 mm long festoon bulb. The recent lights used 44 mm. Go figure.)

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The mount/base of the running light has its metal bulb contacts masked and then it’s painted with the white spray paint. This is the first of several coats.

The AA powered stern light was not replaced because it’s easy to install at night, and it also stays on all night when Oaracle is at anchor.

The final improvement wasn’t made for Oaracle, but rather for our 30-footer, Le Dulci-Mer. I’m fond of Bruce anchors for their ease of deployment plus their reliability and versatility in holding in a variety of bottoms. But they aren’t the easiest anchors to store, particularly on the deck of a boat without a bow roller.

The answer was a two-foot length of 2 x 6 board, pressure treated pine in this case. I cut a slot in top to match the width of the anchor shank and six holes set in pairs on either side of the center of the board. The holes accepted hose clamps, which are used to attach the board to a stanchion. A cleat on one lower edge and some light line are sufficient to securely attach the anchor to the mounting board, but still ready to go in seconds. In a real emergency, the line can be cut away in an instant. The board was sealed with epoxy before painting as I once had an unsealed, painted piece of pressure treated wood rot out in about a year.

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A two-by-six board, some hose clamps and a cleat became a convenient mount for a Bruce anchor.

Of course, the mount can be attached to any stanchion; for years I carried it in the cockpit to keep an emergency stern anchor at hand. It’s an inexpensive way to keep the handy Bruce at hand.

Other articles by Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell: