A case for the ocean-going gaffer

We share skipper Bruce Halabisky's reasons for choosing a 34' gaff cutter to sail around the world with his family, taking 11 years for the circumnavigation. First published in Classic Boat Magazine, September, 2016.

Vixen, my 34' (10.36m) gaff cutter, rested at anchor on the calm waters among Madagascar’s west coast islands. My wife, Tiffany, and I had just crossed the Indian Ocean with our three-year-old daughter, Solianna, and were about to row ashore to explore the island of Nosy Be. We had been voyaging for five years – Solianna was born in New Zealand – and we were about halfway through what was to become an eleven year circumnavigation; a voyage originating and concluding in Victoria on the southern end of Vancouver Island in western Canada. There was only one other cruising boat in the anchorage: a ratty-looking 30ft glassfibre sloop with what appeared to be a singlehanded captain. As I examined his vessel I could see he was lowering a semi-deflated dingy and looking my way with furtive glances. The dingy hit the water, he pulled the cord on a war-ravaged two-horse outboard which sputtered to life only to die with a strangled squawk.

But my neighbour was persistent. After a second pull he navigated straight to Vixen’s stern in a cloud of blue smoke. Killing the engine and drifting alongside he laid a hand on the rail and rather breathlessly asked a single question: “Why? Why have you chosen to sail around the world in the antithesis of performance?”

Why have you chosen to sail around the world in the antithesis of performance?

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Family cruising

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A conch in the Caribbean

Indeed, it was a fair question. A casual survey of any marina in the tropics or of any offshore rally will reveal a paucity, if not a complete absence, of wooden hulls, gaff rigs and even traditional hull shapes. From this evidence one might be led to believe that 'Vixen' – an Atkin design launched in 1952 – was a poor choice if not a reckless or dangerous choice for a boat on which to sail around the world in the 21st century. But my experience on 'Vixen' suggests otherwise. Tiffany and I have lived on the boat for 13 years, eleven of which have been spent circumnavigating. We had two kids born along the way (Seffa Jane was added to the crew after we reached Brazil) and our circuitous route included three Atlantic crossings and over 50,000 ocean miles in a wide range of challenging currents and winds. In fact, as if to prove her performance, a month after meeting my neighbour in the Nosy Be anchorage, 'Vixen' encountered a three-day gale off the coast of South Africa with sustained winds of 70 knots. The high winds and seas damaged a score of other yachts but 'Vixen' hove-to comfortably until the storm passed and we made our landfall in Richards Bay, South Africa. Knowing that I am somewhat of a lone voice in advocating a classic gaffer for offshore passages, I thought it might be worthwhile to address specific concerns regarding Vixen’s construction, rig and hull shape.

Why wood?

First, it must be understood that 'Vixen', although launched in 1952 and first taken around the world by her original owners in the 1950s, had a major 12-year refit just before I bought her in 2002. When I say ‘major refit’ I mean re-framed, re-planked, re-powered and everything else re-done to produce a vessel very similar to the one that rolled down the railways in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1952; she was, in short, a new boat. As a result of this extensive work we were able to cruise for 11 years without doing any work on Vixen’s wooden structure. Of course there was plenty of painting and a fair amount of varnishing but the new healthy wood took care of itself even in the relentless heat of the tropics. While in Fiji we replaced Vixen’s wormshoe but by using local wood this was an easy repair. In fact, many of the more remote areas of the world we visited, like certain areas of Indonesia and Africa, have a vibrant wooden boat culture and skilled shipwrights on hand. In 2007 we motored up the Kumai River in southern Borneo and there on the shore of a sleepy village I saw the largest wooden boat I have ever seen being built in the mangroves. It was a newly constructed wooden motor vessel 180' long!

Aside from the advantage of being able to repair a wooden boat in very remote corners of the world, Vixen’s rich history, not unusual in a wooden boat, is absent or seriously diminished in the glassfibre alternative. I found this comforting when pushing the limits of the boat in adverse conditions. “She has been through all this before,” I would think to myself when setting off on a long passage. “It is only a new experience for me.” Vixen’s rich history and friends from previous voyages added another dimension to our own trip around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for Tiffany and me to anchor in a crowd of modern cruising boats only to see a kayak or skiff put in from the shore and have someone row directly over to say hello. “Our friends got married on Vixen’s foredeck in the 1970s,” a couple once shouted out in passing. An old sea dog with a steely memory once proclaimed: “I anchored next to your boat – Tahiti, 1957.” These experiences enrich the cruising life. Even complete strangers were often drawn to Vixen. A classic yacht makes a statement that the owner values tradition and values handmade things. In Vixen’s case – being an uncomplicated 34-footer – I would say our simple lifestyle attracted the like-minded people we wanted to meet.

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Built 1952, 34' gaff cutter

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Ashore in Senegal

Why gaff?

If there was any one thing in Vixen’s overall appearance that implied that she was the antithesis of performance I would guess that it would be the gaff rig. Aside from large sail-training vessels people don’t seem to cross oceans anymore with the gaff rig. Even many classic yachts originally designed with a gaff rig have been converted to the triangular Marconi version. This is a shame because it is on the tradewind passages of the world’s oceans that the gaff rig does so well. The gaff rig trades the long luff and tall mast of the Marconi rig for a short mast and long boom to achieve an equivalent sail area resulting in a low-aspect sail plan which is ideal for offshore passages. I believe Vixen’s gaff rig to be the superior offshore choice for three reasons: safety, directional stability and power on a reach.

I was surprised on our voyage how often I encountered sailors who had lost a mast overboard. Many times these de-mastings occurred in 15 knots of wind or less and the failure could be traced to a single corroded stainless steel terminal. There is not a lot of redundancy built into the modern high-aspect rig in which a relatively weak extruded aluminium mast is supported by a minimum of stays which are subjected to corrosion which is difficult to inspect. Vixen’s gaff rig, by comparison, is low-tension and overstayed. With a short mast the lever arm pushing the hull over has less force and the mast itself is of solid 7in-diameter spruce. I suspect in light to moderate winds Vixen’s mast would stand with no stays at all. Vixen’s parcelled and served galvanized rigging is less susceptible to work hardening and much easier to inspect. The other important safety feature of the gaff rig is its ability to heave to in a gale. The Marconi rig’s centre of effort, unfortunately, moves progressively forward with each successive reef until it is nearly impossible for the vessel to point into the wind with a backed jib – an essential feature of heaving to. This deficiency can be overcome by the deployment of drogues and sea anchors but these are complications that make heaving to more dangerous and less likely to be initiated in the first place. The gaff rig, by comparison, will hold her bow up into the wind with a triple-reefed main and a backed storm jib and stay there for days at a stretch until conditions improve. In Vixen’s case we have successfully hove to several times in over 70 knots of wind and proven that not to be the upper limit.

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'Vixen' 34' gaff cutter

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Sailing off Maul, Hawaii

One unique feature of Vixen among ocean-crossing yachts is that she carries neither wind-vane nor electronic autohelm. And, no, we do not hand steer for weeks on end. 'Vixen' has phenomenal directional stability which, when augmented with a sheet-to-tiller system, enables her to steer herself. The gaff rig is an important element in this set up because the low centre of effort of the sails doesn’t move excessively to leeward when the boat heels in a gust. In other words, 'Vixen' doesn’t have the tendency to shoot up into the wind with every puff; a tendency which would require complicated machinery to counter.

The final, and most enjoyable, feature of the gaff rig is its powerful reaching abilities off the wind. It seems strange that the modern offshore cruising sailing boat touts its ability to sail upwind when the majority off offshore passages are downwind or on a reach. Perhaps this is a result of the racing scene influencing the design of cruising yachts which might hope to crossover to do some Wednesday night round-the-buoy racing.

My argument is: get the right tool for the job. Get a gaff rig with a long boom hanging over the stern and a bowsprit out the front; a rig that will accelerate in the gusts instead of just healing over further and thus needing to be reefed sooner. Get a gaff rig that loves to sail with the tradewinds of the world; leave the high-performance upwind sailing for your friends back home who are hoping to be the first to the windward mark on a Wednesday night.

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Classic hull shape

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Madagascar baobab trees

Why a classic hull shape?

A classic hull is the natural shape on which to land the gaff rig for offshore voyaging. The long straight keel and deep forefoot will enhance the rig’s inherent self-steering ability; the outboard hung rudder, the heavy displacement and the deep keel will also help the boat to heave to as an added safety feature. I remember once watching, at Nanny Cay in Tortola, the owner of a modern fin-keeled sloop tie his inflatable off to the bow and then reverse down the whole length of the marina, with a 20 knot crosswind. Then he did a couple of right hand turns and docked the boat on a tiny pontoon. You are never going to do this with a classic hull.

If you plan on going into a lot of marinas then this may be a concern. If, however, you intend to sail around the world then this inability to manoeuvre is just what you want because it means your boat will go in a straight line. Vixen does not like to turn and backing up under power leaves a lot to fate but she is very good at going straight for thousands and thousands of miles. Even without our sheet-to-tiller system Vixen will hold her course for an impressive amount of time.

The long keel is also what you want when sailing through the lobster pots of Maine or the nets off the coast of Senegal or the fish weirs of the Malacca Straight. Getting caught in any kind of net on a boat with a fin keel and a spade rudder can result in disaster. Just the thought of getting in the water at night with a knife to free a complicated hull shape makes me shudder. Often these nets are unlit and sometimes they are drifting on the open ocean. Over the years and despite my best efforts, Vixen has sailed over many nets, lines and other fishing gear and every time she has slipped free because there is nothing underwater to get caught.

One feature of classic boats that is not often talked about is the amount of standing headroom possible with a deep draft keel and low freeboard. On 'Vixen' we have 6' 8" of standing headroom in the interior while maintaining a low freeboard and cabin. We are living deep in the keel with our feet just above the iron ballast. On a fin keel boat there is nowhere to go for headroom but up, so the boats need to be high-sided – sometimes to a shocking degree – to obtain standing headroom below. I mention freeboard, here, because staying in one place at anchor is much more difficult with a high-sided yacht than one that has low freeboard. On 'Vixen' we carry robust anchoring gear, but our real secret to not dragging is Vixen’s low profile and resistance to ‘tacking’ while at anchor. We do carry 250' of 3/8th-inch chain which helps 'Vixen' to stay put while anchored and that brings me to another factor in favour of the traditional hull shape: it can carry the weight. 'Vixen' weighs over 13 tons. A similar modern fin-keeled boat might weigh half of that. To sail around the world you need a lot of stuff. There is safety gear and food and fuel and water – it all adds up and ultimately all this stuff is a smaller percentage of the overall weight for 'Vixen' than for a similar-sized fin-keeled boat.

'Vixen' can carry all the things we need with minimal change to her sailing characteristics.

The Final Argument for the Classic Gaffer

So now you’ve heard my arguments for the voyaging classic gaffer but I know there is still a part of you that resists and wonders: “If it is such a great set up why aren’t more people doing it?” I lay aside all my rationalization and logic and can appeal to you only with the beauty of a perfectly realized sheerline, or the image of an audaciously long bowsprit awash with seafoam, or a finely carved teak block gleaming in the sun. There is something to be said for sailing around the world with a certain amount of style and class.

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off Komodo Island, Indonesia

On our final voyage from Hawaii to Victoria we had a deteriorating weather forecast – building seas and an oncoming gale – a couple of weeks after leaving Molokai. Solianna and Seffa Jane were safely sleeping down below but still, after all these years of crossing oceans, I was anxious. It was early morning and although the sky was dark, a hole in the clouds allowed the sun to shine through bright and strong. Amid the tumultuous seas the sunbeams lit up the waves and then landed on the leeward varnished mainsheet block. I remember that block as a striking contradiction to the chaos all around; a comforting contradiction. Here was a product of wood, metal and human ingenuity that had worked for over 60 years during two trips around the world while mother nature threw at it everything of which she was capable.

And, still, it resiliently did its simple job as well, or better, than any modern racing gear and certainly looked to be anything but the antithesis of performance.

For more on Vixen’s voyage visit her website.
First published in Classic Boat Magazine, September 2016.

There is something to be said for sailing around the world with a certain amount of style and class.