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Driving north for several hours to Ullapool in Scotland to meet Adrian Morgan and test sail one of his traditional Sjekte’s, I could hardly wait to arrive. Having owned an old 26-foot clinker sailing yacht myself for 13 years, it was exciting to meet somebody who was still building boats the old way—using only his hands and an eye for what looked and felt right, a fast dying skill in Briton.

Progress was painfully slow on my winding S-shaped route through the hills with the number of people visiting the Scottish Highlands, but I finally arrived. Time was short as Adrian and I realised a low pressure was tracking in, bringing with it much wind and rain, so we immediately headed off to Loch Achall with the boat Felicity John in tow. Ted joined us, having come up from England to collect the new Sjekte Adrian had built for him. Their morning was spent floating Ted’s new joy in Loch Broom to check out the ballast arrangements.

We quickly launched, once we had stepped the fairly tall hollow wooden mast (made by Collars) which wasn’t difficult with three of us. It will be a one man job on Ted’s new boat which is gunter rigged (all the spars will also fit inside the boat for ease of trailing etc.). Rigging the sizeable Bermudan mainsail was simple on Felicity John, and Adrian decided the boat needed some ballast in the SE 3-4 wind. This is where ancient and modern meet, because the boats are water ballasted. Bags are fitted under the floorboards in the middle of the hull and water can be pumped in or out as wind conditions dictate. Adrian calculated that we were carrying perhaps 140 kg {315 lb} during our test sail. The bags hold 150 litres each, 300 kg in total (costing 54 each, they are standard double-skinned freshwater bags from Plastimo). Due to restriction of flooring they actually hold somewhat over 100 litres each—say 120 kg—so the potential is more like 240 kg [roughly 540 lb.] maximum ballast. The water can be pumped in, and out if the wind goes light, using a standard bilge pump. One pump stroke would be about 1/2 litre. Also, air can be pumped in if the bags are not completely filled with water, so they are combined ballast/buoyancy.

Adrian traveled the world reporting on international yacht racing in a previous life, possibly where his water-ballast idea originated from. Nothing else about Felicity John is modern. Her American shipbuilder, Karsten N Ausland (a Norwegian emigrant), designed the original Sjekte in New York for yacht broker Henry H. Shufeldt as a camping cruiser in 1934. She was called Jan and carvel planked, possibly fitted with internal ballast and a bronze centre-plate.

Adrian explained that this would make Jan heavier than Felicity John (clinker planking gives a lighter hull), hence the need for some form of ballast on his version.

Jan was fast. Al Mason (a recently qualified naval architect) either purchased her or was given the boat in lieu of wages from Shufeldt.

Mason took the boat north to Boston in 1936 when he started work for John B. Alden and raced her at Marblehead for a couple of seasons, often placing higher than L. Francis Herreshoff’s boat, Suicide. He married Karsten Ausland’s eldest daughter Christine.

Ausland had based Jan’s design on the Sjekte. These were Norwegian inshore fishing boats from his past in Ausland, outside of Risor, on the north shore of the Skagerrak. It’s a rough place at the entrance to the Baltic Sea. There they had to be good sea boats, and fast enough to dodge in out of the weather. Adrian found his own boat, Felicity John, quick when he took her on the Great Glen/Sail Caledonia raid in 2003. Refusing as a purist sailor to row on the legs where sail and oar can be used, Felicity John won when they had any proper wind.

Launching Felicity John proved tricky in an onshore wind, as it would with any boat. This, combined with her deep long keel, meant we had to row her out and drop the anchor before we could hoist sail.

Dropping the steel centre-plate and lifting the anchor, we were away.
Once underway with main and jib set, she proved to be a sparkling sailer, surging along in the gusty wind. The large main had to be played, but we weren’t fully ballasted with water, so she could be made stiffer. Looking down the inside of this beautiful boat, I was immediately transported back to my childhood when clinker rowing boats were the norm—like my father’s tender. The built-in buoyancy is cunningly concealed under the floorboards fore and aft, and other than the midships ballast the inside of the boat is clear, enabling her shape and sheer to be admired.

Adrian has slightly altered Ted’s new boat, giving her 3 inches additional beam for more initial stability, plus one less plank to decrease hull depth. The long forefoot makes the boat slow to tack, as with any long-keeled hull, but the jib didn’t need to be backed, provided the boat had enough way on. The benefit of the long keel means the helm can be left without the boat immediately whizzing up into the wind, which used to irritate me on my Drascombe Lugger.

Adrian has fitted a small drop blade inside the bottom of Felicity John’s rudder to give the boat a perfectly balanced helm. On the inland lake where we did the test sail, there weren’t any sizeable waves to test out the boat’s sea-keeping ability, but I think it’s fair to say that Norwegian fishermen from the Skagerrak worked out what was effective at sea, and the shape evolved from that—as indeed did the Viking boats! Adrian and I could have played all day with the boat, but we returned to the shore to pick up Ted and drop me off so I could take some photos, as a wane northern sun had decided to make a brief appearance.

Recovering the boat on her trailer was simple with Adrian’s
expertise. The water ballast was pumped out to lighten the load while winching out. The boat is very light for her size like all wooden craft. We headed back to Adrian’s boatshed where I asked about the price. It takes Adrian about 75 days to build the hull out of larch and oak. With his other boat repair work, two or three boats are all he wants to build each year.
The 18-foot Felicity John is for sale at 8,500 (+tax in UK) which isn’t cheap, but as with all handmade things, the specifications can be altered to suit. The choice of sail and mast maker is up to the individual. Ted calculated the whole package, boat and trailer, worked out at roughly 12,000. A similar production GRP boat in this size range in UK, comes out at about 10,000 minimum, but mostly 12-15K. I can see what Adrian meant when he said that it’s surprising that more people aren’t buying a new wooden boat.

The maintenance wouldn’t be difficult either, provided the boat is kept under cover when not in use. Soft sealant is placed between the plank lands on build to allow for movement of the wood, so provided the boat doesn’t get too hot and dry, it won’t leak—a big problem with clinker boats in the past.
As I drove home I was working out a strategy to get my wife up to look at Felicity John. If she fell for the boat as much as I had, maybe we could ask Adrian to build us a new Sjekte.

Yours Aye, John Simpson.
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