Category: Uncategorized

20 Mar


Escaping on a 10-foot Sailboat



by Marlin Bree

One of the many things I learned from working with Gerry Spiess, the sailor who designed, built and sailed his 10-foot boat, Yankee Girl to ocean-girdling records, was the importance of organization—and of his “book.”

He was never without a spiral bound tablet in which he jotted or drew some of the things he wanted to remember or do. The book was an example of the way he prepared himself and his little sloop for a record-breaking run across the North Atlantic, including diagrams of where he stowed his clothing and personal items. Every square inch of bilge space was accounted for. He even created a weight distribution plan, and a method for living for long periods of time at sea.

Since he couldn’t wash clothes in the salt water—and I suppose that in a 10-foot boat he didn’t really want to bother—he made visits to Salvation Army and other used clothing stores to buy clothing, wash them, air dry them at length outdoors, and store them in sealed large plastic condiment jars. He got these jars for free from a local school cafeteria.

He carried 35 pairs of shorts and T-shirts; 35 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of long johns, 10 pairs of pants, 10 pairs of short pants, 28 long-sleeved shirts, 8 short sleeved shirts, 2 belts, 5 caps, 1 pair of wool gloves, 3 pairs of rubber gloves, 3 pairs of tennis shoes, 1 down jacket, 5 sweaters, a scarf, 2 foul weather suits and 1 poncho. Each item was twisted up thoroughly so that it took up a minimum of space. He once showed me how little space a properly compacted a T-shirt required—I was amazed. Stylish fashion and pressed shirts were not his goal at sea.

The provisions added up. His empty hull weighed 750 pounds, but at departure with his clothing, food, gasoline, and all his gear aboard, Yankee Girl weighed 2,200 pounds.

On his voyage, he tossed his old, dirty clothes overboard to disintegrate in the ocean. His “book” showed him where to find each sealed condiment jar and what each contained. The jars of clothing served another function. During one stormy period, when the 10-foot boat fell off waves and bounced about terribly in high seas, the sealed up boat cabin became stuffy and foul smelling. He couldn’t open his ventilator because waves regularly overran the boat. He tried opening his hatch even for a short while but that only produced regular drenching below and he had to remove the water with a meat baster.

As he fought his way in 12-foot waves to the Gulf Stream he was only averaging 32 miles per day. At that speed, hit would take around 100 days to reach England. He had planned for a 60-day crossing, but had provisioned for 90. Trouble. He took a beating as the boat raced down the face of one wave then buried her bow in the next. He solved the ping-pong effect by crawling to the forepeak and wedging himself in among the gear. The small pocket of air soon became stale with his breath and he smell of the 60 gallons of pre-mixed gasoline he carried in the bilge. Guided by the light of his radio dial, he opened one of the plastic condiment pails to a welcoming whoosh sound. Eagerly, he stuck his nose inside and inhaled deeply. He was rewarded with the smells of fresh-washed clothing and the outdoors aroma of his native Minnesota. He was no longer in a tiny boat bashing its way through huge ocean waves or breathing foul below-decks air, he had escaped. He was home. ###


Marlin Bree ( is a contributing writer to Small Craft Advisor and the author of numerous boating books, including his own Boat Log & Record (SCA Library). He has twice won the coveted Grand Prize Award in Boating Writers International’s annual Writing Contest.

Filed Under: Uncategorized

24 Jan


Good Little Ship


An excerpt for the new book, Good Little Ship: Arthur Ransome, Nancy Blackett and the Goblin, by Peter Willis.


‘A little white cutter with red sails was coming in towards the moored boats.’For the four children, paddling about in a dinghy among the moorings, this sighting is the beginning of an encounter which will lead to them sailing this same boat—alone and unaided, through varied perils—across the North Sea to Holland.

The children are fictitious as, for the most part, is their adventure: this is the start of Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. But the location is real enough—Pin Mill on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where Ransome was living while he wrote the book. As for the ‘little white cutter’, she has a fictional name, but she was, and is, very real indeed. Ransome had not long previously sailed his own newly-acquired boat up that same river, and into those same moorings. He had named her the Nancy Blackett, but in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, she becomes the Goblin.

‘Funny name for a boat,’ comments Roger, the youngest of the children, who is reading the name on a vacant mooring buoy. ‘I wonder where she is?’

They soon find out, for sure enough, the boat coming up the river is the Goblin, and she is being sailed single-handed.

Someone was busy on her foredeck. As they watched, they saw the tall red mainsail
crumple and fall in great folds on top of the cabin. ‘There’s no-one at the tiller’,
said John. ‘I say,’ said Roger. ‘Is he all alone?’

Indeed he is, but he seems to know his boat well enough, as he prepares to sail onto his mooring, using the jib, watched by the children who pull their dinghy clear just in time.

He was standing up, steering with a foot on the tiller, with his eyes on the buoy ahead of him. Suddenly, when he was still a few yards from it, they saw him stoop and then run forward along the side deck. The jib was flapping. The young man had grabbed the boathook, and was waiting, ready to reach down and catch the buoy.

‘He’ll just do it,’ Titty said, almost in a whisper.
‘Beautifully,’ said John.
‘Oh,’ gasped Titty. ‘He can’t reach it.’

For the boat has stopped moving a moment too soon. The boathook is an inch too short, then a foot. She is being swept back by the tide onto other moored boats. In desperation the skipper hurls a rope to the children in the dinghy; John makes it fast to the buoy in a swift, seamanlike manner, and they are thus, with a bowline knot, instantly bonded with the Goblin and her skipper.

These are the children originally encountered by readers of Arthur Ransome as the Swallows in Swallows and Amazons, the first of his children’s novels, where they enjoy dinghy-sailing adventures in the Lake District. Swallow, sailed by the Walker children, Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-Seaman Titty and Ship’s Boy Roger, and Amazon—of which the ‘master and part-owner’ is Nancy Blackett, with her sister Peggy ‘mate and part-owner of the same’—were both based on real dinghies. Their lake is a fictional construct, but it combines elements of Coniston and Windermere, and individual locations are identifiable.

Book for sale from SCA here.

Filed Under: Uncategorized

24 Jan


When Steering is a Drag



The rudder began vibrating and then groaning. In a quick-rising Lake Superior storm I was slewing along on a series of big waves, sometimes going sideways. My home-built plywood rudder was taking a beating.

Bending over Persistence’s transom, I saw that the blade seemed OK. Still with all the racketing and noise, the rudder was under considerable stress.

What if the rudder broke? How would I steer in a storm?

I had a plan: I would attach a line from my portside cockpit winch to my big 14-pound Danforth, and then attach another line from my starboard winch to the Danforth. And throw everything overboard. The Danforth would drag in the heavy weather’s following seas but I could crank it from side to side.

All this was theoretical.

I had tried something like this before. For my young son I had built a toy boat out of a 2 x 4 piece of lumber and wrapped a knot around one end. In the water, towing it behind my boat, the toy boat swung to one side and my 17-foot sailboat would turn that way. Eureka! Accidentally, I had another steering method.

That would be my untried plan. But one day I heard the tale of Dudley Dix, the ingenious South African designer who draws and sails marvelous ocean racers—built out of plywood—to frolic in the boisterous waters off Cape Town, not far from the horrific seas at the Cape of Good Hope.

He was blasting along in his 36-foot plywood rocket in the Cape Town-to-Rio ocean race. Suddenly his plywood blade broke. Black Cat spun around. Dudley went below, found a large bucket, tied two lines to its handle, connected each line to a cockpit winch, and threw the bucket overboard.The steering drogue worked fine, he told me, and he and his crew sailed confidently several days with the lash up, ignoring offers of a tow from other boats.

The bucket? It was a heavy-duty metal bucket of the type South African construction workers and bricklayers use. In the trans-oceanic race, rules require the sailors to carry a bucket aboard.

I don’t carry a bucket, but I do have three Danforths and a mud anchor onboard. Maybe they’d work in an emergency.
Marlin Bree ( used the bucket steering story in a chapter in his novel, Broken Seas (SCA Library). He is a contributing writer to Small Craft Advisor and the author of numerous boating books. He has twice won the coveted Grand Prize Award in Boating Writers International’s annual Writing Contest.

Filed Under: Uncategorized

05 Oct


How fast can you go in a small cruising boat?



Gerry Spiess and Yankee Girl arrive in Honolulu. Pic by Marlin Bree.

“When it comes to small boats,” my friend Gerry Spiess was explaining to me, “all the rules go out the window.”

Gerry is the champion small-craft sailor who set two world’s records by sailing his 10-foot homemade plywood sloop, Yankee Girl, across both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

On the long reaches across the Pacific, he took only 34 days to sail 2,539 miles from Long Beach, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. He had averaged 74.5 miles per day—an extraordinary run for a heavily laden boat with only a 9-foot waterline. Much larger sailboats do well to average a little over 100 miles per day.

He was bettering his North Atlantic record run. He had sailed out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, heading eastward to England. That sail took him an elapsed time of 53 days, 5 hours nonstop to Falmouth, 3,780 statute miles. He had averaged 60 miles a day an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour in storms, high waves, doldrums, and some good sailing. His best day’s run was 84 nautical miles.

Out of Honolulu and in the South Pacific’s trade winds, Yankee Girl began hitting 100 miles per day under her twin 29 square foot jibs.His best day’s run: a whopping 138.09 miles.

He abashedly jokes about his little boat’s speed: “I was asleep a third of the time.”


Marlin Bree ( is a contributing writer to Small Craft Advisor and the author of numerous boating books. He has twice won the coveted Grand Prize Award in Boating Writers International’s annual Writing Contest.