Traditional Ideas in a Modern Boat Design
You Can Build Yourself
Although there’s some evidence similar boats were built centuries earlier, ‘sharpies’, as we know them, are supposed to have originated in the New Haven Connecticut region of Long Island Sound. These narrow, hard-chined, flat-bottomed centreboarders began to replace the huge dugout canoes used there historically to work the shoals and oyster fisheries. They were boxy enough to be easily built, fast under sail, and they could work the shallowest of waters.
Most carried two unstayed masts that would bend to dump excess wind and that could be used in different configurations depending on the season and strength of breeze. They were typically rigged as leg-o-mutton cat-ketches with sprit booms, but larger versions sometimes sailed as gaff–schooners.
Like all boat designs, sharpies had a few shortcomings. Their slim, flat-bottomed hulls had a tendency to pound in certain situations, and their shallow, balanced rudders could lose their grip in a following sea, sending the boat momentarily out of control. And with some sharpies, their lack of a ballasted keel also meant their ultimate stability was limited.
But given their many virtues, it’s no surprise sharpies became popular and the concept eventually migrated south to the Chesapeake Bay and into the Carolinas. Sharpies also appeared in Florida in the late 1800s, where they were made especially popular by Commodore Ralph Munroe, whose famous 28ft Egret earned a reputation for being both fast and seaworthy.
The sharpie type has continued its evolution over the years – they have been designed with V-bottoms, some as double-enders, some as sloops – in everything from 12ft skiffs to 45ft shallow-draft cruisers. But maybe the most popular of their type in the modern world of trailersailing have been the Norwalk Islands Sharpies designed and originally developed by prolific designer Bruce Kirby.
The NIS’s interior and spacious V-berth.
Inspired by the historical sharpies of his home sailing grounds in Connecticut, Kirby drew a modern 26ft cruiser, and after being impressed with its performance, continued to draw a whole series of boats he called Norwalk Islands Sharpies. Today the range of NIS boats includes 18, 23, 29, 31 and 43ft models – and hundreds have been built.
If you associate the NIS designs with Australia, that’s because in 1987 Australian boat builder Robert Ayliffe visited with Kirby, became enamored with the boats, and at Kirby’s suggestion, took over worldwide sales of plans and kits.
“Bruce and I really hit it off,” Ayliffe says. Ayliffe especially loved the 26ft version Kirby was sailing, but he says he wasn’t totally sold on the 18 footer.
“Originally it had a single mast cat-rig,” he says, “which looked a little awkward to me. Not quite as elegant as her bigger sisters.”
Cat-rigged versions were built, but Ayliffe pushed for a split rig, and after some wrestling, Robert drew up both yawl and ketch versions, with important sail plan assistance from then employee and now well-known small-boat designer, Michael Storer. Then, back in Australia, Ayliffe oversaw and built, from the first kit, the NIS 18 Ketch.
Come launch day, Ayliffe was nervously optimistic—full of ‘what if?’ fears.
“I told Bruce how anxious I was, hoping it would perform, and he told me he experiences the launchings of all of his designs in the same way—terrified! ‘Welcome to my world, Robert!’ he said to me.”
Fortunately the boat (called Clancy) not only floated on her lines perfectly – bow just down to accommodate the crew weight in the cockpit – her split rig performed flawlessly.
“It was a windy day in fact,” Ayliffe told us, “and she just flew along, beautifully balanced.”
He says there might be more yawl-rigged versions if he hadn’t lost the courage to build one that way early on.
The review boat’s permanent boom crutch.
“The ketch performed so well I just never made much effort to push the yawl version. The yawl has real advantages – a nice clear cockpit and even jauntier looks for starters. With the ketch, the sailor has to reach behind the mizzen mast to steer, but you get used to it quickly and it’s not really an issue.”
Another somewhat unusual and celebrated feature of the Norwalk Islands Sharpie line is the use of a tabernacle on the mainmast – making raising and lowering a relative snap. Sure there have been tabernacles before, but few with free standing masts, and fewer still that didn’t rely on deck bury to achieve their support.
“Early versions required a Scottish caber-tosser on steroids to rig,” Ayliffe says, but after he, and local engineer Randall Cooper built, fitted and tested the prototype, other sailors would watch with envy as singlehanders of even the larger NIS models would raise and lower their masts effortlessly. “It’s so easy that it can even be done on the water,” he says.
As for one theoretical weakness of these sharpies—being less capable than similar-sized keelboats – Ayliffe doesn’t think so. “I’d take these boats anywhere I could carry enough lunch – even the 18.” Although he’s clearly an ardent convert, happy to proselytize on the design’s virtues, it isn’t just rhetoric. Robert has made multiple offshore passages aboard his 23ft NIS Charlie Fisher – once experiencing a 65kt gale sailing to windward up Tasmania’s east coast, and another time running before a 45kt shrieker crossing Australia’s notorious Bass Strait.
“It was actually enjoyable,” he says. “At one fantastic moment, sliding down before a beetling black wall, with its great grey beard about to drop, my GPS-clutching crew mate yelled from his bunk, ‘We just hit 17kts!’”
“I’m convinced deep keels can work against you in those conditions,” he says, alluding to the phenomenon of boats tripping over their keel in breaking seas. “With the sharpies, as Egret often did, we can sail through it, and when we need to stop for a bit of a rest, we just raise the CB, let the sheets go, and ride it out.”
Our interest piqued, we were fortunate to track down one of the less common yawl-rigged NIS 18s and go for a test sail with owner/builder Dan Taylor in Bellingham Bay, Washington.
Following are our comments as well as those of some NIS 18 owners.
“As fast as the average 18ft trailersailer and faster than most in light airs. He is a very well balanced boat and will sail hands-off the tiller at any point of sailing with the wind forward of the beam. He is easy to balance and eliminate weather helm by trimming and balancing the main and mizzen. Very fast off the wind even without a spinnaker. He is fastest downwind by heeling slightly to windward (like a Laser).” – John Hyam, Clancy
“I sail for pleasure, not punishment. The boat seems to achieve a speed of 6ktsfairly easily and sails well in light airs, depending on tidal run.” – Phillip Brown, Playstation Too
“The boat points close to the wind and is very fast. We easily kept up with and often passed cruiser/racers in the 27ft range. Down wind with the board up is downright exciting and very fast.” – John Larson, Little Boat
We arrived in the Fairhaven area of Bellingham Bay on a mostly cloudless afternoon and spotted Dan Taylor down by the launch ramp rowing his dinghy out to his Norwalk Islands Sharpie 18 Poquito, who was tugging at her mooring just offshore.
Transom view, showing removable (for trailing) mizzen bumpkin, and the Robert Ayliffe designed, and trialled by so many clients, unique cockpit controlled raising and lowering shock absorbing rudder set up. Plans now available for other boat owners who want to upgrade their current transom hung rudder set ups. Contact Robert at Stray Dog Boat Works.
In short order Dan arrived at Poquito, peeled back her sail covers, and in a few minutes he and his little yawl were landing at the nearby dock where we were able to catch his lines.
First impressions? Good looking, we thought. The split rig, coamings and house give the NIS a salty, traditional feel. Some might argue the lines are a little boxy, but she’s a sharpie after all, and she definitely has more character than most of her production trailer sailer peers.
We stepped aboard to take photos and measurements and noted three related characteristics almost immediately— she’s narrow, tall, and initially quite tender. Her 6’ 7” beam might not seem all that skinny, but she’s fairly slender compared to most boats in her general size range (compare the West Wight Potter 19’s 7’6” beam—nearly a full foot wider.) The narrow effect is exaggerated because some of the NIS’s beam is used for sidedecks, leaving 54 inches of actual interior cockpit width.
The boat’s flared sides mean her beam narrows more near the waterline, and as a result, she readily acknowledges crew weight, heeling easily.
After Dan had prepped and raised the mizzen, which is sheeted from a boomkin off the stern, we pushed the bow away and used his Torqeedo electric outboard to head out to the anchorage where we raised the main.
The mizzen, sheeted tight, immediately began paying dividends as we were able to kill the motor and bob along bow-to-wind like a weathervane in the crowded anchorage while casually hoisting the mainsail.
Once the main was up, we fell off and filled the sails with whatever breeze we could find. The NIS was fairly nimble and plenty responsive. She didn’t refuse any tacks – even at times when the wind was barely perceptible. The breeze was so fluky we didn’t come to any firm conclusions on her pointing ability, other than to note she got us wherever we wanted to go. These boats don’t have traditional shallow sharpie rudders, but instead have modern, infinitely adjustable lifting rudders designed to ‘give’ some on a potential impact.
Conditions were too light for us to experience any potential pounding, but NIS owners tell us it’s much ado about nothing, and really only experienced if motoring into a head sea or during an extremely slow tack. Once heeled, they say, the 18 cuts right through.
Owner Dan Taylor told us his boat was built with the so-called ‘Turbo sail,’ meaning the main was cut a little larger with more roach (142sqft vs 130sqft on standard rig). Speed seemed acceptable, but for light-air regions we wouldn’t want any less canvas.
Once we settled in, our mouths fairly watered at the thought of blasting along off the wind in a real breeze – main and mizzen winged out to either side. We imagine the little yawl would be a giant killer in those conditions. As one NIS owner told us, “Spinnaker? Who needs a spinnaker!”
The Norwalk boats have apparently acquitted themselves well in competition, winning races all over the world.