Issue: January 2005
We measure the passage of time by our memories of what was current at fixed points in our personal history. The trouble is that when you get really old the distant past becomes too distant. And you have to relate to a past, which is a little more recent. There was a time when, for me, the gaff cutter belonged to the recent past. Now, in an era when time and innovation swamp the memory and history is swamped by the present, the gaff cutter seems only slightly removed from the ark in its position in maritime history. A lifetime ago I messed around with gaff cutters. Messing around with them was all I did; I think the restoration work became an end in itself and I never did get to sail one.
After sailing Wild Wood, a Scintilla Voyager, I felt I had filled a large gap in my maritime education, a gap I did not know existed. Scintilla is a single-chine ply hull, a 24- footer. The boat shown here, Wild Wood, is a new boat, professionally built from a kit made by Scruffie Marine. English-born Brisbane resident, Derek Ellard, who designed all the craft in the range, set up Scruffie Marine. Derek’s Scruffie range includes, at the moment, six sailing craft and one motorboat/motor sailer. The sailers are three open day boats between 3.7m and 5.5m and three bigger boats, 5.5m-7.5m, available with cuddy or full cabins. The motorboat (and motor-sailer) are both based on the biggest sailing hull, the Scintilla.
Derek reckoned that the virtues of the traditional gaffer have been forgotten, but are not necessarily out of date, virtues like shallow draught, trimming ballast, traditional styling and, of course, gaff rig. In the early 90s he began designing ply boats for home construction, and later he introduced the kits. Tony fell in love with Derek’s Secret 18 design (a higher-performance multi chiner) but it was too small for Tony’s family, so he opted for the 24ft Scintilla. (There is now a Secret 20). Derek’s son Chris Ellard, who operates as Windward Mark in Sydney, built Wild Wood from one of Derek’s kits. Chris reckons he is one of perhaps 10 people building new boats in wood in this country. I suspect 10 may be an optimistic number.
Tony is very happy with his new toy. He lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and he wanted to be able to motor-sail on the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers, as well as sail on wider expanses of water. I always wanted a wooden boat with a bowsprit, says Tony. I wanted to build my own boat but with Chris doing the building I could still have an input into the detail design. Among the attractions are that the gaff rig is not too big and the boat doesn’t need too big a crew. Tony’s boat is the first cutter-rigged Scintilla; the boat is also available as a yawl with a single headsail. Wild Wood also has the optional longer cabin trunk; the alternative is a cuddy.
Tony tows the boat (1400kg including the trailer) behind his Nissan X-Trail 4WD, and the car handles the weight easily. It managed to heave boat and trailer up the ramp when we got the trailer wheels stuck over a ledge at low tide after taking bad advice from a local. The oregon mast is a one-person lift when rigging, a short mast is a gaff-rig bonus, says Derek. The mast on Wild Wood was epoxy glued from four panels of spar-grade oregon, but you can have a solid mast if you want. The bowsprit is fixed. Tony chose to put up the mast and rig the boat with the hull in the water. He managed, but it would be easier on land. As this was only the boat’s third outing under full sail Tony was still refining his technique for raising the mast and getting ready to sail. This boat had two auxiliary motors. The 5hp four-stroke Honda, which pushes the boat to 7 knots, is a late addition.
Tony originally installed a Minn Kota electric outboard, which clamps to the port gunwale. Powered by three 12V batteries in series (36 volts, 105 amp/hrs) the Minn Kota is good for 4.5 knots, but did not have the duration needed for Tony’s river journeys, where a fair wind can be hard to come by and may last only until the next bend. The batteries provide enough juice for two hours of work, and for harbour or bay use, where the auxiliary is only a back-up, the electric setup would be worth considering. At the end of our sail the outboard stalled as we approached the lee shore in confined water and the Minn Kota’s instant response saved my ulcer from a savage attack.
Let us not forget; however, that with a shallow, light boat you can jump overboard and fend off if you don’t mind getting your shorts wet. Tony mounted the Honda in a cut out in the cockpit. Chris reckons 5hp is more than enough; 2-4hp is more common, mounted in the lazarette aft on the starboard side. Scintilla draws about 2ft (600mm) and is an easy launch. We let Tony get on with the rigging job, because it is a one-man affair when afloat. Then we sailed. Upwind, the as-yet un-tuned rig and the lack of a centreboard contributed to only modest pointing ability. Derek thought the keel was a little shallower than standard, and that the gap between rudder and rudder post could be smaller to help reduce leeway. The revelation came when sheets were sprung and Wild Wood took off like a turpentined cat.
Every sailor should experience the behaviour of a light, narrow hull with a lot of sail area and a low centre of effort. With three people on board, and one auxiliary motor too many, Wild Wood hit 6.6 knots on a beam reach in a gust of about 12 knots. On no point of sail was she pressured in the gusts. Even hard on the wind she got nowhere near putting the lee gunwale under as she yielded to the gusts. In fact, she did not need to yield; she did not heel very much, which is different. There was no need to scramble for the windward side and at all times she behaved like a bigger boat. A family crew would be pleased by the predictability of the hull’s behaviour. Derek pointed out that Tony’s boat has a squat rig, not the high-peaked gaff shown in the drawings.
He reckoned we needed to peak up the gaff a bit more to eliminate the crease in the mainsail and he also thought the hull was trimming bow-high and would benefit from moving the trimming ballast forward. Wild Wood suffered some forestay sag, too, but that worried me more than it will worry most other owners. There are running backstays to handle and two headsails to tack without winches, but there is time to do it all as she tacks slower than a fin-keeler, but without hesitation. And at the end of the sail there is another gaff-rig bonus, gravity helps lower the gaff and mainsail as quickly as you want, without a crewmember having to leap to the mast to drag down the main.
Derek’s design philosophy is that his boats should be easy to tow and launch and comfortable to sail. I listened carefully to what women like, and they don’t like heeling over too much and they don’t like hanging around ramps for hours. So, I built a boat that dealt with all that, and could be rigged in 10 minutes, he says. Scintilla is a gentle boat. Admittedly we had gentle weather, but it was obvious that its reactions to wind and weather are subdued, almost genteel.
Yet it is quick, particularly off the wind. But it is the way it moves that is unique. This is a long-keeled hull carrying a lot of sail, which is set low and stretched from bowsprit tip to transom, which tends to produce a well-damped motion. When talking about boats like the Scintilla you have to make allowances for the fact that many of the details are the personal preferences of the owner. If I were to order such a boat I would have firm ideas on how many details should be arranged, but my choices would not necessarily be more valid than anyone else?s.
But what can be labelled the basic craft “the concept” is immensely likeable. What could be seen as an exercise in nostalgia works on a practical level, as well as the aesthetic.
Words by Barry Tranter