Yacht Designer and Builder
Even as a young boy I was interested in boats and wanted one of my own, which presented difficulties as I lived miles from the sea and there was no navigable river close by. The nearest water, other than a few farmyard ponds, were the canals. So in my teens I managed to scrape enough cash together to buy the materials to build a canoe, with a trailer to fit behind my bike. I had visions of setting off on adventures.
This proved to be a mistake. The canals were flat and uninspiring, no adventure whatsoever. At weekends they would be littered with fishermen who would become excited and abusive when I paddled past. There was also the problem of what to do with my bike and trailer while I was exploring the waters. Then I always had to return over the same stretch of canal to where I'd left them.
I found the canals boring. I soon became disenchanted and the canoe languished uncared for at home.
I was in the Royal Marines when I built my next boat, another canoe. I could claim it was my first design, but design would be an exaggeration for the few scrappy sketches I made. At the time I was serving on HMS Loch Killisport in the Persian Gulf.
A new barrel had been sent out for one of the Bofor's guns, which had been damaged during the commissioning of the ship. I was involved in that, but purely by accident. At the end of our commando training half my recruit squad was needed for more important duties than learning about naval guns, so I'd never had any naval gunnery training. This didn't stop the Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor, POGI, aboard Loch Killisport making me Number Two on one of the Bofor's. The Number Two on the gun fed fresh rounds in to the breech, but as I did so with one clip of rounds, the Number One pulled the trigger. The automatic feed mechanism grabbed the rounds to drag them into the gun, but unfortunately that was before I'd aligned them correctly and one round was rammed into the breech at an angle and the gun seized. The damaged barrel had been left in the dockyard, but we'd had to wait until we were on station for a replacement. The new barrel had been packed in a heavy duty wooden crate, which was going to be dumped as there was no barrel to return to the dockyard.
After seeing the box I had an idea I could use it to build a canoe, so I asked if I could have it. The box was well over seven feet long, which meant I could make the canoe about fourteen feet long. POGI was livid when I was given the box, but was impotent to do anything about it, which added to his anger.
I was the ship's painter by this time and worked closely with the ship's carpenter. I borrowed some tools from him and converted the box into timber for the frames and thin strips for the stringers. I'm sure POGI thought I was doing it deliberately to annoy him, but that was not the case. I just wanted a boat.
When the canoe was built I spent many happy hours exploring the Bahrain area, which was our base when not at sea. But I had difficulty finding anywhere to keep it, until one Saturday afternoon in Bahrain Harbour. The Gunnery Officer, the Gunner, asked me if I would deliver a signal to another Loch class frigate anchored in the harbour. For some reason radio contact could not be used, the signal had to be on paper. The normal method would have been to use the ship's launch, but the propulsion was via a Kitchen Rudder, which was specialise and needed appropriate training, but the launch's coxswain was ashore. No one else was qualified to handle the boat. The Gunner's other option was to turn out the complete duty watch and lower the whaler, which would take time, as would retrieving it on its return. It took less than a minute for me to lower my canoe single handed.
I delivered the signal and waited around to the reply. On my return the Gunner took me aside and said, "I've found a spot where you can keep your canoe." It was under one of his gunnery platforms.
I carried many messages between ships in the fleet after that.
After leaving the marines, I bought a house, which took most of my cash for a while, but my finances soon recovered. I still wanted a boat, and something bigger than a canoe.
I'd acquired a little dog, a Pembroke Corgi named Susan. A neighbour had owned her, but one morning she told me that she was about to have her put down because feeding her was too expensive. She was a lovely friendly little dog and I was horrified that she should be euthanized because of the few pennies it cost to care for her. I gave the woman a couple of pounds and Susan became mine.
Time passed and I still wanted a boat so I bought a set of plans for a small cruising yacht. Susan followed me everywhere as I built it, and as it developed she would happily sit on the deck, or curl up in the cockpit, confident I wouldn't go anywhere without her.
As the completion date drew closer, I began to think of a name for the boat. It was only a small boat, some twenty-three feet six inches over all and Susan was only a small dog. I thought it would be good to name the boat after the dog, but I Gybed at calling the boat Susan. As a compromise I decided to name it Little Dog. Later I revised this to Anjing Ketchil, which is Malay for Little Dog.
I had checked with a local crane hire company about getting the boat out of my back garden before I began the build, but when I approached them on completion of the build I discovered they no longer had a crane that would pass down my drive. Instead they offered a huge machine that would lift it over the house, which fortunately was a bungalow. So Anjing Ketchil became a flying boat for a short while.
Years later, when I was back at college studying naval architecture with plans to open my own yacht design office, I wanted a boat to my own design. It would give a bad impression to sail around in a boat from another designer's drawing board. I sold Anjing Ketchil and began work on a new design. The photos follow the process of building my trimaran, from the initial design to the launch.
Having found problems previously, getting the new boat from where I'd built it, the drive at our new home became a parameter in the design. As a result I settled for a trimaran, which would be demountable with the main hull and floats to be assembled on the slipway. This was not a radical change in design philosophy as I'd become interested in multihull design some years earlier, and trimarans in particular. I needed something a little different to the normal boat to create a floating advertisement.
With all these inputs I designed a trimaran to enter the Offshore Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, the OSTAR. It would be built to the limit of the rules. I aimed for the smallest class, to minimise the costs, but a displacement boat's speed is proportional to its waterline length. Although light compared to monohull craft, multihulls of this nature are still displacement boats. The rules for the smallest class in the OSTAR stipulated that the waterline length was limited to twenty-eight feet. So my boat would be twenty-seven feet eleven and one half inches on the water. Over all it would be thirty feet and as the drive was just seven feet, the maximum beam for the main hull would be a little over six feet, but that would be well above the design waterline. At the water the maximum beam would be a meagre three feet.
After the initial design work the floats were even more extreme. The same length overall and waterline length as the main hull, they had a mere twelve inches maximum beam. They would slice through the water like a knife on edge, their wave-making resistance minimal. They were also designed so they were unable to support the full displacement of the boat. That was the theory, but how dynamics would affect the lift was an unknown.
I used the university tank test to develop the design, and found some surprises, redesigning the main hull as a result of the early tests. The final design was greatly improved compared to that initially drawn. Tank testing is expensive, but as a student I could use the tank to develop my final year project without charge. I made the most of the opportunity.
The initial task was to erect a temporary cover over the back garden to protect the project. That temporary shelter remained for five years, the time it took to build the trimaran. By that time the OSTAR was history and the rules for the next race, some four years later, had been altered. No longer did the design comply with the smallest class, but that's life.
The main hull was designed like an egg, built in cold-moulded timber, and sheathed in fibreglass, bonded to the timber with epoxy. It's a very strong structure. For a thirty foot boat, the trimaran was extremely light, just 3,900 pounds, (1770 kilograms.) Finally the boat was finished and I arranged to have it transported to a local slipway where the hull and floats were assembled. The boat was launched and to my relief she floated to her designed marks, twenty-seven feet eleven and one half inches on the water. We motored up the River Itchen to my neighbour's jetty.
The following Sunday, we celebrated the launch and held a naming ceremony, where my wife broke a bottle of French champagne over the bows. It had been provided by her brother and he'd come to watch, so we had no alternative but to use it as he intended. Once again the boat was named after our dog.
We had a black and white Afghan hound, or as some people insist, black and silver. That gave us the paint scheme — black hulls, white decks. The boat performed extremely well, until I filled it with stores with the intention of sailing it to Australia. Loaded for that trip the trimaran displaced about twice that designed, so instead of riding over the waves like a thoroughbred, it smashed through them. Due to the extra loading this increased the stresses on the structure, way over the design levels. A few days after leaving England I discovered that the heel fitting at the mast was beginning to disintegrate. It was one of the few parts of the boat I hadn't made myself. I was reluctant to abandon the voyage, but with over 12,000 nautical miles still to cover I had no alternative, so after a calming cognac, I turned the boat round to return to England.
Once the decision to abandon the trip was made, there was never any doubt that it was correct. You're a long time dead.
© Jim Ditchfield 2017