Sailing a Tom Colvin Gaff Rigged Schooner

Tom Colvin was a naval architect who is revered for his extremely sea worthy steel sailboats. A friend of mine invited me along to take a look at one that has been sitting in the water for the past 6 years with no maintenance. The motor was dead and the rigging had been neglected, but at her heart, she is a sailboat who wants to explore!

With no motor, we sculled her out of her slip and almost made it out of the marina when the wind picked up. The headwind sent us right back into the marina and we changed course for a near by pier. After tying up, we ran a warp line from the schooner to the finger pier at the end of the marina (approximately 200 feet away) and secured the bitter end to a mooring cleat. Then we began pulling the boat by the warp line until we cleared the gap and came alongside the finger pier. The wind was directly on our nose, so we walked the boat all the way around the marina until we in a more favorable location. The wind was now on our beam and we would be simply push off the edge with plenty of seaway to get the sails up, kind of like jumping off a cliff with a glider.

We raised the staysail and foresail as we readied for launch. Once free of the pier, we raised the mainsail and jib and began our shakedown cruise under full sail! 

Gaff rigged schooners are an entirely different animal from any modern day rig. They carry immense amounts of sail area close to the water to avoid excessive heeling. The sails are spread out fore-aft instead of up-down. Since the sails are shorter, the masts are also shorter and rigging loads are lesser. This translates into much less tension on the stays allowing them to be easily rigged with wooden deadeyes and lashings. These large broad sails also require extra control lines which offer endless adjustability.

On a normal triangular sail, there are three corners (head, tack, clew) where on a gaff rig, there are four corners with their own names (head, throat, tack, clew). These extra control lines add extra complexity to sail trimming, but endless possibilities are available to you. Twist is entirely up to you as you can sheet in the end of the gaff to cup the sail or sheet it out to spill excess wind. 

We sailed around the inner harbor for a while, tacking and jibing our way up the river. Then the time came for me to return to shore, as I had an afternoon appointment that I needed to attend. The plan was to beam reach over to the pier and glide up alongside it, dropping sails and coming to a stop. What really happened is we lost our wind as we approached, lost our speed and started drifting to leeward putting us on a collision course with the fuel pier. 

We turned downwind to lessen the impact and to try to bring the boat broadside to the pier. The main concern was the 8 foot bowsprit taking out the fuel pumps! As we came in for the collision, two of us jumped ship with docklines to cleat them quickly and bring the boat to a halt. 

Thankfully, no damage occurred because The bobstay absorbed most of the impact and the steel hull was unphased by the collision! This was the conclusion of my journey aboard this wonderful steel schooner, but just the beginning for my friends who are looking to acquire her.

They are planning to circumnavigate the Northern Circle, sailing North of Canada, Alaska, and Russia. A steel hull will be a dream come true when dealing with icy waters, and a gaff rigged schooner will be wonderful during high latitude gales. 

I look forward to seeing their story progress through the years!

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