A shoal-draught that enables you to boldly go where most cruising yachts cannot go is just one of the pluses of the Norwalk Islands Sharpie, writes Petrea Heathwood.
Ten years ago, after years envying the versatility of shoal-draught yachts, my partner and I advanced from our beloved production boat into the fascinating world of wooden boats. An advertisement for an unfinished Norwalk Islands Sharpie 31 fired our imagination.
Nine metres long but drawing only half a metre with the board and rudder raised. A flat centre keelson ensured she dried out upright and best of all ð designed as part of a series by Bruce Kirby, the renowned designer of the Laser dinghy. The interior photos fuelled our desire: varnished mahogany, cedar, teak, and bronze. A delightful contrast to the white gelcoat and teak trim we were familiar with.
Talisman was the dream of a young couple who lavished all they had on her. Unfortunately life intervened in the boatbuilding process; the couple split up and the boat offered for sale, oh so close to completion. The delivery voyage was swift, on a low loader from Adelaide to Brisbane.
Our intense preparation for a maiden cruise was interrupted by life throwing another spanner into Talisman's career. My partner unsuccessfully fought a major health challenge, and so it was that I eventually sailed north alone.
Talisman's hull is moulded gaboon ply and epoxy, with a heavily fibreglassed lead shoe forming the keelson. She's virtually flat underneath, with a swing centreboard and rudder. With the ballasted board down she draws two metres. The whole exterior is epoxy-saturated and glassed, allowing minimal maintenance. The hatches, cockpit seats, and cabin sole are all overlaid with teak.
She's a masthead ketch, a rig I initially found complicated and inefficient, but have learned to love. The main difference to a sloop is she can't sail directly downwind because the mizzen blankets the mainsail. But her speed headed up slightly with all sails drawing compensates for any extra distance sailed. In heavy weather she will blast directly downwind with mizzen stowed and jib poled out.
The headsails are hanked on because I like the simplicity and ease of changing jibs. I have fitted downhauls on all sails so I can reliably douse them from the cockpit. Reefing and hoisting can also be done without going forward. There are no extra sails apart from my little “Cooktown” jib, which is useful anytime the wind tops 15 knots. In light air I practise patience as an alternative to dedicating stowage space to more sails.
On the subject of motive power I have to admit that until recently Talisman had no engine. The original outboard motor proved troublesome and was ignored for so long I decided to stop carrying it. Last December, after eight wonderful engine-free years, I installed a new lightweight 9.9hp four-stroke Yamaha. It has a hi-thrust prop designed for pushing displacement boats and a small charger to help the batteries along, so seemed like an ideal choice. True to form, I haven't actually used it yet, so its suitability remains untested.
Three deep-cycle gel batteries are charged by a pair of 64-amp Canon Uni-solar panels. They provide ample power for a frig, lights, VHF, radio/CD player, GPS, depthsounder, autopilot and deckwash pump, the sum of Talisman's electrical demands. A 600-watt inverter powers small appliances and charges drill batteries and the like. The anchor winch and everything else are hand operated.
The cambered cabin top allows 1.9m headroom. There's a self-draining anchor locker forward with a bulkhead separating it from the accommodation. Aft of this a large double berth covers the huge storage area provided by the sharpie hull shape. This storage is divided into six sections, some of which are airtight, providing the sealed storage so necessary for keeping mould at bay in the troIn the saloon settee berths each side also house integral tanks for 300 litres of freshwater. The half-height centreboard case divides this cabin and supports two fold-down tables. The galley is to port of the companionway with the nav. station to starboard.
Talisman is comfortable, fast and enjoyable to sail. She's seaworthy by design because all openings into the interior are high up and on the centreline. Her resistance to capsize is better than many modern boats, being self-righting from 140 degrees. I'm glad to say I haven't tested this beyond 90.
Shoal draught enables Talisman to lie afloat in many places denied conventional yachts. This opens an interesting range of cruising options and reduces dependence on marinas to a minimum. The handiness of the rig lets me sail into places that would challenge a less able boat and this, combined with a working draught of just under a metre with the rudder down, has allowed a lot of fun, satisfaction, and some memorably heart-stopping moments.
Unlike her smaller sister, NIS23 Charlie Fisher, which has crossed Bass Strait twice, Talisman hasn't done any adventurous voyaging. My favourite cruising area is the Queensland coast. I grew up on Moreton Bay, but these days the pollution and crowds keep me away. At the other extreme, I love visiting Lizard Island, especially in quiet times outside the cruising season. When I lived in Cooktown I could sail there in a day but often made the 50 miles into a leisurely two or three-day cruise. One day I'd like to venture right up Cape York again, taking advantage of the shoal draft to explore a bit.
To carry a decent dinghy on this size boat is a challenge. I once had an inflatable with a small outboard, which fitted neatly in an aft locker and carried two people and their cargo easily. But I like to row, and I dislike getting wet whenever I use the dinghy. Originally Talisman carried a pram dinghy on davits. That was fine, except it added too much weight aft. At the time I also had the outboard aft so I removed the davits and built a 1.8m plywood dinghy to fit on the cabin top. It's a joy to row, easy to launch, retrieve and drag up a beach, and will carry two at a pinch. Because it's so light and manageable I'm never tempted to leave it afloat overnight, or tow it.
Apart from 18 months restoring a farmhouse, I've lived on Talisman since I've owned her. She's proven nearly ideal and taught me a lot.
Petrea is a long-term live aboard cruiser and a former yacht rigger with a background of inshore and offshore racing. She is a regular contributor to CH on practical and destination topics.
For more about Norwalk Islands Sharpies go to www.nisboats.com