Time for a little bit of fun

New Boat: NorseBoat 17.5

Caroline Strainig goes for a sail on a boat a little different from the norm – the classic-looking NorseBoat 17.5.

Driving from the NSW Central Coast where I live to Pittwater just north of Sydney gave me plenty of time to think about the boat I was going to see: the NorseBoat 17.5. Yes, that's right, 17.5. And we're talking feet here, not metres, so this is pretty small as boats go that have featured in this column. In fact, it is the smallest I can remember. Somehow, with all the financial gloom and doom out there, it seemed appropriate. Forget those big, flash, shiny multi-hundred-thousand-dollar production boats, what was needed was a bit of affordable fun. Would the Norseboat 17.5 deliver it though?

First sight did not disappoint. Sitting on a trailer in the carpark near the Bayview ramp, the NorseBoat 17.5, looked a classic “pretty” boat and as if she would be an easy boat to rig, launch and sail.

Built in Nova Scotia, Canada, the NorseBoat 17.5 – and her younger sibling, the NorseBoat 12.5 – were inspired by Viking boats, as one would guess from the name, and also the skiffs used by New Jersey fishermen in the 1800s. She has a plumb bow and classic sheer reminiscent of many wooden boats.

The concept was: “a simple, seaworthy, high-performance day-sailer with classic lines that could be sailed and rowed equally well, and if desired used as a comfortable camp-cruiser.” The creators also tried to be modern and innovative in achieving it and have called the result “the Swiss Army Knife of small boats”.

Although on the face of it very much a bay and river boat, one of the first NorseBoat 17.5s won her class in the 2004 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a gruelling 300nm coastal expedition race in Florida, and repeated the feat the next year. If that is not enough, at the time of writing, a two-man team of Royal Marines from the UK were about to set out to sail, row and, when necessary, drag their NorseBoat 17.5 across the ice in their attempt to navigate the arctic's legendary Northwest Passage. Good luck guys! (Visit www.arcticmariner.org to find out how they fared.)

The 17.5 has also featured in magazine awards, winning accolades from the US's Sail and Practical Sailor magazines. The success of the 17.5 and sales nearing 100 in only a few years prompted the company to come out with a 12.5 version, with a 21.5 currently on the drawing board.

Australian distributor Ian Jackson saw the 17.5 at the Annapolis Boat Show in the US and fell in love, immediately securing Australian rights. He brought two 17.5s out to Australia shortly afterwards and exhibited for the first time at the Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show in May, with one boat already snapped up by a WA buyer. The other he is keeping for now as a test boat on Pittwater.

Design and rig

Okay, so we've set the scene, but what do you actually get for your dough in terms of boat and physical accessories?

Well, the best of old and new. Enough timber features to make it look classic but modern low-maintenance fibreglass, gelcoat and a carbonfibre mast. You can buy three different models, ranging from $30,995 to $41,000, which vary in particular aspects and number of options included, although all come with a Dunbier CL 5M-13 trailer and trailer registration. Options include an all-wood boat and a “green” Torqeedo electric outboard.

The NorseBoats are gaff-rigged cats with a free-standing mast and signature curved gaff yard. Sail-wise, a fully battened mainsail comes as standard and you can purchase a furling headsail and furlng drifter. All sails are Dacron and by Norths. Deckware is by another renowned manufacturer – Harken. Two rowing stations are provided but only one set of oars, so you will want to tick the options box if you and your partner are likely to fight over who gets to row and who gets to sit back and relax. You can buy a bimini and dodger for shade while sailing and a fill-in section to enclose the cockpit for camping.

Sheets and halyards are colour-coded and come back to jammers on the cabin top under the dodger, with ends stowing neatly in two bags.

There is no traveller – and nor would one expect it on a cruising boat this size. The mainsheet block attaches to a short rope about half a metre long that runs across the cockpit from seat to seat, with the block sliding from side to side on the rope.

Sheets come back to jammers adjacent to the centre of the cockpit and easily reached from the helm. There is provision for two slab-style reefs.

Stowage is in four compartments, including a larger one forward under the mast, which slots in through said compartment, so make sure there is no gear in there when you put the mast up or it could catch and jam.

The test boat had no boom, which theoretically does mean that it is harder to flatten the sail to depower, and you also cannot sheet in to get as high a pointing angle, and I noticed that in some of the pics I saw of NorseBoats they had a boom.

Ian confirmed the initial concept did include a simple spruce boom attached to the mast with a wooden hoop, but said the boat had evolved since then.

“Now fully battened, the sail holds a perfect shape without the aid of the boom,” he said.

“Some purists, particularly in Europe where NorseBoat sales are strong, and second only to North America, insist on the inclusion of the boom as part of the standard rig. However, experts disagree that any measurable improvement in sailing performance is obtained through its use. The main reason for inclusion of a boom in Europe today appears to be its contribution to the traditional appearance of the rig.

“I'd say that the marginal performance gained by the use of the boom is more than offset by the reduced risk of having no boom in place.”

If you have your heart set on a boom, you can buy one for $253.

Rigging

We were chatting as we went, so I was unable to time accurately how long it took to rig, but although a bit finicky in parts as such things are, a couple could probably rig or de-reg in less than half an hour when working as an efficient team. Having helped rig trailer-sailers where the mast is so heavy two people really struggle to raise and drop it, I particularly liked the carbonfibre mast, which weighs only eight kilograms.

Launching was easy. I just sat in the boat while Ian reversed the trailer gently into the water, let the boat slide off and then pulled it across to the sandy beach. I didn't even have to get my feet wet to hold it while he parked the car.

Sailing

We had varying winds during the test sail, ranging from nothing to up to gusts of about 15 knots. I found the NorseBoat a lot like a Maricat 4.1 catamaran to sail in terms of pointing and leeway. We used the larger, light-air drifter instead of the jib and while it did give us more speed and pointing ability, the latter was only marginal and the boat sails reasonably well without a headsail. We had no log, but she seemed to cut through the water with a good turn of speed.

In the gusts the boat heeled sharply – as one would expect of a light, drop-keel vessel – and you did have to be quick on the mainsheet to release it to avoid burying the gunwales. It would be easy to ship some water, although the 17.5 has good flotation, so the only risk is to your pride and, of course, the hard yakka of pumping the bilge. Ian has personally put this to the test, by not releasing the sheet, filling the boat half full of water and seeing what happened. Ten minutes later he was underway again.

We used the Mercury 3.5hp four-stroke long-shaft motor only a couple of times, one of which was to let me off on a jetty so I could take pictures.

Coming back to the beach we simply tick-tacked in, raising the drop keel and rudder as we closed the beach.

Interestingly, everywhere we went the boat was a talking point, with people approaching us to ask about her, obviously loving the classic look, fun red-and-white paintwork and colourful drifter.

A freelance cameraman who does work for ABC and SBS television even said hello, offering to send Ian some pics he had taken last time he saw the boat out.

Summary

I liked her. It's the sort of boat that would be ideal for a retired couple. You can imagine them getting up in the morning, looking at the sunshine outside, checking the weather forecast and then heading out to day-sail her on a quiet bay, maybe pulling over to a deserted beach to have a picnic lunch along the way. Or, on a windy day, exploring up a river or creek.

While the cost sounds high for such a small boat, you get what you pay for and the work involved in building a boat is immense.

Yes, I think I can safely say that the NorseBoat 17.5 does deliver when it comes to affordable, fun sailing.

SPECIFICATIONS

LOA 5.33m

LWL 4.57m

Beam 1.57m

Draught

Board up 0.20m

Board down 0.94m

Mainsail area 9.76sqm

Optional jib area 3.16sqm

Optional drifter area 6.04sqm

Mast height 5.33m

Mast weight 8kg

Berths One double

Storage compartments Four

Motor min/max 2hp/4hp

CE design category D

Maximum persons Six

Loaded displacement 495kg

Lightship displacement 240kg

Max load 735kg
(person + gear + outboard)

Dunbier trailer weight 240kg

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