A Boat on the Side
20Mar/100

A hopelessly biased view of a racing Gaff Cutter!

Secret racing on Sydney Harbour


There are already reams of written analyses concerning the great Wall Street card houses and their inevitable collapse but to the average sailor it boils down to one question – “How can I keep sailing?”

Downsizing is de rigueur and looks likely to remain that way for some time. For those of us who are getting creakier by the year racing dinghies are out so where are we to go?

In the second half of the 20th century the western world, and in particular the UK where the writer spent most of his life, sailing underwent a major revolution.

In post war Europe the emphasis switched from the Royals and the captains of industry to the captains of dinghies such as the Enterprise, the International 14 and the 505s – all still going strong. In short, sailing and weekends hacking around the cans came within the reach of the common man.

From the horrors of World War II came a longing for not only peace but for fun. My father, fresh from the North Atlantic convoys, bought an Enterprise and the whole family went racing. In the short English summers the bays and estuaries were packed with sails.

Subsequently dinghy sailing fell out of fashion as a new world order embraced compulsory television - flogging sails and freezing spray lost their appeal. Now in the 21st Century the cycle completes another revolution and small day boat numbers are on the rise again, especially on harbours like Sydney – surely one of the world’s finest.

For the boy (or girl) racer in all of us the choices post skiff pre-senility are as limited as the cash available so let me suggest one seriously viable alternative.

The boat is a Secret 20, a pretty little trailerable gaff cutter straight out of the Roaring Twenties and roar she does. Her genteel gaff rig, near plumb bow and graceful counter doesn’t exactly shout speed but under the boot topping is a semi-displacement hull form closer to a Transat than a Ranger.

Secret’s keel is three quarters long but as with the rudder, is carefully foiled to maximize lift and minimize drag. She carries a lot of sail for a 20 footer and sets a huge gennaker too.

So far so good, but how does she sail?

Good question and the answer is – surprisingly well – in light airs right up with say a J24. Once the wind pipes up she’ll fall back a bit and by 20 knots you’ll be reefed or spilling madly unless you have a couple of hired footballers on the side deck.

And to windward? Another big surprise – the sight of a low aspect gaff cutter fending off Bermudan rigged centreboarders is probably hard to believe but those underwater lines, keel and rudder profile really do seem to work. Add to the mix some well cut sails from one of Queensland’s up and coming sailmakers and you’re beginning to get the picture.

This little boat could be very appealing for the not too serious competitors, even better with a fleet of them.

So that’s the racers, particularly non mainstream classic boat aficionados satisfied, but there’s creature comforts and cruising to consider - and while you can’t have everything, this innovative little boat surely comes close.

There’s a huge cockpit and comfortable bunks for two, a tiny sink, room for a single burner, a port-a-potty under the companionway and space for another two overnighters under a boom tent. You’ll be mad to spend more than that a weekend on any twenty-footer but I think the Secret is a fair enough compromise. The cockpit is self-draining too, so showers are possible via a black bag slung on the boom, at least here in Australia.

For serious sailors Secrets have been tested in Force 5 and passed with flying colours. The full sail wardrobe consists of a main with two deep reefs, a roller furling staysail, two flying jibs, a full cut gennaker and a storm jib.

I’d like to set a water sail, but a jackyard topsail is not on for the 20s. The new 26 will have one however as will the Secret 37 – both boats awaiting buyers not connected with the futures trade.

Disadvantages are bound to rear their watery heads and Secrets are no exception. Inboards are out – they spoil the vital keel/rudder interface and the deepish keel means you can’t really beach them, even though they only draw two feet.

There are, however, some neat auxiliary options such as a 2 HP 4-stroke Honda – quite enough grunt for an easily driven trailer sailer and even better, a 2 HP Torqeedo electric with a range of anything up to 12 hours.

The batteries double as useful trimming ballast too. Trailering isn’t a disadvantage however – with an all up weight of 650 kg including around 200 kg of ballast, a regular 4-cylinder 2-litre car is enough, unless you’re taking her up to the Whitsundays.

Maintenance, though, is likely to be an issue with any timber boat, so to keep them looking good a disciplined program works wonders. Gaff rigs are notoriously complex too, although lots of snap shackles and a short hollow mast on a tabernacle help.

Owners report around an hour from arrival at the ramp to sailing away, although Sydney agent, Chris Ellard of Windward Mark, claims half that, but he’s had a couple of years practice.

In the UK, Max Campbell is the one to talk to – he ordered his Secret four years ago and liked her so much he bought the European agency. Since then he has sold 10 Secrets, most of them before he even finished his own. One UK customer bought two – one to race and one to sell.

Max reports that he has so far achieved some 7.5 knots when the boat was “almost surfing” and hopes for much more with the right conditions, a bit more practice and a heavy crew member on a trapeze (yes they are allowed!)

The UK sailors hope to have a nucleus of six or seven boats on the water for the coming European summer.

Now all this sounds pretty impressive, but how much are we talking about here? Brand new ready to sail boats are only available custom built to order and they’ll set you back $70,000 or so, but there’s another way.

The Secret, along with every other boat in the range, is available as a kit for about $22,000 depending on specs, which is entirely reasonable.

The boats are built in a composite of marine ply, strip plank and glass sheathing via an all inclusive kit. Clearly you’ll need a double garage and a year of dedicated weekends plus a friendly mate, who happens to be a tradesman, but it’s certainly possible – some 300 assorted kits have been successfully built from the range.

Back to racing, it’s never been cheap, and it’s always been on the edge of excess, but we’ll never stop doing it – the sea siren relentlessly and recklessly calls, so we’ll just have to answer it. Twenty two grand isn’t too bad for a hot shot gaffer to impress both the peers and those on the piers.

Realistically you’ll probably spend more – that figure doesn’t include outboard, trailer or gennaker – all essential items for serious sailors.

The questions remain, however – are they really that good? Someone should challenge Chris Ellard or Max Campbell to some competition with impartial observers. Max in the UK has, however, done just that with a major road test in Watercraft magazine (March/April 09). Apparently even well-weathered marine journalists were impressed.

Lastly, there’s the waiting list – well what do you expect? It’ll be June at least before Chris can start a new one so the impatient inner city apartment dwellers will have a problem there – to date no Secrets have ever been built in a tower block, but where there’s a will, there’s a way – the Friday afternoon sea beckons.

Further information: Scruffie Marine Pty Ltd, Derek Ellard, Phone (07) 5545 1015, email: info@scruffie.com, or: www.scruffie.com and www.whisperboats.co.uk

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