Small is Beautiful 

(Some call them crazy, but this special group of sailors have one discovery in common: it’s not necessary to invest an entire life’s savings to obtain a world cruising yacht. ) - from 1984 article in Australian magazine, Modern Boating.

Moored beside the glamour boats inPapeete or Suva or any of the World’s crossroads, they are barely noticeable.  They look like trailer sailors, but the little yachts have an air of having crossed oceans, a windvane swings at the stern, a courtesy flag flies from the crosstrees.  

Claude and Genevieve Desjardins are French Canadians from Quebec.  Claude, aged 26, is Mr. Average in appearance, clean-shaven, with a bank clerk’s hairstyle carefully parted on one side, he wears gold-rimmed spectacles which reinforce his office worker image.  Genevieve is 23, and her one touch of flamboyance is her strikingly-long auburn hair.  But they are not ordinary people, the boat in which they have sailed a quarter of the way around the World is 18ft long.  They call her Pere Peinard, which means “quiet and lazy”, the way you feel when you go fishing.  But life on the big Ocean in an 18-footer is frequently anything but quiet.

“In a little boat like this,” said Claude when I spoke to him in Papeete, you expect at least one knockdown on a long trip.  For us it happened very early, on a lake in Canada.  I had too much sail up when we were hit by a squall.  The boat was knocked flat and the crosstrees hit the water.   My father was below making coffee at the time and he poked his head out the hatch and said: “What are you doing?”

Claude and Genevieve say they are often dubbed crazy, but a close look at their boats shows a meticulous approach to safety.  Genevieve calls her husband affectionately “this crazy perfectionist”.

Pere Peinard was designed by Bruce Roberts as a trailer sailer, but Claude made a host of changes as he built her.  The hull is cold-moulded timber.  He added a bowsprit, made the cockpit smaller, changed the keel, the coachroof and many other details.  Mindful of the tiny boat’s vulnerability Claude has made it virtually unsinkable.  There are no through-hull fittings, not even a hawsepipe; the anchor is carried on deck.  The aft section of the boat is sealed with an airtight bulkhead, and spare corners are filled with foam.  “We can make the boat airtight, “says Claude. “And it will float even if full of water.”

Claude was a student when he began building.  His philosophy in opting for such a small boat was to spend his few dollars on the best equipment he could afford.  The windvane system is the well-proven Navik and he carries one and half more in spares.  There’s nothing below in the way of luxuries, not even a head, but he carries a comprehensive set of electrics and hand-operated carpentry tools which have enabled him to earn money working on other peoples’ boats.  Auxiliary power is a 6 hp outboard motor, and charging for the vessel’s small electrical needs is from a solar panel.

Below there is sitting [head] room only.  There’s a single bunk each side with double in the forepeak.  A tiny kerosene cooker slides out onto one bunk from beneath the cockpit seat and a few navigation manuals peep out from the other.  When you ask about things like two–way radio and Satnav, Claude and Genevieve laugh.

34-year old Terje (pronounced Terry) Dahl was an advertising executive in Oslo when he decided impulsively he wanted to sail around the world.  He believe his 22-footer Coco Loco is the smallest Norwegian vessel to make the attempt.  Coco Loco is a stock Pelle Petterson Maxi design.  Terje chose the GRP yacht because it was a beginner’s family boat and “built strong.” He says it has justified his faith many times.

It took only 18 months of full-time work for Terje to buy the boat and save enough money to live for 10 years  in the Pacific.  Unlike the Desjardins whose chief motivation is love of sailing, Terje likes arriving in port and getting to know the locals.  When we first met him, his yacht tied to the copra wharf at Ahe in the Tuamotus, he was on first-name terms with half the people in the village.  Most evenings you’d hear the sounds of guitars and ukeleles from Coco Loco, and most days Terje was out fishing or lobstering or otherwise living off the land with his friends.  

His auxillary is also an outboard, his reasoning being if it breaks down seriously he’ll drop it over the side and get a new one.  His navigation gear consists of two plastic sextants and a wristwatch.  He has a radio receiver for time checks, a primus stove and, like Pere Peinard, solar-charged electricity.  Terje says the boat sails well, behaves well in bad weather, and is missing only three things: headroom, a toilet, and a place to hang his good going ashore clothes.

32-year old Manuel Earisoan was a draftsman in Spain when he scraped together every last peseta to buy a 25 ft GRP Elvstrom-designed yacht.  He named her Intxea, Basque for House in the Wind.

Manuel left Spain solo in 1982 with $8 in his pocket and Intxea’s first real test was indeed windy, hove-to for five days in a blistering Mediterranean mistral which reached 130 km/h.  Manuel learned that his little boat was as seaworthy as one twice the size.  He repeated a theme echoed by the Desjardins and Terje Dahl: in gale conditions small boats are so buoyant they bob over the seas rather than getting hit.

Manuel’s boat is pretty basic as far as creature comforts go.  There is no auxiliary motor, no head (of course),  no radio, no electric light, just a little tape recorder for music, powered by a battery which he recharges ashore.  However he has a high-quality chronometer and barometer and no fewer than 11 sails to cope with all ranges of weather.

Like the other small-boat people I spoke Manuel has made surprisingly fast passages.  During his Atlantic crossing he frequently did 140 miles per day and his best run ever was 170, which I find scarcely believable for a 25 footer.  Did the home made windvane cope with this?  He shrugs, “I am here.”

“In the Atlantic,” says Manuel, “my mentality was perfect.”  Three days from Barbados he felt he couldn’t bear to stop sailing and altered course to continue to Venezuela, where he landed after a 24-day crossing from the Cape Verde Islands.

Other small-boat skippers report surprisingly fast runs too.  Terje in Coco Loco frequently cracks 120 to 130 miles per day in tradewind conditions, while Claude and Genevieve in Pere Peinard left the Galapagos at the same time as two Westsail 32s and beat them by two days to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas.

Claude is proud of his boat’s performance in boisterous weather.  “At one time,” he says in his mild way, “we averaged 6 knots for 10 hours, 2 knots more than our hull speed. The speedo was stuck many times on 10 knots but the boat was quite controllable.  A 40-footer in the same area filled its cockpit three times but we never shipped any heavy water.  Taking in a reef is a laugh.  My feet never leave the companionway.”

The only time size is a crucial factor, says Claude, would be if he had to beat off a lee shore in severe weather.  But Terje on Coco Loco has a different view.  “Beating off a shore in 45 knots, a big boat can have as many problems as a small one.  It depends on the shape of the waves.”

One thing every small-boat voyager must guard against is overloading.  Pere Peinard now has less gear than when she started out.  Two 22 litre jerry cans lashed to the deck make such a difference in trim that Claude always keeps them on the weather side.  He posted home most of his library because when he moved the box of books around, it noticeably altered the trim.

A certain camaraderie exists among the small-boat sailor; even if they haven’t met they all know about each other.  Claude thinks eight or nine boats under 25 ft are on their way around the World.  He contemplated starting a club with three conditions of entry: The boat must measure less than 25 ft overall (7.6m), have no standing headroom, and no head.

Compared with ordinary yachts, these simple little craft cost practically nothing to run.  Other cruising yachtsmen arrived in port with a list of spares to buy and maintenance jobs as long as their waterlines.  The small boat skippers simply go ashore and enjoy.  Manuel says, “The only thing I spend money on is food.  The boat costs practically nothing.”

The three in whom I spoke all freely admitted that their prime reason for thinking small was economy, but none was in a hurry to change.  Clearly if it meant the difference between going to sea or staying at home, a small boat was better than no boat.  Manuel summed it up nicely when I asked him why he sailed.  “There are three reasons,” he said.  “I like to travel, I like the sea and why not?”