The Chesapeake Light Craft Skerry - Five Years Later

It's nice to put a few years between the launch of a new design and the associated excitement and swirl of press releases, and look back at how a given design has landed after a few hundred are built. Privately, one of the things I always liked about my Skerry design was that it wasn't the result of focus group testing or marketing research. It was a boat I imagined I would enjoy rowing and sailing, so I built one. People liked it, and we made it a Chesapeake Light Craft kit offering. I'm pretty sure that the more whimsical the creation, the more elegant the result.

There were a couple of things I was thinking about when I drew the Skerry's lines. The first was the tendency of stitch-and-glue boats, most especially those designed on computers, to have excessively fine ends. I really like the plywood boats designed by the Atkins, père and fils. In plan view, the ends of their boats are filled out nicely above the waterline, which adds a lot of volume to the hull without making it tubby or blunt. Those boats (built on molds) aren't hard to build, so if the lay of the planks is carefully thought out they should work as stitch-and-glue boats, too. This took some fooling around in the computer, a blunt instrument if ever there was one.

The other consideration was ease of construction, and minimizing the amount of carpentry to be done. The rails are the only solid wood in the boat aside from the spars and tiller. Everything else is plywood. This means that builders can prefabricate almost every piece, and then assemble the hull like a giant airplane model. The jigsaw puzzle approach took a lot of careful thought and drafting work but has proved itself in hundreds of hulls.

There was a prototype that didn't make it. It had the same overall dimensions and plan view, 15'0" long and 4'6" wide, but with a wider bottom and more freeboard. This would have made a terrific little sailboat, powerful and voluminous. But I wanted something that was more easily driven with oars, so I redrew the hull with a narrower waterline and a lower sheer. In the process, the boat took on a Scandinavian look, especially in the sharp flare of the sides. You can find photos of small Norwegian faerings that look a great deal like the Skerry, with their wide strakes and swoopy sheer. "Skerry" is an old Norse word that, among other things, means "small boat."

Picking up on the Scandinavian theme, I chose a very simple sprit rig that copied the proportions of the sprit rigs seen on faerings. The spars are short so the whole bundle of sticks can be stored inside the boat. The rig is nevertheless powerful for its size. Skerry #1 was sailed with a loose-footed sail for a few months. It was obvious, however, that although the loose-footed sail was convenient for rowing and rigging, there was a big performance cost on almost all points of sail. I made up a taller mast and added a boom to the same sail, and it felt like I had added 40% to the sail area.

The rig has been criticized, though never by anyone who's actually sailed the boat. Armchair observers of the published sail plan complained that the sail was too small, the boom too high, and the peak too low.

First, as to size, it's important to remember how light the Skerry is: only 95 pounds, 30 pounds less than a Laser dinghy. There are kayaks that weigh that much. The loaded hull sits on a waterplane that measures 12'3" x 3'6", a skinny, easily-driven shape. 56 square feet of sail works out to a sail area-displacement ratio similar to a Laser. The Skerry jumps right up to hull speed if there's any wind at all, and when the whitecaps are up, the crew doesn't have to exhaust themselves keeping the Skerry upright. As a casual day sailer, this is desirable. The lower peak echoes the shapes of the classic faering sails, and for the same reason: it keeps the center of effort low and the spars short.

I set the boom up high so that the boat can be rowed when the sail is set. This has been a universally praised attribute of the Skerry. The ability to jump to the oars to maneuver away from shore or around an obstacle is critical, I believe. In many small boats, the rig clutters the boat up so badly that you can't row when you really need to.

Rowing was essential to the design brief and the Skerry glides right along with 8-foot oars, thanks to the narrow waterline and low wetted surface afforded by the flat bottom. I can and have rowed the Skerry all day long. Don't forget a bit of foam to plug up the daggerboard trunk.

There have been over 250 built, an astonishing number for a traditional small craft. Many builders have sent in reports of camp-cruising along wild shores, something the Skerry is well suited to. About the only thing I don't like about the design is the interruption of the interior by the center seat and daggerboard case, which precludes sleeping aboard. A few builders are experimenting with open interiors and lee boards, a modification I endorse, although I expect there to be a performance cost.

(One clever builder turned his Skerry into a take-apart, by incorporating two bulkheads in the center and sawing the boat in half after it was assembled. It bolts back together at the bulkheads. He stores the boat in his 15th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago, transporting it to the street in the freight elevator for adventures under sail and oar on the Great Lakes.)

Most of the Skerries have been built from kits (See the "Build Your Own Skerry" - Time Lapse animation). In 2006 I was able to make ready a plans-only option and that has proved popular. I expect to see a lot of interesting modifications in the plans-built boats.

Two builders are currently building Skerries with gunter-sloop rigs of my design. I'm waiting on a performance report before making that an option in the kit and plans. I suspect those boats will be very fast but also a little tender and not nearly so relaxing for an afternoon's sail.

John C. Harris
Chesapeake Light Craft
Annapolis, June 2006

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