Sailing the Sandbagger, Puffin

by editor

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Excerpts from articles published in The Apprentice No. 12, Autumn 1990:

Sailing Puffin by Lance Lee

I sailed in Puffin this afternoon. It is one of those splendiferous early fall days filled with light, vivid far distant horizons, turning leaves, and a sense of appropriate changes in the air. There was wind–a lot of it. We tucked in the deep reef, sniffed that wind, watched the little horses thinking out their initial dance movements in the outer harbor, and took the jib club ashore for some additions and subtractions. Just after noon we shipped the revitalized club, made shortened sail (that same reef), slipped out, and made for the lighthouse.

What an absolutely compelling little beast she is! I went filled with preconceived notions of a white-knuckle experience in a crowded anchorage, of a boat as tender as the very thought of that word, of a boat to keep your nerves always in second with a foot on the clutch and so forth. We had an ambrosial sail. We lamented the light wind in the spirit of perverse and calculating) sailors forever, and in the spirit of their calculations we got our wind, of course. We got used to her. We twirled in the inner harbor, tacked for a time, gybed her a bit, and cast off all of those prudent bits of line lashed into the belly of the sail. She matches any boat we have ever built for sheer pleasure to sail, that seat-of-the-pants rite which causes mankind to keep the game going. She is the most maneuverable boat we have ever launched and I have ever sailed.

She is far and away in a class by herself as to being the most intrinsically beautiful shape and aesthetically moving craft we have had anything to do with. I am very fond of Rita (Friendship sloop), and I love the Perseverance (Prospect Marsh pinky schooner); I felt of the Langille (Tancook whaler) that could face my Dad on the Far Shore some day as some sort of equal; the Robert Baker (Bob Baker Two Forty) has always made me joyful because no matter where I stood, stopped, sat or craned, her curves have blended into each other and made my eye extend beyond the space in which she rested; I believe our “gentleman’s wherries” are richly subtle shapes which give the bystander a pleasure comparable to that of the rower, and I have never ceased to believe the gigs (Bantry Bay) are certainly Egalité (name of one of the Bantries)- are simply elegant. But we have never produced an aesthetic feast like Puffin. 

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Racing Sandbaggers: Boats for the Daring by B.A.G. Fuller, excerpts. 

Despite all they say, there was a big chunk of fun knocked off this side of the world when we laid the old bag-wagons ashore and left them to rot. ––Rudder, 1892

On a summer weekend today, the waters of New Jersey, New York, and southern New England are filled with hundred of boats and dotted with boat sails, roiled by the wakes of high-speed motorboats. A century and more ago, the scene was working craft: schooners and square riggers carrying cargo, steamers with passengers and freight. Pleasure boating was largely a sport of the wealthy in great yachts manned by professional crews. In that motorless era, every town and farm had small wide shoal-draft catboats and sloops as a regular means of getting about. Out of these, around the time of the Civil War, came the sandbagger, one of the most exciting sailboats ever raced.

Sailboat racing was in its infancy. Participants generally met before a race to set out the rules. For small open boats, matching length made a race. This, coupled with a tradition and coast suited to shoal-draft working hulls, gave rise to a standard racing type: plumb stem and stern, beam about 40 percent of length, flared topsides like modern lightweight displacement boats, a large open cockpit with side decks, a jib and mainsail rig, and a stack of sandbags, generally filled with gravel which didn’t stay damp. The rules did not specify the sail area, and only the skill and daring of a boat’s crew limited the rigs. Shifting balast moved by an active agile crew made huge rigs possible. “The sandbagger was… a thing of small body and great wings.” –William E. Simmons

While it lasted, sandbagger racing was a rare form of sport, pitting daring men in over-rigged boats against each other with few holds barred. It was one of the most spectacular forms of racing and a hard training ground for those who founded today’s sport. Let’s try it again.

Below: Building and sailing Puffin, the Rockport Apprenticeshop built sandbagger, 1990. Puffin is a copy of A.Cary Smith’s 18′ Comet, of 1860. 

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