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Cruising Tales: The Two Old Girls

Beauty of the feminine gender comes in all forms. A beautiful bow may be pleasingly round or sharp. Comely buttocks may be broad or narrow, the rig tall or stumpy. But if she floats and can sail on at least a close reach, you’ll love her, no matter what.

In the charter fleet of St. Thomas in 1968 there were many lovely schooners, ketches and cutters from 33 feet to 80 feet long that could be considered classic yachts today. But two arresting and very different charter vessels stood out among the rest.

The first was Alicante, an 80-foot sea-going Dutch Tjalk (pronounced “chalk”) owned by Sy and Wendy Bradford who brought this unusual canal barge with its cutter rig to the charter pirate trade. Since the 19th century, a Tjalk yacht closely resembles an enlarged Boeier or Boier which, like Alicante, has an apple-shaped bow and stern, and rounded bot tom drawing around three feet. The mast was stepped in a tabernacle and carried a boomed, loose-footed mainsail with the typical Dutch curved gaff. A foresail set on the forestay and a jib on a running bowsprit.

Alicante also stood out from the other charter boats because of her magnificent, carved teak lion which crouched on top of the outboard rudder and her long, dagger-like leeboards. Unlike the very broad, fan-shaped boards used in inland waters and canals, her leeboards were cut so as to be concave on the inboard side and slightly hollowed on the outboard side, giving them a flattened aerofoil shape for greater efficiency to windward.

The other unusual charter boat was Ragnhild, a fifty-foot, traditional gaff-rigged Baltic Trader cutter owned by Ian and Wendy Critchley. Along with Romance, a brigantine windjammer and Flying Cloud, a three-masted schooner windjammer, Ragnhild was unique here.  Built in the early 1900s with a fine history embedded in her planks and a keel that crossed many oceans, she was slow and cumbersome compared to modern fiberglass boats, but she had a special character of her own that demanded respect.

As a classic, sturdy, heavily planked workboat, Ragnhild had a high, rounded bow and thick bowsprit with solid mast and sturdy rigging. The bulwarks and freeboard were high, the deckhouse large and hatches opened sideways. Pulleys on thick lines were used to raise the mainsail, foresail and jib and cleated on belaying pins. There were no stainless steel winches or cleats or anchor windlass.

You’d think it would take a big guy to handle all the heavy gear but Ian was tall and slight. There were various tricks and purchases used to work these old vessels as shown by the fishing schooners of Nova Scotia that were sailed by the captain, one crew and a boy.

Ian and Wendy did enough charters to get by but their interest was waning. They had “found religion” and were spending more time ashore working for their church than working on the boat. Ragnhild really started to suffer when they gave up chartering and had a child. As would be expected of an old, wooden boat that had had hard years, she started to leak.  It became a nightly ritual for Ian to pump out the bilges, by hand, of course. After several months, you could tell where the water went overboard because moss grew on the hull.

Pretty soon Ian was pumping four times a night. The old lady was showing her age and entering her final days. It became a battle between tending to the boat or tending to God.

God won. One afternoon they came back early, piled all their belongings and the baby into the dinghy and left. The old girl struggled. She was proud but she had seen too many miles in too many seas. But she still kept afloat for a few more days, refusing to give up. In the end, this dignified lady seemed to sigh and accept her fate. In deference to her age and dignity, the sea was kind and took her gently during a dark night when no one was looking. By morning, only her mast protruded, marking her passing.

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