Here’s a flat-bottomed sharpie ketch that we can build in the backyard. This shoal-draft boat will sail on the morning dew, right itself after a knockdown, and leave most deep-keel cruisers in its wake.

The sheet-plywood Norwalk Islands Sharpie

The sheet-plywood Norwalk Islands Sharpie (above and opposite) can easily be built in the backyard, yet it outperforms more expensive yachts. Its simple cat-ketch rig needs no standing rigging (wire shrouds and stays that support the masts). The outboard-motor lifts into its own house when idle—no ugly mounting bracket, no hydrodynamic drag.

More than two decades back down the road, I visited with designer Bruce Kirby at his Rowayton, Connecticut, office. A crackerjack sailor, he was best known for his design work for the Canadian AMERICA’s Cup challenger and for having created the Laser, a sophisticated 14′ singlehander that revolutionized sailboat marketing in the 1970s.

I found the talented designer of high-tech sailboats hunched over the drawings for a simple sharpie that was to become the Norwalk Islands 26. He was excited about the design—with, history now suggests, ample justification. The easily built ketch sails fast on all points, offers reasonable cruising accommodations, and can handle rough water.

Sailing wing-’n-wing off the wind—no need for a spinnaker here.

Kirby drew a handy cat-ketch rig to power the NIS 26—no labor-intensive overlapping headsails or tiny, impotent mainsails here. Full-length battens support considerable roach, that is, curve to the leech (trailing edge) of each sail. This allows more sail to be carried on spars of a given length, and it provides a more efficient sail shape. As an additional benefit, these sails are quiet. They don’t flog wildly when luffing. But we need to pay attention, as fully battened sails won’t telegraph word of improper trim in the immediate manner of unsupported sailcloth.

This is a controllable rig. We can fuss with the tension and taper of the battens to alter sail shape. We can back the mizzen to stop the boat or put it into a slip. A word of caution: unless we actively control fully battened sails, they tend to keep sailing. Simply releasing the sheets won’t quickly stop the boat. We should remember this as we approach the dock, lest we come to rest in the parking lot.

The original NIS 26 rig measured 302 sq ft. After sailing the prototype, the designer increased the area to 340 sq ft. He also has changed from aluminum masts to sticks made from carbon fiber. The greater heeling effect of the larger sails seems to be offset by the lighter weight and greater flexibility in the upper portions of the tapered, thin-wall masts. In strong winds the masts bend, thus relieving tension on the upper leeches.

With a draft of only 10″, the Norwalk Islands 26 can sail through marshes.

Robert Ayliffe, who sails and sells Norwalk Islands Sharpies from his base in Australia, recently devised a nifty tabernacle that makes raising and lowering the sharpie’s masts a casual singlehanded operation. The boats now will get underway quickly from their trailers, and we’ll have ready access to bridge-blocked water. Given a 10″-deep stream no wider than your driveway, we can sneak our NIS 26 into it…to hide from a hurricane or simply to get away from the crowd. Plans for the NIS 26 describe both a two-berth interior and a “sleeps-four” production-boat layout that carries a double V-berth forward and two quarter berths in the main cabin. The centerboard trunk is tall, which allows it to house the required board. (A sharpie will not go well to windward without a centerboard of substantial area.) Much of this trunk resides innocuously below the sole of the self-bailing cockpit. The aftermost berths in both accommodation plans offer sumptuous seating in the main cabin, and we’ll make good use of the exposed portion of the trunk by hanging a dropleaf table from it.

Both plans show “enclosed” heads, but you should understand that we won’t find anything resembling true privacy aboard a 26′ sailboat.

Bring the boat right up to almost any shore.

The outboard motor, which provides auxiliary power, resides out of sight in its own house way aft. When not in use, the engine lifts vertically. We’ll not need to worry about dragging the propeller around the bay while we’re sailing, and we’ll have fewer concerns about corrosion of expensive machinery when we’re at the mooring.

All of this seems fine…but how, you might ask, can a sailboat that has no deep keel and that floats in only 10″ of water right itself? Here are some design rules to follow if you want a shoal-draft sharpie to pop up reliably from knockdowns and inversions: Draw the combined hull-house structure rather tall (say, at least 4′ for a 26′ boat). Keep the width on deck to an acceptable minimum so that the boat won’t become stable in an upside-down position. For the same reason, a strongly crowned housetop and/or deck will help (acting as a “round bottom” when the boat is inverted and providing plenty of volume where it’s needed). Concentrate structural weight low— make the bottom brutally heavy, as it will provide secure ballast as well as protection during hard groundings. To keep the center of gravity low, spread well-secured inside ballast in the bilge (do not pile it up against the centerboard trunk). Build the cockpit small, and be certain that it is self-bailing. Locate hatches near, or on, the boat’s centerline. Make the rig low and light. Last, be certain that everything is strong and tight. Yes, extremely shoaldraft boats really can right themselves without violating any laws of physics.

The brilliant performance of EXIT 12, designer Bruce Kirby’s prototype NIS 26 (right), surprised Long Island Sound sailors during the 1980s.

Not all sailors will like the appearance of a boat designed to the above parameters, but Kirby has a good eye. On the NIS 26, a strong sheerline and dark hull sides lessen the visual impact of substantial freeboard. Low house sides and extreme crown (athwartships curvature) to its top reduce the apparent height of the house. In all, this ketch has a seamanlike look about it.

So, there you have it, a fast and easy-to-build cruiser that will take us to shallow coves that lie just out back of nowhere.

Bruce Kirby’s drawings reflect the startling simplicity of the NIS 26, but this flat-bottomed sharpie has been well proven in tough conditions around the globe.


Plans for the Norwalk Islands Sharpie are available from the NIS Boats. .

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