From all the refined creations of the designer Iain Oughtred presented in the intriguing biography A Life in Wooden Boats, written by Nic Compton, one particular boat, the 14′11″ Elf, caught my eye and imagination. Based on Norwegian faerings with roots in the Viking era, the small but intrepid-looking Elf is a fascinating adaptation of ancient design to modern construction. I had built a couple of glued lapstrake plywood canoes, so the Elf was a natural choice for me.
The original faerings were built by hand and eye, and had slowly evolved during hundreds of years to meet the local conditions and particular purposes. Iain carefully studied every design and photo he could find, realizing no two faerings were alike. He had a commission for a boat smaller than the original ones, and after absorbing all he could find on the subject, he began drafting his own interpretation of the faering, adapting the structure for glued-lapstrake plywood.
Iain’s plans are famous for their elegance and detail, and Elf makes no exception to this. The package includes full-sized templates for the building molds, frames, and stems plus lines plan, construction plan, detail patterns, materials list, and construction notes. Add Iain’s own informative book Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual, and you should be good to go.
Iain recommends 9mm okoume or 7mm mahogany plywood for the hull and Douglas-fir, larch, or pitch pine for keel and frames. There are only two laminated frames in the center of the boat and smaller canted frames—rangs—aft and forward in the hull. The center and forward thwarts are installed aligned with the main frames further reinforcing the structure.
With basic woodworking skills, tools, and some practice in using epoxy, building Elf should not be too demanding. One critical step is to get fair and accurate lines on the three wide strakes of the hull. This can be achieved using plywood or bendy strips attached together to make patterns to transfer plank shapes from the molds.
In his book, Iain constantly uses various clamping methods to avoid the need for screws. Moving forward with the building process, I started to understand and appreciate this method more and more. The benefits of avoiding screws are less screw removal, fewer holes to be filled later, and perhaps a more elaborate structure. There are some stages where screws are necessary and unavoidable to get parts set correctly for gluing.
As the hull comes together, you really begin to admire the simple and functional structural design of the boat. Realizing the unadorned beauty of Elf, you will think very carefully before adding anything but the necessary fittings into the boat. It took a whole year before Iain dared to equip his own boat with sailing gear, and to that end, a slot for the daggerboard is cut to one side of the wooden, full-length keel and the daggerboard case is fitted forward of the center thwart. Iain has drawn a beautiful Norwegian-style rudder, and there are two options for rudder fittings. One has a long, curved rod held by two stem fittings that allows the rudder to be positioned high on the stem with the blade nearly clear of the water for rowing or beaching, or low with the blade fully submerged for sailing.
I chose a more conventional solution of common pintles and gudgeons and remove the rudder when I’m not sailing. With the 5′-long tiller, I can easily steer even while sitting in the middle of the boat.
The plans include drawings for oars and the traditional oarlocks called kabes. The oars are locked to kabes using rope loops. The loops need to be measured and spliced carefully for both a smooth rowing experience and to allow shipping the oars. The 9′ oars for the Elf have looms with flat backs and bottoms that fit the kabes and set the blades at the proper angle. The blades are long and narrow; their shape catches little wind while being effective.
The Elf weighs only 143 lbs and can easily be pulled up on a beach or onto a trailer singlehandedly, and two people can carry it. I bought a pair of inflatable beach rollers for effortless and harmless beaching; they fit under the thwarts when not in use and serve as flotation.
Once you get the Elf in the water, it will feel tender at first, but stable when you get settled on the thwart. Then the very first strokes will put a smile on your face. The hull resistance in slow speeds is remarkably low, and the boat is very easily driven. A peaceful pace for this boat is 3 knots, and by adding some effort, a knot more can be achieved. This seems to be the hull speed. The full-length wooden keel provides excellent tracking, and she turns smoothly. Because the Elf’s bow is much fuller than its stern, the forward thwart is the best choice for rowing alone; putting some gear or ballast in the stern will achieve proper fore-and-aft trim. For solo rowing, when the wind is abeam, rowing from the aft station will help prevent the hull from turning into the wind.
Because the span between the aft station’s kabes is 4″ less than the span at the forward station, you will lose some leverage rowing aft. For tandem rowing, the space between the two rowing positions is just enough.
The extreme lightness of the Elf has its virtues and drawbacks. It takes very little to move it, whether under oar power or sails. Lightly loaded, the hull sits high on water, and the upswept bow and stern add to windage. Although the hull can handle rough wave conditions, rowing against even a moderate breeze can be hard work. Waves also have an effect on the light hull, and its lack of momentum while tacking can lead to getting caught in irons. After you steer through the eye of the wind the Elf will start flying; off the wind it will accelerate quickly to surf down waves, occasionally exceeding hull speed.
Once you step into the Elf you are more than doubling its displacement, making it sensitive to both longitudinal and transverse trim. This can be disconcerting to a novice, at least to begin with, but very useful to an expert sailor accustomed to trimming and ballasting a sailing dinghy. The magic of faerings is in a narrow waterline beam for fast rowing, and a ’midships flare for ample reserve buoyancy to resist heeling while under sail.
Elf sails quite well even without the daggerboard. Before I installed the daggerboard case, sitting on the floor in the center of the boat was a sweet spot when sailing alone. The push-pull tiller rests conveniently on the center thwart, and I had unobscured views under the sail. When the wind picks up, you get more leverage from body weight by sitting on the thwart, or by hiking out on the gunwale. Sailing with a family of three aboard was also comfortable—my daughter would sit in front of the mast on the floor, I steered while sitting between center and aft thwarts, and our third crew sat between the center and forward thwarts. Loaded this way, Elf is very forgiving and stable.
Adding the daggerboard resulted in faster tacks and better windward performance. If you have camp-cruising in mind, I would seriously consider dispensing with the daggerboard and case to get good use of the stowage space in the center of the boat.
I deviated from the plans for the sailing rig. The plans call for a 53-sq-ft sprit sail, but I opted for a lugsail of similar size; lugsail is also a choice of preference by Oughtred for Elf’s big sister, the 16′ 6″ Elfyn. As designed, Elf’s mast is supported by an extra partner fastened at the sheer. I wanted to minimize the structures and have unobstructed access to the bow, so I used the forward thwart as the partner. With this arrangement, the mast bury is quite small, so I stayed the mast using the halyard as one stay, and a dedicated line as the other. Eventually, finding the right tweaks for the lug sail, balance was good. The area of the balanced lug sail that sets forward of the mast compensates for moving the mast location a little bit aft, so the center of the sail’s overall area is very nearly the same as that of the spritsail.
As Iain remarked about the Elf: “Getting such functional efficiency in such a simple shape is astonishing.” Build an Elf for rowing, sailing, or wandering solo with a light load of camping gear, you can hardly go wrong. Elf is packed with character. Give it time and opportunities, and it will eventually charm your eye and steal your heart.
Mats Vuorenjuuri is the father of three and an entrepreneur, making a living in graphic design, photography, and freelance writing. He is currently becoming a boatbuilder as well, offering boatbuilding and maintenance services through Nordic Craft. In recent years he has discovered the simplicity and joy of small boats after sailing various types including sail-training schooners. He wrote about cruising the Finnish coast in his Coquina in our May 2016 issue and about a Lakeland Row in January 2017.
Sail area, lug/52.72 sq ft
Is there a boat you’d like to know more about? Have you built one that you think other Small Boats Magazine readers would enjoy? Please email us!