All youngsters might begin their waterborne adventures in flat-bottomed rowing/sailing skiffs. Easy to build, but difficult to design properly, these honest little boats teach lessons in seamanship and self-reliance. At the other end of life’s voyage, a good skiff will take gentle care of old folks as they sail comfortable miles to nowhere in particular.

Here’s a flat-bottomed 15’4″ sailing skiff from Karl Stambaugh, and it looks just right. The talented young designer drew this boat for his dad to build in retirement. Carlton Stambaugh made a fine job of putting it together with plywood, epoxy, and paint.

On a pleasant, slightly hazy, day in late spring, I drove through the rural Maryland countryside to meet the Stambaugh family at the Bellevue ferry pier on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay. Freshly planted corn and beans, big-wheeled tractors scurrying from one field to another along too-narrow blacktop roads…the scenery hasn’t much changed in the past three decades. In this place of easy living, the scourge of “land development” seems to have been slowed.

Sailing Skiff 15Photo by Mike O'Brien

The Sailing Skiff 15 demonstrates her fine hull shape and shoal (4″ ) draft as builder Carlton Stambaugh pulls the boat to the beach. His son, designer Karl Stambaugh, rests at the helm.

Just south of the pier, the sailing skiff made a fine sight as she paced the ferry along the Tred Avon River toward Oxford on the far shore. Halfway across, the simple little boat turned about and reached back in my direction. The Stambaughs, father and son, relaxed in the bilge and stern sheets. As JOY came close in, Karl spilled the wind from her sail and eased the boat up to the sand beach. I climbed aboard, and we worked off into the gentle onshore breeze.

With the sheet trimmed, JOY accelerated in the brisk fashion that befits a light (170 lbs) skiff. She is propelled by a Chesapeake-style leg-o’-mutton rig…simple, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. The tapered wooden mast requires no standing rigging (wires that support the masts of her more costly cousins). Unlike common booms that run humbly along the foot (bottom edge) of a sail, the sprit boom attaches at a sail’s clew (lower, after corner) and runs across the sail to the mast. There, an adjustable rope snotter secures the boom well above the sail’s tack (lower forward corner).

Sailing Skiff 15Photo by Mike O'Brien

A rope “snotter” secures the sprit boom to the mast…simpler, less expensive, and more adjustable than the usual bronze or stainless gooseneck fitting.

The press of a breeze tends to twist sails and lift the after ends of their booms…not necessarily a good thing. Common yacht-club rigs use special devices called “vangs” and powerful, carefully placed sheets (lines) to control this twist. Aboard this skiff the triangle formed by the sprit boom, the sail’s foot, and the mast automatically takes care of the problem. As the boom tries to lift, tension in the foot of the sail holds it down. To obtain flatter sail shape desirable for sailing in a fresh breeze, we’ll snug up on the snotter and the halyard (the line that hoists the sail). When the wind eases, we’ll slack off on the snotter and halyard to give more fullness to the sail. This will produce more power in light air. We’ll accomplish the modification with few, if any, blocks (pulleys) and no gooseneck (an often bronze, and always expensive, fitting that connects a conventional boom to its mast). Unless we have a relative in the marine hardware business, there seems little sense to rigging an ordinary boom on a boat of this size.

JOY sails with a light weather helm. The nicely tapered tiller pulls gently in our hands, and if we release it, the skiff rounds up easily into the eye of the wind. This pleasant behavior aids in working to windward and ensures that the skiff won’t sail away without us should we fall overboard. The shallow rudder provides adequate control and allows us to explore marshes and winding creeks, which often prove more interesting and less crowded than deep water. A horizontal plate attached to the lower edge of the rudder increases its effectiveness.

Sailing Skiff 15Photos by Mike O'Brien

To furl the sail, roll it around its leech (trailing edge)…simple, neat, and tight. Lift the mast out of the step, and the skiff is ready for the trailer. You’ll find no expensive standing rigging (wire stays and shrouds) to fuss with.

The pivoting centerboard gives sufficient lateral resistance, which keeps us from sliding helplessly sideways to leeward. This we will realize the first time that we forget to lower the board. Yes, the case, or trunk, consumes interior space, but it also serves as a comfortable armrest when the crew lounges in the bilge. And that’s where we’ll often find ourselves.

Most of us will prefer sitting on cushions spread in the bilge, while resting our backs against the skiff’s perfectly angled sides. The crew will be happiest sitting on the floorboards, facing aft and leaning against the ’midships thwart. Aboard JOY, the crew’s cushions are replaced by a modified canoe chair, which offers portable and sybaritic accommodation. By cutting away just a little of the ’mid-ship frame, we’ll be able to recline in the bilge for a good night’s sleep. Many folks have camp-cruised aboard less worthy boats, and the designer assures us that the structural modification is acceptable.

Sailing Skiff 15Photo by Mike O'Brien

The versatile Sailing Skiff 15 seems about perfect for the noble purposes of education and relaxation (and perhaps an occasional fishing trip).

We’ll build this sailing skiff with plywood, lumberyard stock, and epoxy. Stambaugh cleverly specifies solid (not plywood) sheerstrakes. These planks, which form the upper portions of the boat’s sides, will lend stiffness and a traditional appearance to our skiff. JOY combines the light weight and leak-free aspects of a plywood hull with the handsome appearance of a traditionally planked skiff. She is simple to assemble but striking to look at.

Karl Stambaugh, who has drawn many skiffs, describes this one as “fine for rowing and sailing.” If you plan to row more than sail, consider putting together his slender Bay Skiff 15. If you would rather sail most of the time, the designer’s heftier Windward 15 might be the answer. A small outboard motor can be rigged on any of these skiffs…if you choose to endure the stench, noise, and expense.

Just as drawn, the versatile Sailing Skiff 15 seems about perfect for the noble purposes of education and relaxation (and perhaps an occasional fishing trip). If you can build only one boat, this might be the one boat to build.

Sailing Skiff 15

Karl Stambaugh’s drawings show the skiff’s simple plywood construction. Solid wooden sheerstrakes add to the boat’s strength and traditional character. You’ll appreciate the simplicity and versatility of this traditional Chesapeake sailing rig.

Sailing Skiff 15

Plans for the Sailing Skiff 15 are available from Chesapeake Marine Design.

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