Appendices -- Useful Supplemental Information

(Abridged from an article by Stuart K. Hopkins in Good Old Boat magazine, No. 20, Sept/Oct 2001. A slightly different version appeared in The Catboat Association Bulletin, No. 113.)

The Dabbler Conversion

At an age when many sailors retire, sell the house, move aboard, and go cruising, my wife Dee and I, after 25 years afloat, sold the boat, built a home on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, and started a business.

While learning about saws and hammers, we were each privately thinking about all that Chesapeake water. When we started talking about it, we discovered we knew exactly what kind of "retirement" boat we wanted:

• Very shallow draft (2 ft or less) to give us access to marshy headwaters and other unspoiled Chesapeake niches, and let us use the launch ramp and moor in our local creek.

• Courageous sail area for the Bay’s light summer airs, but on a divided rig for easy reduction in breezy weather and squalls.

• Accommodations for short cruises, with emphasis on staying out of the sun and bodily comfort generally, including good ventilation for summer and a wood stove for winter.

• Inboard power (for poking up all those rivers).

We knew of no such boat. But we had recollections of encounters with a couple little catboats -- Marshall 18-foot catboats called Sanderlings – which had impressed us with their abilities and possibilities. We had seen one in the Gulf Stream, in reefing weather, making no more fuss than our deep-water ketch. We had met one in the Bahamas that could explore wherever we could take our sailing dinghy.

In magazines we found photos of Sanderlings, and defaced them with sketches and doodles. Encouraged by the ease with which a pencil transformed the little daysailer/overnighter into our idea of a handy pocket cruiser, we decided we could work the same transmogrification on a real Sanderling, substituting a Sawsall, epoxy, and plywood for the pencil. All we needed was a lonely, battered, decrepit (cheap!) edition of the design to operate on. Since Sanderlings had been in continuous production since the 1960s, this would surely be possible.

Right off the bat we found her. The voice on the other end of the phone said “Hull and deck sound, otherwise not too good.” No trailer. No equipment. No motor. Suspicious sponginess in plywood components like cockpit and bulkheads. Old sail. Built in 1966. Cheap. Just our meat.

Dee (a woman used to Brixham trawlers, Gloucester schooners, and deep-water yachts) stifled her reaction when she discovered we couldn’t even sit upright below! Instead she went into her studio and began some serious sketching and doodling. I rigged the boat where she lay on her trailer, and backed off a few yards to imagine how she would look as a yawl.

While mulling over several schemes, we took a mattock and hacked out about 200 lbs of bad plywood cockpit seats, sole, and waterlogged foam. Right down to a naked hull from the companionway aft. This made it easy to plan for an engine installation, tankage, storage, and comfort. A cutout in the solid glass “deadwood” ahead of the rudder (Sawsall job) accommodated the stern bearing and prop. With an 11-gallon fuel tank and electrics we were beginning to look forward to poking up creeks in style.

We replaced the uncomfortable cockpit benches with a U-shaped cockpit surrounding the engine box, and a bridge deck with spacious lockers under. The more comfortable and useful cockpit, worked up out of CDX ply and epoxy, weighed just about what we had chopped out. We removed a few pigs of lead ballast to compensate for the little two-cylinder engine.

We launched the Dabbler (named after the mallards that dabble in our local creek) for some cruising with a local club. The inboard and new cockpit were a great success, but otherwise the experience confirmed our opinion that we wanted to replace the single big sail with a divided rig. And after a few nights cramped below, we could hardly wait to haul her out, grab the Sawsall, and take the lid off the sardine can.

Some of our bold, even arrogant, sketches evolved from a doodle for a dodger. Why not make the dodger rigid, and cut away the after part of the cabin top so the hard top would effectively enclose a greatly enlarged cabin? Why not have standing headroom below, with a little galley on the new bridge deck. Why not have full sitting headroom on comfortable chairs aft of the two bunks? Why not fit removable windows and screens. Why not extend the hard top roof far enough aft to provide shade and spray protection for the helmsman?

A mockup in 1/8” luan ply (which later served as templates and building mold for the final construction) proved there was no reason why not.

A few minutes of surgery liberated about 90 pounds of cabintop and bulkhead. Immediately we could test with our bodies the thesis expressed on paper. Proof we could sit upright, surveying some lovely, lonely anchorage from comfort within, spurred the work.

We used 3mm okoume ply, laminated over the mockup to lock in place the heavily cambered top. Okoume eyebrows were epoxied on to trap the removable polycarbonate windows. All the construction was done in a corner of my small loft between sailmaking jobs. We barely got it out the 8-foot wide doors. It dropped in place as neat as a cap on a pickup truck.

The new effective interior includes two bunks (as original), our “easy chairs” (cheap but comfortable plastic swivel-bottom fishermen’s seats) port and starboard, and the bridge deck (comprising galley with gimbaled kero stove to stb’d, cast-iron wood stove to port). Eventually the main halyards and the jib’s furling line were brought into the house to jam cleats. Raising the gaff main and deploying the furling jib is all done from below – standing up! What joy!

Which brings us to the rig. There is no novelty in the cat yawl sail plan. The aim is to balance the boat under almost any condition. We have about 25% more sail area than the original cat rig. From the comfort of the cockpit we can set a mizzen stays’l and be flying 375 sq ft. The new rig satisfied all our expectations. The notorious weather helm typical of catboats is gone, and sails can be adjusted to keep a little weather helm on any point of sail right up to reefing breezes. In gradually increasing wind the mizzen might come down to lighten the helm. In a squall or heavy wind, we drop the main and remain in easy control under jib and jigger.

Since my business is making traditional small craft sails, the suit for the new rig presented no difficulties. We chose Egyptian Dacron for a good color scheme, and because it has a nice, moderately-soft hand. The full battens help flatten and control the very low aspect main and make it stack neatly in the lazy jacks. The mizzen also profits from full battens, since it must be kept flat while operating in the flow off the main, and when left standing at anchor. A half-wishbone sprit boom controls mizzen shape on all points of sail. The jib furls on its own braided Dacron luff rope, which acts as a forestay.

You can read the full article and see the photos at

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