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By Reuel Parker

T’IEN HOU sailing to Cat Island, Bahamas, in 2005

In 1999, when it looked like I might actually survive stage #4 cancer, I did two things: I bought a house in Maine, and I started construction on my fifth cruising sailboat. The house was a mistake (houses are always a mistake—at least for me). Doing these two things simultaneously was downright stupid. I spread myself too thin, both financially and energy-wise.

I wanted to try something very different for this boat: I had been interested for years in lorchas—a type of sailing vessel that appeared in China during the 16th century. In the excellent book Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze, by G. R. G. Worcester, there are several pages devoted to these distinctive ships. When the Portuguese first arrived in China, they were fascinated by the seagoing junks, while the Chinese were equally fascinated by the Portuguese caravels. By the early 1600’s, a new vessel-type evolved using an easternized caravel hull with a westernized version of the junk rig. The new hybrid outperformed both the traditional junk and the traditional caravel, and heavily armed with cannons, lorchas ruled the South China Sea for the following three centuries. For my lorcha I chose the name T’IEN HOU from the Chinese “Goddess of Heaven,” protector of mariners.

T’IEN HOU’s original lorcha sail plan

Unfortunately, I made an error of judgment in trying to marry the lorcha’s three-masted lug rig to a large Sea Bright Skiff hull (in the early 20th-century, many Sea Bright Skiffs reached 50-feet). While the hull has excellent well-proven sea-keeping abilities, it is also initially tender; and the Chinese lug rig, with tremendous sail area up high, requires an extremely stiff hull. Chinese junks – and Portuguese Caravels – were beamy, heavy and very stiff).  

I had been studying the Chinese rig for years, had designed a number of vessels utilizing it, but I had stuck with Blondie Hasler’s “westernized” adaptations (from Practical Junk Rig, by Hasler & McLeod)—not true Chinese rigs—which are very different in several key ways. Chinese junks had incredible controls over sail shape—many more than are used in any western rig short of the square-rigged ship. But junks also had huge crews to manage all those controls. In early 2002 I sailed T’IEN HOU to the Bahamas with first mate Jenny Nelson (see WoodenBoat Blogs #8 & #30)… and when we returned stateside, the first thing I did was have the yard pull that foremast out! I tried a couple of alternate ideas before converting to an English-style gaff ketch rig, with sprit-mizzen—which worked perfectly. Part of what I learned is that I am really not Chinese, despite my love of things Oriental.

Regardless of the initial tenderness of the Sea Bright hull, it is powerfully self-righting, becoming increasingly stiff as it heels. I designed the hull to be built with multiple hard chines (the originals were lapstrake), using cold-molded plywood/epoxy construction. The hull included enormous integral tanks (300 gallons of water and 210 gallons of fuel), which when full, further increased the hull’s self-righting abilities. I also integrated the bulwarks into the hull construction, utilizing a hollow A-frame profile, and I incorporated foam-core decks as I had on my Virginia Pilot Schooner LEOPARD (and all subsequent designs).

T’IEN HOU’s hull under construction at Riverside in Ft. Pierce, Florida

I incorporated another new design concept (for me) — a retracting wing keel, made of steel and filled with lead. With this 3,500 lb keel lowered, and tanks full, T’IEN HOU is self-righting from a nearly (but not quite) inverted position. The keel employs a NACA 0009 foil shape with a large delta wing below it. Combined with her lead-filled hollow box keel, the vessel has very good windward ability.

T’IEN HOU in the slings at Riverside, showing her delta-wing retracting foil-shaped keel; her tender is a 9-foot sailing Abaco Dinghy

My dear friend Delfine (Reuel’s Angel #1) helped me build T’IEN HOU, and later sailed with me as first mate. Davina joined us during the second winter of construction, and during T’IEN HOU’s major re-fit (2004/2005), Mavis joined us, comprising the self-named boatbuilding/sailing trio Reuel’s Angels.

At 50’ LOD (65-feet LOA) with flush decks, T’IEN HOU is a big, comfortable live-aboard boat—indeed, she is by far the most comfortable home I have ever known, on land or on sea. She was my first boat to have a large, private master’s aft cabin, complete with stern gallery windows, plus a huge Oriental-style saloon, a cargo hold, and foc’s’le for two crew. Another excellent innovation was placing the head/shower in the cockpit—OUT of the boat’s interior!. No more stinky-poo!

The master’s aft cabin with queen-sized berth

The foc’s’le for two crew

The trunk for the retracting wing keel divided the settee area in half, as well as separating the two huge 150 gallon water tanks. T’IEN HOU was virtually a sailing cistern! Because I dislike western seating, I created two big double berths in the saloon, with drop-leaf tables hinged on the keel trunk. With four guests sleeping in the “play-pens,” T’IEN HOU accommodates eight people. In Maine one summer, a middle-aged couple came to visit, moved into the saloon, and didn’t want to leave!

T’IEN HOU’s main saloon—galley to port; office/nav station to starboard

Delfine in T’IEN HOU’s galley

I lived on board T’IEN HOU intermittently for five years, sailing her to Maine twice, and to the Bahamas four times. The best trip by far—indeed one of the best trips of my life—was taking the Angels to the Bahamas in 2005. We navigated across Andros Island through North Bight and Middle Bight, in water that was only three feet deep at high tide in several places. T’IEN HOU draws three feet!  

Davina and Delfine weighing anchor in North Bight, Andros, Bahamas, using a cast bronze windlass from Lunenberg, Nova Scotia – the world’s finest kind

Davina on T’IEN HOU’s stern davits

The author and Reuel’s Angels (Mavis, Davina & Delfine) in the Bahamas

As happens to the best of us, I eventually found myself strapped for cash, and unable to sell my expensively remodeled mudfront house in Maine, I had to sell T’IEN HOU. This I was loath to do, as I would have been content to spend the rest of my life living on board. (I did eventually sell the house.) I was also coming to understand that either I needed permanent crew (a forth wife?) or a smaller boat! And looking through my log books, it is clear to me that migrating along the entire US east coast (and much of the Intracoastal Waterway) twice a year was something I really didn’t want to do anymore (I have since changed my mind – what else is there?). The Bahamas are a different story – I want to be there as much as I can. There is no better place to live – or die – than the Out Islands.

I sold T’IEN HOU to an ocean engineer named David McGehee, who sailed her to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and into the Caribbean.

T’IEN HOU sailing off the coast of Maine, showing off her gaff ketch/sprit mizzen/twin heads’l rig; I often single-handed her under stays’l and mizzen as a motor sailer

After her rig conversion, T’IEN HOU’s performance under sail was extraordinary, as was her efficiency under power (she can cruise at 8 knots burning about one gallon per hour). I got caught single-handing in a strong cold-front on Exuma Sound (open ocean) in the Bahamas, and sailed her on several points of sail, in 30-plus-knot winds and 8- to 10-foot seas. She handled beautifully, verifying all I had learned in studying the Sea Bright Skiffs. For single-handing, I motorsailed under stays’l and mizzen, adding the roller-furling yankee jib to the mix when appropriate. But the huge gaff mains’l was too much sail for one man alone, as I learned single-handing in Nantucket Sound in 2005 when I got slammed by an un-forecast front packing gale-force winds. I was under full sail when it hit, and I think I came as close to losing my life as I ever have! Nevertheless, with even one crewmember, T’IEN HOU is a perfect cruising home, capable of sailing anywhere in the world. I miss her desperately.

The author relaxing at the helm of T’IEN HOU in the Bahamas in 2005

2/21/2015, Saint Lucie Village, and again 4/15/2024

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By Reuel Parker

The Mayor of Joe’s Sound with supper (a beautiful, mature queen conch)

On March 26, 2012, I set sail from George Town, Great Exuma, Bahamas, for Cape Santa Maria, on the north end of Long Island, about 25 miles away as the seagull flies. I was sailing in my sharpie schooner IBIS, with Canadian Joee Sym as first mate. Because this was a windward passage, and because IBIS is flat-bottomed with a centerboard, it was a somewhat rough beat to windward, and we motorsailed to get there early enough to seek out a good anchorage.

Chart for the passage from Great Exuma to Long Island (North Channel Rocks to Cape Santa Maria)

We initially anchored just below the Cape, in its lee, but the large ocean swell wrapping around the top of the Cape rolled us so hard that we had to get out of there. We tried to enter a small, protected inner harbor that my trusty Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas (Harry Kline’s old guide) indicated we should be able to enter with our 2 ½-foot draft, but the entrance was silted in (see sketch chart below).

We had been told by cruisers back in George Town about Joe’s Sound—a shallow estuary about five miles south of Cape Santa Maria, with a hard to see, somewhat tricky entrance between two dangerous rocky cays. With very little daylight remaining, we cruised along the shoreline looking for the entrance, and the only thing we saw that could be it was so hairy I couldn’t believe it! “Somewhat tricky?!?”

The Entrance to Joe’s Sound, looking out from inside—the dark water colors indicate sharp rocks just inches below the surface—the turquoise channel runs from left (outside) to right (inside), and involves a series of zigzag turns

Entering the inlet involved approaching the rocky shore just to the south, avoiding a brown patch of very sharp rocks just inches below the surface, zigzagging around a similarly dangerous shoal extending from the north side, running dangerously close to the rocky shore on the south side (in strong winds and big swell), approaching very close inside the exposed rocks immediately to the north, hugging the rocky north shore to avoid another shoal extending north from the south shore, then hanging a sharp right and left into the Sound! My notes in the Log state: “tight sphincter—worst inlet I ever did!!” And I have navigated almost every inlet on the east coast of the United States—from Halifax, Nova Scotia to the Dry Tortugas of the Florida Keys, including dozens of inlets in the Bahamas. I didn’t have time to register the depth—I was too busy watching the rocks to look at the depth sounder. The channel was maybe thirty feet wide, and shallow, with a rocky bottom. Navigating shallows in the Tropics is done by eyeball—the depth sounder is rarely involved. By the time you even look at it, it may be too late! You have to read the bottom by eye. A bow-lookout is usually essential—one who knows what they are doing, using well-rehearsed hand signals. IBIS’s draft of 2’ 6” gave us fantastic freedom and access.

The south part of Joe’s Sound, looking west from Hog Island—at low tide the dark turquoise channel carries four feet of water, and the light turquoise water one foot

The sketch chart below, from Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas, shows the kind of dangers the cruiser must cope with in exploring the beautiful waters of the islands. The “plus” marks designate hard, rocky reefs just below the surface. The last part of the old Bahamian riddle says “brown, brown, run aground.” A draft of three feet or less is ideal for “gunkholing” here. A draft of four or more feet will have limited access to many of the most remote and beautiful anchorages. For example, the entrance channel to Calabash Bay shown below, runs right through a narrow opening in the reef. There are no lights, no channel markers, and no range markers. To enter here, you must have good light to “read” the bottom and stay in the channel. This is typical of navigating everywhere in the Bahamas. Kline’s aid for the channel is to take a 90-degree magnetic compass bearing on the house on the beach, and follow that line into the bay. Hopefully that house survived the last hurricane!

Harry Kline’s sketch chart from The Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas for Northern Long Island—soundings are in feet

Once inside Joe’s Sound, we were in calm, still waters, protected from waves and swell, but with enough wind to keep the mosquitoes and no-see-ums at bay. It was beautiful! There were maybe a half-dozen boats anchored in the Sound—mostly small multihulls—but with a couple of powerboats and shoal-draft sailboats. Parts of the Sound were a few hundred feet wide, and parts were narrow mangrove channels. There was 6 feet to 8 feet of water in a “hole” near the south end, shoaling to much less trending north.

IBIS anchored in the tidal channel near the middle of Joe’s Sound—while the channel carried four feet of water, it was very narrow—and the water on either side carried less than a foot at low tide—as evidenced by the mangrove saplings

Anchored near us were a small sailboat and a modest houseboat. The owner of both rowed over to bid us welcome, and introduced himself as “the Mayor of Joe’s Sound.” Pat, then 60 years old and looking 40, is the captain of an Alden wooden charter schooner working out of New York in the summer, and living the idyllic life of a vagabond sailor in winter. He spends most of his time diving, and took my first mate Joee out to the reef next morning to stock up on the best seafood in the world!

An unusual conch that escaped my bucket and got away

Joee snorkeling for supper

They came back with conch, fish and lobster (spiny crayfish), and we ate like royalty for a week. They even speared a lion fish—a very dangerous invasive species which has poisonous spines and no serious predators—supposedly very tasty, but risky to clean!

Pat with a “bug”—Bahamian lobster—(right) and an unknown critter (left)

We stayed for two days, swimming, diving and going for long walks along the beach and local roads. We saw almost no-one. This is one of the quietest and most peaceful places anywhere, and I could see why Pat lives here half of each year, to offset the intensity of running a charter schooner in New York.

Joe’s Sound, with my 18th-century Swedish periagua tender on the beach of Hog Cay

We departed Joe’s Sound on March 29, and sailed south along the pristine west coast of Long Island for a week of living in paradise. I had never done this before, having only cruised the windward east coast thirty years previously (1982) in my deep-draft cutter FISHERS HORNPIPE. The Bight of Long Island is very quiet and peaceful, with very few other cruising boats in evidence, even though there are at least a half-dozen beautiful, protected anchorages. There are miles of perfect beaches with occasional settlements having stores, bars, restaurants and marinas—everything I could want or need. I even found Wi-Fi (a mixed blessing)! You had to buy a drink to use it for free….

If fate is kind enough to allow me to build and cruise in another boat (I sold IBIS), I will definitely return to Long Island, and to Joe’s Sound—and I hope to find the Mayor alive and well.

11/16/2014, Saint Lucie Village, Florida