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The Shoal Draft Alternative


By Reuel B. Parker

The author’s first designed and built shoal-draft cruiser—The Exuma 44 TERESA beached at Paradise Island, Bahamas in 1986

I began designing shoal-draft cruising sailboats in 1983, specializing cold-molded wood/epoxy construction, and I have consequently designed more than fifty over twenty-one feet in length. Of these I have built twelve, and been involved in the construction of another five. The first of these was the Exuma 52 SARAH, which I built in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1984, for the Polvere family. From the hundreds of plans I have sold for big cruising boats, dozens have been built, varying in length from 21-feet to 75-feet. For shoal draft boats under 21-feet, hundreds have been built all over the world. Most of these are sharpies, plus a number of scows, periaguas, Sea Bright skiffs, prams, garvies, and dories. 

My first cruising sailboat was a heavy-displacement deep-keel cutter. I built her on a California beach in the mid-1970s, and sailed her some 35,000 miles to twenty foreign countries in the Pacific, Caribbean and Atlantic oceans. When I sailed to south Florida in late 1980, I was very tired of running aground, and ran aground more than ever cruising the east coast, the Bahamas and the eastern Caribbean. I decided to try shoal draft for my next boat, and I never looked back. 

FISHERS HORNPIPE, the author’s first cruising sailboat, demonstrating the woes of deep draft at Norman’s Cay, Bahamas, in 1982; 

She was destroyed by Hurricane Maria at Isla Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2007 

My first personal shoal draft cruiser was the 44-foot cat schooner TERESA. I built her in cold-molded wood/epoxy, in Islamorada, Florida Keys. She was absolute simplicity, and I lived aboard and sailed her extensively for several years before selling her. She was fast, weatherly, dry—and had a draft of 2’ 8” board-up and 6’ 1” board down. With her free-standing masts and cat schooner rig, and only two working sails (plus a light-air “kite”), she was easy to sail single-handed, and is the only boat I have ever owned that steered herself downwind. By letting the sails out forward of the beam, whichever sail caught more wind pushed her back on course. On a trip during a norther—returning to Florida from the Bahamas—TERESA steered herself in 25 knot winds and 6- 8-foot seas, making an average speed of 10.4 knots against the Gulf Stream.

I cruised the Bahamas in TERESA twice—in the winter season of 1985/86 and in April/May of 1987. I discovered that with her draft of 2’ 8” she could navigate mangrove creeks, small-boat channels, and cross sand bars that were dry at low tide. Running aground was no problem because she remained upright. I often beached her using the centerboard to hold her in place while we went exploring. The degree of freedom and safety this gave me was nearly a religious experience. 

The cat schooner TERESA sailing wing and wing on the Bahama Banks

TERESA had two Yamaha 9.9 horsepower four-stroke outboards in wells for power, and when they were tilted up, she had plugs for the hull which made her counter stern completely fair. With nothing dragging in the water, her speed under sail was phenomenal. With the outboards she cruised under power at 8.5 knots, and we tended to pass everything we encountered in the Intracoastal Waterway. People were shocked to learn that she was powered by small outboards. I sold her in May of 1988, and she was destroyed in 2019 by hurricane Dorian at Man’O’War Cay, Bahamas. 

Cruising the northern Bahamas, I discovered that TERESA could run through the inside passage for the infamous Abaco Rage, saving having to go to sea to round Whale Cay in rough conditions. Sailboats with even 5-feet draft cannot do this, and must either wait for fair weather or beat to windward in powerful Tradewinds and large seas. All my subsequent shoal draft cruisers were able to repeat this remarkable feat. 

The author’s pilot schooner LEOPARD effortlessly making 12-knots on the Bahama Banks

My next shoal-draft cruiser was the 61-foot (75-foot LOA) Virginia Pilot Schooner LEOPARD. She was to be the epitome of cruisers for me—I intended to sail her back to the Pacific—but in early 1998 I was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and had to give her up. Her draft was 4’ 0” board up, and 10’ 6” board down. She was very powerful, very fast, and was also surprisingly weatherly. She was all the proof I needed that shoal-draft cruisers could do anything I could possibly want a sailboat to do. She routinely sailed at 11- and 12-knots, and even hit 15-knots GPS a couple of times. She won the Chesapeake Bay Great Schooner race in 1994. To prove her seaworthiness, I took her out into the North Atlantic in a full gale with stays’l and double-reefed fores’l and mains’l, and drove her to windward in 8- to 10-foot seas. She ran fast and dry until we punched into a large, breaking freak wave above a sea mount—but by then she had already proven herself to me. 

I sailed LEOPARD to the Bahamas in 1995, ’96, and ’98. She survived Hurricane Georges in her slip in Key West while I was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer in Maine. My third cruising sailboat, IMAGINE, which I had sold, was destroyed in that storm. (She was a 1926 Alden Malabar Junior sloop, which I had restored—see “A Story of Priorities” WB #65.) 

Taking LEOPARD through the very shallow South Bight of Andros in 1996;

Crew from left to right are Amy McGee, Scotty Folger and Christine Parrish

During LEOPARD’S first trip to the Bahamas, I navigated the South Bight of Andros for the first time, and was impressed by how unique an experience it was. The Bights of Andros are estuarine channels that completely cross the largest island in the Bahamas. The Bights are over 25 miles long, very shallow, and require playing the tides carefully. It was during my first few passages through South Bight that I determined four feet was the absolute maximum draft for a versatile cruising boat. Andros has the world’s third longest barrier reef, but exploring it from inside requires a draft of considerably less than four feet. LEOPARD could not do it. 

The author’s third shoal-draft cruiser T’IEN HOU on the Maine coast

(Photo by Tom Lokocz Adams)

When it became evident that I was going to survive cancer, I designed and built a 52-foot cruiser (65-feet LOA), with a retracting wing keel. T’IEN HOU was by far the most comfortable home I have ever had—on land or on sea. I originally designed and built her as a three-masted junk-rigged “lorcha,” but when I figured out that I was neither Chinese nor Portuguese, I converted her to a ketch, with twin heads’ls, gaff main and sprit mizzen. She was dry and weatherly, and performed very well in everything from light air (being easily driven) to gales at sea. Her hull design was based on the large Sea Bright Skiff models of the early 20th-century. 

The retracting wing keel was a design experiment that worked incredibly well, but lacked the important quality of a centerboard to be pushed into its trunk when running aground. The wing keel was made from welded steel with lead ballast inside, and weighed 3,500 lbs. It increased draft from 3’ 2” to 5’ 1”—which was much more effective than one would expect because of the delta wing. With the keel deployed, weatherly ability was excellent, and when retracted the keel lay flush to the underside of the wide box keel. Both the fin and delta wing were designed to NACA 0009 foil shapes, with the delta wing “upside down” to pull to windward when heeled. 

T’IEN HOU’S retracting inverted wing keel

Twin ATV winches on deck to raise the wing keel;

The device between them is a Dorade ventilator/skylight

I sailed T’IEN HOU to the Bahamas in 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’05, as well as to Maine and back several times. I explored the North and Middle Bights of Andros for the first time, and have used these beautiful estuaries many times since to access the southern Exuma chain of islands and beyond. I sold T’IEN HOU in February of 2007, and her new owner has sailed her extensively in the Caribbean. 

The author’s forth shoal draft cruiser, IBIS, in Joe’s Sound, Long Island, Bahamas

Because boatyards and marinas on the American coasts are gradually disappearing (being turned into condominiums), I decided to design some shoal draft cruisers—both sail and power—that could be trailered on generic 3-axle 15,000 lb capacity trailers. These would have a maximum beam of ten-feet, and a maximum “dry” displacement of 14,000 lbs. I decided to build one on speculation, to promote the concept, in 2007. The result was a 45-foot (53’ LOA) sharpie schooner based on the Straits of Juan de Fuca halibut fishermen of the late 1800s. IBIS is a true flat-bottomed sharpie, strongly built of marine plywood, epoxy and Xynole fabric, with a hollow box keel filled with lead. Her draft is 2’ 6” board up, and 7’ 10” board down. She is self-righting and a stiff sailor, with single-halyard gaffs for simplicity. Her masts are in tabernacles to facilitate trailering and exploring inland waters. I designed and built a new type of centerboard for her, on the principal that it would be ballasted and function as a fin-keel when fully deployed. I built it from steel, filled with lead and polyester resin, for a finished weight of 1,350 lbs. It required an electric winch to raise it, and it had a unique shape to facilitate its ability to function as a vertical fin keel. 

The centerboard required that a substantial part of it remain inside the trunk for lateral strength. The design exceeded my expectations during sail trials, and I have since designed several new versions based on the same principals, including several made from marine plywood instead of metal. I eventually redesigned the underwater shape such that it would have a true foil shape in any cross-section, regardless of how far it was deployed.  

The Sharpie 45SJI IBIS by the author showing her ballasted fin-keel/centerboard

I sailed IBIS to the Bahamas in 2010, ’11, ’12, and ’16, and was happy to learn that a modernized 19th-century fishing sharpie was well suited for cruising both in shoal water and the open ocean. In 2015 I scrapped IBIS’ steel centerboard and replaced it with a modified plywood one, somewhat lighter and with a more versatile shape. 

With a draft of 2’ 6” I felt I had finally reached the minimum draft practical for a cruising sailboat large enough to live aboard, make ocean passages, and shallow enough to go places few other boats could go. During those four cruises in the Bahamas, we encountered plenty of rough conditions in the winter Tradewinds—and in crossing the Gulf Stream eight times. IBIS could motor-sail to windward under jib and reefed mains’l, punching into 6- to 8-foot seas and 25- to 30-knot winds. And yes, she does pound pretty hard in those conditions, but it soon became evident that she could withstand more abuse than I could! 

A second-generation centerboard/fin-keel for IBIS made from lead-ballasted marine plywood

I sold IBIS to a family in North Carolina in 2016, and took them sailing in the Bahamas to teach them what she could do. With my first mate Rebecca McCleary, we sailed to many beautiful and remote places, and caught lots of fish trolling with Cuban “Yo-yo” reels and lures. IBIS was inexpensive and simple to build, and an absolute delight to sail. 

   Left: first mate Becky with a black fin tuna   Right: The author with a dolphin

In late 2016 I began construction on what I was certain would be my last big cruising sailboat. I sold my house in Maine to finance the build, and it took longer and cost much more than I anticipated. I chose a deadrise hullform (V-bottom) inspired by Chesapeake Bay “Buy Boats”—and by the designs of Long Islander Thomas Clapham in the late-1800s. The most famous of these is the “Roslyn Yawl” MINOCQUA, which inspired Thomas Day—founder of The Rudder magazine—to have designed and built his famous SEA BIRD yawl, which he sailed across the Atlantic in 1911. Above the water, PEREGRINE’s topsides are inspired by the beautiful Maine coast sardine carriers—and by the rig designs of L. Francis Herreshoff. 

I designed my hull to be long, narrow and shoal—53’ on deck (57’ LOA), 11’ 6” beam and 2’ 6” draft, board up. I built her in cold-molded marine plywood, covered with Xynole fabric and epoxy. It took 3,500 hours to build her, and she went $30,000 over budget—wiping me out financially. 

The author’s fifth shoal-draft cruising sailboat PEREGRINE on her mooring in Brooklin, Maine, in the summer of 2019

After sailing PEREGRINE to Maine and back in 2019, I decided that her draft was too extreme at 2’ 6”. I therefore designed and built a second keel—a shallow, low-aspect-ratio fin—to be retrofitted beneath her traditional “drag” box keel. I transferred some of my inside ballast into the fin, which I called a “torpedo keel” because that’s what it looked like, and I added another 2,000 lbs of lead, plus concrete and polyester resin to eliminate voids. 

PEREGRINE’S “torpedo keel”, which added ballast and greatly improved stability and sail-carrying ability

PEREGRINE has a big traditional centerboard—12-feet long by 3-feet high weighing 800 lbs. It is built of marine plywood over a core framework of Wolmanized pine, and filled with lead, kiln-dried sand, and polyester resin. With the new “torpedo keel,” the centerboard was shifted down 11-inches, making it even more effective, and increasing draft in the down position to 7’ 6”. The board has a NACA 0009 foil shape below the keel, and is rectangular in shape inside the trunk. It is raised by conventional block and tackle, and is a very simple and effective device. With her Marconi ketch rig and fully-battened sails, PEREGRINE is very weatherly for a motorsailer. 

I sailed PEREGRINE to the Bahamas in March and April of 2020. We were literally the last boat to enter the Bahamas at Bimini on March 17, as the whole country went into lockdown at 0500 the next morning. Because we were concerned about entering the Bahamas at all, we crossed the Gulf Stream in 15- 20-knot easterly winds with six-foot-plus seas. The ride was a little rough and wet, but neither difficult nor uncomfortable for PEREGRINE. We motorsailed under stays’l and mizzen, running the big Yanmar 4JH110 at 2,200 rpm to maintain a speed of 8.5 knots, very close hauled. The crossing took about seven hours, and we anchored off the dinghy dock just north of the Bimini Big Game club in four feet of water—out of the tidal currents. 

We crossed the Banks to Andros on the 18th, and navigated North and Middle Bights, which I had been doing since 2003 in T’IEN HOU, and later in IBIS. From there we had a somewhat dysfunctional cruise because of the Coronavirus, but still enjoyed ourselves. We sailed PEREGRINE in all kinds of weather, including a couple of pretty disagreeable northers, and I concluded that she was an excellent shoal draft cruising home—adept at both gunkholing and ocean passage-making. 

PEREGRINE in the Bahamas in early 2020

*   *   *   *   *Reuel Parker is a yacht designer, boatbuilder, photographer and author of books and magazine articles on maritime subjects (design, construction, sailing and history). He is a lifelong cruising sailor, and currently lives aboard PANTHER, his first personal cruising powerboat. He lives in Maine, South Florida and the Bahamas, and sails further as time and tide permit. You can see his designs at He regularly writes for WoodenBoat Magazine and Professional Boatbuilder Magazine, and has had articles in several others.

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