What are the smallest boats sailors consider for crossing and ocean? For ‘microyacht’ voyagers, there's no limit. Elaine Bunting finds out why they put to sea in tiny vessels
Often the smallest boats to cross oceans look much like a child’s crayon picture of a little boat on a big sea, certainly Yann Quenet’s Baluchon does. Baluchon is only 13ft 1in (4m long), with one simple sail and a stubby, blunt-nosed hull painted cherry red and ice cream white.
Baluchon is no toy, though. When Quenet sailed it back to Brittany in August, he had fulfilled his childhood ambition of circumnavigating in a tiny boat. Its simple appearance is emblematic of his philosophy. “I have loved little boats since I was a child,” he says, “and I am still a child at heart. Sailing round the world on a little boat is something I have dreamed about since I was a teenager.”
Quenet, now 51, has dedicated much of his adult life to designing, building and sailing microyachts. Whereas most of us progress in incrementally larger boats, Quenet’s craft have always been minuscule. He has created numerous self-build designs for plywood construction from a 9m gaffer to a 5m trimaran and a 6.5m gaff yawl (see them at boat-et-koad.com).
In 2015, Quenet attempted to cross the Atlantic in a 14ft 1in (4.3m) plywood scow, but it capsized in a storm off the coast of Spain and he was rescued by a ship. After that experience he resolved to come up with a bulletproof self-righting microyacht suitable for ocean sailing, and went back to the drawing board.
His solution was a pram-style design that could be built in plywood in under 4,000 hours and would cost no more than €4,000. Baluchon is the result, a tiny boat to be sailed by one person for up to six weeks at a time and resilient enough to take anything the oceans throw at it.
Smallest boats getting smaller
The history of sailing across oceans in the smallest boats is a surprisingly long one. With a few exceptions (of which more later), it is not about breaking records. This is about stripping away everything complex and extraneous – including other people.
One of the most famous small boat voyages was nearly 70 years ago when Patrick Elam and Colin Mudie made several ocean passages in Sopranino, which was only 17ft 9in (5.4m) on the waterline. Elam observed: “I would not pretend that Sopranino is the optimum size. At sea she is near perfect, but could with advantage be a few inches longer to give a slightly bigger cockpit and a separate stowage for wet oilskins below. In harbour, she is too small (for comfort) and too delicate and vulnerable.”
Also in the 1950s, John Guzzwell consulted Jack Giles about the smallest boat practical to sail around the world and Giles drew the 20ft 6in (6.2m) Trekka, which Guzzwell built and circumnavigated in twice. Smaller still was Shane Acton’s 18ft 4in (5.5m) Shrimpy, a Robert Tucker design which he sailed round the world in 1972 despite having very little sailing experience when he left.
In 1987, Serge Testa beat that by sailing round the world in his self-designed 11ft 10in (3.6m) aluminium sloop, Acrohc Australis. He broke the record for the smallest yacht to be sailed round the world, one that is still standing 35 years later.
This feat, together with Acton’s well-publicised voyages in the 1970s, ignited a lasting interest in small boat or microyacht voyages. Money is usually a factor in the choice of such small craft but overlaid by a streak of determined romanticism, the almost spiritual challenge of sailing a nutshell craft across a vast ocean.
Yann Quenet is not alone in creating self-build plans for aspiring micro-voyagers. New Zealander John Welsford also specialises in small boats such as the 18ft (5.5m) junk-rigged Swaggie – ‘a mighty, miniature long range cruiser’ – and a sturdy oceangoing 21ft (6.5m) gaff cutter, Sundowner (see jwboatdesigns.co.nz).
As with Quenet’s little boats, Welsford’s designs are for plywood construction. The plans, he says, are detailed for “real beginners with very basic woodworking skills and a good attitude… the other skills will come as the project progresses.”
In his thinking, people can experience a deep sense of escape even through the process of building such a boat. “I anticipate a lot of builders will be people who find themselves trapped in a soulless desk job which condemns them to commuting for hours in heavy traffic, living in a thin-walled and crowded apartment and dreaming with longing of the freedom of the seas, golden sands and warm breezes.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly the small boat community attracts a mixture of adventurers, inventors, idealists and eccentrics. One of the less successful was the self-styled ‘Admiral Dinghy’, a former Hollywood B-movie star and retired dance teacher from the US whose longtime aim was to sail round the world in a 9ft 11in (3m) boat. He had scant ocean sailing experience and no money. He’d been building and tinkering with his tiny junk-rigged boat since 1975 and began preparing for a circumnavigation in earnest in 2009. But he had problems with his boat, never went offshore and has since vanished from the radar.
A small boat living legend
A mixture of naïve courage and inexperience appears characteristic of many of the smallest boat sailors. It’s easy to imagine a dichotomy at the heart of it: many of the ideas could be perilous in hands of someone inexperienced, yet how many seasoned sailors would contemplate voyaging in a tiny craft?
Someone who has, numerous times, is Sven Yrvind. A Swedish sailor and boatbuilder, now aged 83, he has been designing and sailing tiny yachts for more than 60 years. He built his first tiny open boat in 1962, and decades of experimentation and voyaging followed.
In 1969, he built a 15ft 7in (4.2m) boat and sailed to Ireland. In 1971, he built his first Bris (or Breeze) in his mother’s basement, its size dictated by the dimensions of the cellar and the door it would have to be taken out through. He sailed this 19ft 8in (6m) cold moulded epoxy double-ender across the Atlantic seven times in four years and went as far as Argentina and Tristan da Cunha. (I highly recommend reading his fascinating and entertaining account at yrvind.com/my-life-texts).
In his next boat, the 15ft 9in (5.9m) Bris II, he went much further, sailing south to the Falkland Islands in 1980, before rounding Cape Horn and going north to Chile.
Over the decades, Yrvind (his birth surname was Lundin but he changed it to the Swedish term for a turbulent wind) has continually experimented with tiny yachts. In 1986, he built a 15ft 8in (5.76m) double-ender and sailed it to Newfoundland. In his most recent boat, Exlex (Outlaw), he sailed to the Azores in 2018, and in 2020 from Norway to the Azores and Madeira, returning to Ireland, a voyage of 150 days.
Right now, he is working on Exlex Minor, a glassfibre sailing canoe design of 20ft 4in (6.2m) which he intends to sail round Cape Horn to Valdivia in Chile. This new boat has twin keels and 12m2 of canvas split between three square sails on freestanding masts.
His food, water and all his possessions for up to 150 days at sea amount to around 1 tonne. He stores 111 litres of water on board as he “doesn’t trust desalinators. They can break down.” At sea, his diet is a simple mix of oatmeal and almond flour – “like muesli” – and sardines. “I eat the same every day,” he says, “and at lunchtime, not any other time.”
“I am a health nut. I believe in running and eating once a day for a long life.”
Yrvind’s way of life divides opinion. Many casual followers think his choice of yacht slightly mad, but the tiny boat community reveres him as a living legend. To him, it just makes plain sense. “My boats are very functional. If you go back to old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, boats were not much bigger. Back then, a 30ft boat was quite a decent size. The Hiscocks sailed twice round the world in such a boat. Now 40ft is too small; it must be 50ft.
“And what is big enough? With a small boat, you don’t have a lot of problems with money. You go back to first principles. You also have a boat you can tow behind a car. I have been doing that down to France and Ireland. Or you can put it in a container. So small boats are really handy.”
No room to stretch out
Smaller even than Sven Yrvind’s vessels are the record breakers’ boats, no bigger than a bathtub.
For many years, the record for the smallest yacht to cross the Atlantic was held by Hugo Vihlen, a former Korean War fighter pilot and Delta Airlines captain from Florida. In 1968, he crossed from west to east in the 5ft 11in April Fool. In 1993, his record was broken by Tom McNally, a fine arts lecturer from Liverpool, in his 5ft 4 1/2in (1.6m) Vera Hugh.
That prompted Vihlen, then aged 61, to go back out a few months later to recapture his record in Father’s Day, which was half an inch shorter than Vera Hugh. Vihlen crossed from Newfoundland to Falmouth in 105 days.
Not to be outdone, McNally designed and built an even smaller boat for the record, the 3ft 10in (1.1m) Big C. His plans were shattered when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and he was unable to sail it before he died in 2017.
Next year, British sailor Andrew Bedwell hopes to break Vihlen’s 30-year record. As a sailmaker and experienced sailor, he knows exactly what he is getting into. Bedwell has previously sailed a Mini 6.50 to the Arctic and been round Britain in a Class 40.
In 2018 he started reading up about small boats. “I had always had an interest in unusual challenges and things that were raw. I saw these boats and was amazed by them, and I started designing a vessel.”
He contacted Tom McNally’s daughter and was amazed to learn that Big C was still lying in her garden. “It had never been in the water, or fitted out. Sails had been made for it, but they had never been used.”
Lorraine McNally agreed to sell, and Bedwell worked out how he could modify it for him to sail across the Atlantic. He calculates that it will take him around 60-80 days to cover the 1,900 miles from Newfoundland to the Lizard, sailing at an average of 2.5 knots. It has twin headsails set on one furler, and external floats, or pods, that make it behave a little like a trimaran when heeled. Freeboard is only 35cm and “she really does bob like a cork”, Bedwell says.
The boat is so tiny he cannot stretch out in it. “When in there I have to sit. It is dead flat in the bottom and in calm conditions I can just about get into a foetal position – and I mean just. I’ve modified the hull so my hip can just fit into a recess.”
With the hatch fully shut the boat is watertight and airtight, but has only 40 minutes’ worth of air, so Bedwell is making two rotating air scoops at the bow.
When conditions allow, he might be able to stand up, or even go for a swim, but mainly “there is very little you can do with the lower body at all.”
Muscle wastage will be a major issue. To offset this at least partially, Bedwell will use a manual desalinator to make water. “We looked at putting in a generator to pedal but there isn’t space.”
His rationed food will amount to only 1,000 calories a day, “so I will lose weight and muscle mass, but I want a slow, slow decline.”
The food will all be the same. “It is a protein food similar to Shackleton’s pemmican, a clever nutritional bar made of fat and protein, salt and honey, with a little bit of paracetamol to thin the blood and ascorbic acid to preserve it and prevent scurvy,” he explains. “I will eat that for at least a month before I go, to get used to it.”
All 12 of the boat’s watertight compartments will be filled with it. “It will be moulded in bags and pushed into the hull. I will take food from the external pods to start with and work inwards, so increasing stability as we go.”
Bedwell’s planning sounds scrupulous. But… isn’t it the definition of suffering?
“Yes, very close to it,” he replies cheerfully. “If you said you were going to do this to prisoners, you wouldn’t be allowed to, it’d be against human rights.
“There’s not going to be any comfort in it whatsoever. Food and navigation equipment are the absolute keys. There’ll be no changes of clothes, for example, as there’s no room. It’s so tight. I can use some water to wash but it will be a flannel wash. l’ll do what I can to prevent saltwater sores but there’s not going to be any soap.”
When close to the finish of one of his voyages, Tom McNally was hit by a ferry. The hull of his boat split and he had to be fished out of the water almost by the seat of his pants. Bedwell says: “If I’m hit by a tanker I’m not going to survive that, but tech has changed. Tom didn’t have AIS but we have a standalone Class B transponder as well as a VHF with AIS receiver. I have a masthead light – the boat is so short it doesn’t need to be a tricolour.”
Bedwell says: “Planning this keeps your mind completely occupied as every single little detail has to be completely thought through.” He rejects any suggestion that he is ‘making a bid’ for the record or similar phraseology. “I am not attempting it. I’m doing it. My theory is if I’m just trying, I’m not really pushing myself.”
Smallest boats, smallest problems
The micro-voyagers seem to share a different way of looking at the world, a can-do attitude galvanised by their repudiations.
“Human beings are very adaptable,” says Sven Yrvind. “Lawrence of Arabia lived simply in the desert and said wine takes away the taste of water. It is the same with comfort. It depends on your mindset and how you think, how you look at life. Some people go on holiday on bicycles and put up a tent. Some want a car and a caravan. I think when they get back the man with the bicycle is happier and has more to think about.”
“You can get spoilt,” he argues. “If you get something without fighting for it, you’re not so happy when you get it.”
Returning after 31,000 miles and 360 days under sail in his little yacht, Yann Quenet insists that a small boat is the best. “Small boat equals small problems. When there is no engine, there is nothing to go wrong, just a simple boat that is simple to sail.”
Andrew Bedwell explains how he gradually dismissed fripperies. “I’d had plusher boats, but hated it – all the cushions and wiring hidden behind panels. It’s just not me. I kept coming back to the simple things.” Like Sven Yrvind and Yann Quenet, he made the realisation that his sense of achievement might be in inverse proportion to boat size.
When people ask now about what he is doing with Big C, he tells them, without a hint of irony: “Everyone is different. I need something really big.”
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