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Interview with Kristofer J. "Harley" Harlson
- Lynnwood, Washington - USA

Harley Harlson is going to sail his 8 foot "Sea Biscuit" around the world. Solo. Non-stop. It’s now been a a few weeks since Harley's article, Impossible Dream, and his Photo Album were published in Duckworks Magazine. As expected, readers have had a lot of questions to ask. "Sea Biscuit" is being prepared for her sojourn so he has not had much time to answer. With that in mind, we offer the interview below:

We are both proud and excited to announce that we will be posting daily position maps of Harley's route throughout his voyage and hopefully some messages as well. CLICK HERE

Duckworks Magazine (DWM): There has been quite a response to your article, ‘Impossible Dream’, and also to your construction photos in the ‘Impossible Dream Album’. They seem to range all the way from disbelief to mild hero worship! Any general feelings about the response?

click to enlargeHarley: Actually, I’m quite pleased with the response. Something like this will always generate a wide spectrum of replies because it makes people think. It forces them to put themselves in my place, and that I believe, is why the reaction can be sometimes quite emotional. It is difficult though, to truly imagine oneself confined to a coffin-sized space for a period exceeding a year’s duration. It is natural that some regard the task with disbelief, and others with awe. I have long contemplated this endeavor and spent hour upon hour in that small space already having built and prepared Sea Biscuit for her journey. To me it feels quite natural.

DWM: We understand that you have prepared in secrecy for some time in order to avoid the kind of problems with the Coast Guard that Hugo Vihlen encountered. Has there been any exposure prior to your article at Duckworks Magazine?

click to enlargeHarley: Very minimal but yes, there was an article in ‘The Spray”, a publication of the Joshua Slocum Society International, my earliest supporters and contributors. At that time I was going to leave in June of 2005. I delayed the voyage for an employer, who had needed my computer hardware expertise. I worked for them full-time for a year and a half, and that delayed progress on Sea Biscuit. The article in ‘The Spray” went out only to the few hundred members of the Joshua Slocum Society however, so I wasn’t too worried about the exposure.

DWM: Many small boat voyagers such as Tom McClean and Billy Dunlop mentioned difficulty with their boats inability to sail close to the wind. Sea Biscuit’s shape seems a little more traditional. Do you anticipate the same sort of problem?

Harley: I don’t really, though sea trials will reveal her characteristics and may even affect my calculations as to the duration of the voyage, and the exact route I will take. I’ve done quite a bit of experimentation with hull shapes in boats of twelve feet and under, and I expect that Sea Biscuit is going to surprise everyone with her windward abilities.

DWM: We understand you’ve received some criticism from folks about your “MacGyverism” in choices of materials and construction techniques; the use of scrap woods, galvanized steel mesh stuck to the inside of the hull, etc. Someone even suggested that you abandon Sea Biscuit altogether and rebuild with more conventional techniques. How would you answer that criticism?

click to enlargeHarley: I think that people simply don’t understand boats like ‘Sea Biscuit’, Gerry Spiess’ ‘Yankee Girl’, many of Tom McNally’s boats, Hugo Vihlen’s ‘April Fool’ and ‘Father’s Day’ and others. These boats are designed for a specific task. They’re designed to be incredibly tough initially to last the duration of their voyages, but not to last for thirty years like a traditional boat. I have slapped Sea Biscuits hull with a sixteen-ounce hammer many times to demonstrate how strong she is to skeptics. It is my rather innovative and unusual techniques that make her so. At the end of my voyage, ‘Sea Biscuit’ will be pulled from the water and will probably never touch it again. She’ll travel around with me to speaking engagements for a few months and will probably end up in a museum. She’ll last the voyage without any problems and that’s all that I require. If I were to rebuild for some strange reason, I can't think of a thing I would change.

DWM: We’ve noticed that unlike most of the small boats we’ve seen make long ocean passages, Sea Biscuit’s hatch is located a little further forward of the transom. We think this makes a lot of sense because every ocean-going boat gets pooped once in a while and with a boat as tiny as Sea Biscuit, such an occurrence could mean the end of the line, or at least create an awful mess below.

click to enlargeHarley: Yeah, I think that the transom-located hatch is just a carry-over from the traditional sailboat that has an aft cockpit. I never understood why so many of the small ocean voyagers I’ve seen continued with the tradition. It just didn’t make sense for Sea Biscuits mission.

DWM: We sometimes feel like little kids urging their buddy to do something dangerous - something we would never do ourselves - something that could be disastrous - with no regard for our friend's well being.

Harley: To all those who feel that they have been encouraging me and maybe they shouldn’t be… I have been planning this journey some four years now with nothing but negative energy from most people. I’d be doing this with or without the kind words that I’ve been showered with since making my plans public to the boating community. I am solely responsible for putting myself to sea in this tiny boat. It’s one of the reasons I shall not bring an EPIRB with me on the voyage, or long distance radio. I do not wish for anyone to risk his or her lives trying to save me from my own folly. I have every reason to believe that I will successfully complete this journey, but should something unfortunate happen to me I blame no one but myself. Neither should you.

DWM: Okay. Now tell us, how can you possibly put enough food into an eight-foot boat, particularly one with the dimensions of Sea Biscuit, to make it around the world without re-supplying her?

Harley: Ah, the most-asked question. Most don’t like my answer, and everyone seems to have other ideas about what I should bring. I’ll start by saying that those who know the least about the requirements of the human body generally call themselves ‘Nutritionists”. I have lived on various diets successfully all of my life, spent 8 years as a vegetarian, and I’ve come to disregard just about everything those guys say. Let’s face it, nine-tenths of the known population of the world live on rice with a handful of herbs or insects or whatever thrown in. It’s not rocket science. That being said, here’s what I’m bringing.

A years supply of some food tablets with me that are supposed to be enough to live on all by themselves. I am also bringing survival foods designed for use in lifeboats, which are also supposed to be enough to survive on all by themselves. This I will supplement with a plankton net which when I'm in the right areas will allow a very nourishing tablespoon of really yucky, hard to swallow goosh, a combination of both plant and animal life that is incredibly nourishing. I am also bringing a single-burner propane stove for very occasional use. A 25-lb. bag of Basmati rice. Some flour for making hard tack (the traditional "Sea Biscuit" made simply of flour and seawater.) which I have developed into a technique, using a Norwegian Krumkake Iron, which allows me to make a thin 6-inch wide cracker in about 60 seconds. Throw in some legumes for making fresh sprouts as Sir Francis Chichester did, 400 single serving tubs of peanut butter that can fill in any unused space in my storage, a tablespoon of oil added to the preceding adds 500 calories daily to my diet. I am also bringing dried meats, and dried fruits. I have very carefully measured the nutritional value versus the bulk of all my foods and found that I can, but not so easily, carry enough to last me a year. The combination of this diet and my also innovative food-rationing scheme, that of rationing by distance traveled rather than by time, ensure my success.

DWM: Explain that; your “food-rationing scheme”.

Harley: Here’s how it works. Let’s plan on having enough food for 400 days. Take my distance around, say 27,500 miles and divide by four hundred. That means I’m going to allot a day’s worth of food to travel about 69 miles. If it takes me two days to travel 69 miles, I go on half-rations. Not a big deal, because when I move into the next 69-mile segment of my voyage, I get to recalculate. If I’m able to supplement my diet with fish or other some other unfortunate creature, I get to save some of my stores for future use. By using this scheme, I am able to make it around with out ever running out of food.

DWM: What about mental and emotional needs? Many would think you could easily go mad out there all alone in that tiny space for a year or more.

Harley: I’ll do what all long distance voyagers do. I’ll talk to myself.

DWM: What about those who say that is the very definition of madness?

Harley: It’s apparently not. Many psychologists have studied this phenomenon, and found that it is a way to actually save ones sanity. Gerry Spiess, who sailed his ten-foot ‘Yankee Girl’ across the Atlantic and then the Pacific, has even suggested that sailors establish a "relationship" with their imaginary companion before departing to lessen the probability that the imagined person will be someone who is antagonistic or overly critical! Makes sense to me.

DWM: What about entertainment?

click to enlargeHarley: I’m bringing a fipple flute, a harmonica, a Grundig AM/FM/Short-wave radio that has it’s own clockwork generator, a small library of miniature books, a DVD player, my laptop, sketchpads, ships log, and of course I’ll be writing some of my book about the journey while at sea. I may even bring a guitar that I cut down to fit in Sea Biscuit along. I’m also going to have email through my InMarSat transceiver so I can have at least some contact with the outside world that is two-way. I’m also bringing a hand-held five-watt VHF Marine band radio so I can converse with ships along the way and beg them to not run me over.

DWM: How will you navigate?

Harley: My InMarSat transceiver provides me with my position, as well as weather data for the area I’m in, speed, bearing, etc. I am carrying a hand-held GPS unit, and an additional GPS for backup. I’ll also carry my sextant and it’s attendant manual, mostly for fun but of course as a last-ditch backup for navigation. I’m bringing few charts, mostly two, each of which cover half the globe. I’ll mainly track my course on graph paper for fine detail and then transfer the data to my world charts. Of course I have pilot charts to view also, and charts of the major fish and bird migration patterns and wind and ocean currents. There’s really not much more room in Sea Biscuit for anything else.

DWM: What about the Sea Trials, a shakedown cruise? What are your plans there? We understand that Sea Biscuit is still being prepared for the journey.

Harley: Sea Biscuit will be fully loaded with all her supplies for a float test on a local lake. All of her stores will then be moved around until she floats on her lines. I’ll then take her for a sail on the lake. From there she moves to salt water. I’ll sail her on Desolation Sound near my home and see how she reacts to larger waves and stronger winds. From there, she goes to the ocean off the Washington Coast where I’ll spend a week to ten days offshore testing storm tactics and various sail settings and her self-steering rigs. After that, we go on our voyage.

DWM: That doesn’t really sound adequate to us. I’m sure many of our readers would agree. How do you answer those charges?

Harley: I don’t. Look, there have been plenty of people who have set sail with a whole lot less experience than I. Tanya Aebi set sail without knowing how to navigate. Chay Blythe set off to race around the world without even knowing how to sail! Young Jesse Martin only had his boat in the water for a week before setting off on his voyage with only three hours of solo sailing experience under his belt. I have spent countless hours sailing alone, I already have offshore experience and I have designed, built, and sailed all of my own boats. I really only need enough experience with Sea Biscuit to know that she performs as I had anticipated. That’s enough as far as I’m concerned.

DWM: Muscle atrophy is a real problem on long voyages, even for those on much larger boats. How will you get enough exercise while at sea?

Harley: I have given that a lot of thought, of course. I believe that pumping my desalinators for an hour each day will provide adequate upper body exercise. I have an arrangement of elastic and two handles to provide a little back exercise, and for my legs I have a bicycle-type device installed in Sea Biscuit to keep my legs from atrophy. In addition I will employ isometric techniques and when the seas permit, I’ll be able to stand up in the hatch and make sure that all the muscles associated with balance are being taken care of. I expect I may be in better shape upon my return than I am now.

DWM: It doesn’t look like you’ll be steering with a tiller. How does your steering work? What type of self-steering are you using?

Harley: Sea Biscuit is steered by rope from the inside. Her sails are handled from inside as well. I have a trim-tab type vane gear to steer the boat while on a reach and when going upwind. Sea Biscuit steers herself with the sails flying wing-in-wing with the sheets connected through a series of blocks directly to the rudder when on a downwind tack.

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DWM: Tell us more about your rig. How does that work?

click to enlargeHarley: Sea Biscuit has twin masts at the transom that meet in a gentle arc at the top. A set of roller-furled twin staysails connects from masthead to the bow. The two sails lay against each other and act like a single sail most of the time but spread apart to go wing-in-wing the rest of the time. Her masts are hollow and contain my ventilation system as well as a copper braid connecting a lightning rod at the masthead to a copper plate mounted on her keel. A vane-directed scoop at the masthead directs air down through one mast where it follows a duct to the bow. Air flows through the boat and is collected at the base of the other mast where it flows up to a point about eleven feet off the deck and is vented out. At the head of each mast there is a snorkel-like device that closes off the airflow and of course waterflow, should Sea Biscuit be knocked down or inverted. In addition, there are valves inside the boat at the base of each mast that allow me to shut off the airflow (or waterflow!) altogether if I so choose.

DWM: Why did you paint Sea Biscuit blue? Some have suggested a bright orange color would make her more visible, and easier for ships to spot you, and also easier for a rescue vessel to spot you.

Harley: I like blue. I was also trying to court a potential sponsor at one time whose logo is on a blue background. Ships won’t be likely to see me whatever the color; it’s really going to be my job to watch out for them. I shall be self-rescuing in any case and won’t be calling for help. I put myself out there, I shall rescue myself or I shall die.

DWM: Will you have any motor, or any other auxiliary form of propulsion aboard Sea Biscuit?

Harley: I shall have a yuloh aboard to waddle myself through calms and out of the way of ships in a calm. I originally thought about oars but couldn’t find an adequate way to deploy them without putting more holes in Sea Biscuits hull. I didn’t want any more openings in her hull to let water in than she had already.

DWM: How will sail control lines and steering lines go through-hull without creating the same danger?

Harley: The steering lines are attached inside the hull to a bicycle-type housed cable that goes through-hull to attach to the rudder. The sail lines will likewise go through a piece of tubing that has an inside diameter equal to the outside diameter of the line. In this way, there will be little room for water to pass through.

DWM: What kind of sea anchor or drogue will you be taking?

Harley: Technically, none. I am bringing a standard Danforth, which will be the only thing mounted on deck. It will be used as a sea anchor by letting it lay deep with a very long warp. This way I take advantage of the more stable deep currents instead of the surface currents that are moving in the same direction that I don’t wish to go. If I need more drag the Danforth will wear a shirt or other piece of clothing to create more drag.

DWM: How about lighting? Cabin lights? Navigation Lights?

Harley: A flashlight held by Velcro to the ceiling supplies interior lighting. It is a three LED light with it’s own Clockwork generator. Navigation lights are not required on a boat as small as Sea Biscuit. Should I wish to be more visible to a ship I will shine a beam of light onto the sail.

DWM: What kind of hull repair kit and tools will you have on board?

Harley: I have a carefully chosen set of tools on board and a selection of precut plywood and lumber for repairs as well as underwater epoxy.

DWM: What about medical supplies?

Harley: I’ll have the usual first-aid supplies as well as suture kits to sew myself back up if I’m injured and also a plethora of vitamins, pain killers, antibiotics, antidepressants, etc. I’ll just have to administer medical care to myself. I can be in touch with my doctor by e-mail should I need his assistance.

DWM: Whether you use it daily or weekly you'll need gobs of toilet paper, how much are you taking? Are you simply using the ‘bucket and chuck it’ facilities?

Harley: Actually I don’t have room for toilet paper. I’ll be bringing flat packets of baby wipes, enough to allot two per day. When that runs out it will have to be a washcloth rinsed afterward in seawater to freshen it. . For hygienic purposes I will keep my hair short with a pair of scissors and shave daily with disposable razors. I currently make one razor last a month so I won’t need to bring but one package. I shall not pollute the ocean with any plastic or anything horrible like that but I will have to dispose of bodily waste over the side. This will be collected in a bottle for the obvious purpose and solid waste will be deposited in a cut down bleach bottle (bottom cut off) and then disposed of over the side and rinsed clean. I’m afraid the baby wipes will go over the side though, but they are fairly biodegradable. Sponge baths will have to do most of the time, though in the tropics I’ll be able to take a swim. Sea Biscuit’s rudder has a step on the bottom and a step cut into the side so I’ll be able to reboard Sea Biscuit without too much trouble at the stern.

DWM: After further observation I'm interested in knowing more about the structural robustness of the deck house. For intense, the back plate only overlaps the transom by a few inches and the front joints where Lexan meets Lexan do not appear to be reinforced. Could you describe the construction methods you used to fabricate this section?

click to enlargeHarley: The Plywood section at the back of the doghouse is glued and screwed to the transom. The Lexan is glued and screwed to the plywood, the wood frame, and to itself. In addition, the two seams where the side pieces meet the windshield are reinforced with aluminum angle iron bonded and screwed to the Lexan, and the bottom front edge of the Lexan windsheild is glued and screwed to the two-by-four framework of the hatch opening using a bracket of galvanized steel. It should stay put. If it gets swept away by a rogue wave or otherwise removed from the deck I will patch the gaping hole and sail ala Charles Lindberg, without any forward view unless I have my head poked through the hatch. I have brought headgear and goggles designed to sail this way should I need to.

DWM: What camera equipment are you taking?

Harley: I’ll be bringing a standard snapshot camera (film). I’ll also bring a mini-camcorder that takes still shots, and takes Avi’s for use in speaking engagements later.

DWM: Are you going to phase into your shipboard diet before casting off? Starting out on a long-distance voyage with food you have not been used to eating could spell trouble. It would be like taking Sea Biscuit out on the ocean without any sea trials, very risky.

Harley: I don't want to eat this garbage any longer than I have to. But I'm one of those guys with an iron gut. I've changed my diet radically on many occasions without ill effect. I'm just not worried about it.

DWM: We have estimated that there is about 15 cubic feet of foam inside Sea Biscuit which would provide about 870 to 900 pounds of lift. While this is a significant amount for an eight-foot boat it is not overkill. Do you think it is enough?

Harley: Like Gerry Spiess, I shall use Sea Biscuits supplies as both ballast and floatation. Containers will be refilled with seawater to maintain Ballast and most of her foodstuffs float. Containers will also have air left in them for floatation as they are refilled.

DWM: How high off the deck will the masts be? Sven Yrvind recommends unusually short masts for his ocean going smallboats. Short masts however mean slow going and poor windward sailing. Hal Roth suggests a taller rig because during his last circumnavigation he found more light winds and calms than gales. He said he was becalmed 11% of the time and most of his voyage was in the Southern Ocean but that there were also weeks of pleasant sailing in winds of 10-25 knots. Higher rigs will pick up lighter winds when its calm at sea level but we're talking 30 footers again and not Sea Biscuit’s size.

Harley: The top of Sea Biscuits mast is 12 feet off the deck with the total mast height being 14 ft before they are inserted in the boat. It's a so-so tall rig but I also thought about light winds in the Pacific and trying to beat my way home from the South.

DWM: The two greatest maintenance fears for offshore sailors are 1) having to climb to the top of the mast to retrieve a fouled halyard and 2) having to go over the side to clear an obstruction from the hull or rudder. How would you address these two issues on Sea Biscuit?

Harley: I knew when I designed Sea Biscuit that I'd never be able to scale the mast because she'd just tip over! So I designed her masts in such a way that I can just yank them out and lay'em across the deck if I needed to reach the top. If I drop the assembly overboard, it floats, so I can just yank it back toward the boat and haul it back up again. I'll make sure when I remove the masts that the assembly is tethered to Sea Biscuit so it can't get away from me. Sea Biscuit's rudder can't be fouled easily because it sinks no lower than the base of the keel. As far as freeing something from the hull goes, I guess I'll just have to go overboard but I should be able to unfoul the rudder from the deck just leaning over the doghouse.

DWM: Even though you will be sailing 90% of the time from inside the cabin you need to have a safety harness at the ready for those few times you may have to go on deck or over the side during rough weather. Are you taking a safety harness?

Harley: Yeah, I don’t know if I'll actually have a full harness as Gerry Spiess did (and that he wore almost continuously) but certainly I'll tether myself to the boat at least by tying a line around my waist "old school" fashion when I go on deck.

DWM: We understand you are married. What does your wife think about all this?

Harley: She first forbid it, but slowly began to realize that the voyage was inevitable, and finally, begrudgingly, lent her approval. She eventually went so far as to take a job to help me finance the voyage.

DWM: Speaking of financing, you mentioned earlier that you were at one time looking for a sponsor. Has anyone else besides your wife contributed to the adventure?

Harley: My first and only contributor was the Joshua Slocum Society International who despite not really having funds available for such things, being a very small non-profit organization, sent me some money when I first told them of my plans. My wife and I supplied the rest.

DWM: One last question. Assuming this voyage is a success, do you have any future plans?

Harley: Actually I do. I plan to break Hugo Vihlen’s record for the smallest boat across the Atlantic in 2008 in a boat of my own design. (Or will it be Tom McNally’s record by then?) I hope to have enough recognition to then get enough sponsorship to go for Ellen MacArthur’s record (or whoever’s record by that time) for the fastest single-handed voyage around the world in 2010, also in a boat of my own design, a large catamaran.