Dinghy Fever  
by Jill Brown - Greenbank, Washington - USA

Some people call it “the ugliest boat afloat”. Others
call it the safest twelve-foot sailboat ever designed. What is it?
Read on.

Bill Short spent 28 years as a tugboat captain on San Francisco Bay and he was familiar with its rough waters and tricky summer winds. An avid recreational sailor and boat designer, he wanted a boat that hadn’t been invented yet – a heavy weather sailing dinghy capable of crossing the notoriously treacherous Golden Gate. It had to be roomy and comfortable for extra crew and family members and it had to be safe for a single-handed sailor. With these and other requirements in mind, Captain Short went to work. What he came up with was a plywood sailing dinghy that was a unique departure in both hull design and sail plan.

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The Baywood Navy's Aluminum Pelican at the 2007 Scuzbums Giant Five Day Messabout in San Diego.

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One of Bill’s influences was the design of the Liberdade, built by Captain Joshua Slocum in 1887. Captain Slocum and his family sailed from Brazil to the United States in this boat, described by the captain as “part Cape Ann dory and part Japanese sampan”. The ability of the Liberdade to stay on top of steep seas was helped by her immense flare and deck level beam. Bill also considered the design of the scows and other native working boats that he had seen and sailed during his WWII stint in the Orient. All of these boats shared three characteristics: a lug rig, a sampan bow and ample freeboard. From all of these sources came the inspiration for San Francisco Pelican #1, the Chloe Maru, launched in 1959.

Here is what Bill Short wrote in Building the San Francisco Pelican:

San Francisco Bay’s main ship channel is a very rough and windy arm of the sea. It has a well-earned reputation for its strong west winds and choppy waters. Waters which most small centerboard sailboats carefully avoid. This challenge was met by the San Francisco Pelican… The sampan bow proved to be buoyant and broachproof, and her generous freeboard and flare proved to be real insurance against swamping.

It is a dinghy for heavy weather and yet a handy, fast centerboarder.

The Pelican has…demonstrated that a twelve-foot non-ballasted centerboard sailboat CAN cross these waters through the roughest chop and stand up to the strong Summer afternoon winds.

Vital Statistics

Length overall

12 ft. 2.5 in.


6 ft. 1.75 in.

Draft, board up

4 in.

Freeboard amidships

2 ft.

Minimum racing weight

390 lbs.

Sail area, main

72 sq. ft.

Sail area, jib

33 sq. ft.


The Pelican has been described as looking like a floating bathtub. Someone even called it “the ugliest boat afloat”. Ungainly it may be, but its very ungainliness is its prime virtue. Its unique flat bow is a major factor in preventing burying and broaching when running before the wind in a swell and its flaring topsides give the boat extremely effective righting leverage. Even the single-handed sailor can shift his head and shoulders to windward in order to keep the boat on an even keel. Its generous flare and freeboard are more insurance against swamping.

As what Bill Short referred to “a nautical rabbit’s foot”, the Pelican is designed to carry extra buoyancy in the form of styrofoam blocks, installed on the starboard side only. The styrofoam, together with the wide beam and high, flaring sides, provides the capacity for self-righting. As experienced Pelican owners like to boast, the boat can be turned over, but it isn’t easy. Some Pelican fleets offer a Turtle Award to skippers who manage to capsize or swamp their boats.

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Gorden Bundy and grandson Cole aboard the Pelican "RUBY BEGONIA"

Granted, the San Francisco Pelican doesn’t sail well to weather and it cruises at only 3 to four knots, but it’s a stout little boat with a loyal (and growing) following.

The Pelican is an ideal boat for Junior Sailing programs. The boat is certainly safe for beginning sailors and while it’s an easy boat to learn on, learning to sail it well takes practice.


Bill Short didn’t build the first Pelican with the intention of selling the plans, but in the months following her launching, the Chloe Maru began to attract attention due to her “ugly duckling” charm and remarkable seaworthiness. An article in a San Francisco newspaper generated even more interest and soon Captain Bill began receiving requests for building instructions. In 1960, Rudder magazine published a letter from Bill and a photo of the Chloe Maru and in 1963, a three-page article about the boat.

Bill and his wife Muriel began reproducing the plans for the Chloe Maru and providing them to amateur boatbuilders. The early plans were workable but fairly crude, until a retired marine insurance adjuster became interested in the boat and worked with Bill to create step-by-step building instructions and more accurate drawings.

Monoque design concepts make the hull strong, light and roomy with a minimum of internal bracing. Its construction is all 3/8” plywood with the exception of the transoms, centerboard and rudder, which are 3/4” plywood. Bill assured amateur boatbuilders that if they possessed basic carpentry skills and could read a table of offsets, they would have no problem following the drawings and plans. According to an article in Good Old Boat magazine, it’s estimated that over 10,000 sets of plans have been sold worldwide. Bill died in 1986; Muriel Short still sells the plans, complete with instructions for constructing a jig. Once the first hull is built, the jig can be used to make additional hulls, making the Pelican a good design for club sailing.

In addition to the scratch-built boat, the Pelican is available as a kit - either a basic bare hull or the bare hull with all the major components cut out and rough-shaped, ready to be finished. The hull and deck kit costs approximately $1500, while a finished boat complete with sails, running gear and trailer can be purchased for around $6000. Several boatbuilders in the Pacific Northwest specialize in Pelicans; alternatively, second-hand boats in reasonable condition can be had for under $2000. Just add water!

Over the years, the basic design of the San Francisco Pelican has remained essentially unchanged; within the specifications, however, there is plenty of opportunity for customization. Most home-built boats have personal touches added by their owners, including oarlocks, boom tents and other amenities. Built-in storage compartments and boxes for camping equipment are popular; it’s even rumored that one Pelicaneer added a fiberglass foam-lined built-in beer cooler. A small outboard motor can be mounted on an adjustable bracket on the transom for use when the wind dies or the tide changes.

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"Miwok", a Pelican 12


Bill Short designed the Pelican to be a family cruising boat, as well as a class racing boat. The Pelican’s light weight makes it easily trailerable and it can be stored in the front yard between excursions. It can tow a single-person kayak, which can be pressed into service as a dinghy, and the capacious storage space easily holds all the camping gear the well-equipped Pelican cruiser might need, including a tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food and clothing. Even loaded with half a ton of people and gear, the dory bottom allows the Pelican to float in four inches of water. Bill Paleck, a local Pelicaneer, says this: “Pelicans can pack a load. I know for a fact that the fully loaded bed of a Ford pickup, my wife and our dog can fit into a Pelican and still have enough freeboard and space to sail her to our destination.” Not bad for a twelve-foot boat!

The Pelican is also perfect for the single-handed sailor who wants to cruise the islands and stop for a nap along the way. As an example of extreme cruising, a Pelican sailor named Tom Shives spent two weeks last summer sailing solo from Bellingham to Olympia in his Pelican, a distance of 120 miles without a motor. He slept onboard or camped on the beach – a trip recommended for only the hardiest Pelicaneer!


The Pelican is a handy one-design racing dinghy for a skipper and one crew member; sailors of all ages and physical abilities can handle the boat. Crewmembers don’t need bulging muscles to tend the sheets or six-pack abs for hiking out. Parents or grandparents can pair up with kids or grandkids. Many spouses race together and are still speaking afterwards. The Pelican certainly won’t keep up with the high tech planing dinghies, nor is it meant to. It does, however, take skill and practice to get top performance out of the hull and rig. It’s an economical boat to own, easily rigged and unrigged and well adapted to most any racing venue with a launch ramp nearby. It’s a great boat for small clubs or even a few friends who want to get together for an informal regatta. The design and construction materials have not changed over the years, so older Pelicans are still competitive with new ones. Most important, there is an active racing fleet in the Pacific Northwest.


Muriel Short estimates that 6,000 Pelicans are in use today. Many amateur builders don’t register their boats with the Pelican Association, so the number could be much higher. Pelican activities on the West Coast center around the California and Puget Sound fleets.
The Puget Sound fleet came into being around the time that Fred and Don Smith, the Pacific Northwest’s premier Pelican builders, got enough Pelicaneers together to form a fleet. Don applied for a fleet number and Viking Fleet III was born. From all reports, those early Vikings were a rowdy bunch. Things have calmed down since those days, but not much: the present fleet sails year-round. Frostbite racing begins in October and ends with the fleet championships in April. Every two weeks, hardy Pelicaneers assemble at a different body of water, salt or fresh, for a series of three races, winds permitting.

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Sunrise at San Diego

In addition to racing, Viking Fleet III cruises all summer. Day cruises and fun days are popular and a two-week cruise in July gives local Pelican sailors the chance to meet Pelicaneers from other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Fred Smith leads a cruise through the San Juans in August. Short hops from island to island allow plenty of time for fishing, crabbing and relaxing on the beach.

In his introduction to Building the San Francisco Pelican, Bill Short wrote:

“On any windy bay, where the waters are choppy and the wind is swift, you’ll find that the San Francisco Pelican will achieve a happy accommodation with the sea that makes her a buoyant craft to behold – and better to be in!”

If you’d like more information about Viking Fleet III, please contact Bob Rodgers, the current Commodore. His email address is bobrodgers100@hotmail.com. Muriel Short’s email address is pelicansailboat@webtv.net. You are also invited to visit the official SF Pelican website.

For kits or completed boats, see Ratty's Boatworks - https://rattysboatworks.com/