Almost twenty years ago, I patched up a 13.5 foot long 1957 Sears Elgin aluminum rowboat, replaced the rotten plywood seats, and used it occasionally for fishing with the kids or rowing around at the lake while camping. A couple of years ago, seeing a fellow camper lazily ghosting around the little lake on a Sunfish gave me the idea that I might like to give sailing a try and give the oars a rest. Googling "row to sail conversion" brought up this website: and I was hooked. I also found pdracer.com which verified that you CAN cobble together a reasonably-performing sailing rig from relatively cheap hardware store materials.
You CAN cobble together a reasonably-performing sailing rig from relatively cheap hardware store materials.
Doing a little research clued me in on the major features which my setup would need: A properly shaped sail (I used edge rounding). A SIMPLE sail with a boom which would not knock me in the head as I learned to sail (sprit sail). Properly placed leeboard(s) to make the boat controllable. Kick-up rudder and boards (I love sailing up on the beach at the boat ramp, to heck with the rocks). And I wanted all the parts to bolt on with no permanent modification to the boat, so I could have my old rowboat back if things didn't work out.
A SIMPLE sail with a boom which would not knock me in the head as I learned to sail.
I used 3/4" plywood for the foredeck/mast step assembly, a 2x4x14' for the mast, a 2x6 thwart to attach the leeboards, and 1x12 leeboards and rudder. I used the cheapest door hinges to swing the rudder on, and a bunch of miscellaneous bolts and screws, with wingnuts where possible. The sail is silver heavy duty polytarp from Harbor Freight (matches the duct tape along the edges perfectly!) Because the boat is less than 14' long, and I haul it in the back of my minivan (really!), I pay nothing for registration of boat or trailer.
I used the cheapest door hinges to swing the rudder on, and a bunch of miscellaneous bolts and screws, with wingnuts where possible.
I designed the parts with the help of a CAD program at home, made a couple of trips to the hardware store, and was sailing two days after starting the actual work. I live a few miles from Lake Belton in central Texas, so that's where I went that first day, a late summer day with almost no wind (just what I wanted). I drifted around for a while, then a little puff came along, and I was SAILING! Moving quietly and effortlessly, no stinky noisy motor and no sweating over the oars.
I drifted around for a while, then a little puff came along, and I was SAILING!
I was now not only hooked, I was obsessed (ask my wife). I sailed every chance I got for the next month, learning to tack without going into irons, learning to gybe carefully and never accidentally, learning to sail closer on the wind, and learning that I am definitely more interested in sailing than building (that's why some of the parts are rather unfinished-looking, lacking varnish or paint).
Some of the parts are rather unfinished-looking, lacking varnish or paint.
However, I have enjoyed working out improvements to my setup along the way. I added the offset tiller so I could sit anywhere on the aft seat without the tiller poking me in the back. I added the bench seating insert so I wouldn't have to sit in the bottom of the boat. I went from a 47 S.F. triangular sprit sail to a 70 S.F. 4-sided sprit sail. I fiddled with the leeboard location to improve tacking and steering.
I added the offset tiller so I could sit anywhere on the aft seat without the tiller poking me in the back.
Having recently purchased a GPS, I now have accurate data on the performance of the boat. Sailing on Lake Belton last Sunday 11/23/08, in what was probably optimal conditions with a mostly steady S to SSW wind of 7 - 12 mph, I was tacking through 120 degrees. Typical speed close-hauled: 2.1 MPH. Fastest speed for the day (on a broad reach): 5.9 MPH. Given the transom drag, flat boards, and slightly baggy tarp sail, I guess that's pretty good.
Having recently purchased a GPS, I now have accurate data on the performance of the boat.
However, in less than optimal conditions (almost every other day I have sailed), performance falls off considerably. So, I am considering replacing the two flat leeboards with a single properly sized and foil-shaped board, to help with speed and pointing. I would also build a foil-shaped rudder at the same time. I do like my 4-sided sprit sail, but I might try a balanced lug sail.
Leeboards in action
Would I own a "proper" store-bought fiberglass plastic sailboat? Yeah, if one fell out of the sky and into my lap. Otherwise, I think I might build a pdracer. It would fit in the minivan much more easily.