Two Book Reviews

Review One - By Gary Blankenship - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

Review Two- By Luis Grauer - Merida -Mexico

Review One: Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere

Book Review:

Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere

It might seem a little strange at first to be recommending to Duckworks readers John Vigor’s excellent Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere. After all, you all are a bunch of individualists dedicated to frequently building your own boats, likely as not from plywood and epoxy, and with unstayed masts and unusual rigs. Vigor’s book details 20 boats, almost entirely stayed Bermudan sloops, with the odd ketch and cutter thrown in. All are fiberglass, although one also has been built in wood.

But then Duckworkers tend to be dreamers who find ways to make their dreams come true. This book is for those who dream of long distance sails, crossing oceans, and maybe even a circumnavigation – and perhaps are looking to do more than dream.

Vigor is an experienced sailor who has crossed oceans and raced, and has written for several publications, including Good Old Boat, the magazine that advocates the joys of going to sea in well found, older boats that don’t cost more than your home. Indeed, Good Old Boat publishers Karen Larson and Jerry Powlas wrote the foreword for this book.

As Vigor explains in his introduction, the purpose of the book was to find 20 seaworthy boats capable of crossing oceans and are reasonable in size and price. In this case, the boats range from 20 feet to 32 feet. When he wrote the book in 1999, prices for the boats used (a couple were available new for considerably more) ranged from $3,000 to around $50,000. Given recent economic vicissitudes, those prices may still be reasonably accurate.

Here’s how Vigor described his choices: “Few are as sleek and flashy as most modern sailboats but they all come from highly pedigreed stock. They represent the work of some of the world’s finest yacht designers. . . You may wonder why the virtues of each boat greatly outweigh her faults. The answer is simple: This is the cream of the crop.
“There are no duds here.”

Boats range from the Cal 20 and the Flicka (another 20 footer, but with much more hull volume) to the Westsail 32 (one of three 32-footers but the one with the most interior volume). If you’re an avid marine reader, you’ll probably have heard of most of the boats, but I’m betting there will also be some surprises. There were for me.

Each chapter covers a boat and includes a general discussion about the history, design, manufacture, and other lore. That’s followed by quick but thorough descriptions of accommodations, the rig, and performance. There’s a list of known weaknesses and then, for most of the boats, Vigor summarizes an owner’s experience with the design. There are line drawings of the hull, rig, and accommodations. The boat’s vitals – length, beam, draft, sail area, etc. – are in a separate box. A second boxed summary gives Vigor’s rating of that boat’s seaworthiness compared to the other 19 boats in the boat, its PHRF handicap rating if it has one, and a quick summary of it’s “Ocean Comfort Level.” For the Cal 20, Vigor says of its OCL, “No comfort whatsoever, but she can accommodate two adults with their elbows in each other’s faces. A good candidate for singlehanding.”

As that comment shows, Vigor has not regurgitated advertising copy for his boats. Rather he has cast his experienced eye on the boat and tells you what he likes and what you might want to address before taking one of these across an ocean (he recommends some beefing up for a couple of them). If there’s no bridge deck, he’ll advise making sure the lower companionway slides can be secured fastened in place to prevent water running from the footwell into the cabin. If there’s no compression post to the keel under a deck-stepped mast, he’ll let you know. If the galley is hard to use, Vigor says so, and he has high standards since he figures eating is rather important to passage-making (may he never see what passes for a galley on my 30-footer . . .). He’ll also let you know if access to the inboard engine, if the boat has one, is adequate. On that subject, he had this to say about the Pacific Seacraft 25: “Access from the cabin is minimal; if you remove the companionway step you can peer at the engine hopefully and wipe its little face, but that’s about all.”

Which demonstrates one of the best aspects of the book, namely Vigor’s humor and good writing. While he doesn’t pull punches about shortcomings he sees, he writes with great affection about the boats and frequently uses humor to make his points. After all, these boats are in the book because he thinks they’re superior. I enjoyed his observation that an alcohol stove “produces little heat at great expense.” There are many more such wry nuggets, but you’ll have to buy the book to find them.

Observations like that are one reason the book is a good value even for people like me, who probably will never own another stayed-rigged sailboat. Vigor’s views on layout, seaworthiness, and a bunch of other topics apply to almost any boat. You might not always agree but you’ll have plenty to think about. For example, despite the modern preference for propane galley equipment, Vigor recommends kerosene stoves. For him, the pain of having to prime them is offset by their burning much hotter than alcohol stoves and avoiding the explosive possibilities of propane. Plus the fuel is cheap and readily available anywhere.

He pounds away on the importance of bridge decks and you’ll learn a lot about what size motors are just adequate and what you’ll need to punch into a breeze and chop. Do you need a storm trysail? For these size boats, Vigor advocates a third reef in the main instead. And there’s much more.

I do have one nit to pick. I wish there could have been some photographs included in addti8on to the line drawings, and in one or two cases a couple more drawings would have been appreciated to show alternate deck or cabin layouts. (The Morris/Frances 26 has flush deck, short truck cabin, and long truck cabin versions, but only the flush decker is drawn.)

A minor point. This slender volume (131 pages, not counting the bibliography) is well worth the reading. I normally devour books, being a fairly avid reader. For Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere, I forced myself to slow down, limiting myself to a chapter to two a night. Sorta like limiting yourself to a piece or two at a time from the box of chocolates. It’s enjoyable to stretch out the pleasure.

And when you are done, you’ll probably find your way to, or a similar site. I did that with a couple of the mid-sized boats in the book, and found a used model of one for $19,900, and another model for $9,900.

That’ll start some serious dreaming.

Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere is available from Small Craft Advisor (, Good Old Boat (, and, I assume like most of the world that isn’t nailed down, through

Gary Blankenship

Review Two: Tolman Alaskan Skiffs

Book Review: Tolman Alaskan Skiff

I bought a copy of Renn Tolman´s book "Tolman Alaska Skiffs" and I´d like to tell you a bit about it. First, I have to say that I am a sailor at heart and don´t give much thought to power boats. I bought the book because I wanted to make a nice V bow and couldn´t figure it out with cardboard and the Tolman Skiff has a beauty of a bow on it, so I figured to let Mr. Tolman do my work for me. I also figured that anyone who has built over 100 boats using the same method must surely have something to say worth hearing, and I was right! This is a good course in composite (wood, epoxy, fibreglass) boat construction, and this man builds a serious boat.

When the book arrived I started at the "Introduction" with Tolman discussing the development of his design from a traditional flat bottomed skiff to the present shallow-V construction, a nice history of the Tolman Skiff and a bit of insight into Tolman´s way of thinking. Then I started chapter 1, "Defining the Tolman Skiff" which talks about the actual construction and the pros and cons of the Tolman skiff, the cons being mostly that an aluminum skiff is a bit easier to maintain but is heavier, therefore needs a bigger motor and more fuel.

But, hey, I bought this book to learn how to shape the plywood bottom, so I start flipping pages untill I find the bottom plywood, and, wouldn´t you know it, there it is, just what I wanted. Now I can play with this for a small sailboat I´d like to build. The problem (if you can call it that) is that now I´m hooked on this book, so back I go to chapter 2.

Chapter 2, "Design Choices", discusses the three models of the Tolman Skiff, their development, and why you would build one or the other. Cabins are discussed, how big, what will it be used for, sleeping accommodation or just a wheelhouse out of the weather. Motors are also discussed here, which model of boat uses what power and why, 2-stroke and 4-stroke motors, how the weight of the motor affects the performance, all interesting stuff, even to a sailor.

Chapters 3 and 4 talk about shop space and shop set-up and ALL the tools necessary to build a Tolman Skiff. Let me say here, for those of you who maybe wouldn´t otherwise figure this out, that a book like this one, dedicated to one particular craft, will have a bit of information pertinent to these boats only, although it is very little. Some of the tools discussed here may not be necessary for your boat and your boat may need something that you don´t need here. Personally, I like the tool parts of books because often the author has found a use for a tool that I haven´t thought of.

Chapters 5 and 6, "Choosing Material" and Material list" are self explanatory and with good ideas. Chapter 7, "Using Epoxy and Fibreglass" is a short course on this work and well worth the reading be you a first-timer or multi-timer. You just can´t know too much. From here on the actual construction is explained. Tolman claims to have built over 100 boats, and I don´t doubt it for a minute. As you read the instructions it becomes more and more clear that a lot of thought and development has gone into these boats. It also becomes clear that Tolman´s method is dedicated to building the best skiff he can within the limits of the material. The book was written in 2003 and he claims that the first Tolman Skiff, built in 1980, is still going strong. If it was built to these standards, I´m not surprised.

All the information you need to build one of these boats is in the book, just as is claimed, although some of it is not laid out with absolute clarity. I find myself going back over parts looking for information, which is really a good thing because I´m reading the instructions 2 or 3 times and clarifying everything. I think what happened is that after building so many of these, most of what I´m having trouble finding, and it´s all basic stuff, is info that Tolman has found to be self-evident. A case in point- the three cross pieces for the building jig are drawn but only the front piece is marked front. When you go to another drawing it becomes apparent which goes where, but for a short time there is confusion.

About half of the book discusses cabins and decks and other things that can be built into your skiff. I am not interested in this work at present, but I did browse the sections and they seem to be as complete as the rest of the book (and why not?). There are parts about painting, fixing dings and dents, making a cover for winter storage, maintenance of a composite boat (yes, there is maintenance, maintenance free boats are a myth), making and installing Lexan windows and windshields, and just about anything else you might want to fit to your boat, even to self contained under the deck fuel tanks.

So, what do I think as the reviewer? First, I would very much like to sit down with Renn Tolman and get to know this man whom I feel I know from reading his book. I like his approach to boatbuilding and would probably like him as well. Second, although I´m still a sailor at heart, the more time I spend with this book, the more I want to build one of these boats. I guess that pretty much says it all, eh!!

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Luis Grauer



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