Boat Story

Until I turned 40 I had never really thought about retirement. I never really thought about anything beyond a few months I suppose. I had started a business a few years earlier and dreamt that I might make enough money to stop working one day but that a) wasn’t happening and b) seemed so far off that I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t even have a savings plan. During my mid to late 30’s I really piled on weight and with my 40th birthday approaching I decided to lose the weight. I started walking along the river in front of the apartment I lived in. I lived on the Maribyrnong in Melbourne, near to the Bay and just half a kilometre from where I lived was a small marina with about a dozen yachts tied up in various stages of renovation, most very rough. On one of my walks late one afternoon I walked past the docks and decided on a closer look. At this stage I had no real interest in sailing, as a child we had a powered half cabin fishing boat and I used to love going fishing on her but that was about the extent of my interest in the sea.

I had recently met Jo, who lived in Sydney (well nearer to Newcastle but to me it was Sydney) and we had started dating, albeit long distance! Although I didn’t know it at the time Jo had sailed with her dad on a 14ft trailer sailer so she was way ahead of me in sailing experience but also had no real interest in or hadn’t thought about sailing the world. She also hadn’t travelled much of the world. A trip to Vanuatu as a teenager was the extent of her overseas travel. I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world and I really enjoy travelling but again hadn’t ever thought about sailing the world. Jo and I have since travelled to New Zealand (where we met the crew of Bumfuzzle that have provided so much inspiration for us to do this, and if you want to read sailing logs now then we highly recommend you read Pat and Ali’s adventure) and to China and Hong Kong twice on business which has only whetted our appetite for more travel.

Anyway, on the back of one of the boats was a guy with a beer and having a bbq, and I suddenly had the thought, would’t it be great to live on a boat, sail to wherever you wanted, without a timetable and just spend time anywhere you wanted. I told Jo of the idea and she said that she had always wanted to leave her life behind (she had married young with kids and missed out on the late teen and early 20’s fun of being independent and doing things just for yourself without responsibility for others) and just travel around Australia on a Harley, and when she heard my idea of living on a boat and sailing the world she went along with the idea. I didn’t know at the time if she was just humouring me thinking the idea would pass or if she was genuinely keen as we hadn’t known each other that long, and whilst it sounds great, it can seem like just some romantic notion that passes once reality hits (she says now she was into the idea all along) and she is as keen as I am and we have made it our dream, and set about making the dream real. So I guess you could say that reality is yet to hit us!

We started going to boat shows and wherever we saw yachts that we thought we could live on we oohed and ahhed in varying degrees depending on how good the boat looked, not having any real idea of what constituted a good boat. As a birthday present Jo bought me a sail day on Gulliver II, a 60ft steel ketch on Sydney harbour. We loved it. Other than that and a day on her dad’s old 14ft trailer sailer with Jo’s brother-in-law, I had never been sailing but we both had a great time, and this was a real live aboard vessel. The idea really started to seem like it was possible. We considered doing a longer sea passage on her as there was a 2 month cruise on offer but we decided instead to charter a boat for a week’s holiday around Fraser Island in Queensland, and again we loved it.

During the months that passed the idea didn’t go away and I read as much as I could about sailing, from disaster stories about the tragic 98 Sydney-Hobart to adventure stories on websites about the cruising life. I was originally interested in catamaran’s because of the living space they have but because of something I read about them (in an 80’s how to sail book) not being very safe at sea I dismissed them as unsuitable and coveted all of the 45ft – 60ft mono’s we saw. We bought a 20ft mono and got a mooring outside of Jo’s place in Gosford NSW (we are lucky enough to live on a beautiful waterway called Brisbane Water, the picture from our balcony below shows our mono “belly” on the left) to use to learn how to sail on the protected Brisbane Waters. But the more I read, the more I realised that the notion of catamarans being unsafe was an early prejudice from the “sailing establishment” and that modern cats not only offered heaps more living space for any given length, they had many other advantages, not least of which is sailing level instead of heeling. Remember I am a totally inexperienced sailor so it is all just academic at this point but I could see there are a heap of other advantages like much shallower draught for access to many places a mono cant go including beaching, speed of sailing without pushing very hard, likelihood of being practically unsinkable to name a few. The only drawbacks I could see was the possibility (however small) that a cat can flip and not be able to right herself, but when compared to the risk of sinking that a mono has and a well designed and built cat doesn’t, the risk seemed about equal so from a seaworthy point it looked equal and from a livability point of view there was a clear advantage to cats and the other issue may be occasionally having to pay higher marina fees because of the extra beam but as more cats come into use, marinas will cater for them more and competition will keep prices fair. Jo also noted that mono’s can feel claustrophobic and cats have an airy open feel to the living space that she felt much more comfortable in.

The view from our apartment
The view from our apartment

So the decision of type of boat was made, we just had to decide what design, size etc and how to get one. We became more and more excited about the idea and went to the next Sydney boat show in 2004 with the real intention of deciding on a boat. We were able to go aboard a number of boats. We really liked the Tasman 35 (we had been on one at the previous years boat show) and we originally thought that we could buy a hull and deck and fit her out ourselves and also really really liked the Lightwave 35 or 38‘s but again even though they do a partial fit out, it was still way beyond what I had to spend. At that stage I wasn’t confident that I could build the hulls myself and thought that for the extra cost, the piece of mind of not panicking everytime we hit a wave hard, thinking that she would come apart, would be money well spent. The idea of plot sheets and cutting ply and glassing all over and all that fairing was very daunting and put me off the idea of building. But as determined as I was, and as well as business was at that time, I could still never see a time when I would have enough money to buy even an average second hand boat. A decent boat was going to be a minimum of a quarter of a million dollars and that just seemed beyond me. So, back to the drawing board. All the while we had started corresponding (and eventually met) a young American couple on Bumfuzzlethat are cruising the world on a 35ft Wildcat (by the same designer as our eventual choice). I even wondered about the idea of going to the US to buy a second hand boat because it seemed a little cheaper there.

Schionning were at the show and I spent some time talking to them where I learnt that a kit could be bought in stages (so I didn’t neet to have all the money at once) that had pre glassed panels and apart from small tabs holding them in place inside the glued panels, full size hull and bulkhead panels were also pre cut and that, although more complex, it eventually all went together like a huge meccano set (for the younger readers that don’t know what meccano is, it was a steel construction toy that you could make working models out of, pull them apart and make something else) or a bit like a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle or more like the model kits we made as kids except when you glue it all together when you are finished, if you have done the job properly, you have a home you can sail around the world. There are a few designers that offer this, but Schionning seems the most prominent of them. I now know that Bob Oram also offer their designs as kits from following Tom’s progress with his 44ft Oram, Scrumblebut I didn’t know it at the time and whilst his designs also look very good, I am sure we have gone with a great choice of boat.

I can’t remember whether we chose the name of our boat before or after we chose the design of boat we would build. Once we had decided on a catamaran, Jo once said to me that a cat was like 2 bananas in the water (if you see some of the Wharramboats they do look like that) and at the same time there was an ad on TV for sun tan lotion called Banana Boat that used the Muppets Mahna Mahna music to sing the banana boat song……banana boat, do do, do do do, banana boat do do do do….you get the idea) so we originally had the idea of calling the boat Banana Boat, but it progressed to Mahna Mahna and it has stuck with us ever since. Try listening to the Mahna Mahna music without cracking a smile!

I decided on Schionning sometime after the show (in August) and we set our sights on January 05 as the time we would buy the kit and get started and we originally thought we would build the Wilderness 1100. The 1320 looked too big (both to build and to sail) for just the 2 of us and the 1100 had enough living space, was within our budget and looks great. We know via the website of Bumfuzzle that a 35ft cat is big enough for a couple to live aboard comfortably and can sail the world, but all the books and magazines I read said to aim for a 40ft boat to sail across oceans, as the extra size makes them more comfortable in swells. And with the extra length also comes extra beam and bridgedeck clearance. I had looked at the Farrier 41and it looks like a fantastic boat, but it also looked too expensive for my budget, and I also really liked the Fusion 40and the way all of the panels are completely pre fabricated including gelcoat and all you do is glue them together on a special jig and then fit out but again I couldn’t afford the initial kit price (it is more prefabricated than the boat we are building in that the parts are made complete in molds rather than in panels by a process called infusion using vacuum bagging). I had it in mind that even though the build time might be faster on a more prefabricated boat, I had to have more money upfront than with a kit Schionning and by being able to buy the kit in stages meant that I could get started and have something tangible rather than a savings plan for a boat I was going to buy at some future time. You know how such things go, if you have a kit started you are likely to finish it and end up with a boat, if you might one day buy a kit there is a higher chance you may not.

Then around December 04 Schionning announced 2 things that ended our search for our boat and put our minds totally at ease that we were making the best choice. First was their new 1230 design. A perfect size boat for us, just over our budget but I could stretch to it eventually and it came in a kit that I could buy progressively so as to be able to afford a start immediately rather than wait to have all the money at once, but more impressive was their new and somewhat radical bi rig plan. I read all I could about the idea and spoke to Craig and Jeff Schionning and I was convinced. I had no pre conceived ideas (or prejudices) and no real idea of how any cat sailed. The rig decision could be put off for some time but Craig later told us that the only negative he could see (I had already committed and paid for the plans at this stage so he had nothing to gain in pushing me toward one rig or another) was possibly resale because of potential buyer’s fear of the lesser known rig. Other than that, all of their knowledge led them to believe it was the best rig idea and could one day be standard on a cat. We were convinced. The 1230 was our boat, it had all of the features I had read that I should have such as higher bridgedeck clearance, at least 40ft, is designed with galley up option and whilst it is bigger than the 1100 its build time is not much longer, is a new design and so it is “state of the art” which should mean it retains value longer and finally Schionning are adapting their revolutionary new rig to this hull. Perfect!

I have read (and experienced on our little 20ft mono) how hard it can be sometimes to raise or lower the main in a hurry and furl a headsail not to mention re setting the sails on every tack, and whilst I haven’t experienced it I can imagine how nerve wracking it might be to need to get the sails down fast and not be able to handle them easily. The bi rig has many advantages to me, ease of sailing and safety being the 2 big ones, to depower you can let go of one line (joint mainsheets) and the mast and boom rotate with the wind and instantly depower the boat and being shorter masts the sails are not only easier to handle, the boat is under far less stress. Another major attraction is the lack of rigging, which not only looks much neater but is less maintenance and cost. Now, I have no interest in racing at all, but I have read of the Coco Blues bi rig cats outsailing everything in the multi field at the Kings Regatta in Thailand 2 years running, 1st in their first year and 1st and 2nd in their second (they actually tied and had to have a countback to separate them), so I cant wait to see if they can do it 3 years in a row, and all who have sailed on them say how much easier they are to sail than a regular rig. I am trying to learn to sail on our 20ft mono and I often don’t have the confidence to sail with both sails up and I feel much more confident sailing on just the main and only having to deal with the mainsheet, so I imagine it would be the same with 2 masts and just the 2 mains. No frantic pulling and winching to get the jib reset on the new tack, just turn the boat and the booms swing across and if necessary adjust the sheet. At least that is the theory! And Schionning believe that they will point as high or higher than a regular rig (mono sailors often deride cats for this), and can sail on all points of sail as well or better.

Now some will say that without the sailing experience behind us it is a rather naïve way to approach such a large project as this and the choices it requires, but to me, you have to be adventurous to want to do this, and nothing is more adventurous than going with the unknown or untested if it makes sense in theory at the time. I am sure we have made the right choice of boat and rig and that in years to come many will go this way. Mid August 2005 and we have finally received the kit parts (after some delays getting a warehouse and work commitments) and have all the material we need to build a hull and deck to lock up. The only additional requirement will be some tools, timber for the strongback (the frame on which the hulls will be made) and all the fixtures and fittings (windows, steering, wiring and lighting, plumbing, etc) and Gelcoat when she is fully faired and I am sure we will need some additional materials or tools for making things like frames and jigs along the way. Then, once she is finished it is up to us to what level of fittings we will want such as electronics and mechanical equipment such as what engines, do we want radar and auto pilot etc, watermaker, etc. etc.

It is a huge project and finding the time to build her is going to be very difficult as I am in a new business on a fast growth curve and I want to maximise my earning capacity over the next five years so I can retire to the boat with a small nest egg to live off. In the meantime we also run another smaller importing business from the small warehouse in West Gosford which has the space I need to build the hulls. We probably cant join the hulls and finish the boat where we are now as the door isn’t wide enough to get a 21ft beam cat out (standard factory roller doors are 19ft wide), and the driveway of the block of factories may also be too narrow, we have been told it may be possible to lift the roof off and crane it out onto a semi when finished but I doubt the landlord will be too keen on that, anyway I will worry about that problem when the 2 hulls are finished and we are ready to join them. Then if we have to we will move into bigger premises but that is some 2 years away. We think it will take between 4 and 6 years to fully finish the boat based on what we have read of similar builders and similar projects. Getting started is the hardest part. Once started, inertia will carry the project along (we hope) and as she takes shape will create motivation as the finish gets closer.

Once she is finished we plan to take off to discover the world, or at least the Australian coastline for a year or two while we gain the confidence and skill needed to cross oceans. We are both sure that we have made a great life choice. Join us (in about 2010) via our sailing logs! And for those interested in doing the same, follow our build progress via the building logs. Cheers!

new stern with changes
Artist impression as we are one of the first building this size boat and one of the first to build a cruising cat with a bi rig set up.

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