By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--With Gonbei still being my vessel of choice as well as of economic necessity, and with my habitual inclination to have my cake and eat--or at least nibble at--it too, I have now turned my 10-foot PVC beauty into a boat that can actually give a semblance of sailing. Provided that there is wind, of course. If not, Gonbei will go plenty fast on outboard power, as before. The motor backup renders her (yes, sailing Gonbei has now earned the right to be called "her") able to return to safe harborages when night falls or when a stiff breeze is blowing right in her face.
  [GRAPHIC: Gonbei with balanced lug rig]
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I can go out farther and stay out longer than if I were toiling in a conventional sailing dinghy. When conditions are right, I simply turn off the motor and enjoy the rush of the bow wave, the pull of the sheet, and the thrill of being propelled only by the wind. In a fresh breeze, my record speed under sail is an invigorating almost-four-knots.

Given the inherent stability of an inflatable, standing up is no problem, and a capsize is the least of my worries. In a strong gust, it could of course happen, but the bamboo mast would probably snap first. Unlike in a dinghy, there is no need to hike out, although with larger waves, I still stand a fair chance of getting my bum wet.

Thanks to a lengthy process of trial and error resulting in a tolerably efficient rig and a serviceable set of leeboards, I can, with sufficient doggedness and patience, even go to windward by a few degrees. But a broad reach on a starboard tack is by far her most favorable point of sail. Tacking is still something of a hit-or-miss proposition, but then, what's wrong with (careful) gybing if you're not headed for some orange buoy at the end of a race course?

Regattas out

To be sure, win any regattas I won't. Not even lose them, since I'd be laughed off at sight. But that does not concern me. A downside, however, is the not inconsiderable hassle until everything is set up. To go from regular inflatable to quasi-sailboat with leeboards over the side and wooden rudder blade attached to the outboard is a procedure that even now, with some practice, takes a good 15 or 20 minutes. However, in fair conditions it can be performed on the water, as can the reverse process, and with some persuasion, everything even stows inside the boat.

I took my first stab at sailing Gonbei when the importer of Zodiac and Sevylor inflatables kindly let me have a sail kit designed for their line of Caravelle soft tails. I got that kit for free, because, as the man--unusually candid for a business person--said, it was not very serviceable and they had sort of stopped marketing it. He did ask me for some feedback, though, which I duly provided.

Gonbei is bigger than a Caravelle and has a wooden transom, but some of the rubber fittings are similar and I adapted the sail kit to it. It had an A-frame mast with aluminum spars and a loose-footed 40-square-foot Dacron sail (the latter, cut into a different shape by my 12-year-old daughter who happens to like sewing, is one of the few parts that still are used in the final rig). Sure enough, on my first outing in light winds on a lake close to our house, two bolts of the A-frame crossbar bent beyond recognition, a retaining nut came off, and the entire thing unceremoniously flopped into the water. I knew there and then that I needed a different solution to keeping the sail up.

[GRAPHIC: Front view of Gonbei's thwart with leeboard: 2]
So I looked into ways of fitting Gonbei with a real mast. For this, I would need a mast step to secure it at the foot and some kind of thwart to keep it upright. Because Gonbei has wooden floorboards, constructing a mast step was fairly easy: simply take a block of wood, cut out a hole for the mast, and screw the block to the floor (taking care, of course, not to use screws that would penetrate the board and possibly puncture the air keel underneath).

The thwart is made of a plank of wood, with a hole for the mast and cutouts on each side to fit over the rubber eyes for the lifelines. Two long stainless bolts with wing nuts are used to secure the thwart to the rubber eyes. The result is more solid than it sounds, and in its final incarnation, the thwart is also equipped to support the leeboards, slightly angled inwards to follow the shape of the inflatable tubes.

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[GRAPHIC: Gonbei's boom downhaul and halyard belayed to cleats]


Since I have two left hands with a fine set of five thumbs on each, I did not make the thwart with its various cutouts myself but had this done at a large DIY store that caters to all sorts of weird requests by its customers. I did do the sanding and painting part however, with the result that the home-mixed paint never came anywhere near to matching the actual color of the boat.

My next foray, and the one where I lost the most money, was ordering a standing lug rig with tanbark sail from Wooden Boat magazine in the U.S. I was so keen on the sexy color of the sail that I had neglected to carefully check the dimensions of the wooden mast and spars. The moment an enormous Fedex package arrived at my door I sensed that I had made a mistake. The semi-finished mast and spars were much thicker and heavier than I had imagined and even the brass fittings were seriously overweight for my project.

And to add (self-inflicted) insult to injury, the tanbark-colored sail that had looked so nice in the photo had a rather unpleasant plastic feel to it and seemed like it would crackle and creak in a breeze, thereby disturbing the peaceful sailing experience that I had in mind. After some deliberation, I decided to send the sail and other paraphernalia back for a partial refund. Fedexing the heavy mast and spars back across the Pacific would have cost more than they were worth, so the mast still leans unused in a corner behind our house.

  [GRAPHIC: Gonbei's running lights] download full-size photos

Nav lights work great

The thicker one of the two spars, however, was put to good use: it became a mast to carry the battery-powered navigation lights (another project that I was pursuing along with the sail thing). Now, even when I am not sailing, I always fit the thwart and take the nav light mast with me, which gives the boat a suitably workhorse-like look and provides support when standing up. The nav lights work great for trips around the harbor or cruising the surprisingly picturesque Tokyo canals after dark, but I wouldn't want to be out on the open sea at night.
That mast also can take the sail in a pinch, but for, ahem, real sailing, I decided to go for a somewhat longer mast using a material close to home, namely bamboo. Suitably lightweight yet strong, it can be had for a pittance in Japan. Were I so inclined, I could even cut my own in one of the many bamboo groves that can still be found around our semi-rural neighborhood in Sakura. When drilling holes in bamboo, one has to be careful, though, since it has a tendency to split lengthwise. Drilling a small hole first and then gradually enlarging it works best.

As for the rig type, quite a bit of inspiration could be found on the web. Various pages dedicated to small boats, sailing canoes and the like have drawings and information about everything from sprit sail to lateen, gunter rig to batwing, Chinese junk to dipping lug. However, for a novice like me, the nitty-gritty details such as how to actually cut the sail and fasten it to the spars, or how to attach the boom to the mast, are woefully glossed over in most of the descriptions and cartoon-type drawings appearing on these pages.

A place called Lost in the Woods Boatworks in Canada offers wooden canoes and sailing kits. They sounded competent and were quite helpful in response to my enquiries, but their products are not cheap and by now I was determined to roll my own rather than going for another mail-order kit. I did order a plan for a lateen rig from them (which was inexpensive but unfortunately turned out to be also not detailed enough), as well as a small book called Sail your Canoe by John Bull that helped me along another few nautical miles on my quest.

Detailed drawings

But the most useful information finally came from a magazine that I had picked up during a brief holiday in Britain. The August 1998 edition of Practical Boat Owner carried the second part of an article by David Platten about a "cost-cutting canoe". This included photographs and detailed drawings of a balanced lug rig that actually showed how to tie the peak halyard to the yard (with a rolling hitch), how to rig a simple yet efficient boom downhaul and belay it to the thwart, and other fine points that make all the difference.

So now that I had the information in place, the final implementation wasn't all that difficult. The first set of leeboards that I had fashioned turned out to be too short, but the ones I use now do a credible job of counteracting the considerable tendency of Gonbei to be blown sideways. The mast and yard are of bamboo (yellow and dark brown respectively; one of these days I may go for a bit more color coordination). The fairly long boom is two-part aluminum, a remnant of the original Sevylor sail kit. I could easily replace this with another bamboo spar, but the fact that I can take the current boom apart makes it easier to stow in the boat (and in the car, when I hoist Gonbei--in inflated condition--onto the roof carrier and head for the sea shore).


Dual steering solutions

For steering, I have devised two solutions. One is a wooden board that attaches to the outboard's anti-cavitation plate and acts as a low aspect ratio rudder. This has the advantage that I do not need to have my hands on the tiller all the time, because the outboard's swivel clamp is set to fairly tight (sort of a poor man's auto-pilot). Another advantage is that I can use the outboard at a moment's notice when needed (with rudder attached, since it is clear of the propeller).
[GRAPHIC: Gonbei's rudder]
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[GRAPHIC: Gonbei rigged for sculling]
  The evident drawback is the added resistance of the screw being dragged through the water also when sailing, somewhat similar to a yacht with a non-folding propeller (and that yacht, needless to say, will have quite a bit more sail acreage than Gonbei's 35 square feet--but it will also be somewhat heavier).  
The second solution for steering is to tilt the outboard fully up to remove its drag (or even leave it at home) and stick one of the oars through a rubber stay mounted somewhat off-center on the transom. This works pretty well, and even makes tacking somewhat easier because I can cheat by doing a bit of sculling. The downside is that I have to hold on to the blasted oar constantly. It's an approach best suited for light-wind conditions or when there are two people in the boat. I also use it when I go out on the lake with my entirely silent and non-polluting Minn-Kota electric motor instead of the Tohatsu outboard.

In closing, I may as well mention another detour I took on the road to the sailing inflatable. Not least under the influence of the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin series of sea novels by Patrick O'Brian, I actually

[GRAPHIC: Gonbei with square sail]              fashioned a square sail for Gonbei at one point, using the other spar from the Wooden Boat kit cut in two parts and a plastic canopy that had come with the inflatable. With a sail area of hardly more than 20 square feet, it would not even pass muster as topgallant royal on a brig commanded by Captain Aubrey, but for Gonbei it makes a usable running sail that can be set and taken in in a flash (no running to the masthead required) and that even allows a (very leisurely) broad reach when combined with the leeboards.
[GRAPHIC: Gonbei sail detail]
  Lest this be another site that glosses over the details, here are a few dimensions and a description of the procedure I use to set up the sail kit. This will give an impression of what's involved by way of parts.  



centimeters       feet/inches (approx)       
Mast height: 215   7' 1"       
Yard length: 200   6' 7"       
Boom length: 252   8' 3"       
Sail dimensions
    (cut by rough
    from an originally
    triangular Dacron sail)
    Foot: 248   8' 2"       
    Head: 190   6' 3"       
    Leech: 210   6'11"       
    Luff: 110   3' 7"       
     Width at top: 15   6"       
     Width at bottom: 25   10"       
     Length: 80   2' 7"       
     Thickness: 1   0.3937"  
Rudder dimensions:     46 x 30 x 0.6     1'6" x 1'   x 0.23"    
Thwart dimensions: 135 x  9 x 4         4'5" x   3" x 1"       


Getting ready to sail

  • Fix wooden thwart to boat with two long stainless bolts passed through holes in thwart and through rubber lifeline eyes.
  • Pass bamboo mast through center hole in thwart and secure to mast step with long bolt that goes through mast step and hole in mast foot.
[GRAPHIC: Front view of Gonbei's thwart with leeboard: 1]
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  • Attach wooden leeboards to both sides of thwart with wing-tip screws.
  • Attach wooden rudder board to outboard cavitation plate with two stainless screws and wing nuts (using holes drilled through plate).
  • Assemble boom from two aluminum parts and feed boom through sleeves at foot of sail. Fix outhaul to eyelet in clew of sail and to stainless loop at end of boom.
  • Feed bamboo yard through sleeves at head of sail. Pass outhaul through small hole cut in end of yard and tie to peak eyelet in sail.
  • Fix small block to boom at about center in cutout of sail sleeve, pass main sheet through block and tie one end of sheet to small cleat on transom (other end to be held in hand).
  • Use rolling hitch to tie peak halyard to yard at about 40 centimeters from throat.
  • Thread halyard through hole in top of mast (may also be done before stepping mast).
  • Attach boom downhaul (short line of similar strength as peak halyard) with rolling hitch to boom near front end, in cutout of sail sleeve. Take two turns round mast and belay to small cleat on thwart.
  [GRAPHIC: Gonbei, poles bare, under red sky]
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  • To hoist sail, pull on halyard until yard is peaked and luff is tight. Then belay halyard to another small cleat on thwart (a simple clove hitch without a cleat works too).
  • Lower leeboard on lee side fully, on other side just so, hold on to main sheet, pay off and sail into great blue yonder.
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Any more questions? Ask Wolfgang Bechstein.
Wolfgang Bechstein was born in Germany but says he has always felt more comfortable observing his country from the outside. While roaming the world in his youth, he briefly set foot in Japan, worked as a movie extra, and became fascinated by the local lingo. After studying linguistics and Japanese at Tübingen university, he came back to Japan in earnest in 1974 to work for a publishing company. He earned a B.A. in Japanese linguistics from ICU in Tokyo.   Turning a passion for audio into a profession, he started working as a freelance translator in 1981. He established his own company, Prisma, in 1988, and translates mainly from Japanese into English and German, specializing in electronics and computers. He relocated together with his family to Yowie Bay, New South Wales, in March 2001. Although he has applied for membership in the cafe latte society of Sydney, just between you and me, what he really came for are the waters.

by Wolfgang Bechstein: Other salt-water adventures
"Thar she squirts"
"Sail ho"
"Lights across the bay"
"There was chirping, too"

Download full-size photos of Gonbei's transformation (<530k)