A bilge keel pocket cruiser, boasting serpentine sheer, good build quality and robust looks, the Silhouette 17 can be a real bargain…
Robert Tucker designed many pocket cruisers that were built mainly in the 1950s to 1970s. I have owned three of his designs and my absolute favourites are the little Silhouette 17 Marks 2 and 3 with bilge keels.
I first saw one of these charming craft on the hard at Bosham. The owners had gone to the Anchor Bleu for dinner to return for the night on their little ship before departing with the tide at dawn.
Their boat sat comfortably upright, unlike my own boat and others lying at varying angles. I got chatting to them and they were so pleased with their craft’s performance that they were happy to put up with its limited headroom, 3ft 7in for sitting only.
Taken by the Silhouette 17’s serpentine sheer, build quality and robust looks I decided to buy one. They can be real bargains.
My opportunity came when I saw one advertised at Littlehampton. She was in good order and lying in a mud and sand berth by the yacht club and the owner wanted her moved quickly to avoid further berthing and harbour dues, which were imminent.
We agreed on a price and it was down to me to move her as soon as possible. I decided to take her by road to Rye.
I had a Jeep and a good new road trailer but needed to lay a flat bed to take the bilge keels and constructed this with several layers of very thick ply.
The collection day came and riding shotgun with me was my most useful chum, amateur engineer, enthusiastic sailor, multiple boat builder and retired head teacher Maurice.
He is by far the most useful person I know to have around when things go wrong which, as you will soon read, were about to.
The public slipway at Littlehampton is a little steep but the awkward bit is the soft mud at the lower end. I kept my 4×4 well clear and lowered the trailer with a stout rope.
The other problem of course is the tidal flow across the slipway which makes lining the boat up with the trailer difficult. And, of course, our endeavours attracted an ever growing crowd of interested holidaymakers offering much advice.
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While I manned the winch and got ready to drive the Jeep, Maurice attempted to line things up. It was impossible without getting into deep water at the stern of the boat.
Maurice hesitated and said, ‘friendship ends at the knees’. And I didn’t fancy getting soaked either. To our rescue came the boat’s owner who was only too keen to get her away.
He immediately stripped off to his underpants and jumped in. This was great entertainment for the grockles who by now were sitting, firmly ensconced and licking their cornets.
With some difficulty battling against the ebbing tide we got the boat aligned and I quickly pulled her up the slip before she floated off again. Even on the dry part of the slipway the Jeep struggled to get a grip. Eventually we succeeded.
There followed an awkward drive through narrow lanes with a Jeep that would not come out of 4WD. Maurice’s engineering skills proved useful once again to resolve this.
The slow journey east was then fairly uneventful until we got close to the boat park when the port side bilge keel burst through the ply flatbed I’d made and the whole load developed and awkward list.
We were prepared for most trailer eventualities but did not expect the floor to give way. I suppose half the weight of the boat was pushing down on the narrow surface area of one keel. Even so, given the thickness of ply it was a surprise.
Next day I was easily able to just float her off the trailer at Rye Harbour and take her upriver to her new mooring close to the Strand Quay.
It was a soft mud drying berth and those bilge keels went all the way down into the mud. When the tide came in she was held tight for a while until sufficient buoyancy lifted her like a cork from a bottle. In time she dug her own hole and this eased.
Silouette 17: A worthy purchase
The years of sailing that followed were great fun. She was never a fast boat but sailed upright and coped very well in the short, steep waves encountered in Rye Bay and in particular over the famous bar.
I would sail the Silhouette 17 with larger yachts and in conditions when many small 17ft boats would wisely remain in the harbour. She was a good sea boat with a self-draining cockpit. In flat water the Silhouette leaves a very clean wake.
My only concern was a lack of buoyancy or watertight compartments. She was a little small to take an inflatable on deck so I did my best to improve buoyancy by making the compartments at least semi watertight and made sure that I had a few pumps and a bucket in the event of a holing – though she was very heavily constructed.
One particular feature I liked was the semi-well for the outboard motor. I liked to keep the motor at the ready when entering the harbour in case I lost wind by the steep bank.
There’s very little room for manoeuvre or error at the entrance. For those unfamiliar with the entrance to the Rother it is straight and narrow and used by coastal vessels of a fair size. One needs to keep a listening watch on the VHF and also look out for the harbour warning lights.
One should not enter or leave the river when a coastal vessel is moving or about to move in it. I sometimes call the harbour master for advice if I’m unsure of shipping movements.
There are many variations of the Silhouette 17 design. After the first design there were Marks 2, 3, 4, 5, SV, S20 and S21. Details of all these variations are provided on the Silhouette Owners Association website.
I also owned a Mk2 for a number of years which I found lying at a marina up Thorney Channel in Chichester Harbour.
This was a most attractive boat, chined like a wooden boat might be and beautifully fitted out. A principle difference was that she had a ballasted stub keel and twin metal plate bilge keels, all held on with keel bolts and relatively easy to remove and replace if need be.
It’s difficult to compare the performance of the Silhouette 17 Mk2 with the Mk3 – perhaps the Mk2 was a tad faster and wetter. The Mk3 was drier, had a self draining cockpit and had the better outboard arrangement. If I was to choose again I think I’d go for the Mk2 because of its traditional looks.
Silhouette 17 Mk3 specifications
LOA: 17ft 3in / 5.26m
Beam: 6ft 6in / 2.01m
Draught: 2ft 1in / 0.63m
Displacement: 1,288lb / 584kg
Ballast: 450lb / 204kg
Rig: Masthead sloop
Designer: Robert Tucker
Builder: Hurley Marine
Headroom: 3ft 7in / 1.10m
Total sail area: 165ft2 15.3m2
Models: Mk1, Mk2, Mk3, Mk4, Mk5, SV, S20, S21
Association: Silhouette Owners Association