A relative newcomer to sailing who was finding his Caprice reluctant to make upwind got in touch with Sail Clinic seeking help. A day of rigging setup changes later and David Harding had him on his way.
Little old boats can offer enormous fun for your money, but they often require some tweaking in order to be experienced at their best. Often a little bit of time and a small amount of money invested in updating the rigging setup can make all the difference.
Take the Caprice, for example – just over 18ft (5.5m) long, designed by Tony Tucker in the late 1950s and a boat you can buy today for just a few hundred pounds if you find an old example.
Despite her diminutive size, however, this is a highly capable little ship: Shane Acton famously sailed around the world in Shrimpy and wrote a book about it. With boats like this now, as long as the structure is sound and the general condition acceptable, the biggest problem can be the rig.
Such boats will often have been run on a tight budget, coming with sails that are well past their prime – often cast-offs or cut-downs from a different boat of similar size. You also need to be prepared to find rigging that’s old, under-tensioned and cobbled together with an assortment of hardware that would be more at home securing a farm gate.
It’s not always like this but, if you’re going to get your bargain-buy sailing as she should, sorting out the rig and hardware is essential.
Article continues below…
If boats were cars, many of those I see sailing along would be coughing and spluttering down the motorway at…
Keep the bottlescrews available
Of course it’s easy to splash out on new sails, new rigging and new hardware. On the other hand, you can often bring about a remarkable transformation for the cost of a few lengths of line and some blocks from a boat jumble. Either way, there’s no point in buying an inexpensive boat if it sails so badly that you get frustrated and can’t go where you want to go. No matter how little it cost to buy, that wouldn’t be getting value for money.
Coping with a Caprice
Ian Pickworth bought his Caprice two years ago, having started with a Sea Wych as a complete novice only the year before. The problem, he explained, was that the Caprice wouldn’t point: when she tacked (and tacking in itself could be a challenge), it was almost from reach to reach. And the helm became heavy when the breeze picked up.
Ian admitted to being on a steep learning curve when it came to sailing, but he knew that all was not well and that, despite being 40 years old and with twin keels, Iris should be performing better.
To see what was amiss, I went along to meet Iris shortly before she was lifted ashore for the winter. First time out, the light breeze soon faded to a zephyr before deserting us entirely, but
it still allowed me to assess the problems and work out some solutions in readiness for another sail in more breeze. This we just managed to fit in before hibernation day.
The rigging setup
The rig has to come first, because a poorly-tuned rig doesn’t give the sails a chance of setting
properly. It was no surprise to find the rigging too slack and bottlescrews unevenly threaded, so I re-threaded the bottlescrews before tensioning the caps and lowers.
With the Caprice having a masthead rig, the backstay also plays an important role in rig tension: it pulls directly against the forestay. Lack of backstay tension induces forestay sag, which is another performance killer with most rigs.
To save time on the water in a short window determined by wind, tide and daylight, I simply used a sail tie to lash the twin backstays together rather than fiddle around with two bottlescrews.
Given the age and general condition of the standing rigging, including misaligned swagings, replacing it would not be a bad idea.
Unlike the sails on many boats of similar age and size, Iris’s were nowhere near as bad as
I had feared. The mainsail wasn’t even that old. Nonetheless, there were issues with both it and the headsail.
Here I found an all-too-familiar problem: the sheeting angle was wrong, leading to an excessively tight leech and loose foot. A boat will never make upwind efficiently with a sail set like this.
Thankfully the solution was simple. A wire strop on the roller-reefing drum was raising the tack by about 6in (15cm). A raised tack leads to a raised clew, which was too high for the position of the car on the tack.
By removing the strop, securing the tack directly to the top of the drum and moving the cars all the way aft, we achieved a much better sheeting angle and a vastly more efficient headsail.
With a tight forestay and correct sheeting angle, all we then needed were telltales to confirm how accurately we had set the twist. Overlapping headsails that sheet outside a wide shroud-base like this can be difficult to read.
The set of the mainsail was compromised by two main factors. Lack of backstay tension meant the mast was straight fore-and-aft, whereas it needed a little pre-bend, and the full-length top batten was so stiff that there was no shape in the top of the sail.
Tensioning the backstays helped induce a little mast bend, while switching the over-stiff batten for a slightly softer (more flexible) one (even though it was a little short) helped put some shape into the sail.
The ultimate solution would be a batten that’s the right length and softer still.
Originally, the mainsheet system had two strands taken to a block on the port side of
the aft deck and the third strand to starboard. Consequently, tensioning the sheet tended
to pull the boom over to the port side. The substantial downward component also meant that a fair amount of sheet tension was needed to bring the boom anywhere near the centreline.
An additional problem was the thickness of the sheet itself: at 12mm, it was grossly oversized.
The solution was to rig up a makeshift bridle, so the sheet pulled the boom towards the centre rather than downwards.
We also found a much thinner length of line for the sheet. For a permanent system, a jamming block would need to be incorporated within the 2:1 system, but our objective was simply to show that the principle worked. It did: the sheet was much freer running and it also allowed the mainsail to be sheeted close to the centreline without tensioning the leech.
The kicking strap
Because the kicking strap had been so ineffective, Ian removed it entirely. This left us with no control over the leech once the mainsheet was eased, so I put it back on as it had been originally fitted to see what the problem was.
It was twofold: first there was only a 2:1 purchase, and second the V-jammer was right by the base of the mast, making adjustment awkward to say the least.
Again, the solution was relatively straightforward. I used a few blocks and lengths of line from my Sail Clinic ditty bag to convert the 2:1 purchase to a 4:1 with a cascade. I also moved the cleat to the top (by the boom) to allow adjustment from the cockpit.
What difference did these measures make?
This was a case where no one problem was to blame, but an assortment of smaller problems combined to create one big one. When we started, Iris was struggling to tack through less than 110° and her performance all round was lacklustre to say the least. By the time we had made all our tweaks on the second outing, our tacking angle was within 90° and we were making a good 4 knots through the water hard on the wind despite the twin keels and a weedy end-of-season bottom.
We even managed to out-point and out-pace a Westerly Centaur, which made a useful yardstick.
Significantly too, she felt positive and responsive, the helm was light and she never hesitated when asked to tack.
With new rigging and some refinements to our makeshift mainsheet system, together with telltales on the headsail, a new top batten and a clean bottom, Iris really would be given a new lease of life. Exercises like this show how you can transform the performance of a budget boat for a small outlay and have much more fun afloat as a result.