What’s it like to build your own plywood 19-footer to race solo across the Atlantic? David Harding sailed with Keith Oliver onboard his Globe 5.80 to find out
Unless you’ve had a very large paper bag over your head for the past five years, you can hardly fail to have heard of Don McIntyre and his growing number of round-the-world and trans-oceanic yacht races.
McIntyre’s events are recreations of races from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when most of the competitors were amateurs and the boats were often standard production cruisers or, on occasions, home-built.
Those were the days before heavily sponsored, full-time professional sailors, GPS navigation with pin-point accuracy, shore-based routing teams, software that tells you whether you’re sailing the boat to within 1% of its optimum, and foil-borne, carbon fibre racing machines costing astronomical amounts of money.
The first of McIntyre’s events to capture the public’s imagination was the Golden Globe Race in 2018, held to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race that made Robin Knox-Johnston a household name.
More recently we saw the start of the first Ocean Globe Race, a fully-crewed event ‘in the spirit of the original 1973 Whitbread Race’.
The Ocean Globe is under way as this article is published.
On a smaller scale in terms of both size of boat and distance sailed is the Globe 5.80 Transat.
This is a race from the Canaries to Antigua, along the same trade wind route as Bob Salmon’s inaugural Mini Transat in 1977.
Salmon’s idea was to allow people who didn’t have the budget for the ‘big’ single-handed transatlantic races (as they had become by then) to compete in their own event in small boats – in this case up to 6.5m (21ft 4in) in length.
Anyone who follows today’s Mini Transat will know that, although the boats are still limited to 6.5m, they’re now scow-bowed foilers typically costing upwards of £250,000.
They’re a world apart from boats like Bob Salmon’s Anderson 22 and other production cruisers such as the E Boat that also took part in the first race.
Return of the mini
To make solo transatlantic racing once again achievable for part-time sailors on a budget, Don McIntyre created the Globe 5.80 Transat.
This is not just a race, however. It’s a race in which all boats are of the same design.
The Globe 5.80, as its name suggests, is 5.80m (19ft) long. It’s built in plywood: competitors buy a set of plans, in most cases followed by a kit containing all the CNC-cut timber parts.
Then they either build it themselves or get someone to build it for them. A few brave souls start with the plans and do the rest from scratch, without the kit.
Being relatively small, basic and easy to build, the 5.80 is about as economical as a boat capable of crossing the Atlantic can be.
It doesn’t have foils, a canting keel or even water ballast. Instead, it’s just a solid little ship with a bulbed fin keel, a single, transom-hung rudder and a standard aluminium rig of modest proportions.
Its length was chosen largely because it allows the boat to fit into a container for ease of shipping.
And although 19ft might sound small, bear in mind that John Guzwell’s Laurent Giles-designed Trekka, which he built and then sailed around the world in the 1950s, was only 20ft long.
It’s no coincidence that Don McIntyre’s own boat (he raced in the first Globe 5.80 Transat in 2021) was called Trekka; it has since been bought by Ertan Beskardes, who will be racing it in the 2025 Mini Globe Race.
Such has been the interest in the 5.80 as a class that more than 220 people in over 24 countries have bought plans.
Not all of them have actually built their boats, or even set out with a view to competing in the Transat, but one man who has is Keith Oliver.
Keith started building his Globe 5.80 early in 2022, with a plan to be ready for the start of the Globe 5.80 Transat 2023 in Lagos in November 2023.
The race ‘proper’ starts from Lanzarote, the trip from Lagos being a qualification leg.
One man’s dream
Keith is just the sort of sailor the Globe 5.80 Transat was designed to attract. He has a sailing background and used to own his own boat – a 22ft Foxterrier – but, until the Transat, he had never done any serious offshore or solo sailing.
In fact, sailing of any sort almost stopped for about 15 years when he got married and had a family, only re-starting when a move to the coast near Chichester allowed him to get afloat again, mostly on friends’ yachts and in his own Wanderer dinghy.
Building a boat was a new venture, too. “I’ve always been handy with DIY,” he explains, “though I’m no carpenter.”
Keith’s interest in building the boat and taking part in the race was born when a friend sent him a link to the Globe 5.80 website.
He “started looking into it” before buying the plans, then the kit, and getting the build under way in February 2022.
“Although it’s technically classed as a race, I’m not doing it for the racing side of things,” he told me. “It’s more the adventure of building your own boat and sailing it across the Atlantic.”
Building your own boat and sailing it across the Atlantic would certainly count as an adventure in most people’s books.
What the Globe 5.80 does is to make it far more achievable than if you were totally on your own: the boat has been designed and tested, you can buy the kit and many of the parts, and the event itself is structured and organised.
You can also seek help and advice from others who have built the boats and perhaps done the race too, though only four boats made the start in 2021 and five, including Keith, were planning to make it in 2023.
Others with boats currently in build have their sights set on the Mini Globe Race starting from Antigua in February 2025.
From Antigua, the 5.80s will race westabouts around the world via the Panama Canal and the Cape Of Good Hope ‘in the spirit of John Guzzwell and Trekka’.
So what was it like building Meraki (which essentially means ‘a labour of love’)? And how does the Globe 5.80 actually sail?
The first question is the longer one to answer, partly because, as Keith explained, “it took longer to build the boat than I had expected.”
“It’s hard to find a balance when you take on something like this. Having a busy family life, I didn’t want to spend all weekend every weekend and every evening working on the boat. I probably didn’t put in quite enough time in the first year, then all of a sudden you’ve got six months to go and it hits you that you need to up the ante!”
Time, space and money
To save the cost of renting under-cover space, Keith built a large tent in his garden for the first part of the build before moving the hull into a barn about six months later.
The various stages of construction are documented in Keith’s blog on his website, but a few aspects stand out.
The first is that building the hull was by no means the longest or hardest part of the project.
“When I’d built the hull, I felt as though I was nearly there,” said Keith. “How wrong was I?! It was all the finishing off that took the time.”
As any home-builder of a ply-epoxy boat will tell you, fairing the hull is one of the most tedious and time-consuming jobs.
Another aspect that Keith hadn’t fully appreciated was the time it took to research “all the bits you need to put the boat together”.
“I know it’s only a small boat, but everything needs purchasing and I was trying to do that on a budget. I was always trying to get the best deal on things, and it takes a lot of time.”
Don’s company, McIntyre Adventure, makes a good amount of equipment available for the 5.80. Some critical parts are supplied directly, such as the stainless steel rudder fittings and the chainplates, which builders are not allowed to source from elsewhere under the class rules.
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Don also offers packages that builders can buy from the manufacturers if they want. These include the spars from Seldén, though you can use extrusions of the specified size from elsewhere and make your own rig if you prefer.
A deck-hardware package (excluding winches) is available from Blue Shark in China. A sail package has been put together with Quantum.
And so on, but anyone building a 5.80 still needs to buy a lot of their own kit and, other than where stipulated by the class rules, decide where and how to fit it.
In Keith’s case, the need to save money had to be balanced against saving time.
Sometimes he had to adopt a change of tactic when circumstances changed.
For example when the delivery time for the Blue Shark hardware became longer, he was told that he would need to pay import duty, and the price increased too, so he shopped around in the UK and bought his own Barton hardware from an online supplier.
He plumped for the Seldén rig package, however, having no experience building a mast, and he also bought the cast-iron keel and the stainless steelwork (stanchions, pulpit, grab handles and so on) from the builder in Poland who built Don’s Trekka.
The designer of the 5.80, Janusz Maderski, is Polish, so the class has strong Polish connections.
Globe 5.80: fit for purpose
A lead bulb fits to the bottom of the keel, and Keith cast this himself having first had a template for the bulb printed on a 3D printer.
Essentially it’s the responsibility of the builder to make sure the boat is fit to cross the Atlantic – or sail around the world.
While there’s no outside inspection during the construction, certain stages have to be witnessed by an independent third party and the boat has to be weighed at a critical stage.
You also have to have the keel professionally welded to the plate that’s bolted to the hull.
Auxiliary propulsion has to be in the form of an electric outboard. Keith’s was playing up, so we sailed with a 3.5hp Mariner on the transom.
After 18 months of building, Keith was finally ready to launch. The boat was by no means finished and ready to race but, as Keith put it, “I’d got to the stage where I needed to get it in the water, check everything and sail it. That would give me a week to finish the other jobs before leaving for Portugal.”
Because of the autumnal weather and the queue of boats waiting to be lifted out of the water, Keith only managed to get Meraki lifted in – very much against the flow – a few days before she would have to come back out.
In practice that left just one day to go sailing in England before a week of pre-start trials and preparation in Lagos.
For some time the Met Office had been promising us wall-to-wall sunshine and 12-15 knots of wind on this particular Sunday.
Instead, we were greeted in the morning by a flat calm, which gave way in the early afternoon to rain accompanied by a variable breeze of two to three knots.
Eventually, the rain eased and the wind settled in direction, though never exceeding four to five knots. These were hardly ideal testing conditions.
All we could establish is that, in flat water and a zephyr, the boat ghosted along nicely and everything seemed to work.
On a first sail with a home-built boat, that’s a good start. We didn’t even have enough wind to fill either of the downwind sails – the straight-luffed A3 or the larger, deeper A5 – until just before we had to head in, so it was a day of white sails only. By all accounts, and as you would expect, the Globe 5.80 is geared very much towards downwind sailing.
Joe Viveash, who built hull No. 46 in Poole, says he readily surfed at 7 or 8 knots when the wind came aft.
He completed the 2022 Round The Island Race in 9.5 hours in a brisk south-westerly with three crew, finding – as he did in other races – that upwind performance in a chop wasn’t great because of the short waterline and flat hull sections. Downwind, he could more than hold his own.
Keith has all these experiences yet to come.
At the time of writing he also had yet to fit the windvane, second solar panel, much of the navigation kit and some of the harness attachment points. Otherwise, the boat looked more than capable of facing the ocean.
The areas in which Keith saved money were principally in the comfort and convenience department; not in ways that would affect safety or performance.
For example, he used KiwiGrip non-slip deck paint rather than the much more expensive rubberised finish that Don suggested.
His access hatch from cockpit to cabin (it has to be a watertight hatch, not a conventional companionway) is smaller than some, and his windows are all made from a single sheet of polycarbonate whereas some boats have opening windows from Plastimo.
The money he saved went into equipment such as a roller-reefing system for the jib, which he was keen to have.
Unlike many of today’s race boats, the Globe 5.80 should have an after-life. Keith hopes to keep Meraki for coastal sailing from Chichester, even if a 19-footer doesn’t provide a great deal of space or comfort below decks.
Joe Viveash spent a week cruising his around the Solent two-handed, so it can be done.
With his two kids keen to get more involved in sailing, he now needs a bigger boat, but building Splash Gorden was ‘a good lockdown project.’
Keith’s project at the time of writing was still very much a work in progress.
By the time you’re reading this, all being well he will be in Antigua, having sailed across from Europe in a 19ft boat he built himself. Not many people have done that.
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