Just 5m (17ft) long on deck and classically styled in wood-epoxy, the Shilling opens up a whole new world of sailing – as David Harding discovered

Product Overview



Shilling: a versatile camper-cruiser

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Some sailors take the view that exploring harbours, rivers, lakes and estuaries in a small boat is a lot more fun than bashing across
mile after mile of open water in a deep-keeled yacht.

When you’ve got where you’re going, you might end up cooking on a camping stove and drinking out of plastic cups, but the whole operation is much less expensive and you’re unlikely to be holed up for a week waiting for a break in the weather to get home again.

In this sort of environment, surrounded by tree-lined banks, rolling fields, marshland or mudflats, many people prefer to be in a craft that blends in with the natural world; hence the popularity of traditional-style day-sailers and weekenders that, from a distance at least, look like the sort of boat that could have been built in a shed on the water’s edge.

If this sounds like your sort of sailing you will quite possibly be familiar with many of the small dayboats and camper-cruisers on the market.

They’re often open decked, however, so if you want something with a cabin that’s also small enough to trail behind a modest car, launch on your own and park in your drive during the winter, your choice is limited.

When I said as much in a PBO feature a while ago I received a response from Jeremy Retford, a reader who had recently bought a mini-cruiser called the Shilling.

A man sitting in a cockpit of a Shilling Boat with a tiller

A cockpit comfortable for two. All controls are easy to reach from the tiller. Credit: David Harding

Built in wood-epoxy by Willow Bay Boats in Cumbria, the Shilling is shorter than some dinghies at just 5.2m (17ft) and draws 0.3m (1ft) with her centreplate raised, yet she offers a fully enclosed cabin, self-righting ability and the potential to make short coastal cruises.

Phil Swift of Willow Bay Boats drew his inspiration for the design from the Deben 4-tonner, which was built by Whisstocks Boatyard in Suffolk in the 1930s.

He scaled down and modified the lines, and replaced the fixed keel with a centreplate, but the Deben pedigree is firmly ingrained in the Shilling – whose smaller sisters, appropriately, are called the Farthing and Ha’penny.

Phil soon found that he had identified a niche in the market.

the bow of the Shilling boat

With the cutter rig, both headsails are on furling systems. Note the Samson post and deep bulwarks. Credit: David Harding

Jeremy was already a wooden-boat enthusiast having previously owned a 60-year-old, clinker-built 4.3m (14ft) Aries dayboat, though when he decided to buy something bigger it was by no means certain that he would choose a craft of similar style.

‘I could have paid two grand for a secondhand 16ft-17ft glassfibre cruiser that would have done exactly what I wanted,’ he says. ‘Some of those I was looking at are quite good little sea-boats, but I’d have been sailing around in something that looked like a Tupperware box. After my lovely old mahogany Aries, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.’

Given that Margherita cost him some £24,000, he could have got away with spending a lot less by going the ‘Tupperware’ route.

The other alternative was to spend somewhere between the two sums on a Jeanneau Sun 2000 which, at 6.1m (20ft), would have given him a good deal more boat for his money.

In the end, Jeremy’s love of timber and classic styling won and the Shilling it was – but not before he had worked on some modifications with Phil to produce exactly what he wanted.

The Shilling: custom currency

As is often the case with wooden boats built in small numbers, there is no standard specification for the Shilling.

She’s nominally 5.2m (17ft) on deck but can be – and has been – stretched to 5.33m (17ft 6in) or shrunk to 5.1m (16ft 9in).

All the boats before Jeremy’s, however, had been rigged as gaff yawls, and a yawl isn’t what Jeremy wanted.

‘To me it seemed busy on a small boat – full of string’, he told me. ‘I didn’t want a yawl, a sloop was boring and I have always liked the look of cutters, so that’s what I had and it works for me.’

Internal balast inside a boat

Internal ballast is bags of steel punchings in boxes bolted down either side of the centreplate case. Credit: David Harding

Jeremy’s other request was to minimise the draught, since he keeps the boat on a drying mooring during the season and sails in a shallow harbour, so Phil shaved a few inches off the keel to reduce the draught with the centreplate raised to around 0.3m (1ft).

In other respects Margherita is built in the same way as the other Shillings that have emerged from Phil’s yard.

The hull is epoxy- sheathed cedar strip over a plywood frame, decks are marine plywood, the keel and bilge runners are solid iroko, and the interior is a combination of plywood and solid utile mahogany.

Ballast is split between the galvanised steel centreplate (approximately 54kg/119lb) and bags of steel punchings (around 90kg/200lb) either side of the centreplate case that can be moved to trim the boat according to the weight of the crew and the outboard engine.

The total is enough to create a stiff little ship, as Jeremy found on test-sailing Phil’s open-decked version in a Force 5 on Windermere.

Having also looked at the construction, Jeremy – a chartered engineer with 40 years’ sailing experience – was suitably impressed.

Once the specification was finalised, he visited the yard a number of times during the six-month build, gaining confidence in the boat’s strength and pleasure from seeing it emerge from a mass of timber and shavings.

Sailing the Shilling

Having seen Margherita in Poole Bay before sailing her myself, I had been able to admire her lines from a distance.

She’s one of very few boats whose size would be hard to judge were it not for the crew on board or other boats nearby to give a sense of scale: her proportions are such that she would still be attractive if half as long again.

I had seen her in a good 15 knots of wind, tramming along at hull speed and clearly revelling in the conditions, as well as ghosting along in a zephyr while larger cruisers nearby were drifting around with their sails slatting.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy doesn’t head out into open water in rough conditions but has experienced 20 knots plus on a beat to Christchurch Harbour with no concerns.

A galley area on a Shilling boat

The galley has a cooker and space for a cool-bag. Water comes in bottles. Credit: David Harding

For a boat the size of the Shilling, that’s the equivalent of a gale in mid-Channel, and he had the portlights under water more than once.

While you probably wouldn’t choose to set out in anything more than this, and would only hop along to the Solent given a good forecast, the plus side of owning such a small boat is that you can have an enjoyable sail close to shore in moderate conditions when crews on larger yachts might find it all rather boring.

If you were caught out in more weather than you bargained for, the Shilling should be able to take it.

Whatever a righting-moment curve might show (it’s not obligatory for boats of this nature), both Phil and Jeremy are in no doubt that she would right herself from well beyond 90°.

She also has over 20 cubic feet of air in sealed compartments throughout her length, giving a total buoyancy of 584kg (1,284lb).

Continues below…

When I went sailing in Poole Harbour with Jeremy, getting swamped or knocked down looked unlikely given that the wind was hovering between 6 and 8 knots most of the time.

It was enough to bring the Shilling alive and, when it peaked at 9 knots, to get us going upwind at 4 knots.

Despite this creditable performance, however, I felt that the boat could have stood a little more canvas and suggested as much to Jeremy.

His response was that he’s prepared to trade a little performance in light airs for less need to shorten sail when the wind picks up, because it’s not easy to reef the main sail under way.

Instead, he tends to furl the staysail and balance the full main with the yankee.

If there’s already plenty of breeze, or he’s expecting it to pick up enough to justify reefing, he puts in a slab before setting out and sails under the better-balanced combination of staysail and reefed main.

Refining the rig

If you were serious about optimising performance with a cutter, it would be worth giving some thought to the way the headsails are sheeted.

Because the sheeting angle of the staysail is substantially wider than that of the yankee, whose tack (on the bowsprit) is further forward and sheet lead further aft, the sails tend to converge.

The result is that the yankee backwinds the staysail.

Sheeting the staysail inboard of the rigging would help upwind – we experimented with various barber-hauling arrangements – but create problems downwind.

Pending a workable re-jigging of the arrangements, the best you can do is to avoid over-sheeting the yankee and sail the boat reasonably free upwind.

A drawing of a Shilling yacht

The Shilling’s rig can be sloop, yawl or cutter

Sails are by Goacher Sails on Windermere – best known for supplying one-design classes such as Sonatas and Flying Fifteens – and the sail-handling arrangements work well enough.

The mainsheet is split to both gunwales and led a foot or so along the boom before the tail comes down to the helm’s hand.

Any number of variations would be possible.

For all the boat’s classic appearance and the visual delights of the varnished timber trim, Jeremy opted not to go for classic blocks and hardware: most of his comes from Barton and he’s happy with it.

On a boat of this size it’s hard for everything not to be conveniently to hand. Sailing single-handed – as Jeremy does most of the time – is straightforward and the boat’s behaviour also helps keep things simple.

She goes where you point her, tacks and gybes positively, leaves minimal wake and is light on the helm, though she can’t be left to sail herself for very long.

When wind briefly picked up to around 14 knots she clocked nearly 5 knots on a fetch and felt as though she still had more to offer.

Stowing away

Some compromises are inevitable in a slim-hulled 17-footer.

There’s no way the cockpit can be both self-draining and comfortably deep, so a bilge pump is fitted beneath the sole.

The apertures of the open-fronted stowage lockers have to be on the small side, too, and that calls for careful thought about the equipment that’s carried – including the size of the ship’s bucket.

Jeremy and Phil looked at the possibility of fitting a chemical toilet in the cabin but it couldn’t be made to work.

An anchor lives in a bag on deck immediately forward of the coachroof.

Inside a Shilling boat

There’s room for some basic chart-work to port. No equipment on board runs on 12V; everything is powered by AA or rechargeable batteries. Credit: David Harding

Its rode, like the mooring line, is secured to a substantial Samson post in the foredeck. Samson posts are also on each quarter.

At the forward end of the cockpit is the line that lifts the centreplate.

If you touch the bottom, give it a tug. If you really get stuck, jump out and push: as long as you jump out the right side, the water won’t be above your knees.

Getting down below is made easy by the sliding hatch – a refinement that’s often not found on small boats.

Once down below, it’s easy to appreciate why, in Jeremy’s words, ‘Phil spent a lot of time under his kitchen table, figuring out how much volume you need to do certain things’.

That’s how the Shilling comes to have a coachroof that’s just high enough to be practical without spoiling the boat’s lines, its height cunningly disguised by bulwarks that also lend security to the decks.

Jeremy has spent several weeks camping on board, mostly on his own but occasionally with a crew.

He added a cockpit tent in 2010, so that when he has to move things out of the cabin to create space for two, it has somewhere to go.

In night-time mode the cabin provides a sleeping area that’s over 1.83m (6ft) long and 0.5m (1ft 8in) wide each side of the centreplate case.

Berth on a small boat

Sleeping and seating: the Shilling’s cabin has provision for both. The finish is white paint and varnished utile mahogany. There’s room to sit up without banging your head and the berths are over 1.8m (6ft) long. Credit: David Harding

During the day, you can lift up the aft end of the berth (on either side or both) and, by dint of Phil’s clever joinery, convert it to an aft-facing seat.

Because the back is angled you effectively have a surprisingly generous 91cm (36in) of headroom between the seat and the deckhead.

Comfortably seated here you can see out through the port lights and companionway, keep an eye on the kettle on the single-burner Origo cooker, and not worry about whether you have enough battery power left in the 12V system because there isn’t one.

Having been advised that the amount he uses the engine wouldn’t be enough to charge a battery, Jeremy decided to keep things simple: he uses a handheld VHF and GPS, and Osram Dot-it lights from B&Q that each lasted the whole of his first season on a single set of AA batteries.

Natural light is good, with two portlights each side and plenty of white paint on the woodwork offset by the trim in plywood and solid utile mahogany. It’s a compact and rather pleasant environment.

Despite the ballast and the buoyancy taking up a fair amount of room, there’s still adequate stowage for a well-disciplined crew.

PBO’s verdict on the Shilling

At a time when many people’s first boat is larger than the ultimate dream cruiser of experienced sailors only a generation ago, it’s good to find that there are still those who enjoy sailing something small and relatively simple.

The Shilling is an exceptionally pretty and admirably capable little boat that combines the appeal of timber with the practicality of epoxy.

While classic lines, traditional rigs and wooden hulls above a certain size can mean more work than some people want, in a 17-footer you can enjoy the pleasures without most of the drawbacks.

If a larger version of the Shilling – a Florin or Half Crown, presumably – were to be built at around 5.8m (19ft) it would face more competition but, I believe, would still be sufficiently different from anything else on the market to find an appreciative audience.

In the meantime, the Shilling is a boat of which her owners have every right to be proud.


Length on deck (LOD):5.15m/17ft 0in
Beam:1.98m/6ft 6in
Draught - centreplate up:0.38m/1ft 3in
Draught - centreplate down:0.91m/3ft 0in
Weight:approx 600kg/1,322lb
Sail area (cutter):16sq m/168sq ft
Engine:2-4hp outboard
Headroom:1.01m/3ft 4in
RCD catergory:Historic craft
Designer:Phil Swift
Bulider:Willow Bay Boats