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Drascombe Lugger

2008 November 1
There probably isn't a major body of water in the world that has not seen the wake of a Drascombe Lugger. People like Webb Chiles and David Pyle have done ocean crossings in Luggers. They're seaworthy little boats, sturdy daysailers designed to take sailors out on sheltered waters in brisk conditions and deliver the sort of satisfaction and high fun-factor only available on small boats.

The first 18-foot, 9-inch Lugger, launched in 1966, was designed and built by Englishman John Watkinson. When demand exceeded his ability to make them of wood, production began in fiberglass. Now there are literally thousands of Luggers, and hundreds of their kin, in lengths ranging from 14 to 25 feet overall; all with similar sailplans and all but the smallest carrying a diminutive mizzen.

This mizzen is a mixed blessing. When the wind picks up, the Lugger will handle a hatful of wind under it and jib alone, although sometimes it needs to be released to make it through a tack.

Luggers have pleasant lines, with a nice sheer and comfortable seating. A bronze stemhead, wood gunwales, Sitka spruce mast and a set of belaying pins at the base of the mast give the boat a bit of a salty air.

I arrived at Annapolis' Spa Creek early on a sunny morning to meet Carleton Wheeler, the American distributor of Drascombe boats. Rigging the boats was straightforward, and I did it alone with only the briefest instruction. The jib is a roller furling arrangement, the main is brailed to the mast along with the gaff, and the mizzen is rolled on the mizzen mast.

The Lugger is very stable, despite the fact that it only has a steel centerboard for ballast, and under sail it was evident that it would take equal measures of silliness and bad luck to swamp a Lugger. We sailed out into the bay far enough to get waves over the bow, but the Lugger didn't seem to care at all, and there was never a hint that we might be pushing it beyond its design limits.

Beating, the boat sailed best with the jib eased to give some curve to the foot. Sheeting the main and the jib tight will get it closer to the wind, but you will also go much slower. The mizzen is a low-maintenance item and can be left alone most of the time. Fall off, let out the sheets, and the boat picks up speed nicely, although without a boom to keep the foot from lifting, sheet trim is very important. On a run, you may wish for a boom. The boat we tested was gunter rigged, and it is on this point of sail that the optional lug rig would be advantageous. We put a reef in the main, more for the experience than for any need, and it was fairly painless; no ratcheting of winches, no boom thrashing around, and the reef is so deep the boat speed is significantly reduced.

Shaking out the reef is even quicker. Two people can do it in less than a minute.

As we worked our way back up Spa Creek, we short-tacked into a breeze making its way down the creek. Approaching the bridge we dropped the sails and made a quick transition from sailboat to rowboat. The jib rolled up in seconds and it was only dealing with the gaff of the gunter rig that took any time at all. The mizzen was its usual innocuous self and we left it alone. The Lugger rowed easily and carried well between strokes.

Built by McNulty Boats in England, today's Luggers are superficially like the ones built 35 years ago, but have had foam added to several of the boat's compartments making them literally unsinkable. This has been done at the expense of storage space, but it is worth the sacrifice. We tested the Lugger's buoyancy by swamping the boat until it was down on its marks a foot or so, where it remained surprisingly stable and showed no signs of settling any further. Afterward I was able to pump the boat dry with the built-in bilge pump.

Should I say you really shouldn't take off to Tahiti on your Lugger? Well, you shouldn't. They are unballasted, open boats. But they come with such good manners and are endowed with so much enjoyment you may find yourself heading that way. Don't say I didn't warn you.