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2009 April 13

This classic dinghy is the perfect off-season project with promise of great sailing to come

Admittedly, our choice to find a Penguin dinghy to retrofit and head out for some sailing was driven in large part by a sense of nostalgia. Although we enjoy sailing on more modern, performance-geared dinghies such as Lasers and occasionally even an MX-Ray, we realized we rarely got the chance to take friends out sailing on a small, unimposing boat, or even to enjoy sailing together in a dinghy. And while there are several great dinghies out there suitable for just that kind of sailing, it was stories fondly recalled by a family member who built a Penguin as a boy in Sea Scouts, that ultimately swayed us in the direction of this much-loved design.
Designed by Phillip Rhodes in 1939, the Penguin is a simply rigged catboat that is just over 11 feet long. Its simplicity is largely responsible for what has made it a favorite boat for all kinds of sailors, from entry-level folks wanting to putter around an inland lake to some of the best in the world who enjoy getting down to brass tacks in competitive fleets all over the country. Because the boat is so easy to move around and handle it's also a great boat for children to learn in.

With the Penguin, we threw that formula out. There are great deals to be had on Penguins, and it's not uncommon to find them free for the taking, assuming you can unpile the stuff in the garage surrounding them. In many cases, retrofitting a Penguin is going to cost more than the initial cost of the boat. And since many Penguins are built as kit boats, they can be found in varying levels of completion. One listing on the Penguin class Web site advertised a boat that was "90 percent complete 30 years ago."

We had a few requirements for our perfect Penguin. First of all, we were looking for a fiberglass hull. It's not that there aren't some wonderful wooden hulls out there, and certainly the sense of nostalgia is ramped up a bit with a wooden boat, but frankly dealing with wood hull repairs was beyond what we were interested in. We wanted a boat we could have out sailing by spring, not another project in the garage to be maneuvered around. We were also looking for some level of structural soundness and wanted to avoid a boat on which the rails had been broken off because we had been warned that is a tough repair that tends to come back over and over again to haunt owners.

A relatively new boat, in race ready condition with lots of wins to its name in a nearby fleet recently sold for $4,300. But that would have been overkill for our purposes. We wanted a boat that would be just as much fun for a quickly thrown together daysail as it would be competitive in regional fleets.

We found it through a connection in the Penguin class. It was one of those boats that had been bought several years earlier by people wanting it for the same reasons we did, but after a few years life got hectic and the Penguin ended up in a shed in the back yard. We resolved to make an attempt to keep the boat's history from repeating itself.

We ended up paying $850 for the boat, which was in relatively good condition but not without enough projects to keep us busy for a few months. We didn't delay in launching it for a shakedown sail to get a better idea of what we were dealing.

We started with the hull. We spent a lot of time talking with people who know a lot about Penguins, and with a class as prodigious as this one, there are plenty of them. Patrick Hilliard, who has been sailing Penguins for about 30 years, warned us to check for leaking around the centerboard trunk, and sure enough, we noticed some during our sail and it was obvious it was coming from the cracks we saw. We followed Hilliard's two pieces of advice, both of which he said he learned the hard way: We removed the centerboard before we started working and took care to avoid getting any epoxy drips inside the trunk.

We ground out the cracking and chipping areas around the base of the centerboard trunk. Next we filled in the ground-out area with West System epoxy thickened with West's Colloidal Silica filler. To reduce the amount of time we would spend sanding, we laid two layers of four-inch bi-directional fiberglass tape on top while the epoxy was still wet then followed immediately with a layer of release fabric and smoothed out the whole repair area. After it cured, we pulled off the release fabric, gave it a light sanding and painted the area.

The centerboard pin gaskets were plenty dried out after years of sitting in the shed so we replaced them with new rubber gaskets from the local hardware store. We also made sure the pin, as well as the fasteners on the mast and boom, were stainless steel.

Hilliard told us that a lot of sailors put in stringers to stiffen the hull fore and aft. Although we could see where our boat would probably benefit from this addition, we decided we'd save that project for the next season after getting a better of idea of how competitive the boat was.

Satisfied that our hull was structurally in good shape, we decided our Penguin needed some spiffing up. The paint was faded and we wanted our project to look good too. We bought a quart of Petit Easypoxy one-part polyurethane in Ocean Blue. We rolled it on with a short-nap roller then immediately tipped it with a brush. After allowing it to dry overnight, we gave it a light sanding with 220-grit sandpaper before applying a second coat. And when it was done, our little Penguin looked like a new bird.

Next on our to-do list was a thorough inventory of the rigging. It came with a wooden spar that was in acceptable shape. Our initial reaction was to run out and buy an aluminum spar, but the price was prohibitive. And we were comforted by the fact that a wood mast is repairable if it should happen to break. We opted instead to give it a good sanding and recoat it with five coats of Pettit's Flagship 2015 varnish, which has the UV protection we were looking for.
The control lines on the boat were in need of replacement as well. We replaced them all through Redpoint Ropes, overestimating how much of each line we would need to give us some flexibility in setting up the boat to our liking. The Penguin class has no limits on how you can set up a boat so we had free reign to experiment a little in what set-up worked best for us.
We wanted tracks to adjust the shroud tension, so we picked up some track sections from Harken. We used fender washers to mount them with 3M 4000 sealant and stainless hardware. While we were shopping with Harken we picked up an auto-racheting mainsheet block and a handful of cam cleats for our control lines.

The last item we wanted to attend to was some method of keeping the centerboard down. We took a page from a setup common on a lot of club racing dinghies and rigged a shock cord from the centerboard handle, back through a block on the aft end of the centerboard trunk and then tied to the base of the mast. We put a 2-to-1 block and tackle on the end of the centerboard handle to secure it in the up position.

Our boat came with a sail that, although it was a big aged, was in pretty good shape for our first season. One of the best things about getting into the Penguin class is the class itself, which is filled with knowledgeable sailors who honestly just want to get more people out sailing and enjoying their boats. We're sure we'll get a lot more suggestions of what our work list should include next year (and probably a few critiques of what we've done so far). And we might get a line on a sail that's less expensive than the $620 price of a new one but in better shape than what we have. It's going to be a fun summer.