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Who needs comfort when you’re cruising in clinker-built sailing history?

2019 November 1

Back at the dock after Saturday afternoon racing, the boat was shipshape, the genoa folded and in its turtle bag, two spinnakers repacked, the mainsail neatly flaked and under its cover and the crew rehydrating with cold Coronas and enjoying the view of the parade of transient cruising boats coming into the marina for the night. 

It was a good show. A 41-foot Jeanneau, with twin steering wheels, streamlined coachroof and racy looking chined hull got high marks for style. The Tartan 40-footer that followed it looked staid in comparison but was redeemed by the old-school yachty look of its navy blue topsides and bright white cabinhouse and spars. A Beneteau in the 50-foot range made an impression with the incredible expanse of fiberglass in its high-freeboard, plumb-bowed, vertical-transomed hull. 

The most remarkable entry in the parade first appeared as the spindly top third of a wooden mast just visible above the riprap seawall. When it turned the corner into the marina, the vessel under the mast was revealed to be a small wooden sloop, with chipped green paint on its hull, once-white sails resting on the foredeck and boom and two men in the cockpit. As it put-putted past us under the power of a small outboard, we wondered—are these guys really cruising in that ancient little boat? 

Yes, they were. 

I found the boat later in a slip and recognized it as one of the most important designs in the history of recreational sailing, a Nordic Folkboat. This one had been built in 1952.

The fellows on board, who were obviously older than the boat, were on a lengthy cruise, harbor hopping around Lake Michigan. The lanky owner confided that he expected his body would acquire a permanent stoop before they reached their home port of Chicago. The cruising amenities of Folkboats consist of a crouching-headroom cabin and two small berths—period.

Accommodations that only a devout minimalist could love have not deterred ocean voyagers from sailing thousands of miles in 25-foot Folkboats. The most notable among them was the British war hero George “Blondie” Hasler, who founded the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race and sailed the first one in 1960 in a Folkboat. 

Soon after, a British woman sailed a Folkboat singlehanded from England to Russia. Australian Ann Gash sailed a Folkboat alone around the world in 1975-77. Uncountable other Folkboat sailors have crossed oceans, competed in long-distance races and cruised to the far reaches of the world of water. 

The boat I visited in the marina looked like it had accounted for a good many of the collective Folkboat sailing miles. As cowboys used to say about their tired horses, she looked like she’d been rode hard and put away wet.

The owner averred, however, that the planks and frames of the hull were sound and that overall restoration was progressing, albeit at a sedate pace.

Cosmetics aside, the weathered green boat exhibited all of the aesthetic charm of the Folkboat design. In a symphony of harmonious lines, the sheer dips to a low midships freeboard in concert with a bow that curves gracefully upward. The sharply raked transom anchors an outboard rudder that extends from deck level to the heel of the deep keel. 

The boat’s most distinctive feature, and to my eye a great enhancer of its good looks, is its clinker-built construction. The layers of lapstrake planks repeat and accentuate the hull’s handsome lines as they assert the Folkboat’s Nordic identity. Viking ships, known to be light for their size and strong, were clinker-built.

Viking vessels sailed from Scandinavian waters to faraway lands, but not as far as Folkboats, which today can be found in ports on most of the world’s oceans and seas. Some 5,000 have been built since the first one in 1942, making it perhaps the most popular offshore sailboat ever. It is estimated that more than 4,000 of them are still sailing.

Well, that’s only fitting. The Folkboat was meant to be the people’s boat, the Volkswagen of sailboats. 

It was born of a contest that had no winner. In 1941, the Scandinavian Sailing Federation invited competing designers to submit plans for a sailboat that would have broad appeal by being easy to sail and inexpensive to build. It turned out the judges weren’t satisfied by any of the entries, but saw features they liked in six of them. They commissioned a yacht designer named Tord Sundén to put those elements together in a single design. 

The result may be one of the most successful objects ever designed by a committee.

The surprise of the Folkboat story is that the boat assembled from the ideas of half a dozen designers was not just, as the design brief required, relatively cheap to build and easy to handle, but a stellar performer. Owing to an iron keel that accounts for more than half of the boat’s displacement, flared topsides that lend stability when heeled and generous sail area in a simple fractional rig, Folkboats are praised by their owners as stiff and weatherly, seakindly in boisterous conditions, yet lively in light air. 

As fast as they could be built in pre-mass-production days, the sailboat christened the Nordic Folkboat began to populate Scandinavian waters, then elsewhere in Europe and beyond, as an uncomplicated daysailer and one-design racer and, for some hard-core enthusiasts, a cruising yacht.

Twenty-five years after he drew the Folkboat’s lines, Sundén did the class no favor by introducing a variation that, among other changes, did away with lapstrake construction. He called the carvel-planked version the International Folkboat. Or tried to. The outcry over co-opting the Folkboat name for a counterfeit version was so loud that the boat became known as the IF-boat.

The fiberglass producers of the boat did not make the same mistake. When the plastic Folkboat era began, builders made molds from original wooden hulls that preserved the clinker-built look. These boats are exact replicas certified by the Folkboat International Association to race in one-design fleets with wooden Folkboats. 

And race they do, in fleets in Europe and the U.S. The largest American fleet is at San Francisco, where wood and glass Folkboats thrive in the bay’s famously robust breezes.

Ocean voyagers of a certain purist mentality are still attracted to the boat. A young Brit who several years ago sailed solo across the Atlantic in an original 1940s Folkboat chronicled his adventure in a blog. On a stop in the Canary Islands, he wrote, people kept asking him, “Did you sail that thing here?”

If I hadn’t seen their arrival with my own eyes, I would have asked the old salts in the green Folkboat the same question.