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Into the Ice

Spray design considerations

Looking for information on original Spray photo

Into the Ice

A lone sailboat drifts across the northern Atlantic.

On board, skipper Robert Graf is desperate for sleep, but the island-sized icebergs surrounding his vessel preclude him from taking his weary eyes off the horizon for a moment too long.

"You can't even take a chance on getting close to them because something could fall off them and crush you. Plus, they're notorious for turning upside-down and if you're too close they'll upset your boat," Graf says. "You're like an ant in a big field of elephants."

Navigating these icy behemoths for days on end with no one else on board to keep watch meant that Graf had to sleep in 20-minute intervals. He would wake to his trusty alarm, pop his head out of the cabin to ensure the icebergs were still a safe distance away, then return for another round of shuteye. "That's one of the real challenges when you're by yourself - there's nobody watching where you're going," he says. "There's that 20 minutes where a lot can happen when you have to sleep."

Seated in his North Vancouver living room, a light autumn rain taps against the window as the 61-year-old sailor recalls the iceberg-ridden labyrinth he sailed through before entering and successfully crossing the Northwest Passage.

The voyage makes Graf the ninth person in the world to transit the Arctic sea corridor single-handedly, according to the Scott Polar Research Institute, which keeps a running tally of maritime traverses of the Northwest Passage. He is the first Canadian to cross the passage alone in a sailboat and the first Canadian to transit solo without needing assistance, according to the institute.

But Graf didn't set out to break any records.

"I didn't realize that was all going to be such a whoop-dee-doo," he says modestly, explaining he has always been intrigued by the history of the waterways around Canada's northern archipelago.

"It just seemed like a real test of your endurance and your stamina to do it, but also your skills to get through there," he says. "I'd always read about it and dreamed about it and it was on my list of places I would like to sail."

For centuries, the Northwest Passage eluded sailors. Originally sought by explorers as a potential trade route between Europe and Asia, the ice-blocked waters frustrated many an expedition. In 1845, two British ships led by Sir John Franklin famously disappeared. Records show the entire crew perished due to a combination of cold, starvation, scurvy, pneumonia, tuberculosis and lead poisoning. Underwater archaeologists only just discovered one of Franklin's sunken shipwrecks last year.

The Northwest Passage was first successfully navigated by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906 (he and his small crew over-wintered three times). The first Canadian voyage was made by the St. Roch RCMP schooner, captained by Henry Larsen, in 1940-1942.

According to Capilano University geography instructor Charles Greenberg, a record number of 30 vessels transited through the Northwest Passage in 2012 and, in 2013, for the first time, a large bulk carrier passed through. Only 17 vessels managed the trip in 2014 due to a short and cold summer. The Northwest Passage "is a web of several possible routes," Greenberg notes in an email - somewhat like a corn maze. Over the past 40 years, sea ice cover has declined by around 25 per cent and is about 20 per cent thinner overall and up to 40 per cent thinner in certain areas, Greenberg says. Thinner ice is more susceptible to melting and with more melt comes more open dark water, which absorbs solar energy and holds heat longer, making it harder for ice to form the next year.

A "very tiny benefit" of this climate change might be commercial use of the Northwest Passage, Greenberg says. Still, Arctic storms, shallow waters and icebergs pose risks for ships.

A seasoned sailor, Graf has completed many endurance voyages, including a marathon three-year solo sailing journey around the world. This was his first trip to the far north. He departed Amsterdam on June 15 in his 15-metre ketch named Drifter Way. The sailing vessel has twin masts and its hull design dates back to about 1840, though it is made from modern materials.

   Drifter Way

"It's big, it's slow, it's very safe, carries a lot of supplies. It's actually kind of big for one person, but it handles very well in storms so it's pretty forgiving," Graf says.

The first leg of his journey involved dodging busy ship traffic, wind farms and offshore oil rigs en route to Norway. He stayed there a few days before embarking for Greenland via high latitudes to take advantage of west winds generated by powerful storms. There was excitement along the way - both friendly and frightening. South of Iceland he encountered a pod of some 200 pilot whales that travelled alongside him for a couple of days. And on the way to Greenland he was hit by his first north Atlantic storm. "The waves were getting big, they were getting maybe 25 feet high," Graf recalls.

It wasn't long before he lost control of his boat. It took an hour to get back on track, but by that time the wind had blown him off course toward Newfoundland. "In the morning, everything looked better. But at the time, for a number of hours, I had that sick feeling that ... if it gets worse than this, it's going to get really scary." Graf sailed Drifter Way to the south of Greenland where he stayed for three weeks, first at the Polar Oil fuel depot south of Nuuk and then in the west coast town of Maniitsoq.

Travelling up the west side of Greenland proved difficult due to strong head winds and massive icebergs. Making matters worse was the frigid temperature; it never got higher than four degrees Celsius inside the cabin. Dampness permeated Graf's thick clothing and although he brought fuel on board, he opted to conserve it for his motor in case of emergency rather than use it for heat.

On Aug. 16, Graf arrived at Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the Northwest Passage. He proceeded west to Resolute, Nunavut, where he stayed two nights and got more fuel before making a hard left into Peel Sound. From thereon out, he saw very few other ships.

"Once I started travelling south in Peel Sound, that's when I hit my first ice," he says.

According to Canadian Ice Service, the water was three-tenths ice. "That means the whole surface is covered in 30 per cent ice and you have to weave your way through it."

Zig-zagging around frozen sheets was tiring, Graf says, but the view was spectacular: the vast white expanse was covered with hundreds of seals lined up in rows like fat cigars. Victoria Strait was perhaps the most exhausting leg of Graf's journey. He spent more than 24 hours motoring through drift ice. There was an audible grinding noise near Collison Peninsula as the frozen sheets merged together, but he managed to squeak through the strait without a minute to lose.

"It just closed right up into a solid mass of ice as far as I could see. It was one chunk of ice and it started to move in one direction. My boat would have been just crushed."

From Resolute Bay to Nome, Alaska - a distance of some 2,400 kilometres - Graf anchored to sleep only four times. The rest of the voyage he stuck to his 20-minute sleep cycle in hopes of avoiding icy collisions.

On Sept. 10, off the coast of Barrow in northern Alaska, the fog was so thick Graf couldn't see much in front of him. It was windy and there were ice floes everywhere. Meanwhile, autumn was setting in and it was starting to get dark at night. Around 4:30 a.m., he gave up on sleep and decided to check on his position - but he was too late. "There was this massive big explosion and I knew there was something wrong because I saw ice passing on both sides of the boat through the portholes. By the time I got up on deck there just was ice on both sides."

Drifter Way had plowed headfirst into a chunk of multi-layered ice the size of a two-car garage. Graf quickly dropped the main sail and was able to gingerly back out of the floe, but with big waves crashing about, he couldn't avoid crunching up the side of his boat. Fortunately, the damage wasn't too serious and he was able to make it through the Bering Strait to arrive at his final destination of Nome, Alaska on Sept. 14. He stayed there until the end of the month, waiting for the right conditions to haul Drifter Way out of the water, then flew back to

Vancouver.Graf is still adjusting to life on dry land. He's down 28 pounds after three months of consuming little more than instant coffee, canned fish and rice. And he finds himself waking frequently in the night after training himself to survive on a fragmented sleep schedule.

"There's kind of a letdown when you come back because you've got to wind down," he explains.

With the constant fatigue, cold, damp and loneliness still fresh in his mind, the lifelong sailor is wondering if it might be time to hang up his captain's hat.

"When I'm out there and getting bruised and battered, I always think the sea always finds another way to punish you and drive you crazy," he says.

"I might be finished with sailing now."

After the spring thaw, he'll retrieve Drifter Way from storage in Alaska, repair the boat, sail it back to Vancouver, and decide whether or not to sell it. He admits, though, this isn't the first time he's considered retiring from sailing after a particularly trying journey. "I usually recover and start planning another voyage," he says with a chuckle.

© 2015 North Shore News

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This information is worth knowing.

The Spray Design – A Nautical legend

The Spray design is intimately linked with Captain Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world alone from 1895 – 1898 in what was a 36’ Spray. Today there are many variants on the original Slocum spray design.

 Back Then:

In 1894 the Captain was given an old sailing boat, called “Spray”, which had been rotting away in a field in Fairhaven, on the shore of Massachusetts Bay, USA. He rebuilt it plank by plank so that “it was hard to say at what point the old died or the new took birth.”  Slocum avoided doing anything that might cause the boat to lose the shape formed by the genius of some long-dead boat builder. 

To make her safer in uncharted waters, he removed the original centre-board and rebuilt the keel in one solid, long run, keeping the same shallow draft that was typical of the old Spray’s original purpose, an oyster dredger on the shallow banks off the coast of New England. Indeed, the original Spray had a huge area of sail which was used to trawl the clumsy oyster dredge across the bottom, and then sail home quickly with a hold full of the heavy shellfish.  Spray’s sail plan and hull design were responsible for her uncanny ability to steer herself for long periods. Oyster dredgers needed to be able to look after themselves as the crew worked the trawl and the catch.  

So, from a chance gift from an old friend, Slocum transformed the old dredger into a capable deep-sea vessel  which he knew would take him safely around the world.

 Who was Slocum?

Captain Slocum was no novice in the world of sail. He ran away to sea when he was eleven, and spent almost the rest of his life at sea, rising to be master of “Northern Light”, one of America’s finest tall ships in the mid 1800s. He built one ship, and owned several others, but ran into financial ruin when his last ship “Aquidnek” foundered on a river bar in Brazil. After several years of land-based torment, he was drawn back to the sea, and Spray was both his home and his escape pod.

 Was the Spray really a good boat to circumnavigate the world?  At the time, Slocum had only one option - the vessel that was given to him. He originally used Spray for a season of fishing, but when that proved unsuccessful, and no doubt unsatisfying, decided that she would carry him on a voyage of adventure around the world. If she wasn't the perfect boat for such a voyage, he made up for any deficiencies with more than sufficient seamanship skills. He also modified Spray as the voyage unfolded, changes that would make her more manageable for a solo sailor.

Before he, and the Spray, disappeared in 1909, Slocum said he had the lines taken off the old Spray by a boat builder. But it appears that the boat builder did just a few measurements, then made a half-model, the sort of model that hangs on the walls of yacht clubs around the world. But that half model, which Slocum swore was the exact shape of the original Spray, gave rise to the lines and plans which have been subsequently used to construct replica vessels over the years.

The Spray design was not unique. In Slocum's day it was an old design, but there were still oyster-dredgers working around the New England coast.  Slocum modified the Spray hull when he rebuilt her. For example, he removed the centreboard - a common feature of oyster-dredgers. He also added more ribs and strengthened her bows. Perhaps, during conversations with passing old sea dogs, Slocum got the idea of the circumnavigation. Some of the tales his visitors told of the arctic whaling "inspired me to put a double set of breast-hooks in the Spray, that she might shunt ice." Why do that in a vessel he planned to use for fishing?

 Is the Spray seaworthy?

 "Yachtsmen pleasuring in the 'lilies of the sea' will not think favourably of my craft," warned Slocum, anticipating the criticism of those who juggle with coefficients. "They have a right to their opinion, while I stick to mine."

Leaving theory and controversy to others and devoting himself to enjoying the first single-handed circumnavigation of the world, the uncommon Yankee (Joshua Slocum) who became known to mariners of all nations as a classic sailor and a forthright, honest man said simply, "I have given in the plans of the Spray the dimensions of such a ship as I should call seaworthy in all conditions of weather and on all seas."  You can't argue with experience!

When commodore John Pflieger pointed out in Spray, the journal of The Slocum Society, that a long keel is harder to tack or go about in and that a boat similar to Spray foundered on a lee shore on this account, Peter Tangvald, competent ocean sailor who circumnavigated in his 32-foot cutter Dorothea I, promptly replied, "How much more should Slocum have done to demonstrate that the boat was seaworthy? I would not hesitate to claim that if one Spray was wrecked on a lee shore it was because her crew needed a few more hours of sailing lessons."

Many Spray designs over the years since have successfully circumnavigated the world's oceans, and with the advent of efficient engines, GPS, HF radio and other useful items, high standards of seamanship and associated skills have become less critical.  Solo sailing voyages are incredibly difficult in any vessel, but a couple or small crew can become quite proficient and confident in sailing the Spray design.

Those who have owned Sprays will attest to their sea kindly abilities and lack of heeling when sailing, but they don’t go well to windward (what heavy displacement long-keeled shallow-draft yacht does?)  

What do the experts say? 

Cipriano Andrade, Jr., engineer and yacht designer, said of Spray:  ”After a thorough analysis of Spray's lines, I found her to have a theoretically perfect balance. Her balance is marvelous — almost uncanny. Try as I would — one element after another — they all swung into the same identical line. I attacked her with proportional dividers, planimeter, rotameter, Simpson's rule, Froude's coefficients, Dixon Kemp's formulae, series, curves, differentials, and all the appliances of modern yacht designing, and she emerged from the ordeal a theoretically perfect boat. For when she is underway every element of resistance, stability, weight, heeling effort, and propulsive force is in one transverse plane, and that plane is the boat's midship section. I know of no similar case in the whole field of naval architecture, ancient or modern.”

One of the most remarkable things about Spray was her ability to run before the wind under her regular fore-and-aft rig with the helm lashed. She was able to hold a true course on her own on all points of sailing and in the Indian Ocean sailed 2,700 miles in twenty three days with no one at the helm. (No autopilot, GPS or engine back then). It should be mentioned, however, that Slocum had by this time installed the small sprit rig on the stern of Spray which would have acted pretty much like wind vane steering.

Evidence that Slocum made changes as he went is seen in his own words: "I did not know the centre of effort in her sails, except as it hit me in practice at sea, nor did I care a rope yarn about it. As a sailor judges his prospective ship by a 'blow of the eye' … so I judged the Spray, and I was not deceived."

 Iconoclast designer John G. Hannah, known as the sage of Dunedin but perhaps better known as the designer of the Tahiti ketch, said of Spray, "I hold that her peculiar merit as a single-hander was in her remarkable balance of all effective centres of effort and resistance on her midship section line."  Hannah nevertheless felt it necessary to warn prospective circumnavigators looking for a suitable vessel that "Spray is the worst possible boat for anyone lacking the experience and resourcefulness of Slocum to take offshore." No doubt even the most celebrated yachtsmen thought such remote, solo voyages foolhardy enterprises.

Other details of extraordinary sailing ability in the course of her 46,000-mile voyage are too well known to readers of Sailing Alone Around the World to recount here.

What do owners say?

“We were out in 30 plus knot winds with the headsail and main and mizzen sail up. She bounded along nicely at near to 11 knots whilst other yachts scurried for home on their ear or downsized sail to limp home ASAP.”

 “We had salads on the cockpit table and were cruising along nicely (and upright) and waved to a passing yacht hard at it heeled right over. We could see her keel and skin fittings underneath and the crew were hanging on to the windward side looking jealous.”

"She’s a great cruising vessel, so roomy. We don’t worry about sailing to windward - if we need to we put on the ‘iron spinnaker’ and still get there in complete comfort. Besides, being a cruising vessel, we only go when it suits us”.

And Slocum: Bound from Samoa to Australia, Slocum encountered gales and heavy seas that foundered the American clipper ship Patrician running a course south of Spray. A French mail steamer blown off course reported seeing Spray at the height of the storm and wondered what sad fate had befallen the little ship. Slocum's log records that, at the time that passengers of the steamer were up to their knees in water in the big ship's saloon, Spray was laying snug under a goose-winged mainsail and arrived safely at Newcastle in the teeth of a gale (see History Page).

What do critics say? 

“A spray? Huh - they're slow....”. A typical comment from people usually who have never been on a Spray. And so what? Being a cruising vessel and many used as live-a-boards (one buyer described one 40’ as a Sydney town house), it’s not very likely they will be out in every race, every weekend to do battle for a few more points towards some trophy.  

The modern day spray:

In 1973, Bruce Roberts, then a young boat designer in Brisbane, was asked to design a Spray which could be constructed in fibreglass. Bruce took the original plan drawings, as meticulously researched by Kenneth Slack in his book “In the Wake of the Spray”, and redrew them, retaining the desirable seaworthy attributes as described by Cipriano Andrade. But to give the boat more ability in a head sea and picking up on some of the criticisms of the replicas built after Slocum’s circumnavigation, Roberts pulled the stem out to make it sharper, and added more run in the aft sections. In doing so he lengthened the hull from 36 feet 10 inches to 40 feet. From all accounts the change has not altered the ability of the modern Sprays of that length.

 Roberts, on request from sailors wanting the abilities of the Spray design but in a smaller vessel, also scaled down the plans to 33 feet in length. Someone later spaced the frames out and finished with a Spray of 36 feet 10 inches – the same as Joshua’s Spray, but with a beam of only 12 feet instead of nearly 15 feet.  Since then, the Spray design has been scaled to 22 and 27 feet (both trailerable), 28, 33, 36, 40 feet and even larger. But almost every one of the Roberts designed Sprays have been home built, thus there are small variations which make each one unique.  

In Summary:

The one constant, reported by all who own and sail a Spray, is that they truly are a remarkable cruising vessel. Of the detractors, and there are many, a rare few have sailed on or even stepped aboard a Spray, and their prejudice arises from ignorance of what the Spray stands for. In the world of cruising sailboats, she is not the fastest, she is not the lightest, nor is she the best to windward.

But she will always get you home safe and sound, she will always be able to carry ample stores and water and not become dangerous when loaded, she will always behave herself in heavy weather and not terrify the crew, and she is at her best when sailing downwind – as she was designed to do a century and a half ago when sailing ships were designed to sail.

In that respect she sails best when “running down the trades”, running free, out there in the deep blue – not scurrying around the bay on Sunday afternoons among the fin keelers.

What’s this all mean?

So, if you have purchased a Spray or are looking to buy one, be assured that you are buying a tried and true cruising vessel with incredible seaworthiness inherent in her genes.  But take the time to make your purchase. Make sure you get a professional survey, and for added peace of mind and know that there are many other Sprays out there cruising safely and comfortably.


Hopefully you or someone you know can help me in my search for information. I have a print acquired about 40 years ago at a flea market in upstate New York for a few dollars. It's a print of the Spray, the same image as appears as the frontispiece in all the various printings of Sailing Alone Around the World. What makes it interesting is that Slocum has signed it and dated it Oct0ber 2, 1901. I've no doubt that he sold many of these in the course of giving lectures, and presumably most of the buyers asked him to sign them. That said, I haven't come across any others on line, on e-bay, or anywhere else.

As the print is "taken from" a photograph of the Spray in Australian waters, according to the caption under it in an early copy of the book I have, I'm wondering if anyone there in Australia can tell me anything about the photograph or any rendering that may have been done to it to come up with the well know form as it appears in the book or the print I have. Unfortunately the Joshua Slocum Society here in the US was disbanded a few years ago and I haven't been able to identify anyone who knows much more than I do (which isn't very much). I took it to the "Antiques Roadshow" a few years back and the appraiser I showed it to knew nothing of the print or had ever heard of Joshua Slocum. Likely they had no interest or knowledge of sailing and boats.

Anyway, anything you can tell me relative to the original photo or who/how it was rendered to appear like partly photograph and partly a drawing would be appreciated. I too am an avid sailor, but I'm sailing a Westerly Fulmar and not a Spray replica.

Thanks and Regards,

Christopher Bell
Phiiladelphia, Pa USA

The first two photos are of Christopher's picture:  (click to enlarge) and the third image is copied from Joshua Slocum's marriage certificate, from 1871.  One thing it proves is that Christopher's photo has a genuine signature.



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