Water Craft Magazine Review: Little Auk

This review for the Little Auk appeared in Water Craft magazine no. 17 on Sunday, 22 June 1997 and is reproduced here as it appeared on Swallow Boats’s original web site.

Little Auk
An Auk, according to The Readers Digest Book of British Birds, is “a winter visitor from Spitsburg, regular now, in and around the Shetland but irregular around other coasts.” An image which brings to mind a rather exclusive and shyly elegant creature. However, Nick Newland, the man behind Swallow Boatworks, tells me that while designing her, he named this boat Poppit Hoggit; Poppit from the nearby sands and Hoggit, because, well, she is a rather porky little beast. Personally I think this is rather cruel, as the Auk I see sitting beside the water looks streamlined and elegant with her white hull and rather fetching band of burgundy highlighting gently curving lines. She reminds me more of an ugly duckling, which started life as a rather tubby little tender and then developed into a swan-like sailing boat which is also a pleasure to row.

A naval architect, Nick Newland has worked in many areas of this profession from supervising the construction of aircraft carriers to designing submarines. His Passion though is for small craft, he now specialises in adapting traditionally designed boats for easy construction by amateurs.

Just 10’2″ (3.1m) long, the little auk is such a craft. She developed from the need for a tender but Nick was not happy to stop there. Why build a functional tender, when with a little more design input, you could create a boat which would be easy to row and which would also be fun to sail? And more than that, a boat which would be supplied in kit form, so owners could also take a special pride in building their own boat.

A Do It Yourself Dream

Little Auk is made from just four sheets of marine plywood and comes with all the parts pre-cut and shaped. After just one day’s work, says Nick, the hull will have already taken shape. You get the impression Nick’s good on the psychology of encouraging the less experienced amateur. The precision cut panels arrive pre-drilled for the copper wire stitches which automatically draw the hull into shape. These seams are then glass taped with epoxy resin to seal and strengthen the hull.

She really does sound easy to build. Everything you need is included in the kit, and in fact, claims Nick, the most difficult task for him was writing the instruction manual. A quick glance shows this to be a clear and concise guide, with illustrations and hints to help. Nick has even set up a 24 hour telephone Help Line but admits that he has never received a call – the only ones made are by him to check that owners are getting on all right.

Once the basic hull shape is put together, the rest follows easily. All the parts are made from Brazilian mahogany, pre-shaped with rounded edges for a neat and professional looking finish. The rowlock sockets and daggerboard case are made from iroko, an extremely durable African hardwood to withstand any neglect. The bulkheads and frame heads are bonded into place, as is the mast step and pre-constructed daggerboard case. However, if you really don’t want to do it yourself, Swallow Boatworks will supply the Little Auk as a completed boat.

Dropped from a great height

Bearing in mind Little Auk’s original design brief as a tender, Nick has built runners onto the hull so she can be sailed straight up a slip without damage. I notice a tiny dent on the bow and comment on this. Nick explains his son, demonstrating how light the boat is – just 651bs (29kg) for the hull – lifted up the Auk above his head and then accidentally dropped her on her nose. It is a testament to the strength of the design and the quality of wood used that this small dent was the only damage to the boat. I think his son survived as well!

The Auk has three Crewsaver buoyancy bags fitted – one under the central seat and one each in the bow and stern tanks, which are covered with removable seating planks and are also handy for storage. There’s even a big bailer tied into the boat, I notice. More about this later.

The rudder is a traditional rounded shape, again made from mahogany, with long bronze pintles. The rudder is retained with a line which passes around the rudder and pintles and is clipped onto the tiller. There is no need for the added complication of a rudder uphaul or downhaul, as the very rounded shape will cut through any weed. The daggerboard is a simple wooden rectangle, with a shaped wedge of wood used to adjust the depth when sailing in shallow water.

Thoughtful touches

The fittings used are all simple, with bronze where necessary but not exclusively: the choices were made on durability and strength as well as keeping the price affordable. There are a few thoughtful little touches, like an eye on the bow for a painter and the extra long rudder pintles, which allow the rudder to ride up when grounding but not fall off. The seat flaps are all removable, so as well as getting at the buoyancy bags there’s room for storage.

There are two rowlock positions and even with the sail up, the oars sit neatly inside the boat, ready for use. As there’s hardly any wind, I decide to have a go at rowing her first.

Light and fast

I push away from the shore, and step in. Oops! With a beam of 4’4″ (1.3m), this Auk is a tubby little beast and I don’t step far enough into the centre. The boat tips and I rather inelegantly end up with a waterlogged boat. Maybe Hoggit was a good name for her after all I think, thanking my lucky stars that Chessy didn’t have his camera to hand. We pick her up and empty out the water. Good job she’s light enough to do this, otherwise that bailer would have come into use. Second attempt much better than the first, and I start rowing away from the shore.

As a rowing boat, the Little Auk is light and fast. The rowing position is comfortable, and she makes her way happily through the water. The choice of oars is yours, and these are light and classic sea oars, with simple leathering to protect them in the rowlocks. They do the job well, and I feel confident that Auk would make a good tender, as well as a comfortable boat to take the family up and down rivers and estuaries.

The mast in a bag

Back on shore again, we put the mast up. Easily transported in a voluminous sailbag, the mast is just 10′ (3m) long which means it transports easily inside the hull. Made from tapered Douglas fir, the mast has a neat locking system going through a hole in the front seat into a mast support step. To prevent the mast from being pulled out, a wooden block is placed on one side of it, and this is turned through 180 degrees to lock the mast in place. It’s exceptionally quick to rig and de-rig, and handy as everything comes in one piece out of the sailbag and goes equally quickly back into it at the end of the day.

The foot of the sail is shackled in place and a dumb sheave is used at the top of the mast to support the yard. The sail is loose footed, so there’s no hassle with a boom and this also has the benefit, explains Nick, that the sail keeps a nicely rounded shape enabling the Auk to sail well even in little or no wind. We look collectively at the glassy surface of the water and think this is just as well – the only ripples are those caused by the seagulls as they float serenely by.

Also available in tan

None the less, we are here to sail, so that is what we will do. The mast is light enough for me to easily pick up and slot into place, and I am impressed by the quality of the sail. Made by Mark Williams of Stephen Ratsey Sailmakers in Milford Haven, the sail is full, helped no doubt by the loose foot, and well constructed, with added extras such as a leather patch on the leech foot to protect against wear from the block which holds the mainsheet onto the sail. The sail is available in white, cream or tan – and the cream one Nick uses gives a nice air of authenticity to Little Auk. However, so far, almost all owners have requested tan sails he says, with a wry grin

The sheeting arrangement initially seems a little complicated, with a loose rope horse crossing the transom attached to jam cleats on either side of the deck. As you tack or jibe, you simply release the jammer and re-cleat it on the new leeward side. This explained, I set off to sail the Auk. A few ripples have picked up on the water, some distance from the shore and I wonder whether I will get there before the wind dies. To my surprise, the boat heads gently in the right direction, what little wind there is setting the sail. I begin to really like this idea of a loose footed main.

Even in so little wind, the Auk glides along. Marginally shifting my weight keeps the sail filled and as we reach a little more wind, she’s easy to tack and maneuver around some mooring buoys. It’s a shame there isn’t more breeze to see just how well she goes but I can see from Nick’s photos that in a nice Force 4, there’s an impressive little stern wave created. However, there’s no chance of testing that out today. With the daggerboard down, the boat maintains a steady course, with just a light touch needed on the helm. This really is a boat in which you could enjoy sailing, and one which would he particularly good for youngsters. She’s easy to sail, no matter how little wind, and encouraging as well. I know from experience as a seven year old in a Gull how frustrating it was trying to get out of irons in the backwaters of the Wey Navigation!

Deceived by the wind

I sail off in search of more wind hut have been deceived, for what little there is promptly dies as Chessy gets out his cameras again. Never mind, luckily the oars are on hoard so I test out how easy it is to row home. I put the rowlocks back into the aft position – when sailing it’s better to move them forward otherwise they have the habit of knotting up the mainsheet – and start to row. The mainsail flaps annoyingly but it’s easy to either unshackle this and loosely tie the sail to the mast, or even drop the sprit and lay the sail flat into the boat. Equally, when rowing with the rudder on, you can tend to hit your hands against the tiller. This is easily remedied by either using the mainsheet and horse to tie the tiller into the centre of the boat, or with a little more effort, take the rudder off altogether. Either way, it’s not arduous, and I liked the ability to go from sailing to rowing and hack again as the wind picks up and dies again.

Fun for all

At just £820 for the hull kit and a further £350 for the sailing accessory kit, the Little Auk is an all-round cost-effective boat. For just over £2000, you can buy a complete sailing boat, built and finished by the Swallow Boatworks. The Little Auk is a tender with so much more and great for a family who will enjoy the multiple use. She’s stable and big enough to carry four people rowing, just right for a parent and youngster to sail in and safe enough to let the children’ out in alone to learn about the fun of messing about in boats. Little Auk is ideal for this.

Alice Driscoll is, in fact, much more than a world sailing champion and boat reviewer (to allow Judy Brickhill time to report also on larger craft for us). Alice runs her own very successful PR company which represents, amongst others, some of the best-known manufacturers at the higher-tech end of the marine marketplace. And she’s not a bad rock ‘n’ roller, though she still needs more tuition.