Water Craft Magazine Review: Storm Petrel

This review for the Storm Petrel appeared in Water Craft magazine no. 17 on Friday, 22 October 1999 and is reproduced here as it appeared on Swallow Boats’s original web site.

Storm Petrel
Cardigan Bay is a beautiful place in high summer and the southern corner, at the mouth of the Afon Teifi River near Cardigan itself has a peaceful remoteness about it, which would, I’d have thought, make it commercially rather challenging to run a boatbuilding business from here. But Nick Newland of Swallow Boatworks Design and Consultancy in Gwbert, right on the waters’ edge, likes a challenge. And his solution is ingeniously 21st century, all to do with communications networks and their use to promote the rather traditional business of building boats. He sells kit boats through the post. Backed up by a 24-hour-a-day telephone helpline, so most of his customers never get to see his beautiful backyard at all.

Nick’s expertise arises out of his experience as a naval architect, dealing with warships and submarines and high tech aerospace products. But his passion is small boats: designing them, building them, rowing them and sailing them. Having set up Swallow Boatworks in 1995, he now has several kits on the market – and a number of boats on the water – ranging from a sailing canoe with leeboard to the 14’7″ (4.4m) two-masted Great Auk.

The latest from Nick’s drawing board is the lovely little 14′ (4.3m) double-ender called Storm Petrel which slots in neatly between her Auk sisters, Great and Little. Storm has a distinctly Nordic look about her, with a jaunty sheerline and the angle of the stem echoing that of the stern. Nick’s objective with her design was to achieve “the maximum capability in a roofrackable boat.” To that end she weighs in at only l2Olbs (55kg), while the combination of her light weight, easily driven hull shape and sleek 4’1O” (1.5m) beam make her as easy to row as to sail.

Like Nick’s other designs, she comes primarily in kit form. A minimum of tools is required, though an electric drill and sander are recommended to speed up the process – which is not a very lengthy one, in any case. The hull is basically four panels of plywood, accurately cut to shape by a copy router, which are ‘stitched’ together with copper wire through the predrilled holes. This can be done in a weekend, so although there’s still some work to do on the watertightness and finishing, you have the hull shape to inspire you very early on. To keep the water out, glassfibre tape is epoxied over the seams, creating a strong bond between the panels and sealing the end grain. The gunwale Is of solid timber, rebated to accommodate the plywood which effectively protects the end grain there. All the parts, from the plywood fore and aft decks, bulkheads and daggerboard casing to the slatted side benches, supporting knees and cockpit coamings, are all machined to a high standard of accuracy and are backed up by a comprehensive instruction manual, a telephone helpline and a guarantee of personal help with any problems anywhere on the UK mainland. So far, most of the calls have been from Nick checking up on his happy customers.

Storm’s layout is simple, though not as simple as Nick had first intended; he was hoping to do away with a centreboard in favour of shallow bilge keels. Working with computer aids, experience and constructional models, he decided that a little daggerboard made such a difference to her windward performance that it would have to go in. Given the size of the boat, it is surprisingly unintrusive, butting up against a thwartships floor stiffener, with just enough space forward for a small person or someone’s feet. There are buoyancy bag compartments under both decks, providing ample buoyancy for a boat of category D of the RCD. The slatted side benches follow the curve of the hull from fore to aft deck, with an ingenious maximisation of interior space in the form of a removable centre rowing thwart, an attractive well-cambered seat that can be stowed should more space be needed aft, as when sitting down on the hull, a very comfortable helming position in lighter winds.

The unstayed mast is stepped through the foredeck, just forward of the cockpit coaming, which opens up the possibility of a pram hood type of cockpit shelter hooked to the coaming. The rudder has a fixed blade protruding marginally below the keel but with continuous bronze pintles to slide up if you touch bottom without jumping clean off, and there is a push-pull tiller attached to a cross bar on the rudder head., though a conventional tiller is available.

She has a sprit boom rig of 58 sq.ft (5.4 s.m) which Nick has found powers her along off the wind much better than the original loose footed gunter sail. Although he feels that she is not quite as elegant with this rig, the improvement in performance makes it worth it. Like the gunter, the spars are short enough to stow in the boat, the yard with its jaws angled so it slides up the mast like the topmast of a larger vessel. There are three holes along the yard for reefing, the halyard leading from one of them to a sheave at the masthead and cleating at the foot. The elegantly tapered sprit boom is attached to the clew at the outer end, whence the sheet leads to fairleads at either side of the aft deck. The inner end has a lanyard going through a block hung on the mast down to a cleat below, so that as it is hardened in, the clew is pushed out and the sail takes shape. The tack rope to a block at the mast foot acts as a downhaul.

Personally I found Storm a gorgeous little boat all round; there’s something about her perky lines that lift the heart along with the bow. It took very little time and effort to wheel her down onto the foreshore on the hand trolley, manhandle her off and rig her. When I was shoved off the shoaling lee shore of the estuary – really appreciating the captive rudder: bumping occasionally but steering her perfectly efficiently – the thing that bothered me most was that unfamiliar push-pull tiller. When I realised that, despite what was a fairly brisk breeze for her, she was not about to punish my erratic steering by tipping me out, I relaxed a bit, put conventional tillers out of my mind and started to play. And what an enjoyable boat!

She handled beautifully, darting about from beat to reach to run, round and back again. With her lightweight hull and easily driven shape she flew about the waters of the inlet, slowing only momentarily when the daggerboard slid into the mudbank in the middle. It wasn’t a problem though because, seated as I was on the centre thwart for ease of looking back to check on that novel tiller, the wedge which keeps the board in position was right to hand. It took only the briefest moment to withdraw it, the board popped up, the boat moved oil, I wedged it down again and we were away. Conditions were perfect, with a Force 3-4 and flat water to maneuver in. When time was up I sailed reluctantly shoreward, with the sprit boom keeping the sail well spread as I pulled up the board to run in, still with steerage despite the odd bump of the rudder on the bottom. Derigging was merely a matter of uncleating the snotter, releasing the halyard, sliding the yard down, lifting the mast out and laying the whole neat package in the boat. Quick and easy from start to finish and time to talk prices and impressions over a cup of tea and homemade cake in the Newland kitchen close by.

To be honest, I find it hard to criticize this little boat. There is a certain awkwardness in the backward facing helm position and the push-pull tiller takes a bit of practice but to balance this there’s her delightfully light-hearted feel which is a combination of the lightness of her construction and her impeccable manners on the water. Added to this is her easy handling on land, the facility of loading and unloading from the roofrack and the simplicity of the rigging process.

Though Nick does provide completed boats for those who prefer, they are usually sold in kit form. The price of the Storm hull package, which includes everything necessary to complete it as well as a comprehensive instruction booklet, comes to £1,100 and the sail pack is £450. That seems to me to be extremely good value considering that you end up not only with a pretty, well-mannered, fun little boat that can be rowed or sailed with equal ease but also with that sense of achievement which comes from having built her yourself. I’m looking forward to seeing flocks of Storm Petrels bobbing about in the spring.