Classic Boat Magazine Review: Storm Petrel & Osprey

This review for the Storm Petrel and Osprey appeared in Classic Boat magazine in December 2002 and is reproduced here as it appeared on Swallow Boats’s original web site.

Swallowboats’ stripped down dinghies capture the very essence of what traditional boat design is all about, rekons Nic Compton, who enjoys the sheer elegance of two of the company’s designs at 2002’s Boats on Show

“A BOAT’S A BOAT, DAD,” my 12 – year-old daughter said a little while ago. “What can you say about a boat: it floats!” Of course we traditional boat enthusiasts know there’s an awful lot more to boats than just that, don’t we? Yet I was reminded of this observation while I was looking at the Swallow Boats range of dinghies at Boats on Show last May. More than most designer/ builders, the company seems to express what is the essence of traditional boats, and perhaps nowhere more so than with the faering – inspired double-ender, the Storm Petrel.

Designed by Nick Newland as a kitboat for amateur construction, it is deceptively simple looking “It’s a boat: it floats!” as my daughter might say. Yet with a simple three strakes per side and a few subtly rounded bits of trim, Storm manages to look more elegant than any number of clumsily authentic replica craft. It’s as if the designer has taken the essence of centuries of nautical evolution and expressed them in a few, carefree brushstrokes. Everything has been pared away to leave what really matters – and even that has been taken apart and thought through anew. Nothing is superfluous; nothing is taken for granted. Okay, it’s not quite Picasso (there are still just two topsides, one bow and one stern) or Damien Hirst (the boat floats on water, not in formaldehyde) but it does move on from the slavish pastiche imitation boats that are so much the current currency.

Out go the countless elaborately riveted planks, steamed frames and knees of a traditional faering; in come chined plywood strakes bonded with epoxy and stiffened by meaty forward and after bulkheads to produce a simple monocoque hull. Cunningly, the top plank is made of solid timber, which means the top edge can simply be rounded off and the plank varnished without having to worry about vulnerable exposed edges. Fittings can be fastened without fussy backing pads and the curved forward coaming feathers neatly onto the inside face. It’s clean, uncluttered and above all elegant.

The rig has also been carefully devised to do away with standing rigging and produce something that is efficient and will stow within the length of the boat. No fancy gooseneck fittings or bottlescrews, here – it’s just plain wood lanyards. The loose – footed main is gunter rigged to reduce the length of the mast and is also fitted with a simple sprit boom to stretch the sail downwind. If you want a bit more sail area, there’s an optional jib with an ingenious load off the unstayed mast. Originally designed for camper – sailing, the Storm Petrel was eventually fitted with a daggerboard to improve performance, though at least one boat has been built with bilge keels and decked over for cruising. Although looking smaller than her 14ft (4.27m), she’s a boat that suggests endless possibilities.

The Osprey is a modern rendition of the classic Adirondak guide boats from the States. It’s more complex than its double-ended cousin, having twice the number of planks per side, plus a wee transom. The idea was to build something about 20ft (6.1m) long. She’s still `a long drink of water` – as my mother used to describe my skinny physique – yet at just 4ft (1.2m) maximum beam, she is 12in (33cm) wider than most Adirondak boats.

The Osprey is an exercise in studied elegance and she is beautifully suited to long riverine rows where her narrow waterline will slice effortlessly through the current. Under sail, however, she looks rather ungainly, like a thoroughbred horse that has been fitted with a pair of wings and asked to fly. She was slow to come about, with the little storm darting about around her like a pesky hummingbird. That said, the osprey picked up a fair bit of speed once under way. Also, her narrow hull will cut through waves a lot better than Storm’s flared shape, which is more likely to bounce from wave to wave in a cloud of spray. Horses for courses or, as this ornithologically minded designer might say, coots for routes.

Keeping weight down was a priority on the Osprey to make her car-toppable, which meant no solid timber top strake. And, although all the bulwark trim gives the Osprey a slightly more fussy look than Storm, her all-plywood construction has produced a beautifully simple open interior, with bare pine planks for floorboards and nicely shaped ash and wicker thwarts – a further weight saving measure.

One of the great luxuries of modern construction methods, where almost any shape is achievable, is that it enables designers to focus on what they are building rather than how it is built. Although working firmly within the medium of traditional boats, Swallow Boats has used these methods to rediscover what `traditional` really means. It’s not quite reinventing the wheel or redesigning the ark, but rediscovering what is truly important in the identity of these objects and disposing of what is incidental. All of which is to say: a boat’s a boat, and these ones do float. Or as my daughter might say, “Whatever”.