Introduction (by Neville Watkinson)
I have always had a hankering to own and sail a sharpie. There’s some elemental appeal in the simple, flat bottom, shallow draft hull shape and free standing rig that conjures a combination of the ability to explore with easy handling. For years I carried around photo-copied sharpie plans from Howard Chappelle’s American Small Sailing Craft as inspiration.
At the time of the Christchurch earthquake I owned and operated a small joinery business supplying commercial kitchen equipment. With the literal collapse of many customers I realised our little enterprise might not survive. If I was going to build a boat this could be the last chance.
But what to build? I was aware of an American designer, Reuel Parker, who was a strong proponent of the Sharpie and sent for his book of plans. While many appealed, tucked in the back as an appendix were drawings of a beautiful 20’ sharpie with a schooner rig and a small trunk cabin like a proper yacht. This was Floridays, designed and built by Mark Fitzgerald.
I did an internet search and came up with nothing. I thought about other boat designs I had admired over the years, and while idly surfing the net I hit the website of Chuck Paine Yacht Design. I don’t know what drew me to the staff profile page, but the head draftsman was a fellow called Mark Fitzgerald who raised cattle as a hobby on a small holding called “Floridaze”. This was too much of a co-incidence.
Correspondence ensued. Mark had built Floridays for himself 25 years before, and still owned her, but there were no suitable plans. He tried to sell me other sharpie designs, but none appealed. Somewhat tongue in cheek I asked if I could re-draw Floridays and have him review the plans. His opening reply started “You Kiwi’s are a cheeky bunch”, but went on to explain this was the best news he had heard in years. Apparently he was constantly being pestered for plans and couldn’t supply them. We quickly agreed how the process would proceed and I put pencil to paper. I didn’t know at the time, but Chuck Paine had just completed a superyacht build in New Zealand, for a client in Australia. Mark had done most of the design work and regards this as the pinnacle of his design career. He harboured a soft spot for our country.
I had another hurdle to overcome. I couldn’t devote workshop space to this project over an extended time frame, but I had a mezzanine floor above the office. It was under a low pitched roof and measured 7 metres by four. There was no standing headroom, but this would be my building space. Only a shallow hull could be accommodated. Oyster is the result.
The sharpie design is well known, but the elements setting the Milford 20’s classic design apart are the counter stern and the cabin with its elliptical port-lights and trim, details that would usually be found on a much larger yacht. OYSTER has been greatly admired at recent classic and traditional boat events in our area of New Zealand. Its classic lines, beautiful counter stern, and immaculate finish readily show the careful thought that has been given to the integrity of the design and the quality of craftsmanship.
The 52-page build manual is comprehensive, with full sequential notes on the whole process enhanced with clear photographs and detailed drawings.
The documentation would put the boat within the range of an amateur builder with good woodworking skills and access to a reasonable range of tools and workshop facilities. On OYSTER, the time and care that went into building the coach roof, coamings, lazarette, bulkheads, portlights, rails, and moldings were well rewarded. OYSTER took approximately 1,000 hours to build and outfit.
Construction largely follows that of traditional plank-on-frame boats, but uses plywood for sheathing the hull. The Milford 20 is built upside down over a ladder frame without any temporary molds; the hull is built around the permanent timber frames and longitudinal members. The bottom is 12mm plywood, the sides 9mm, and the deck 6mm. To plank the strong curve of the counter, three layers of 3mm plywood were laminated. There are three 12mm plywood bulkheads: The bulkhead in the bow is open, and the stern bulkhead, set just ahead of the rudderpost, encloses a lazarette that provides buoyancy when its watertight hatch is sealed. The addition of some foam throughout the hull would be advised to add sufficient positive buoyancy to support hull and crew in event of a capsize. The hatch on the foredeck provides access to the anchor, which stows in the bottom of the boat where it can contribute to the boat’s stability.
The boat’s centerboard has an unusual construction. It’s a stack of thirty 1-7/8″-thick NACA foil sections, 17 of them hardwood, nine of them half wood, half lead, and four of them entirely made of lead, adding 121 pounds to the board’s weight. The stack is assembled on three 10mm stainless-steel rods with threaded ends for nuts and washers to pinch the epoxy-slathered sections together. The board then gets its sides sheathed with 6mm plywood, a leading edge of oak before a layer of epoxy and ’glass or Dynel.
Although not essential, auxiliary power makes it possible to get through marinas and lulls in the wind. OYSTER has a 6-hp, air-cooled Honda GX 200, an industrial four-stroke engine, neatly and unobtrusively mounted under the bridge deck. The engine was easy to start with a pull or two of its cord, quiet, and provided ample power for launching and hauling out as well as for a short passage in a short choppy seaway. Milford Boats reports that the inboard pushes the boat along at 4.5 to 5 knots and sips gas at the rate of about 1 gallon per sailing season.
The engine is set to port, and a belt drive turns the prop shaft that emerges from the skeg forward of the rudder. The three-bladed prop is protected by a stainless-steel plate connecting the skeg and bottom of the rudder. The prop doesn’t feather or freewheel and causes a little drag, but this is a minor concern as the auxiliary power is a major benefit. A bracket for mounting a small outboard to one side of the hull may be a more appealing option to those who are uneasy about installing a shaft log. The long, slender hull and cockpit geometry suggest that the boat could be comfortably rowed if a builder wanted to fit a thwart or two and oarlocks.
The build manual includes plans for a steel trailer custom-fit to the Milford 20. It was easy to use and, with the boat aboard, weighs around 1,320 lbs—an easy towing load for a small to average-sized vehicle.
At the launch ramp, two of us easily assembled the schooner rig in about 20 minutes. While the unstayed Douglas-fir masts, each weighing 30 lbs, are not heavy, they are awkward to maneuver, and best handled by two. Once the masts are stepped, the rest of the preparation is quickly accomplished. Most lines and sheets are kept in place when the masts are down for trailering, so it takes little time to rerig the boat at the ramp.
Similarly, retrieving the boat from the water and securing it on the trailer at the end of our outing took about 20 minutes. With all sailing gear packed easily in the boat and the masts resting in three crutches, one in each mast step and a third in the hollow rudder post, the Milford 20 is ready for travel. The compact and low profile of the boat on the trailer makes for easy towing and clear all-round vision on the road.
We sailed OYSTER on the open water of Lyttelton Harbor on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island on a late autumn day under clear skies with a breeze at 5 to 8 knots, later rising to over 10 knots. The Milford 20 is only about 4′2″ across at the widest part of the bottom, but was extremely stable under sail. It proved to be a responsive and easy to handle while underway. The thoughtful placement of the fittings and lines ensures that any adjustments can be made from a sitting position in the comfort of the main cockpit.
The cockpit isn’t deep, so the floorboards, along with throw cushions and a broad coaming, provide comfortable, dry seating as well as a secure feeling while underway. Even as the wind strength increased soon after we got underway and both sails were reefed, it was not necessary sit out on the windward side decks to counter the heeling. If we had additional crew sitting in the cockpit forward of the bridge deck/mizzen partner, they too would have been very secure, dry, and well clear of the rigging as we sailed the boat from rear cockpit.
Both cockpits are long enough to sleep in—6′2-1/2″ forward and 5′11″ aft—but the available spaces in the forward cockpit, either side of the centerboard trunk, have maximum width of about 22” and the aft cockpit has a 4’2″ maximum width. The limited space would be rather restrictive for sleeping. It would be a much more practical proposition to carry a tent and camping equipment on board for parking the crew onshore overnight. The generous space under the fore deck and in the enclosed aft compartment provide adequate out-of-the-way stowage for cruising and camping gear.
The modest sail area performs very well in both light and brisk breezes. However, having a long and slender hull and a tall rig, the Milford 20, like most sharpies, needs to be sailed with no more than 10 or 15 degrees of heel. It did sail comfortably with the lee rail under, although it is preferable to reduce heel in a choppy sea to prevent water from entering the cockpit. In winds of 10 to 12 knots, reefing the main would be advised for stability and comfort and in 15 knots it’s recommended that both sails be reefed. Reefing either sail is easily managed from the cockpits.
The Milford 20 obviously does not sail as close to the wind as a sloop-rigged boat of similar size, but it was very secure with a desirable positive helm. It moved readily in light airs, in a rising wind, and was very comfortable both upwind and running downwind.
The structure and configuration of the boat makes it a safe and pleasurable sailing boat in a range of conditions on moderately sheltered waters. It is not an offshore or coastal cruiser but an able craft that could appeal to sailors of all ages and abilities. The dry, secure cockpit and centralized rig controls would obviously have a wide appeal for older sailors or those with limited mobility. For the inexperienced, it is easily managed and forgiving underway.
Overall the Milford 20 design appeals as a very elegant, classic craft for home building, and gives a great sailing experience for both experienced and inexperienced sailors. It also would be a suitable craft for a couple or family of four; a delight to sail and appealing to those who want a safe boat for leisure and pleasure.
Peter Braithwaite ONZM has had a career as a teacher, school principal, administrator, training manager, consultant and foreign-aid adviser in New Zealand and the Pacific islands. He now lives in Christchurch where he continues his lifetime passion for recreational sailing and building small boats from RC pond sailers to competitive racing dinghies and harbor racing yachts. For the past ten years he has been the organizer of the Canterbury Classic & Traditional Boats group that promotes and organizes regular regattas and activities for classic, restored, and replica traditional boats in the local region.
Milford 20 Particulars
Draft, board up 10″
Draft, board down 3′3″
Sail area 145 sqft
Displacement 1,360 lbs
Hull weight (including centerboard) 695 lbs