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The Voyage of the Sailing Yacht “Puff”

An experienced sailor in Clearwater, Florida was kicking around Clark Mills’ marina where he found Clark working on a new boat. He asked Clark if he was building the boat for someone and Clark said, “ Not really”. That boat was going to be Bill Gilmore’s next boat. Clark built the boat that Bill was living on and she was a schooner called Mayflower. Clark and Bill were good friends and they had something in common, both loved boats and sailing. Clark was a boat builder and designer. You may have heard of the Optimus Pram that Clark designed. It’s the most popular sailboat in the World. Bill was also a famous character on Clearwater Bay. He ran a party fishing boat called the “Double Eagle” for years and it was natural that the two men were good friends and associates. Bill purchased the Sun Cat “Puff” that Clark was building and he sailed it on the Bay for a while getting prepared for a very long voyage. He was selling his business and moving his family to the Northeast. “Puff” would be sailing north to the State of Maine. How can anyone do that in a small boat?

How many small boats today could make that trip? How many sailors could make that voyage up the east coast on the outside? Not many are the correct answer in both cases. Clark made some solid boats and Bill Gilmore was an exceptional sailor. I currently have “Puff” on my yard in Richlands, NC. How “Puff” got here is another story that we need to tell someday.

Sailors in the Clearwater Area of Florida sail in the Gulf of Mexico. They use it as a highway sailing north and south. They travel up and down the State using the Gulf. They become experienced off shore sailors primarily because of where they live and sail. “Puff” started its longest voyage by leaving Clearwater Bay and going south on the outside to Fort Myers. That’s where Florida maintains a canal that boats use when they cross the State. Boats would have to circle around Key West to get to the east coast if it wasn’t for this canal.

“Puff” had a powerful gaff rig and could sail well downwind or close-hauled if needed. I estimate her displacement to be two thousand pound with a mainsail area of more than what was needed for a boat of her size. She also had a jib and that could be anything including a spinnaker. The bowsprit is four feet long and changing headsails must have been exciting. “Puff” made a left turn at Fort Myers to take the canal to Stuart, Florida under diesel power. Clark didn’t install a big engine in “Puff”. She came equipped with a Volvo 3hp diesel. She had a big tank that carried lots of fuel. Maybe the extra fuel was needed to hold the boat down with all that sail power? There is an old saying that you can never have too much fuel. “Puff” made it down the canal, through the inland lake and the locks without problems. Puff was going to make a crew change at Stuart for the next leg of the voyage. Stuart is a great place to park a boat, eat, sleep and get ready for the next leg. They didn’t need any fuel. To get out of Stuart, you go out the inlet and turn left. The plan for this voyage was to keep land in sight. It’s an art to stay in the Gulf Stream and in sight of land at the same time. If you get too close to land, the Stream’s eddy is going the wrong way and your progress will be slowed. The next port of call was going to be Charleston, SC. Charleston has a big wide inlet and it’s a transportation hub for the southeast. It will be an easy place to swap crew for the next leg. The US Navy also likes Charleston and ship traffic in the approaches to Charleston is heavy. A good rule to follow is never enter a port at night. Daytime visibility is important for a safe passage.

The primary navigation method for this voyage was dead reckoning. Someone was responsible for a position on a chart at all times. If you don’t have a chart position, you are lost. Compass bearings to known good locations keep the chart up to date. A secondary method of navigation was LORAN or GPS. LORAN stands for long-range navigation and uses land-based towers to transmit signals. LORAN and GPS are similar in the way they function. LORAN came first and was discontinued after satellites and GPS became popular. LORAN was limited in coverage because there towers can only be built on land. Vast areas of oceans were not covered.

“Puff” has been performing well with a modest breeze out of the southeast. She was sailing at 5 knots no matter what the wind. Bill said he couldn’t figure that one out. They were covering a consistent 60 miles a day. The only time they ran the engine was for docking and undocking. The next port of call was going to be Norfolk. The first leg of the trip was 500 miles and the next one was going to be about 500 miles. One major reason Puff was sailing outside was that the engine in Puff was too small for long motoring trips in the Inter-Coastal Waterway. A heavy boat like “Puff” with a small engine would have a hard time against the wind and current and would be very slow. The little Volvo did well in harbors, but maybe not so well on a long ICW leg. “Puff’ was going to have to sail to Maine. That meant the weather and wind had to cooperate. “Puff” was named after the Magic Dragon. I’m sure Peter, Paul and Mary would have given their blessing to this voyage. Of course, to sail to Maine in a small boat with only a 3hp motor would require magic.

The wind stayed out of the southeast as “Puff” passed Cape Lookout to port. Fair skies and smooth seas at night with a good afternoon wind were what they needed to make miles. Lighthouses were the best ways to identify where they were. Small and large coastal cities with lights at night and water towers during the day were also invaluable. Coastal ship traffic at night can be dangerous. Most small freighters stay in the Stream to make miles. Puff was trying to stay along the edge of the Stream next to shore. Not a lot of room for error. I’m sure everyone hoped that freighters going south stayed out of the Guff Stream and off shore. Nighttime is the most dangerous time at sea because of poor visibility. Instruments on large ships are only good as the person that’s operating the instrument. Hopefully the person on watch is wide a wake and not asleep. Small boat lights are almost impossible to see at night. Turing a spotlight on a ship that’s too close is a good idea.

Norfolk is like Charleston. The approaches are large and easy for a small boat. Downtown Norfolk is on the Elisabeth River and close to the inlet. Go in the inlet and under a bridge; go up the river and you are there. Norfolk is a good place for a crew change and re-supply for the next leg. We still didn’t need fuel. Most sailors would take the inland route up the Chesapeake. There are two marked routes in the Chesapeake. One is the small boat channel and the other is for big boats. The big boat channel is on the starboard side going north and small boat channel on the port side. “Puff” could have sailed in the Chesapeake, but in the north end of the Bay is the C&D Canal with lots of current. The plan for “Puff” would be going back to the ocean and turning left and heading for New York City that way. The weather had to be good and it was. The next major landmark was the Delaware River entrance with Cape May on the north side. After Cape May, the next big challenge will be the passage through Hell’s Gate into New York City Harbor.

What “Puff” did on this voyage that other small boats couldn’t do was ride the waves like it was a real ocean boat. Some boats plow though the waves and others bounce around on the tops of waves. They wear the crew out in a short period of time. Sun Cats ride the waves like they were on railroad tracks. They have a smooth steady motion like a thoroughbred racehorse. That motion is restful for the crew and it can put anyone to sleep. On “Puff”, one man had to be awake at all times and that was difficult at night with the boat’s motion. The closer you get to New York and the big cities of the northeast, ship traffic gets more dense and ferries run all night in some areas. I think we can credit Clark Mills for his design genius with the Sun Cats wonderful ride. Of course it could be that it was just Magic.

Everyone likes to spend a few days in New York. It’s a town like London and Paris where you can spend lots of money in a short period of time. All three have great food and you can find anything there that you might want to buy. Everything gets more expensive as you go north. Tides vary by the position of the Moon with respect to the Earth. Tides in Florida are small. Tides in South Carolina are large and the tides in North Carolina are small. Where the tides are large, the current is also going to be large or fast. The current is what gives Hell’s Gate it’s name. You need to plan a voyage with great care around New York City. The next leg of the voyage will be up Long Island Sound and then back outside to find the Gulf Stream. Our destination is Booth Bay, Maine. The traffic will be mostly pleasure boats running between New York and New England. The tides will be heavy in the New England area and they don’t have ramps for small boats. Floating docks or anchoring out become homes for most small boats up north. In “Puffs” case, a trailer on a carport would be its next home. That’s what happened to “Puff”. After that long voyage, day sailing wasn’t what Bill wanted to do. His next voyage was going to be on a larger boat and he wanted to go around the World. He did, but that’s another story.

This has been a story about two exceptional men. Both geniuses in there own fields. There is a third person involved in the “Puff” story today. Gerry Hutchins at the Com-Pac Factory identified the Sun Cat’s unique sailing capabilities when he was a young man. He knew what Bill Gilmore knew about how well the boat sailed. Clark’s Sun Cat needed to be modified to bring it up to today’s production standards and Gerry did that and more. He designed a mast raising system that’s the envy of other boat builders. He made major improvements on the rudder and centerboard to make trailing easy and launching fast. A true success story with over 500 new boats built in a short period of time. We now have three geniuses in this story.

A long time ago, I purchased a new Sun Cat from Clark Mills. He built the boat for me as a sloop. It sailed well with speed and power. I wonder what Com-Pac is going to call their new Sun Cat sloop when they decide to build one. Building that boat will be easy. Giving it a name will be the hard part. All three men proved what other people said couldn’t be done. Clark Mills designed a great sailing small boat, Bill Gilmore sailed it where most people couldn’t and Gerry Hutchins took a great boat and made it better. Like I said, we now have three geniuses in this story.