Book Review: Hand, Reef, and Steer



When I found s/v Ripple at the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle I wasn't looking for a classic wooden boat, I was looking for a marine Winnebago to putter about Puget Sound with friends and family. I knew what a gaff rig was, but I'd never sailed one. I'm not sure if I knew what a cutter was. None of that mattered: I was in love. Only after having inked the check did I learn the mantra of gaffers: "she's slow and points like a blind hound dog, but the rig is squat and safe and will take care of you." In the intervening years I've cruised through British Columbia and as far north as Inian Island in Icy Strait, Alaska.  I had fingers enough to count the hours of sailing without power on that 88 day trip.  Its the Inside Passage, and sailing days can be scarce.  Did I mention I'm oldish, often single-handing, and lazy?

Recently a sailing friend gifted me a copy of Tom Cunliffe's Hand, Reef and Steer, and the veil has fallen from mine eyes.  This book extolls the virtues of (primarily) gaff cutters, advice and wisdom forged by decades of experience on every ocean in many boats.  His insights aren't the apologia of quaint nostalgia, but rather the Bristol polish of boat design that is tried and true and unsullied by considerations of speed, carbon-fiber, and the configuration of galleys and saloons.

The lineage of gaffers springs from centuries of work boats, designed not by naval architects, but by boatbuilders who over-built their craft for survival in dangerous professions. All this is important, but the meat of the book is practical advice on how to sail such vessels... how to coax the best from them while enjoying their manifest virtues.

Now, you may imagine the raising and lowering of sails, for example, straightforward and obvious, but every sailor understands that what works at a quiet mooring doesn't necessarily work in combat conditions, and when it comes to persuading tops'ls to behave and set usefully, even the best of conditions may be tricky.  Lotsa strings on a gaffer, and setting a tops'l requires threading spar and canvas amongst most of them.  I am pressed to admit I've only ever set mine twice... both times for photo-ops at the boat festival (It sure is pretty!).  I'm still old and single-handed and lazy, but I think my tops'l is going to get a bit more use.

Cunliffe systematically addresses setting and dousing sails, how to get the best from your rig, why your stays'l is so important and your tops'l can be the hardest working canvas on the boat.  Sail-trim, reefing, storm tactics, and much more are laid out in the historical context of why sloops and cutters and schooners are sailed the way they are (with a nod to yawls and ketches along the way).  He'll make you feel better about your long-keeled, deep-footed hull that brings you last to every moorage. You'll even learn how to set dead-eyes: I'm half a mind to deep-six my rigging screws!  But only half.

Cunliffe's style is witty and evocative of the salt air itself. His authenticity in unimpeachable, though his maritime jargon is occasionally tricky to follow. He earned every syllable (if only I should live so long).  There are diagrams throughout, though I occasionally wished for more, and the boat-porn... oh my, there are photographs of great classic schooners and racing yachts that will have you singing chanteys.

I will read and re-read passages of this book until I know my boat as well as Cunliffe already does. Don't expect to borrow this one... It won't leave my side.

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