Dragon Wings
by Gary Lepak
Reprinted from Multihulls Magazine - July/August 1999

PUFF was a magic dragon that carried our family of four safely on many adventures... with her two bony wings spread to the ocean winds. From Alaska to Mexico we rode on her back and rested in her two hulls, feeling safe and comfortable in our flights from port to port. Running down dark hallways of water on a black stormy night in British Columbia, mountains rising invisibly from the rocky shores on both sides, her easily furled wings gave us the confidence to go on. Ghosting through the drizzle of Alaska, we steered comfortably from beneath her unfurled deck tent or huddled below by the wood stove drinking hot cups of coffee. Surfing wing-and-wing down two-story high hills of water at 20 knots off the coast of northern California may have been frightening, but a drogue off the stern and sails reefed to the last little panel kept her under control; when darkness engulfed us, a parachute held her into the seas so we could rest and wait for morning, to continue. She was our home in the heat of the Sea of Cortez, her deck a shaded lounge between the sun and the water. Rounding Point Conception and beating back up the California coast to San Francisco, she showed us what she was made of, seeming to revel in the 30- knot winds
and 8-foot seas.

Having a weird boat does get you a lot of attention, but it's not all flattering. We got used to the powerboats changing
course and buzzing by our stern, camera poised, even the remarks made by curious critics in little outboards, voices raised above the din of their motors, thinking we couldn't hear what they were saying. It's easy to become defensive when your pride and joy is different from the rest. Many multihull owners know all too well the stigma associated with the odd boat. Owners of junk-rigged boats have also seen the underside of many a yachtsman's nose. But, a flat-sided sheet plywood, homemade, junk-rigged catamaran with an unstayed mast in each hull? Once, in a quiet anchorage, I was sitting down below minding my own business when a beautiful varnished classic yacht slowly circled me. I overheard the skipper remark to his mate, "If they gave it to me, I'd burn it!" I restrained myself. Sometimes the attention was more flattering. Once, drifting in a calm in the Straits of Juan de Fuca between the US and Canada, a 300-foot Canadian warship, about a mile away, changed course and came straight toward us, finally coming to a dead stop a hundred yards off our stern. We stared back at the sailors who lined the rail staring at us, but they were too far away to talk to. After about five minutes of wondering what we had done to warrant such attention, a voice came over their loudspeaker and boomed out over the glassy water, "Your boat fascinates me." Then they revved up their engines and made a right turn leaving us laughing in the swells. During the eight years we lived and cruised aboard PUFF we were often asked, "How does it work?" Since I designed PUFF myself, I have no one to blame for her faults, but I can also take credit for her abilities. I usually just said, "It works great!" Some were satisfied with this answer but others demanded more details: "How does it go to windward?"

Pretty well in good wind - not so great in light winds. This could have been helped some with a drifter, but we never
bothered to get one - an outboard works better.

"Doesn't one sail blanket the other on a reach?" Hardly at all. Since the sails twist very little and there are no shrouds to chafe against, the windward sail can be sheeted out quite a ways and still draw. By sheeting the leeward sail in a bit more than usual, both sails are kept drawing with the apparent wind right on the beam. The windward sail seems to feed wind to the leeward sail.

Most people would guess it must be great downwind. That's for sure! There is no blanketing at all downwind, and the short, squarish sails are more efficient than tall narrow sails on this point of sail. Unlike the catboat that suffers from strong helm when running, our "double cat" is almost neutral on the helm with the wind on the quarter, both sails over to one side, and the boards raised. With the sails out wing and wing it is completely balanced. With the tiller unattended she'll just keep running downwind.

PUFF was designed for full-time liveaboard cruising for a family of four. The size and shape of the hulls and the layout of the deck was initially conceived to be the most efficient size and shape to contain the beds, seats, storage and living space that these four people would need. Efficiency here refers to economical first cost, cheap and easy upkeep, and ease of handling, more than to power-to-weight and length-to-beam ratios. Isn't it efficient to save time and money building a boat so you go cruising sooner with some money in your pocket? Isn't it efficient to be able to carry a lot of food on board so you don't have to shop in expensive ports? Isn't it efficient to carry three dinghies so you don't have someone hollering from the beach to come and be picked up at midnight in a stormy anchorage? Isn't it efficient to be able to do all your hull maintenance on beaches, between tides? Isn't it efficient to be able to carry three windsurfers? ...well, okay, maybe not, but you have to be able to get your speed kicks somewhere.

Many people asked us how we came to designing and building such a different boat.

It goes back to when we were living on our first catamaran, Sea Urchin, a 46' Wharram Polynesian cat that we built and launched in 1974. During the year and a half that it took to build Sea Urchin I toyed with the idea of trying the junk rig, which Wharram offered at the time, but finally decided against it because Iwas afraid to try something that I didn't know anything about. Our cutter rig was adequate, but we didn't like getting the jib down on the bow netting, in rising winds with cold saltwater splashing up our legs, or tying in a reef in the main knowing that maybe in half an hour we might want to take it out again. Also, tacking two headsails was bothersome in the channels and fluky winds that make up 90% of the sailing here in the Pacific Northwest. When the weather got rough, flapping sails and whipping sheets seemed to add to our anxiety. Our experience led us to the conclusion that with just two adults and a young child on board, our boat should be the ultimate in singlehanding ease. On a long passage while one parent is sleeping, the other is responsible not only for the boat, butfor the child as well. All these thoughts led us to consider the Chinese rig as developed by Jock McLeod and Colonel Blondie Hasler.

After living on our Wharram for a year, we met a family living on a boat of the same design, but with the stayed ketch junk rig. We became friends and sailed together for two months, from Puget Sound in Washington, to Queen Charlotte City in northern British Columbia. Day after day, we sailed together, anchoring in the same place at night. It was ideal for comparison of rigs, and we were very impressed with the Chinese rig. We were surprised at its windward ability, especially in strong winds, and we admired the ease with which the sails could be reefed or unreefed.

We made our tirst offshore passage from the Queen Charlotte Islands to California, and I started trying to design "the next boat," that would, I hoped, incorporate the junk rig. I especially liked the unstayed version that I had read about, because there was no chafe of the yard against the shrouds, and the sails could be sheeted out farther. I thought a trimaran or monohull were the only possibilities for this rig because the masts have to be stepped in a hull to have enough "bury" to be self supporting. I sketched quite a few possibilities but none of them excited us too much. We had become attached to
the center deck space and the separate cabins of the Wharram and didn't want to give those things up.

One night, in SanDiego, while talking boat design with a monohull friend, he asked why "catamaran people" never put one mast in each hull. I explained that it had been tried but never really caught on - too expensive, complicated, narrow staying angles, etc. I knew there must be some reason. But it got me to thinking, and I realized that with the unstayed rig there wouldn't be any staying problem, and that the full-battened lug rig could be made economically ... at home. I sketched some catamaran designs with shorter, fatter hulls to give us the accommodations we wanted in a size we could afford, and one unstayed mast in each hull. The new boat would be between 30 and 36 feet long. It was designed to fit our personal needs: a liveaboard cruiser for a family of three,
soon to be four.

We tried to sell our Wharram in California but didn't have any success, so we decided to go to Hawaii. We wanted to make a "real" ocean passage, see Hawaii and, hopefully, sell our boat so that we could build our new dreamboat. Seventeen days at sea brought us into Hilo. I got a job; we stayed on the Big Island for most of a year; our daughter was born; we got new sails; butwe didn't sell the boat. So, we sailed for Lahaina on Maui and there we sold our Wharram. She had been our home for over four years, and we were sad to leave her, but it was time for us to try something new.

The time of decision had arrived. Did we really have the nerve to build that crazy boat with the junk sail on each hull? Wouldn't it be more prudent to build an existing design, one that would be sure to work and have good resale value? I had many misgivings, for sure, but my wife, Joanne, knew that if we never built it, I would forever be a frustrated designer, afraid to try something new. She encouraged me to give it a go. We told ourselves, over and over, all the reasons why it would work, and a few of the reasons why it might not. And we figured that if it was a complete disaster we could change the rig and keep the hulls. So, with our life's savings in-hand we boarded a jet and headed back to where we had started from four years
earlier: Seattle.

Having money to build a boat is a lot nicer than wanting to build a boat and not having any money. The second time around (years before I promised myself there would never be a second time) was easier on that point; we mainly had to worry about getting the boat built, not about making money. But material cost had gone up more than we realized.

Joanne had to work, now and then, to stretch the funds out to launching. Also, designing and building is a lot slower than building from plans. Every detail and all its consequences must be thought out before you pick up the saw. We were lucky to discover that Jock McLeod was selling instructions on how to build the junk rig. We used his excellent material for designing and building our rig, and I'm sure it saved us a lot of time and mistakes. The edges of the Chinese sail are straight, so there is no trick to cutting them.

There is, however, a lot oflabor involved in making them because of the battens. Anyone who can sew straight should be able to make a decent junk sail. We made our own, and they came out quite good.

Our masts were solid grown sticks of Douglas fir purchased from a yard that supplies utility poles. They were 35 feet long and cost $85 each (in 1979).

Since there are no tangs, chainplates, turnbuckles, wire, or winches, the rig is quite economical to put together, especially if you make your own sails. The halyards, sheets and lazy jacks call for more line and blocks than usual, but the total cost is still very much below the usual modern Bermudan rig with all its wire and winches.

In keeping with the economy of the rig, the hulls were designed to be built as economically as possible. They were single chine, V-bottom hulls of sheet plywood and epoxy with a laminated keel over ply and fir frames and stringers. The crossbeams were hollow boxes connected to the hulls with mild steel galvanized fittings, cushioned with rubber (from old tires) to allow some independent movement and demountability. The cockpit and centerdeck were suspended from the crossbeams, independent ofthe hulls so as not to interfere with flexing. The cockpit seats were, in effect, 12' fore-and-aft box beams that support the cockpit sole and serve as storage lockers. An outboard motor swung up in the middle of the cockpit.

The hulls drew only 18", so boards were needed to prevent leeway. We decided to use dagger-leeboards on the inboard sides ofthe hulls. They were tied down at deck level and swung up part way when grounding. Since they were held against the hull with a steel strap above the waterline, one board worked on both tacks. They weren't the most efficient but they didn't take up interior space and they were easy to maintain. With such shallow draft, the rudders must be deeper than the hulls. We used kick-up skeg rudders, held by a line designed to break loose when grounding, allowing the unit to pivot upwards. They could be pulled halfway up for sailing in shallow water, or all the way up when anchored for any length of time.

Each hull had a 12- foot-long cabin behind the center crossbeam and a double bunk forward. Forward of the mast was a watertight bulkhead and storage area. The arched tubes that spanned the cockpit supported a tarp that could be rolled out for protection from rain or sun, and covered the main cabin hatches, making it a lot more pleasant to go from one hull to the other on a dark rainy night. Since we didn't have any head sails to handle, we eliminated the forward netting on this boat, allowing us to drop and haul up anchors right from where they are stored behind the forward crossbeam. On the flat deckspace forward of the cabins we carried a 16- foot rowboat and a 7 -foot pram, along with 2 or 3 windsurfers.

A year and a half after drawing the lines, Dragon Wings number one, Puff, was ready to be launched. April Fools Day, 1980 - we hoped we weren't the fools, but we would soon know. She floated well. A month after launching the rig was finished and we went for our first sail. She wouldn't point as high, or go as fast close-hauled as a sloop, but she got us where we wanted to go with style and ease. Although a ghoster set flying would help the windward performance in light winds, we never felt it was important enough to get one.

After a few sails we got used to handling the rig (don't pinch or sheet it in too tight) and realized that it was basically a success. Whew!

The more we sailed, the more we liked it. It was so easy to make or furl sail that "going for a sail" became much less of a job than it had been with our cutter rig. The lazy jacks caught the battens when the sail was lowered, the excess sheet pulled in, and that's all there was to it-no hanks, bags or ties. Put on the sail covers and you're done. Tacking was a one-man, one-hand operation: push the tiller over and she came about.

If you messed up, you could back the leeward sail as you would a jib, but after a bit of practice this was rare. To reef, or lower the sail the desired number of battens, tie the lowest one down with the downhaul by the mast, and take in the slack on the line that holds the yard to the mast. There are no reefties because the batten holds the sail down and the sheet holds the aft end of the batten down. The sails never flap when luffed up, but are always docile and quiet. It is also possible to raise, lower, or reef the sail on any point of sail.

Dragon Wings was designed for comfortable living aboard and cruising. She was not a high-speed boat because of her wide, 7.5 to 1,length-to-beam ratio hulls. She'd do just 8 knots in protected waters, but she'd surf with the best of them in the ocean when the seas were 8' or more. I'm sure we hit 20 knots on 20' seas. She's certainly not the type of boat for someone who can't stand being passed by another boat - most boats passed her to windward, especially in light airs - but downwind she'd pass almost anyone not flying a spinnaker. Since she's meant mainly for ocean cruising, I think the downwind efficiency and ease of handling are very important. It's rare that any cruiser makes a passage dead to windward, no matter how good the boat is on that point of sail, yet downwind ability is usually "added on" after the rig has been designed to go to windward. The result is awkward and hard-to-handle spinnakers, whisker poles, and running twin jibs that can only be used downwind. On Dragon Wings we used the same sails all the time and had no sails to store below.

The Chinese rig gybes very easily. The boom is just another batten, so it doesn't threaten heads too much. Since there is little twist in the sail and no shrouds, the sail can be let out all the way when running, so an accidental gybe is rare
The sheets and sails are over the hulls away from the cockpit, so in a gybe no one is in the way of the sail. In an intentional gybe the boat can be brought on to the opposite tack before the sail starts to swing over, so when it comes to rest on the new tack, it has lost its momentum and doesn't jerk the sheets.

We lived aboard PUFFfor eight years, cruising from Alaska to Mexico and have many wonderful memories of those years. She lived up to our expectations in always being easy to handle, safe, and comfortable. We were glad that we took the gamble and tried something different and that when asked that eternal question, we could always answer,
"Yes, she works great!"

July/August 1999. MULTIHULLS Magazine