Jim Michalak's Boat Designs

1024 Merrill St, Lebanon, IL 62254

A page of boat designs and essays.

(15 November 2022) We reef a sharpie sprit sail. The 1 December issue will make a set of oars.




... is out now, written by me and edited by Garth Battista of Breakaway Books. You might find it at your bookstore. If not check it out at the....


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Tom Hamernick and his pretty fast Mixer with the sharpie sprit sail at Rend Lake a long time ago. I think the sharpie sprit is about the fastest all around sail that can be made from junk, no special fittings. It takes a long mast and flexibilty in the mast can work for you because you can bend it back by tightening the snotter on the sprit in sort of bow and arrow fashion allowing you to change sail shape. To me it is very much like the sailing surf board rigs. But reefing is a head scratcher...



Contact info:


Jim Michalak
1024 Merrill St,
Lebanon, IL 62254

Send $1 for info on 20 boats.





I have written about some of the basics of the sharpie sprit sail. I mentioned that reefing the sail is different from reefing more modern sails because many sharpie sprit sails have no sailtrack and because the snotter tackle that tensions the sail will interfere with any lacing or hoops that might be used instead of sail track. Here are some thoughts about dealing with that problem. I should add that I don't claim to be an expert on the subject but I have had some experiences and will write about them. To my knowledge no one who has decades of experiences with the sharpie sprit has ever writen about them in detail.


vertical reef

Figure 1 shows the basic elements of the olden sharpie sprit rig. One very good book that talks about this subject is Howard Chapelle's AMERICAN SMALL SAILING CRAFT. I think the book is still in print and if should be on the "must buy" list for anyone thinking about a small sailboat. Anyway, the old sharpies used a vertical reefing system as shown above. I'll quote from Chapelle on page 107 of his book:

"The sails appear to have been laced to the masts in the early boats, but by 1880, at least, mast hoops were in use. The sails were hoisted by a single-part halyard, a sheave being usually placed in the masthead within 8" of the truck. The reef band was parallel to the hoist. In early boats the reef was made by a series of brails leading through thimbles on the luff-rope and spliced into a single fall, which permitted reefing without lowering sails. In later boats there were usually two reef bands fitted with reef points and the sails had to be lowered to reef, the points being turned in as the sail was again hoisted. In either plan the sprit tackle was slacked off until the reef was made and then set up; as the reefs were made , the heels of the sprits projected farther forward of the mast..."

Chapelle doesn't mention it but to me it would appear that a system with mast hoops and halyard would require that the sprit tackle be removed before lowing the sail and reattached after raising the sail. None of this could be done quickly and the sail would be in very limited control until the sprit tackle is reattached after raising the sail. The older style rig with the brailing system would not require removal of the sprit tackle (snotter).


Figure2 shows a system I have tried - the vertical reefing system Phil Bolger put on the Birdwatcher. As I recall the original BW plans did not show a reefing scheme but Ron Meuller, who built and tested the prototype, asked for a reefing system after a few sails in rough going. Here is what the sail mod looked like:

vertical reef

It was an add-on that worked to a certain extent. Reefing patches and grommets were added to the original sail which allowed a single line to zigzag from mast head to tack as shown. Placment of the grommets is critical. When the brail line is pulled in down at the tack, the whole reef area is pulled forward to form a bundle near the mast, exactly as with Chapelle's traditional system. But the old system of brail lines leading to thimbles and spliced to a single line was eliminated. Again this system does not require removal of the snotter tackle but does require it to be slacked off and retightened with the sprit projecting farther forward of the mast.

When reefed these sails will all look something like this:

vertical reef

Here is what is good about this system. 1) It is very cheaply made from common stuff. 2)The snotter tackle need not be removed during the reefing operation. 3)The sheet/clew attachment is totally untouched. Items 2 and 3 are extremely valuable in a small boat where leaving the tiller in a rough go is dangerous. I found with Birdwatcher that the reef could be put in very quickly by running forward, loosening the snotter, hauling in the reef line and tying it off, and retensioning the snotter, and running back to the tiller.

Here is what is bad about the system. 1)There is a very large bundle of cloth right next to the mast to disturb the airflow. I came to think of the system as something like a parachute - you didn't use it until you had to and then you didn't expect it to sail very close to the wind when reefed. 2)You'd never guess this one. The reef on Birdwatcher was hard to get out completely. To unreef the sail you let go of the brail line and retighten the snotter. Only takes an instant. But the brail line way up near the top of the sail is very hard to loosen so you always end up with a misshapen sail up there. The only way I could ever loosen the brail up there was to stand on tip toe on the deck and reach up with an oar to tug the line loose - and you don't do that in rough water! Once again I accept the limitation given the parachute idea.


If you had a mast with a halyard and sail track so the lowered sail would freely pass the snotter tackle you could use a more conventional horizontal reef line that might look like this (the red line is the reef line) :

horizontal reef

I should add now that I sailed Jinni for several years with a reef like this and mast lacing instead of sail track. The problem of course is how to get the sail lacing past the snotter tackle without taking it off. Here is how I did it. Let's say the reef is 24" deep. Below the sprit tackle the sail is fastened to the mast with one or two loose loops of line individually tied with topmost loop right below the snotter tackle. The the next 24" of the sail above the snotter tackle has no ties or lacing of any kind. Above that there is regular lacing of your favorite type. So when you reef the sail by dropping it down 24" with the halyard, there are no lacings to interfere with the tackle. It works well if the halyard tension and thus the luff tension is high to prevent sagging in the unsupported 24" of luff. I think the technique won't work too well with a double reef but most trailer sailers can get by without a double reef.

Anyway, reefing this sail can be just like reefing a sail with a boom except of course there is no boom ot bundle the reef to. But in the real world of small boats it usually doesn't work so well because most small sharpie boats don't have topping lifts or jiffy reef lines. Without those two items here is how you reef one of these. First you loosen the snotter tackle. Then you untie the clew from the sheet freeing the sail from everything including the sprit. Then you lower the sail with the halyard and tie in a new tack rope to the new tack position. Then you haul the halyard taut. Then you retie the the sheet and sprit to the new clew position. Then you tighten the snotter tackle to tension the sail. Then you bundle up the loose sail area and tie it to the reef grommets.

I challenge anyone to do the above in a small boat in rough going! Especially solo. I used to get away with it on Jinni because the mizzen usually would hold the boat head to wind while I fiddled with the above. Without a mizzen it would be about impossible because almost all boats will turn crossways to the wind if you let go of the tiller to do this work. Then you can't get your hands back on the clew connection.

So the reefing operation should be done on shore and saying that is no help for the guy far from shore with a thunderstorm in view. Once reefed like this though, I've always found the sharpie sprit to be a very good sailer. In fact I've often thought it might be closer winded reefed than when full perhaps because it sets flatter (most of the draft shaping in down in the bundled part when reefed) and maybe because the spars are effectively shortened and thus are stiffer.

The horizontally reefed sail would look like this:

horizontal reef


I think it is possible to jiffy reef a sharpie sprit sail. I've set a sail up like what is shown below and it worked well on the trailer, at least. Never got a chance to try it in real reefing conditions and I can assure you that nothing can be taken for granted under bad conditions.

horizontal reef

I think there are two key elements in the operation. First the rig needs a topping lift. It can be quite light. Second and most important you need to locate an eye pad on the sprit through which to run a second clew line to the reef clew. So that when you haul in that second clew line it tightly pulls the clew to the sprit in a position that doesn't require you to undo the original clew line (which is also the sheet line). If you fiddle with it long enough you might actually arrange it so the snotter tackle remains untouched. The reef clew line will run forward from that eye pad to a cleat near the forward end of the sprit so that you always have easy access to it even if the boat swings sideways to the wind.

When you reef this thing here is what you do. Go forward and slack off the halyard to lower the sail into the reefed position. The topping lift and snotter tackle will support the boom. Haul in on the new clew line really hard to set the reefed clew hard against the sprit, and cleat it off. Set up the reef tack line. Now you may have to tinker a little with the snotter tackle to fine tune the reef. Lastly you bundle up the loose cloth and secure with the reef grommets. The jiffy reefed sail looks like this:

horizontal reef

One major difference between this jiffy reef and the normal reef is that with the jiffy reef the sprit does not extend farther forward beyond the mast. Also you do not have to untie and retie the sheet to the sprit, and the sheet line actually stays the same relative to the boat. Bolger points out in his great book 100 SMALL BOAT RIGS that one limit to a deeply reefed sharpie sprit is that the sprit and sheet can move so far forward in a deep reef that the sheet now sweeps across the cockpit and becomes very much in the way.


Piccup Pram

Piccup Pram


Piccup Pram was the first boat of my design to get built, back in 1990, I think. I still have the prototype and use it regularly. I designed it to be the best sail/row boat I could put in the back of my short bed pick up truck. But I found it to be a good cartopper, too. It has capacity and abilities I had previously thought impossible in a 90 pound cartopper. The photo above shows the original 55 square foot sail on Pensacola bay a long time ago. Piccup is a taped seam multichine hull which can take a fair amount of rough water.

Piccup continues to be one of my most popular designs and I get nice photos from builders. Here is one of Richard Donovan hoping for more wind up in Massachusetts.


Richard's Piccup has the larger 70 square foot sail that prefer myself. It's the same as the original but is 2' taller. This balanced lug sail sets on a 12' mast and rolls up easily for storage on its 9' yard and boom. The idea was to be able to store the rig easily in the boat during rowing and it works. There is a pivoting leeboard and kickup rudder on the boat and they can be left in place raised while rowing. Converting to full sail takes a couple of minutes as you step the short mast, clip on the halyard and tack lines, hoist the sail, lower the boards, and off you go. And the balanced lug sail reefs very well although reefing any small boat is best done on shore.

Here is a Piccup by Vince Mansolillo in Rhode Island, a nice father/son project. Piccup will be large enough to hold both of them. You can see the large open frameless cockpit, large enough for sleeping. And you see the buoyancy/storage boxes on the end.


But Piccup will take two adults as seen in the photo of Jim Hudson's boat. Jim's boat has a polytarp sail as does my own Piccup.


These boats have proven to be good for sail rig tinkerers (be sure to read and apply the Sail Area Math essay before starting). Here I am in Piccup with a polytarp sharpie sprit sail. The rig is different from the originals but the hull here is totally unchanged (except for paint) from the original shown on the beach at Pensacola.


I think my own Piccup has had about six rigs of different sorts and was always the test bed for the polytarp sail experiments. But, hey!, that's nothing compared to the tinkering the late and great Reed Smith did with his out in California. Here is his Piccup rigged as a sharpie sprit yawl!


Here is Rob Rhode-Szudy's yawl rig Piccup that was featured in his essays about building Piccup that you can access through the old issue links.

Here is another by Doug Bell:

This one is by Jim Islip:

And this one by Ty Homer:

Piccup Pram uses taped seam construction from five sheets of 1/4" plywood.

Plans for Piccup are still $20.


Prototype News

Some of you may know that in addition to the one buck catalog which now contains 20 "done" boats, I offer another catalog of 20 unbuilt prototypes. The buck catalog has on its last page a list and brief description of the boats currently in the Catalog of Prototypes. That catalog also contains some articles that I wrote for Messing About In Boats and Boatbuilder magazines. The Catalog of Prototypes costs $3. The both together amount to 50 pages for $4, an offer you may have seen in Woodenboat ads. Payment must be in US funds. The banks here won't accept anything else. (I've got a little stash of foreign currency that I can admire but not spend.) I'm way too small for credit cards.

We have a Picara finished by Ken Giles, past Mayfly16 master, and into its trials. The hull was built by Vincent Lavender in Massachusetts. There have been other Picaras finished in the past but I never got a sailing report for them...

And the Vole in New York is Garth Battista's of www.breakawaybooks.com, printer of my book and Max's old outboard book and many other fine sports books. Beautiful job! Garth is using a small lug rig for sail, not the sharpie sprit sail shown on the plans, so I will continue to carry the design as a prototype boat. But he has used it extensively on his Bahamas trip towed behind his Cormorant. Sort of like having a compact car towed behind an RV.

And a Deansbox seen in Texas:

Another prototype Twister is well along:

A brave soul has started a Robbsboat. He has a builder's blog at http://tomsrobbsboat.blogspot.com. (OOPS! He found a mistake in the side bevels of bulkhead5, says 20 degrees but should be 10 degrees.) This boat has been sailed and is being tested. He has found the sail area a bit much for his area and is putting in serious reef points.






1dec21, Junk Rig Test, Ladybug

15dec21, Taped Seams , Sportdory

1jan22, Rowboat Setup , Normsboat

15jan22, Sail Area Math , Robote

1feb22, Bulkhead Bevels , Toto

15feb22, Trailering Boats , IMB

1mar22, Small Boat Rudders , AF4Breve

15mar22, Rudder Sink Weights , Scram Pram

1apr22, Sail Rig Spars , RiverRunner

15apr22, Water Ballast, Mayfly16

1may22, AF3 Capsize, Blobster

15may22, Mast Tabernacles, Laguna

1jun22, Underwater Board Shape, QT Skiff

15jun22, Capsize Lessons, Mixer

1jul22, Scarfing Lumber, Vireo14

15jul22, Rigging Lugsails, Frolic2

1aug22, Horsepower, Oracle

15aug22, Sharpie Sprit Sails, Cormorant

1sep22, Measuring Prop Thrust, OliveOyl

15sep22, Leeboard Issues, Philsboat

1oct22, Prismatic Coefficient, Larsboat

15oct22, Figuring Displacement, Jonsboat

1nov22, Lugsail Jiffy Reef, Mayfly14


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