This article first appeared in Blue Water Sailing Magazine

Frances 26 Project

 Outfitting a classic small cruiser for offshore sailing

By James Baldwin


La Luz trying out her new sails

Knowing exactly what you want when searching for a sailboat is not easy with so many compromises to consider. Fortunately, when Doug Bell went hunting for the perfect cruising boat in 2008 he already had experience sailing his John Letcher designed Aleutka 26 between California and Panama several years earlier. He knew that his ideal boat is the smallest possible boat that provides basic comfort for his minimalist cruising style, is seaworthy enough for an extended voyage, requires a minimum of maintenance, and is esthetically a striking classic design.

Doug found his near-perfect boat in a Maine boatyard, a Morris Frances 26 cutter, named La Luz, designed by Chuck Paine and built by Morris Yachts in 1977. About 42 boats were built in fiberglass with glass-covered plywood decks in the 1970s and 80s, most of which were the popular cabin trunk version. This particular boat, originally named Karma, has a raised central deck low enough to give the appearance of a flush deck in profile. In her younger days she made at least a couple Atlantic voyages, but had been laid up in storage in recent years.

As set up she was a peculiar mix of daysailer and offshore cruiser. Her already small owner-finished interior felt more cramped by a full bulkhead amidships with a small crawl-through opening leading to a chain locker forward of the mast and open storage area forward of that. La Luz had an unreasonably heavy ancient windvane self-steering gear, but no engine, toilet, lifelines or pulpits, and less than minimal plumbing and electrics for today's minimalist cruiser.

Doug planned an extensive refurbishment and upgrade of the boat's equipment for offshore voyaging. After consulting with me online, he decided to truck the boat here to Brunswick, Georgia where we worked together for three months getting boat and crew fit for sea.

The Frances design, with low, flush deck and canoe transom with outboard hung rudder, provided extra challenges to transform her into a capable and comfortable passage maker. Not only was fitting an outboard motor on a narrow canoe transom not a good option, it also proved difficult to fit a windvane self-steering gear and solar panel and lifelines on a boat without a pushpit and with a tiller that sweeps across the entire aft end of the boat. Doug toyed with the idea of keeping her engineless, but eventually overcame his instinctual dislike of inboard engines and had the yard install a new lightweight 10 HP two-cylinder Nanni Diesel.

Project List 

The list of projects was long and as inevitably happens, once we began our work, the list got longer before it got shorter. While the yard was installing the diesel and basic 12 volt electrical system, Doug had them open up the interior by cutting back the main bulkhead to give the feel of a bigger boat.

We debated the pros and cons of the original hank-on yankee and staysail versus a furling genoa. The yankee and staysail combination appeals to many, but two jibs are less efficient than a single genoa and the high-cut clew of a yankee and the short foot of a staysail make it awkward to rig a whisker pole for downwind. To eliminate those midnight squall foredeck heroics, we installed a Harken furler to fly the genoa near the end of the 2-foot bowsprit. This 6.77 oz genoa is equivalent to a 135% rating though it measures less than that overlap when tacked on the end of the bowsprit. It can easily be used downwind either open or partly furled with an adjustable line-control whisker pole. A new hank-on staysail and 10 oz storm jib were added for use in heavier weather when the genoa is furled or stowed.


La Luz using the Code Zero sail.


New anchor windlass and furling genoa.

For light air we added a modern Mack Sails Code Zero, which is like a gennaker with a built-in rope luff and integral continuous line furler. Since the furling jib is tacked at the cranse iron on the end of the bowsprit, we set up the Code Zero to fly inside the furler. It can be left hoisted and furled ready to deploy when needed or stored in its bag below deck. La Luz also received a new 7.6 oz mainsail with conventional battens and three sets of reef points and a 10 oz storm trysail about 30% smaller than the main's third reef.

Many sailmakers suggest using a mainsail with only two reef points and a large storm trysail equivalent in size to a third reef. Their logic is that the main can be built less heavy and not strained by heavy winds with a third reef when the trysail could be up. The problem with that, especially on a small shorthanded boat, is that a large trysail is better suited to gale force conditions and can overpower a boat in true storm force winds. A third reef is easier and safer to set singlehanded than a large trysail when a threatening squall is approaching, and if you do get hit with a severe storm you have an even smaller, more manageable storm trysail to use.

While replacing the aged standing and running rigging, we noticed corrosion around the sets of welded double chainplates held with five suspiciously tiny -inch bolts. I fabricated and installed all new single chainplates held with four 3/8-inch bolts and standard caps on the fiberglass-covered plywood deck. The bobstay hull fitting was likewise replaced with something heavier and the stretchy bowsprit footropes got replaced with wire whisker stays to handle the loads from the roller-furling jib. Longer jib sheet tracks were added at this point as well.

While Doug plugged away at the dozens of jobs on his list, I tackled the vexing problem of how to install his new Windpilot self-steering gear, solar panel, lifelines and pushpit to the narrow canoe transom with outboard rudder. Besides a lack of space at the aft end of the boat, one issue was the tiller swung across the entire cockpit and bulwarks with the backstay offset on a bracket to starboard. To solve this we fabricated a lightweight stainless tubing windvane bracket to bolt in four points to the hull only. The new stern rail, or pushpit was built incorporating a vertical tube for the swiveling solar panel mount and bolted entirely on top of the bulwarks for maximum tiller clearance. Four lifeline stanchions were added with the forward ends of the lifelines angling down to the bulwarks near the bow and aft ends connected to the pushpit.

Another curiosity was the dysfunctional manual anchor windlass mounted off-center way aft on the sunken foredeck. This was intended to keep anchor chain weight off the bow and improve sailing performance. We decided to convert this existing chain locker to hold a flexible water tank after lining its sides and bottom with closed cell campers sleeping mat foam. The new Lofrans manual anchor windlass and chain locker is now three feet further forward, but the 150 feet of 5/16 anchor chain with nylon extension is still far enough aft to keep excess weight out of the bow.


Doug Bell with friend Frank Pearson aboard La Luz.


The galley is small but functional.

More Jobs Below Deck

Before this project, I didnt fully realize how hard it is on your head and back to make extensive modifications below deck on a boat without standing headroom. Besides the chain locker, water tank, chain plates and all the other thru-deck fittings requiring long hours bent over double below deck, another time-consuming job was to replace the deadlights built into the fiberglass hull. When heeled sharply, the leeward side polycarbonate deadlights were low enough to make an aquarium-like view of the sea. Because they were mounted from the inside and susceptible to leaking, I rebuilt the frames thicker with wider flanges for maximum surface area for sealant and fasteners to spread the load.

Doug was inclined to keep the boat unencumbered with the space-wasting plumbing, valves and holding tank of a marine toilet. Neither of us was sure how his girlfriend, planning to join him later in the Bahamas, would appreciate the simplicity of a toilet bucket. The best we could come up with was to build a cabinet to hold a bucket and molded plastic toilet seat. Even if the bucket toilet arrangement does not work out, the cabinet top can still serve as a convenient countertop between the forward ends of the two salon bunks.

In Doug's view, a watermaker was in the same category as the scorned marine toilet, so we supplemented his water carrying capacity by adding a thru-deck drain and hose to direct rainwater from the sunken foredeck into a bucket or water can. Though not always clean enough for drinking off the deck, a good rain shower at anchor or when sailing on a calm sea can provide water for washing clothes and filling solar shower bags.


The Morris Frances, La Luz, as she arrived in Brunswick, GA for final fitting out.


New custom-made cockpit locker hatch.


Fitting the new chainplates at right.


New chainplates and deadlights with mahogany trim.


The countertop doubles as a toilet locker cover.


Toilet seat on a bucket.

The Shakedown Trip

During fitting out, we sailed La Luz several times around St. Simons Sound to test the new windvane and sails and adjust the rig, but our first real shakedown cruise was a nearly 400-mile nonstop passage to the Abacos in the Bahamas. Doug and I departed St. Simons Inlet on an ebb tide and close-hauled to the southeast with a moderate south wind. Once clear of the land I moved the 22 lb Delta anchor off the bowsprit and stowed it in the cockpit locker to improve the boats behavior when beating.

The windvane tracked perfectly under full main and genoa as we watched a massive thunderstorm grow over the heated land and spread out to sea. Our friends ashore thought we got pasted as well, but we remained under a clear patch of starry sky all night. Doug volunteered for the midnight watch and I crawled into the leeward bunk, pulling up the lee-cloth behind me. This left Doug with the windward apprentice berth as he called it. After all, I'm some 10 years older than him and reasoned I deserve a little more comfort.

At morning twilight, I watched Venus glow in the east above another lightning-filled thunderstorm, eerily backlit by the sunrise. By luck we avoided this storm as well and sailed all day into variable winds from south to west as we eased our way into a stationary weather trough. I mark our position on the chart at noon nearly 100 miles in the first 24 hours and send a Spot satellite position report to be forwarded to friends and family by email.

Though I twice daily plotted our position on the paper chart, we often referred to the Garmin 440 chartplotter mounted on a swing out bracket in the companionway. The four-inch screen proved a good compromise for low power draw and was convenient to note the navigation data at a glance. I had to force myself not to stare at the mesmerizing data Abaco waypoint now bearing 148 degrees at 360 miles and counting down.

The 43-watt solar panel and single bank of two 90-amp hour AGM batteries provided ample power for our modest needs (including chartplotter, all LED lighting, VHF, and Sony SSB receiver) indefinitely in normal sunny weather without running the engine. Though the boat has a 1000-watt inverter to run power tools and a smaller inverter for the notebook PC, these don't get much use on passage. Neither does La Luz have any high power appliances such as radar and refrigeration or even a tillerpilot.

As the lightening wind frees up we furl the genoa, hoist and unfurl the Code Zero. This sail gives us an extra knot or more of speed at up to about 55 degrees off the apparent wind. Its ease of deployment and furling and ability to stay hoisted and furled, ready to use, seemed more practical for short-handed cruising than an asymmetric spinnaker in a sock.

We turned more east and crossed the Gulf Stream without incident. Just after Doug finished a bucket shower on the foredeck, the wind backed and increased, giving him a second shower of salt spray as he pulled down the furled Code Zero and stuffed it in the bag for the night. With about 20 knots on the nose, we tucked in a reef on the main and put a few rolls in the genoa. La Luz heeled until the rail was nearly awash and I was relieved the now submerged deadlights remained leak free. The Frances generous 51 percent ballast ratio meant she strongly resisted heeling any further. I was surprised she threw less water into the cockpit than I expected, even when pressed with enough sail to drive her at 5-6 knots to windward. The helm remained light and perfectly balanced under windvane or hand steering. The low profile dodger was too small to block much spray, but it did a good job of keeping the companionway dry.

Doug used the single burner kerosene stove to prepare a spaghetti dinner that we scoffed down enthusiastically. Since the galley is located next to the companionway there is at least standing headroom for using the sink and stove with the sliding hatch pulled forward. We had removed the original galley saltwater hand pump and replaced it with the more useable freshwater foot pump. From my perspective, a saltwater galley pump on a low 26-footer is an unneeded extravagance. Opposite the galley is a removable table that adds counter space for preparing and eating meals and is useful for chart work or a notebook PC table. Aside from a shallow dish locker and drawers in the galley and two bookshelves, the rest of the interior is without cabinets or lockers above bunk level. A narrow shelf outboard the salon bunks holds some personal items behind a strapped curtain. Other gear is stowed in duffel bags forward of the mast, where there is plenty of storage space since there is no v-berth. The rest of the gear is shoved in the quarterberth or opposite it in the single cockpit locker.

With La Luz bucking into a gusty south wind, Doug spent the midnight watch reefing and unreefing sails, drenched in spray and noisily throwing up that spaghetti dinner he ate with such gusto a few hours previously. When I relieved him for the dawn watch, he commented, Last night I was so miserable you could have bought this boat for two dollars.

Missed my chance then? I asked.

That's right, he said. I'm feeling a lot better now. My previous sailing trips were mostly downwind and this beating is a lot more brutal. But I've got my sea legs now.

The beat continued and we made good progress until the following morning. A southwest squall caught me in the middle of coffee and cold oatmeal, the press of sails heeling us over until Doug was hanging from his lee cloth and water sloshed into the cockpit. I guessed the winds were gusting to about 40 knots as I tucked in the third reef and rolled up 75 percent of the jib. Now was a good time to hoist the storm jib, but I let her ride like this for a couple hours, close-reaching into a rising sea and hard driving rain, thrilled at her ability to stand up to the wind and throttle forward at six knots. This was way better performance than I expected from a boat of this size, which I attributed to the designer's skill at blending a tall rig to a low windage hull, moderate draft with ample ballast and fine entry, and a good set of reefing sails. Perhaps having her furling genoa on the end of the short bowsprit contributed to her easy helm balance and surprising speed in all wind conditions.

With his appetite back to normal, Doug created and served up a dinner of chunks of sugar coated beef jerky floating in a soup of chemical flavored ramen instant noodles. Spoiled as I was by years of my wife's excellent cooking, I nearly spewed after the first spoonful. Not wanting to hurt my host's feelings, I somehow finished it off and even kept it down.

We arrived in Marsh Harbor, Abacos in just under four days, having averaged 104 miles per day to windward. Remarkably, all but the last twenty-five miles were on the starboard tack. The alternate route of coastal sailing to central Florida and then east to Bahamas in this case would have been exhausting and taken much longer, short tacking against the southerly winds between the coast and the Gulf Stream. My general strategy for this route if the wind is south is to go directly southeast, diverting temporarily to the east to cross the Gulf Stream. If the wind is east, I'd go south along the coast and then wait for a weather window in port in central Florida to head east across the Gulf Stream.


La Luz owner, Doug Bell, at the helm running wing on wing.


A test sail in St. Simons Sound.


The narrow stern has just enough space to accomodate the windvane, solar panel and pushpit.


The owner aboard la Luz after arrival in Marsh Harbour, Abacos.

Final Thoughts

After four days offshore I congratulated myself on not banging my head even once on the cabin's low deck beams. Awakening the next morning after a long sound sleep in port, forgetting for the moment I was not on my own boat with standing headroom, I stood straight up and gave my skull a good crack on the deck beam. The beauty of a flush-deck comes with a price.

Many of La Luz's deck house version sisterships were fitted out as pocket cruising yachts, and the flush-deck models I suspect are mostly used as daysailers. From the beginning of this project we were always conscious of the Frances quality design and construction as well as her workboat pedigree. We carefully weighed our choices when making modifications and adding equipment and feel we stayed true to her designed purpose: an elegant, well-mannered little boat capable of taking her crew across any ocean.

When looking for a boat to use as a tool to explore the world under sail, it's easy to get sidetracked in a quest for more safety and comfort or a higher level of yacht-like finish. Nothing wrong with that provided that is your aim. More finishing touches can be done over time, but Doug chose to sail now rather than later. As I gathered my gear to catch a flight home, Doug expressed his satisfaction with his choice of boat and looked forward to cruising the Bahamas and further voyages ahead. I was grateful to have a small part in their journey. Doug and La Luz have since sailed on to Panama and crossed the canal to the Pacific.

Update - Dec 2012: We heard from Doug in 2012 as he and Zuleika sailed La Luz across the South Pacific. They made numerous stops in the islands and by November were in Tonga considering their options for where to spend the cyclone season.

Running down the Southest Trades
La Luz at anchor in French Polynesia

Doug reports: "We took the high line across from Bora Bora to Suvarov, then to American Samoa. La Luz continued her string of very fast passages with mostly wing and wing sailing in 20 knots of wind. She likes two reefs, and quite a bit of jib rolled in...Also have found that she does well running with 3 reefs and the staysail sheeted in tight with wind over 25 knots (which has been the case more often than I would have expected). The passage from American Samoa was rough and fast, with 25 knots plus, dead on the beam. We did two days in a row over 130 miles sailing with three reefs and a bit of headsail."

In November Doug and Zuleika decided to sail for New Zealand. After living aboard for most of this year while making their way across the South Pacific, Doug had some modifications in mind to make the tight interior of La Luz more functional and that would be easier to accomplish in NZ than if they remained in Tonga or Fiji for the cyclone season.

Before they departed Tonga there was a storm along their intended route that wreaked havoc on boats that had just left Tonga for NZ. Doug reported: "A Beneteau 39 was rolled over in sub-tropical low that deepened suddenly south of Minerva. They had to be rescued by NZ Navy since their boat was badly damaged. He hurt his back in the roll-over and was unable to jury rig anything. Our friend on Adventure Bound was in the area, reporting 50 knots, and mast high breaking seas. He managed to run offf under bare poles and only lost his windvane and wind generator."

Despite the potential for rough weather along that route, Doug decided they were ready to go and departed Tonga in mid-November. "As for avoiding a sub-tropical low forming on top of the route," Doug said, "it seems that it comes down more to luck than anything else. The weather oracles say there are 5 to 6 bombs a year, mostly in May/June. So coming back north can be ultimately riskier."

In December we heard again from Doug in NZ, "It was nice to finally get into port on this one, mainly because of the cold at night beating into the southerly wind during the last 50 miles. We started out in 20 knot trades going well. The plan was to not stop at Minerva and use as much of the trades as possible to get south fast. There had already been two significant tropical lows, which while not technically tropical cyclones, they quickly turn into mid-latitude depressions as they move off to the southeast. We wanted to avoid this.

"As we reached the latitude of Minerva, on wx fax we saw a depression forming in the south Tasman, which would be over NZ in 5 days or so, dragging a significant front well to the north. So we turned toward Minerva and waited a few days thinking we could time it to take the front north of 30 degrees S. We got underway with this in mind, only to discover over the next few days that the system had slowed. We ended up taking the front at about 32.5 S . . . It wasn't all that bad. During the NW wind we reached along under staysail alone, but ended up hove to for about 24 hours as the wind went W, increasing. I used bungy cord to lash the tiller down to leeward, and had the main triple-reefed. It was blowing 35, so not so bad, but the seas where gigantic. We hove to after a few massive waves topled over us, filled the cockpit, broke the dodger, and nearly cost us the cockpit grate.

"I briefly thought about deploying the drogue due to the seas, but thought that maybe there was not enough wind, especially in the troughs, to keep us stern-to. As the wind went SW, we manged to get the storm jib up, and get under way. Some of the squalls that came with the freezing new winds were amazing to see - crazy clouds, slate grey plates right down on the surface almost, and icy but short squalls up in the 40 knot range. But seas getting more orderly and all from one direction, more or less.

"Over the next few days, winds dropped to the low 20's, and seas diminshed. By the time we were off of North Cape, winds had gone S, right on the nose for the last 35 eternal miles. And colder still! When the sun came up yesterday morning, it felt like a warm blessing. The mission today is to buy more blankets. Although summer is arriving here in NZ, it seems so cold to us after years of living in the tropics."

La Luz reefed down in the South Pacific.


Further Frances Info:

More on the Frances design at:

Doug Bell's Frances La Luz is pictured at the bottom of the page at the following link when she was known as Karma: