Zulu Sailing Cargo Boat

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 Portions of this article first appeared in Cruising World magazine

Farley Mowat bought the 31 foot fishing schooner in Muddy Hole, Newfoundland by the light of a fish oil lantern. He planked, caulked, glued canvas and replanked the Happy Adventure until her hull was three inches thick, impermeable to any known water, but still she leaked. Mowat kept her afloat by threats, promises and ramming her stern into banks of clay. He tells of motor-sailing Canada's Atlantic coast and islands with a rotating crew of eccentric friends, a loyal wife and a squid-catching dog, helped and harried by the insular natives. - The Boat Who Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat

SAGA OF A JUNGLE SCHOONER

by James Baldwin

Sailor artist, Doug Tyson, walked into the jungle of Guyana with a mad scheme in his head and sailed out a year later on his new hand-crafted 60-foot schooner. When the disillusioned builder abandoned her soon after in Trinidad, the boat then fell into my hands by default no one else wanted her. So not unlike Farley Mowat, I took reluctant possession of this leaky, engineless jungle boat. 

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The schooner Zoraida soon after launching in Guyana

When people learned Id bought the gaudily painted pink and purple wooden schooner, Zoraida, they offered condolences instead of congratulations. Neighboring boats in the anchorage shunned my ugly boat like a ship carrying plague. With her rusty rigging, frayed hemp ropes and threateningly long bowsprit, she did look starkly out of place among the modern fiberglass yachts anchored in Trinidads Carenage Bay. Her persistent leaking, which several times brought her decks nearly awash, made her known around the anchorage as the boat who wouldnt float. Still, something about this ungainly albatross tugged at my heart and I promised myself that she would be rescued to once again fly the seas.

During our first encounter I certainly never guessed her fate would one day be in my hands as I watched smugly, and then horrified, as she was harried into the bay by a pack of towing dinghies and dropped her enormous steel hook anchor close to Atom, my 28-foot Pearson Triton. I dinghied over later to met her skipper. New Englander, Doug Tyson, looked younger than his 36 years - thin, but in remarkably good shape for someone who had just spent a year painstakingly hand-crafting a 60-foot boat on a muddy riverbank in Guyana, fighting insects and recurring fevers, running out of cash, and then sailing her without engine, electrics or plumbing to Trinidad.

I took out a bank loan and went into the jungle of Guyana with just my sea bag and an idea to build my own boat, Doug told me. Im flat broke now and shes up for sale. I silently guessed there was little chance of him selling this odd-looking craft at anything near his $30,000 investment. But for a boatbuilder, what is mere money when you have dreams to realize.

Doug developed his love for wooden boats as a teenager crewing on the Maine Windjammer charter fleet. By 1992 he had earned a degree in small-craft naval architecture and a Bachelor of Art in Sculpture. After apprenticing on several boat design projects, in 1995 he joined a Maine schooner bound for the Caribbean. With a newlyearned 100-ton USCG captains ticket he next signed on as chief mate aboard Mandalay, a 236-foot, three-masted barkentine owned by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. In spare moments, Doug earned extra income selling his marine paintings to the charter guests.

Explaining why he went to Guyana in 1999, Doug said, My years working as a designer and sailing windjammers gave me certain ideas on how to build a practical, seaworthy boat. I decided to build something like the 19th century Scottish Zulu fishing luggers. I went to Guyana specifically for cheap wood and cheap labor.

The Zulu class were characterized by a plumb bow and deeply raked stern. Zulus were fast and powerful, up to 80-foot long with heavy unstayed masts up to 2-foot in diameter at deck level. They were usually rigged as lugsail ketches, which required sails to be dropped and rehoisted on each tack. These cumbersome ships and the giants of men who worked them were replaced at the turn of the century when steam propulsion for drift net fishing took over.

In Guyana Doug chose a building site near Charity Village on the Pomeroon River fifty miles northwest of Georgetown. He found few things available in Guyana other than tropical woods, corrupt officials and biting insects. Undaunted, and assisted by a local carpenter using hand tools and a chainsaw, Doug began his enormous task. Like her Scottish ancestors, this Zulu is massively constructed with traditional materials. There is no plywood, stainless steel, or plastic on the entire boat. Her keel is greenheart, among the densest of hardwoods. The bottom planking is bulletproof 2-inch thick greenheart planks fixed to heavy frames of another hardwood called mora. The deck is planked in a softer wood called silverbali, whose affinity for rot will test the resourcefulness if not the sanity of all future owners.

Once the hull was complete, Doug slung a hammock inside the bare hull and moved aboard. I was frantic to escape the insects, he said. The coast of Guyana is a sewage-filled swamp. The mosquitoes and flies were intolerable, but worst of all were the ferocious biting ants. I burned their nests out with gasoline, but they soon came back.

He selected two korkarale trees a medium density hardwood of exceptional interlocking cross-grain and shaped them into 46-foot long masts tapering from 16-inch diameter bases. To aid sail handling without winches, he rigged her as a staysail schooner, all loose-footed, with gaff mainsail. A 350-square-foot jib sets on the end of that imposing 22-foot bowsprit. Between the masts are a 450-square-foot trapezoidal fisherman sail and the main staysail. The gaff mainsails loose foot sheets to the end of a 10-foot sternsprit. Bowling along under all four sails, Zoraida made an impressive sight, some 92-feet overall.

When ready to launch, Doug enlisted the entire village by hosting a party with free rum. Eight outboard-powered boats, called ballyhoos, pulled with ropes from the river while another gang pushed against the hull with their shoulders. After two days shouting and drinking, they had not budged the boat. Finally, Zoraida was coaxed into the river by a 50-ton come-along attached to trees near shore. It took another four months to get the boat ready for sea. Below decks Doug installed some crude bunks, some floors, and beds for an engine to be installed later. The rest of the cavernous purple hull remained empty aside from 4.5 tons of sand ballast in rice sacks. Lastly, he carved a tree into a 20-foot Indian-style dugout canoe for use as a tippy tender.

Incredible as it sounds, Doug intended to sail the boat alone to Trinidad. He was in a rush to get underway in any case since the local officials were demanding more payments than previously agreed un before they would issue Doug his vessel's documents.

As the ebbing tide carried him downriver past crowds of cheering villagers, a ballyhoo pulled up and two English girls jumped aboard. They had heard about Dougs project and decided at the last minute to take a vacation from their teaching jobs and sail with him to Trinidad. Some might envy Doug and think this was a sailors dream come true, but the awful ironic truth is that these lovely young ladies were not interested in men. Yes, the solo-sailor had taken aboard two lesbians! Day after day, in unspoken frustration, Doug stewed as the ladies ran about naked on deck or clung to each other as they slept. For the record, Doug wanted it known that, It didnt bother me...much.

As Zoraida cleared the river mouth, the tide reversed and they grounded on a sand bar where they sat until a rising tide and the afternoon sea breeze allowed them to wiggle free and tack their way offshore. The next few days they sailed through frequent rain squalls and strong northeast winds. Life on board was primitive. The coconuts and bananas donated by villagers ran out. The lack of a stove didnt matter because they had no food to cook. They steered by handheld compass and kerosene lamps served for lights.

An excerpt from Dougs journal reads: It was thrilling to drive my new schooner so fast through the squalls, alternately being drenched by rain and spray or bathed in intermittent patches of silver moonlight. The boat balanced well under full sail and self-steered with the tiller lashed. After five days at sea, plus a brief stop in Venezuela to repair a broken tiller, they arrived in Trinidad.

When I asked how he justified using our shrinking rain forests to build boats, Doug said, I wouldnt encourage others to do this. But the Guyanese are stripping their forests anyway for wasteful products, so in a way I feel I rescued a few trees for a practical and long-lasting use. Its blood on my hands, but I dont regret it.

Doug stayed a couple weeks in Trinidad searching around the boatyards for discarded treasures from other yachts to fit out Zoraida. I spent my last dollar building this boat, Doug admitted without a hint of regret. My dream was to build my own boat. Having done it, I feel its time to move on to something else. Sadly, Dougs soon to be ex-girlfriend of five years refused to even step aboard Zoraida, seeing his artistic vision as a waste of time and money better spent on a house.

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Atom alongside our adopted schooner complete with pelicans roosting at the end of her enormous bowsprit.

Feeling he had run out of options, Doug left the schooner in Trinidad, hoping friends would look after her until a buyer was found, while he returned to pay off his bank loan working as a sailing school instructor on the Chesapeake Bay. I, too, had to return to the US for the summer. Since I was working there part time as a yacht broker, I offered to try to sell Zoraida. A new 60-foot schooner going for practically any offer was bound to generate some interest among dreamers, who kept me busy answering ridiculous questions like Why wasnt she fastened with bronze instead of galvanized iron and why does she have sand ballast instead of lead? My answers usually were something like, Because she was built in the middle of the bloody South American jungle, just like it says in the ad and what the hell do you expect for $12,000 or best offer? No serious buyers appeared and I learned I was lacking the salesmanship skills to sell this boat or any boat for that matter.

Meanwhile, because Doug used what proved to be non-flexible sealant between the hull planks, Zoraida kept taking on water. It started as a trickle here and there and by August she was ingesting a couple hundred gallons a day. At first, friends on yachts anchored nearby took turns cranking the schooners manual pump and working bucket brigades. It was exhausting work and whenever they relaxed their efforts the boat soon filled with water. She seemed downright suicidal in her determined quest to settle on the bottom. One by one, eventually all our volunteers disappeared.

At this point I phoned around until I found a man who worked at the local yacht club who agreed to keep her afloat (at three times normal Trinidad labor rates because he knew our desperation!) while I wasted time negotiating with those unrealistic potential buyers. By late September a crisis developed when my hired man quit just as a tropical storm was bearing down on Trinidad. When faced with this news, Doug emailed and said we should donate the boat to the Catholic Church (What the heck would they do with her?) or, gulp, let her go under.

I was faced with the difficult choice of letting this neglected new boat sink or to fly back to Trinidad immediately to take over her rescue. In my first visible sign of madness I convinced myself I could only justify my continued expenses and time by buying the boat. For a few hundred dollars down and a promise to give him 30% of any future profits when the boat was sold, Doug was thrilled to send me a bill of sale and some incomplete water-stained Guyanese registration. It turns out the corrupt Guyanese officials had refused to finish the registration process due to a lack of gifts. I had a hell of a time getting her registered properly as a US vessel, but that was essential if she was ever to be resold.

Part of my fantasy told me I would work a few weeks to get her seaworthy and use her as a cargo boat trading in the Caribbean isles until able to resell her. I was in too deep to back out now. My fianc said I was mad to buy it, but married me despite my poor judgment and even helped with the refit. I had quit my ill-fated new career as a yacht broker after selling exactly one boat to myself. Actually, I found I didnt have the skills and patience of a salesman and had spent most of my time at the brokerage doing surveys and listings. I was glad to get back to tropic waters and away from bickering with buyers and sellers.

I arrived in Trinidad on October 1st 2000, one day after Tropical Storm Joyce had passed near the island dumping heavy rains. The boat had dragged her anchors and was quite near the shore and barely afloat. I stepped below decks into waist-deep water. Strange smells assaulted my nose: saltwater-saturated wood, coils of rotting hemp, moldy decks sprouting mushrooms. Cans of tar and paint had rusted through and spilled their noxious contents into the murky waters that swirled around me as the boat rolled slowly. It was raining and the water poured through the decks like a sieve. I could have cried, but there was too much else to do.

To get the leaks under control I installed a couple of solar panels, a large bank of batteries, and a high capacity bilge pump. Then I repacked 120 disintegrating bags of wet sand ballast and shifted them into the bows so that I could clean and inspect the bilges. As a temporary measure, I dived several times under the hull and packed handfuls of sawdust into the gaps between planks, which swelled up and slowed the leaks somewhat.

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Jeff and Mei paying seams with Trinidad tar

These were discouraging days. When my back gave out while lifting ballast, the project seemed overwhelming. The boat - which I renamed Zulu - needed everything from plumbing, to electrics, to accommodations, to complete recaulking. I had always admired other peoples wooden boats; now I was beginning to hate them. Much of my time was spent unproductively scrounging around the yards as Doug had done, looking for cheap second hand boat gear. I was still getting inquiries, but the only firm offer was from a French sailor who wanted to take the boat and maybe pay me something later - a very tempting offer at the time.

From this low point things soon started to look up. Jeff Brooks, a friend with considerable wooden boatbuilding expertise, arrived in Trinidad on his 28-foot Wharram catamaran and generously offered his help. For Jeff no problem was insurmountable and he enthusiastically performed miracles with rope and wood. Together we planned to put Zulu into sailing condition as quickly and cheaply as possible and load a cargo of Trinidad goods to trade up island or perhaps take some backpacker tourists around the islands.

Two weeks later our plans changed dramatically when two French-Canadian brothers, Jean and Roch, came to look Zulu over and announced they would buy her on the spot. Even better, they agreed to hire Jeff and I to continue the refit and offered to let us sail her to Canada with them when we finished. The new owners had the funds to give her a proper overhaul and I was relieved (more like dumbfounded and in shocked hysteria) to think her future was now secure and out of my hands. Using a combination of sail and three dinghies, we maneuvered out of the crowded anchorage at sunrise and sailed four miles to the boat yard where we backed her into the haulout slip. When the other sailors in the anchorage awoke they probably assumed Zulu had finally been allowed to sink as theyd all predicted she would.

We removed the sand ballast for the final time and were able to make a thorough inspection of the hull. Almost all of the cotton caulking was rotten and much of the sealant on top of it had fallen out. Many deck planks were spongy where rainwater ran into seams left open when the caulking fell out.

Jeff set about splicing and replacing the deck planks and rebuilding the seven heavy deck hatches with Trinidad-grown teak over plywood. For nearly two months we had a gang of up to ten people working on the boat. A friend of Jean and Roch, named Claude, arrived from Montreal to help install a new diesel engine that cost more than the entire boat. Then Claude and Jean spent a blistering hot week casting 3 tons of lead printing dies into ingots, which I bolted onto the bilge frames. I worked another two weeks shoulder to shoulder with Keith, a skilled Madeiran shipwright nicknamed Santa, who taught me the traditional art of caulking a hull. We hammered in over a kilometer of cotton and then another kilometer of oakum prepared by an Indian girl who shredded and cleaned hemp fibers for three weeks straight. We then payed the seams with a mixture of cement powder and tar from Trinidads ancient open tar pits. I went to bed each night with aching blistered hands and the clonk-clonk rhythm of the caulking mallets echoing in my ears.

Roch kept showing up at the boat with bags of expensive plastic and stainless steel yacht gear, then Jeff and I would remind him that this was a traditional working boat and she should look like one. Jean painted over the shocking pink topsides with dark green, which we all agreed was a decided improvement. Jeff lopped five feet off that tremendous bowsprit and replaced all the chain plates. By launch day Zulu had been transformed into a proper sailing boat. I was looking forward to sailing her, but unfortunately my wife and I had committed to deliver a yacht from Venezuela to Brazil that summer.

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The schooners new owners, Roch and Jean, just before sailing to Canada. May 2001

In May, Jean, Roch, and Claude took Zulu up to Martinique where Jeff met up with them in his catamaran. Jeff later told me, When I found them they were busy cutting a great slab off the rudder and had just filled the bilges with 3 tons of cement because shes too unstable! Turns out they motored from Trinidad without even a steadying sail, and with piles of wood, fuel, and junk as deck cargo! They fractured one beam in the process, but a local carpenter had already sistered most of them when I arrived. I ended up working for a couple weeks on the rigging and some other jobs. Sadly, Claude buggered up his knees and had to fly back to Canada.

They asked if Id sail Zulu up to Nova Scotia, and with some misgivings, I agreed. It turned out an excellent sail, sixteen days, nice winds and no storms. It was gratifying to see my rigging perform so well. The boat was surprisingly fast even in light winds and we easily covered 170 miles per day. Must be because of her narrow 14-foot beam, as the sail area is relatively small. Shes surprisingly easy to handle for a 60-footer without any winches. I converted the lug main into gaff with 4:1 tackle on the peak and throat and 2:1 lizards for the jib and main staysail sheets. I used a handy billy on the sheets in strong winds (still no winches). The deck leaked a bit along the margin boards, but the hull stayed pretty tight.

On arrival in Nova Scotia, fanatical customs agents pulled the boat apart looking for drugs and finally impounded her for punitive taxes under the bogus charge of misrepresenting the dutiable value. The last I heard, Zulu was still impounded in Lunenberg while the owners wrangle with idiotic customs bureaucrats. Once she is free, Jean and Roch said they plan to cruise the St. Lawrence River and then perhaps make a crossing to Europe. After so much effort by so many, I hope Zulu will have a long and adventuresome sailing life ahead of her.

(As a footnote, I sent Doug Tyson 30% of the profits from the sale of the boat as we'd agreed on and which he gladly accepted, only to have him complain later that I should have given more. This experience taught me to steer clear of boat rescue projects in general and partnerships in particular. Whenever my eye wanders towards some broken-down boatyard relict, my practical-minded wife reminds me, No more wooden boats. "Yes," I say, but... you never know.)

Update 2008: Zulu, now apparently renamed Lela Zoraida, is in a boat yard in Cape Breton. The yard has seized her for non-payment of yard bills after her 4th owner was put in prison for smuggling on another vessel. The ill-fated Zulu schooner awaits another resurection....