Island native Simon Foster is re-rigging his modern sailboat with traditional Chinese junk rigging for his fifth ocean crossing to home in South Wales
© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
Native Islander Simon Foster has spent the past two summers switching his Alberg 37 sailboat to a traditional Chinese junk rig, which he will give its first test run when he sails for home in South Wales around the end of the month.
By Mary MacKay
In the Charlottetown harbour lately, there has been a sail sight normally seen on seas on the other side of the world.
More than a few curious glances have been cast in the direction of Simon Foster’s Alberg 37 — a modern sailboat that he has re-rigged with his own specially designed ship masts and sails, traditionally found on what is known as a Chinese junk ship.
“Some people come down and keep an eye on things and are interested,” says this trans-Atlantic sailor, who has called South Wales in the United Kingdom his home port of call for the past 15 years.
Although he grew up on Prince Edward Island, it wasn’t until he lived on Vancouver Island in the late 1980s that he answered the call of the sea and learned to sail.
“I went back to university in Victoria, and at that particular time the best option for cheap accommodation, which all students vie for, was to buy an old boat, live in the harbour and fix it up,” he says.
“So I learned how to fix it up and sail it. So it was just partly by chance, I suppose.”
Foster’s latest project is not his first go at junk ship rigging.
His first conversion was an 18-foot bay sailer, for which he used existing books on the junk ship subject as a guide, but tweaked things to his own liking.
“I was really impressed by the way it sailed and the way it handled, the ease of it — the ease to create, to make basically and cheap in that respect. So I was kind of hooked on it from there,” he says.
“I think I rigged the entire 18-foot boat that I had just salvaged and I didn’t have tons of money to spend on fancy rigging and all that, so I think I probably rigged the whole thing for a couple hundred dollars.”
When Foster purchased his Alberg 37 boat in 2006, it was rigged as a yawl.
But after his third Atlantic crossing — he has made four to date — he removed the missen mast and sailed her mainly as a sloop, not missing it in the slightest during the last 6,000 miles he has sailed.
Last year he decided to remove the modern rigging entirely and install a junk rig that he designed especially for the Alberg 37’s hull.
“I always do everything myself because I like it done right,” grins Foster, who has been sharing the details of his project on his blog, alberg37junk. wordpress.com.
“When you’re out there in the middle of the ocean you’ve got to have confidence in yourself and what you do. If you have other people do it for you and it breaks down, you’re out of luck. Your ship has just evaporated. So you want to have confidence in the rig and know every bit of it yourself.”
One of the ideal aspects of a junk rig for Foster is that everything can be repaired at sea, but he admits it will not break any trans-Atlantic crossing records.
“I’m more concerned about making it to the other side than making it ahead of anyone else,” he laughs.
“The rig really appeals to me because in some respects I’m kind of a coward. I don’t like to take chances. I like a dependable boat. It’s the perfect rigs for sailing cowards.”
Instead of using fibreglass composite poles as masts, which was totally cost prohibitive, he used two red pine poles from northern New York State that he purchased in Fredericton. N.B.
Foster shaped them to fit and hired a crane to install them.
“The main one finished is 44 feet, but it goes right to the bottom of the boat. Eight feet of the mast is in the boat and that’s unlike many of the boats here (at the marina). It has no wires holding it up. It’s like a huge cantilever that sticks right into the boat; that’s why the mast is so much thicker and larger,” he says.
Foster originally planned to be finished and sailing off to Europe last year, but it took so long to get the masts made and get them in place on the boat that he had to change plans.
He left the boat on P.E.I. for the winter and returned in May to complete his junk rig mission.
He custom cut and sewed his Chinese junk-style sails from Dacron material from a large sail supply company in Illinois.
The advantage of this modern material is that it doesn’t rot, but it does deteriorate from sun exposure over time.
The masts and sails are done, so now it’s just a matter of making sure the deck hardware is working to satisfaction.
“It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle,” says Foster, who is planning to start his ocean crossing somewhere around the end of July.
“When I go back, I’ll be taking the shortest route between the north and south Atlantic that’s between St. John’s and Ireland and that’s a little under 1,800 miles. The last time it took me 17 days,” he says.
Plans are already afoot for when Foster arrives in Ireland after his trans-Atlantic sail with his newly rigged boat.
“Yeah, I’ll have a Guinness.”