Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What is a Sharpie?

A 28-foot Egret Sharpie pulled right up to a beach

I was talking with another Wharram enthusiast friend of mine the other day on the phone and mentioned something about Reuel Parker and his sharpie designs, expecting that anyone interested in sailing would be familiar with them. But, even more so than multihulls, the sharpie as a unique type of sailing vessel that evolved to suit a particular need in a specific locale is not widely written about in modern sailing literature. The sharpie is not an all-around, general purpose type of craft, and those who sail and build them do so because they understand their unique capabilities and limitations and find them ideal for their purpose.

For much of the kind of cruising I like to do, in the off-the-beaten track areas of the Gulf of Mexico where there are many low-lying islands and shallow water bays, the sharpie would be ideal for my needs too, so I've have spent many hours studying sharpie designs and reading anything available that I could find about them. Coming from a sea kayaking background, having traveled thousands of miles of coastline in such a simple, lightweight craft in which water depths can generally be disregarded, it was natural that I was drawn to the sharpie type when my interest turned to sailboats. No sailboat can go everywhere a 17-foot kayak can go, but the sharpie is one type that can navigate extreme shoal water and be safely beached, even in the larger designs.

Many of these designs are so appealing and so simple and inexpensive to build that if my needs for a boat were simply to cruise the local waters of the Gulf coast and the Florida Keys, I would be building one today. The only limitation of the sharpie type is in long, bluewater passages, as they must be quite large to be safe for this kind of sailing. But according to those who have done it, even a large sharpie can be built in a fraction of the time and for much less money than any other wooden boat of the same size. The reason for this is in the design. Sharpies were developed in the mid-19th century as no-nonsense working vessels built by the end-users, who did not have the refined boatbuilding skills or the time to build complex, round bottomed hulls. The sharpie as a type is characterized by the flat bottom, and it is this flat bottom that allows extreme shallow draft and great load carrying ability - not to mention easy construction out of common building materials. This made them perfect for the needs of the east coast oyster industry before sails were replaced by the internal combustion engine.

Sharpies also proved to be fast and handy under sail, making them even better suited for their tasks as workboats, and also leading to their adaptation as cruising and racing yachts. The type was made famous in time by designers like Howard L. Chapelle and examples such as Commodore Ralph Munroe's Egret, a 28-foot double ender designed specifically for the shallow inlets of south Florida and the rough Gulf Stream.

At first glance, one would think that the flat-bottomed hull would be totally unsuitable for rough water, and it's true that pounding can occur, especially while motoring on modern sharpies. But under press of sail, when the hull is heeled well over, the hard chine between hull bottom and topsides presents a nice V-shape to the waves. This hard chine aides in preventing leeway and most designs have retractable centerboards or leeboards for better windward performance where the water is deep enough. The only real limitation for offshore use is the fact that most designs are not self-righting like deep-keeled monohulls, due to having a higher center of gravity with their ballast inside. This is the trade-off for shallow draft, but for most coastal and short distance island-hopping where weather windows can be taken advantage of, it is not an issue.

Quite a few modern designers offer their renditions of the sharpie type for those who want to build, but one designer who stands out in his knowledge of these boats is Reuel B. Parker, who literally wrote the book on them:

"FAST, SEAWORTHY, ECONOMICAL, STABLE, EASY TO BUILD, floats on a heavy dew..." These are the sharpie superlatives from the back cover of Reuel B. Parker's book about the history, design, theory and construction methods for a unique type of American sailing vessel:

The Sharpie Book is a complete overview of the type and begins with the history and evolution of sharpies and details several of the more famous examples and how they were used. This is followed by a description of the traditional methods of construction used to build working sharpies for those inclined to build one the old way. But the heart of the book focuses on the methods and materials of modern sharpie construction, and this is one book that has enough detail, including lines and offsets, to build the featured boats without the need for additional plans. Parker even includes instructions on sailing and handling the boats, as well as long term maintenance. The models offered in the design pages range from a simple 14-foot Flatiron Skiff to such cruising designs as the 36-foot San Juan Double-ended Sharpie and the 38-foot Nonpareil Sharpie Yacht.

Construction details for 28-Egret Sharpie from The Sharpie Book

A 28-foot Egret Sharpie floating in mere inches of water

Some day I hope I'll have an opportunity to build one of these sharpie designs, either for a customer or to sail myself. There's a lot of appeal in the simplicity of a 25-30-foot sharpie that can float in less than a foot of water and be trailered anywhere in the country for exploring new cruising areas. While the Tiki 26 catamaran I'm building is lightweight, shallow draft, and can be trailered, getting it from trailer to water or vice versa will likely be a half day ordeal. With a sharpie like the Egret above, you just step the two unstayed masts and back it down the ramp like launching a runabout. Reading The Sharpie Book and looking a road atlas with all the places reachable by trailerable sailboat will definitely get you to dreaming.

For more on Reuel B. Parker's designs, visit his website:


  1. Hi Scott. Most 'modern' medium and large sharpie designs are infact self-righting.
    The Sqare Boats page are a good resouce:

    I was considering building Bolgers Martha Jane (But we ended up buying an Tiki21)
    Wery nice sharpie..:

  2. Thanks for you comment, Gunnar. Yes,you're right about some of the modern sharpies having self-righting ability,it's just that many of the traditional ones do not. Bruce Kirby's Norwalk Islands Sharpies are self-righting as well, as are some of Reuel Parker's larger, modernized and modified designs. Parker himself says that he would sail a well-built and appropriately-modified sharpie around the world. I just met him last week, by the way, and will be posting about that soon.

  3. Sounds interesting!
    Your very! nice Blogg have just made me spend another half day on the web, dreaming around, about sharpies... :)

    What I should do, is making new kick-up rudders for our Tiki!

  4. I'm the proud owner of the sharpie depicted in the photos on your post, though I'm not the builder. She's a beautiful boat, and she's just found a new home on Lake Erie's Sandusky Bay, where her shallow draft is perfect for shallow waters.

  5. Thanks for writing. Yes, she is a beautiful boat, and I'm sure you'll enjoy owning her. Do you any information about how she was built? Is she the Parker version of the Egret design, or perhaps the one offered by Wooden Boat magazine?

  6. Hi, Scott! I'm in college and I was given the assignment of creating an extensive definition of a sharpie. Sadly, I have NO boating knowledge! Your explanation of a sharpie is very helpful, but I was wondering something. You said that people who build and sail sharpies do so because they have specific purposes. Other than using them for shallow water navigation, what other purposes would a sharpie be used to help achieve?

  7. Kevin,

    The ability to carry heavy loads is one advantiage. For a more extensive explanation, I suggest you take a look at Reuel Parker's "The Sharpie Book."


  8. Hi Scott,
    After reading your article about sharpies, I started thinking how deep and heavy a sharpie's centerboard would need to be to get self-rightingness to a sharpie that doesn't have much of that ability.Some European big sailing yacht with heavy swing keel are completely beachable, this is not very popular in commercial sailboats here in america.


  9. Hi Scott
    I have just gotten a 24' Sharpie and absolutly love it, it was perfect for when I had to drop my dad off on a beach in S.C. I use the boat for crusing around the I.C.W. in S.C. it is such a shallow drafting boat that I can practicaly reach any destination even in marshes. My Sharpie is designed by Karl Stambaugh, it is his Windward 24'.

  10. That's great. I would love to see some pictures of it. I really like Stambaugh's designs, especially the Windward series. I spoke with him on the phone about his Windward 28. I was considering building a modified version of it. I think they are great-looking boats.

  11. Your thoughts on sharpies brought back a flood of memories. I taught wooden boat building for 15 years at a small college in the outer banks of NC. Each of my students built a 20 ft New Haven style sharpie. They are still sailing 20 years later.

  12. Thanks Michael. I'll bet that was an experience those students will never forget.


"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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