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: http://www.parker-marine.com/index.htm