MOUNT DESERT — An unusual-looking boat sailed up the sound a few weeks ago, headed for a winter’s rest at Mount Desert Yacht Yard.
Ariel is a 35-foot wooden double-ended yacht designed by the late John Atkin and built by the late Ferd (“Red”) Nymphius.
But what a passerby will notice first is the little sloop’s sail plan. She was carrying nine sails: a main and jib, staysail, square sail, two raffees, a ringtail, watersail and spritsail.
“I like square rigs,” said owner David Gerstel of Vermont. “The designer gave us permission to put a square rig on it. I think it’s the only square-rigged small vessel around. We’ve been playing with it for three years, and I think now we have it.”
Cruising in Maine the last few summers, he said, the only other square sails he has seen were on the visiting replica French frigate Hermione and the square topsail on the privateer Lynx.
The raffees are the triangular sails that sit above the single yard (horizontal spar for the square sail). Some Great Lakes vessels traditionally have one large raffee, but in this case, the forestay makes that impossible.
The other additional sails are meant for light air – in the same way sailors reduce sail area in heavy wind, adding more canvas can help make up speed in light wind. A ringtail is an extra panel attached to the mainsail, requiring a small extension on the boom. The watersail hangs below the boom, and the spritsail flies from its own small horizontal spar under the boat’s bowsprit.
A history buff and collector of antique books, Gerstel said handling the complex rig is not as challenging as it looks once you get the hang of it.
“It’s certainly different from boats where everything is push-button,” he said. “With the square sail, you don’t tack, you ‘wear,’ which is essentially a gybe. I can do it as fast as anybody tacks.
“Square-rigged ships evolved over a couple thousand years,” he continued. “They went out of existence in a generation, but square rig sailors weren’t stupid. If the rig didn’t work, the ships would sink or the people would die.
“I sail in and out of harbors under square sail. I can put up the raffees and square and jib at 35 knots, and going downwind, it’s like sitting in a rocking chair.”
The Nymphius shop in Neshkoro, Wisc., 50 miles west of Fond du Lac and a long haul from Lake Michigan, is a legend in its own right. Builder Nymphius was a friend of Gerstel’s father. “Red knew me from when I was a kid,” he said. “He built all the wooden Mackinac racers.”
They started construction of Ariel in 1975, he said, but it took 10 years to finish and several more until Gerstel took delivery of the boat. “I brought it to Maine because that’s where I wanted to sail.”
In 1984, the TV show “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” visited the shop; that segment is available online.
As Maine sailors know, the world of wooden boats is a small one.
“Just this last week, I got a call from a man who had worked on building my boat,” Gerstel said. “He was in Blue Hill, and he wanted to come see it.”