The Annual Bulletin for 1994-95 included an article (page 34) by R.Backhaus detailing his purchase of A140 Kate Thomas, the work he carried out and his views on sailing and trailing. The article makes interesting reading with some honest insights into the costs and benefits of owning an Atalanta.

A recent tidy up by one of the AOA ex Bulletin Editors brought to light a new document written by the owner’s wife offering a different perspective on the same period. I enjoyed reading this and thought that your make too! Both perspectives are reproduced below.

Kate Thomas 1990/1993 (A140)
Roger Backhaus

(From the 1994-95 Annual Bulletin)
Down in the New Forest, in a front garden, on her trailer and freshly painted, she  looked and what’s more smelt good – and had a great deal more style than the  24 foot Macwester we then owned. With some groans and within the limitation imposed by the trailer the keel mechanisms seemed to work. The owner had impressive photographs of a complete internal and external repainting job he’d done, including stripping the hull back to bare wood, and he had a sack of blueprints and AOA journals which added interest. That was in Spring 1990. My initial plans for launching within six weeks were optimistic, by as it happened, nearly a year, despite the good order she was in, and even that was too early….  

Since Summer 1993 we’ve lived in The Netherlands. KT is now seaworthy, shipshape and being wintered in an old greenhouse close by Amsterdam’s airport in what is known as “Winter stalling” – a standard and inexpensive arrangement in this country for storing boats under cover.

So how would I sum up my experience of owning and using an Atalanta, over the last three years? 

1. Cost

I paid 5000. Reasonable, I reckoned,  for a boat of her pedigree and condition. Since then, and with a policy of going for the better and longer-life options where there were alternatives, I’ve spent a further 7000…..a sum I hadn’t totted up until writing this article. That total was made up as follows:

500 on the deck – a professional repair to the aft deck and transom (I wasn’t confident of my routing and laminating skills, and the previous owner had had some fibre glassing done, which is a recipe for further trouble). This was the expense I had genuinely expected. 

1600 on steel-work: for the boring and bushing (off the boat) of the main keel support assemblies, and the manufacture of six keel bolts and nuts, and clamp plates, all in A4 stainless. These were fabricated to fairly standard dimensions and pattern except for recessing the nut to take a  modern “O” ring seal, seating on a “top hat” stainless bush.  The keel support assemblies responded well to shot blasting and zinc spraying, and came out looking like new.  I also bushed the keels themselves. 

400 + 3300 on engines:   The original Wortham-Blake Ford 100E was unreliable, smelly and dangerous, despite the reconditioning done by the previous owner. It let us down on our first trip (mast-down) from Teddington to St Katherine’s, and continued to disappoint and stress us from that point on. I then tried a Seagull 170 long-shaft outboard, plus remote controls and a transom bracket, as a low cost experiment, but it was a mistake. It had insufficient power and with any sea running the propeller and exhaust outlet dived too low (choking the exhaust) and rose too high (losing drive). It’s sitting now at Bradwell Marina shop awaiting rescue. With a change of circumstances and the offer of work in Holland, I had a new Farymann 18W single cylinder diesel installed (together with a new shaft, cutlass bearing, prop, and exhaust system). This was worth every penny. Starts at the touch of a button, and delivers. The Farymann has now carried us through the inland Dutch waters, through Rotterdam, through Amsterdam (twice, now) and into the Ijsselmeer. It’s nominal continuous rating of 6.3 bhp seems plenty, and it fits under a flat and safe cockpit floor.  

100 + 40 on tanks: I had a new stainless fuel tank made – an expensive option but I don’t like the idea of plastic fuel tanks in a fire. The old galvanised tank weighed a ton, was enormous, and the surveyor rightly condemned it. I replaced the equally heavy and beautifully sculptured galvanised water tank with a plastic collapsible. A good 40 quid’s worth.

450 + 275 + 160 on sails and sail handling gear.  I’ve  a Sailspar continuous-line headsail reefing system – the best (along with Hood?) at about 450, and it’s British and robust. To this I’ve added a Crusader radial cut headsail (275 on Boat Show offer). Performance is very good, after some initial problems with halyard-wrap (a common problem if you don’t fit a block to increase the lead angle from the top of the foil) but Sailspar were most helpful and sent out a van with a part to the Orwell, where the problem occurred. The lead of the jibsheet is poor and I’m about to add some track to improve the sheeting angle and get the best out of this sail.  Having a good sail up front makes me realise that the main needs replacing – the repair work I had done (160) was not good value. I’m hoping that a new main will improve speed and make her closer-winded. I’m in two minds about mainsail reefing – the original rolling system needs three hands, but does seem, together with the wire halyard and its winch, to be very much a part of KT’s character. A slab system would,  I believe, be easier to work.  

80 on rudder – not liking the look of the rivets between the rudder cheeks I had its sides welded up. I’ve thought about replacing the blade but haven’t. The upper pintle has been bushed with nylon. Before that I would often be shocked by what sounded like something crashing into the transom.  

Standing rigging – backstay I replaced first, the forestay was replaced together with the Sailspar gear. Shrouds are still original. New stays represent a very small investment, and with the work that went into stripping down, oiling, and re-fitting the spruce mast, I wouldn’t want to place it at risk. (Very few of the original bolts in the mast were intact. Most had turned into two small stalactites of rusty metal, one at each end, separated by dust. Hope, varnish and habit can achieve amazing results.) 

Overall – does 12,000 seem too much? With foresight, I’d think so. With hindsight? No, of course not!

2. Trailing

Don’t. Even with a borrowed Range Rover this is too heavy and long a rig. It is possible that one can find easier routes than across London, but I have no stomach to try again. Other drivers give no quarter. Sell the trailer to offset the other expenses. I got 240.  

3. Keel mechanism

Go for it! I wasted far too much time and wasted other peoples’ seeking advice, in trying to work around rather than directly tackle the problem of the seized keel bolts and wasted clamp plates. I effectively lost a whole season’s sailing through the over-enthusiastic use of a sledge-hammer and a hydraulic ram, which, despite precautions, disturbed the sealing along the centre-line of the boat where the two halves of the hull are joined in a sandwich between keelson and keel. I hadn’t realised that the hulls were moulded in two halves! In the end, with an 18″ industrial hacksaw blade in a makeshift handle, operated from under the boat, it only takes a few hours to saw through the mild steel bolts and free the keels. And this is not stressing the boat, only you, particularly at the last moment as you sever a bolt which may be supporting a quarter of a ton of cast-iron above you. I recommend you use a professional hole saw to cut around the outside of the tubes where they pass through the outer keel box, so that they come away easily and without doing damage to the ply. You’ll need a power drill with a right-angle chuck for this (hireable from HSS shops). You don’t need a sophisticated tower to support the hoist: a simple lean-to strut with its lower end in a block wedged against the base of the jack-box, and its upper end on the bulkhead between cabin and cockpit, works fine. 

4. Leaks

I had two problems – one I believe I created or exacerbated in trying to push the keel bolts out, the other was I think an old problem poorly repaired. The first (leaks down the centre-line of the boat along the hull joint) was repaired by epoxy injection backed up by glass taping the joint along the underside seam of the boat. Part of the problem was caused by the vast number of screws and remnants of screws used over the years to secure the rubbing strip. These were all extracted, and dowels epoxied in. The other leak was along one lower edge (port, inner) of the keel box. This was repaired easily – the only difficulty being the patience needed to thoroughly dry out the timber before injecting the epoxy. KT is now completely dry.   

5. Sailing and passage-making

We’ve found Kate easy and fun to sail – stable on all points, and wonderfully manoeuvrable. She is however slower than we’d hoped, and her motion is a bit lively. On our East-bound crossing of the North-sea in the Summer of 1993, from Harwich to Flushing, into a NE 6 or 7,  the motion was bad enough for I and my friend Les to both be too sick to even think about navigation, through the night. The Decca got lost, when we needed it most. (A strange extra-sensory phenomenon I’ve experienced before.) The wind shifted, and we missed Holland, being most surprised at daybreak to find ourselves off Nieuwpoort,  in Belgium. How we managed to cover the 40 or so miles between Noord Hinder S and Nieuwpoort, in only 4 hours, remains a mystery.

As to the shallow draft ability – we’ve enjoyed exploring the shallows of the Blackwater, and visiting up-river tidal places like Wivenhoe without being subject to the tidal time pressures on a fixed keel boat. The limitation on shallow water sailing is the rudder that is dynamically poor when raised.  The self-raising mechanism of the keels is wonderful in allowing a cavalier approach to be taken to short-tacking in a narrow channel. The keel design is of course crazy, with practically all the ballast in the retractable keels whose lifting points are only inches away from the pivot. Those keel jacks are hauling about 3 tons, at worst, near the top of their travel.

Why isn’t she faster? Other than a tired mainsail, and the conservative sail area on the standard three-quarter rigged boat, she may be overweight, there’s a fairly big fixed 3 blade prop, and the keel boxes have no covers or streamlining along their lower edges. I may try and do something about some of these.   

6. Living aboard

I’m told by Debbi, my partner, that our next boat will have headroom. The Atalanta may lack the internal accommodation of a modern vessel of her length but the aesthetics of the accommodation are very good: the main cabin being very pleasing and uncluttered. There is also some compensation in the very roomy cockpit (too roomy, in a sea – there’s too much space to get thrown about in).  We’ve usually been only two or three aboard for any length of time – on the one occasion when there were four of us, one, Andy, was a visiting New Yorker  who’d just arrived from the States. He was suffering  from overwork and jet-lag and was luckily rarely up and about when the rest of us were.   

7. People

I’ve been lucky in having the benefit of advice and help from friends, colleagues and other A owners (including my dentist who happens also to be an owner) and in the yards, suppliers and professionals who’ve done work for me. Perhaps one of the best parts of owning an Atalanta is the interest it attracts and the practical benefits that can bring. Notable were Tough’s yard, down in Teddington, South Dock Marina, and Peter Cooper (resident engineer at Bradwell Marina, who installed the diesel). Debbi was taking a break through the period from her career in the NHS and was a full-time undergraduate. She was, so she claimed, happy to have me out of the way at weekends, to avoid distracting her from her studies. She got her First, in Astrophysics.

8. Why Kate Thomas?  

Debbi’s maternal grandfather was a merchant seaman, and captained the 1800 ton four-master “Metropolis” so this was a possible choice. But “Metropolis” seemed too grand a name for a 26 footer with a half-inch thick hull, but she had a sister-ship, the Kate Thomas. For the record, A140 was initially “Treenlaur III”, and was briefly “Leo” before she was “Kate Thomas”.  

Kate Thomas – The Other Perspective
By Debbi, Roger’s partner

The first time I heard about our Katie was after Roger and Les returned from a Spring Sunday chasing up ads in Yachting Monthly. There’d been this really interesting  one – used to be carried under aeroplanes, big dingy, made in a pressure cooker ….. you know the spiel, and only 5000. I didn’t think that this was serious, we’d just had the berth cushions re-upholstered on Cass, our old boat, and although not a sailor’s dream, we hadn’t talked about replacing her. 

The second time was when a sheepish Rog informed me that he’d bought her, had to in fact – there’d been this buyer ready with the readies, the seller had put him in a spot, what else could he have done?  “Said no” and “asked me”, sprung to mind, but the deed was done. A week later we were introduced. She was pretty, clean, freshly painted, and smelt good. There was a soft patch on her transom, but that was fixable. So she was taken by low-loader to the Isle of Dogs for the transom repair, and sorting out. 

Later that summer, as the keel bolts had proved stubborn, she was trailed across London to Toughs in Teddington. This was done at crack of dawn, on a Sunday, and whatever happened put Rog off the thought of ever trailing her again; I stayed in bed. The titanic battle of the keel bolts now progressed. I was a student at the time, so Sundays, Roger’s boat days were good study days. Consequently I saw very little of her, just patched up the various minor injuries incurred, and cheered him on through the Summer.  Cass was finally sold, but Kate didn’t make it into the water that first season. 

Over the Winter Rog poured hours of work into her and apart from a few chilly days assisting when sons and boaty male friends baled out, avoided the boat yard. At this stage she certainly wasn’t my boat, and while I didn’t sink to “told you so”, I probably let it be known that I thought he’d bought a wreck.

She was launched the following spring – and immediately leaked enough to cause concern. After much talk of “taking up”, we set off down river to St. Katherine’s discovering that, when under way, water sloshed and slopped up the keel boxes into the cockpit, interesting for those of us raised on normal boats. The old petrol engine stank, overheated and finally stopped several times between Putney and Tower bridges, not the friendliest stretch of the Thames. We boiled our way into St. Katherine’s providing entertainment for the tourists, and after raising the mast, motor sailed to South Dock, arriving with the engine billowing steam and the marina tender dancing about in nervous escort duty as the Thames mostly ran out to sea and partly into the boat. 

The leak continued, and even with float switches and bilge pumps we weren’t happy with the thought of leaving her on her East Coast mooring, so after a few weeks sailing in the Thames, with water gently trickling in and the engine gently boiling, she was ignominiously motored to Teddington. 

A short summer of mopping her out and cursing the engine had finally given me a sense of ownership, so I took more interest in the “battle of the bottom”. Roger hit a real low that Winter. Another guy in the boat yard who had been battling with a wreck suddenly gave up and chopped the whole thing up one weekend. I think Rog felt like doing the same. Kate had become a disappointment, and the problems seemed endless. However, pints of epoxy, dogged determination and his by now competent carpentry slowly worked, and her bottom was transformed into sound wood, glass tape and ‘poxy. The old engine was sold off, an outboard fixed to her stern, her mast and transom were stripped, sanded and oiled, we changed her colour to British racing green (ever the optimists), renamed her, and finally launched her. This time it all worked, she was dry and has remained water tight ever since.

The outboard while more reliable than the old engine, still failed us twice in the Thames. Manoeuvring slowly was a problem, and we wasted several hours by driving into a landing stage and reversing into a large willow tree, wrapping yards of willow round the prop. Still, once under way, we kept on going, and sailed her to Bradwell with no problems. We kept her in the marina, just in case, for a few weeks, but she stayed dry, and after about 2.5 years finally reached her swinging mooring.  

In her favour, she always smelt fresh, even with the Thames sloshing around inside her, and, after cleaning, was always bright and pleasant to be in.  The berths are long and comfy, the cockpit good for lounging in on hot sunny days, she is very manoeuvrable – phenomenally easy to move around in marinas, and sails well. 

Against her, there is not head room for my 5′ 11″, the galley needs a radical rethink, she’s a bit frisky in any sort of sea when the cockpit becomes too big, and everyone else seems to be able to go faster, although she regularly reaches 5 knots.

My worst memory? Trying to find out where she was leaking from while she was in South Dock. The marina water smelt, she was getting green and slimy in the main cabin, and for the first time her intrinsic appeal and style failed her. If we could have got shot of her there and then I think we would both have said yes.

My fondest memory? Trickling up the edge of the Blackwater  under the headsail, in 0.6m of water, on a warm quiet Sunday, not caring when we bumped as the tide was rising,  discovering that winding the keels up takes 100 turns each side, learning how shallow we could go, and how to turn her and float off.

She has fully redeemed herself, survived a bad North Sea crossing, endless locks and lifting bridges, traversed a large part of the Netherlands, and next Summer is off to where she could have been designed for  – The Friesians. Riddle of The Sands here we come.

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