March / April 2024

The Norwalk Islands Sharpies

An American workboat derivative wins worldwide respect
Norwalk Islands Sharpie

PAUL ATKINS

On the Derwent River near Hobart, Tasmania, Geoff Heriot’s Norwalk Islands Sharpie (NIS) 23, SCHERZO, leads Rob Ballard’s NIS 23, ROUTE 66. Bruce Kirby designed the original NIS fleet, in lengths of 18’, 23’, 26’, 29’, 31’ and 43’, inspired by the Connecticut River oyster fishing sharpies of the late 19th century.

My son Jacob will tell you he was more than skeptical about the little plywood boat. He was pretty sure his older brother, Noah, and I were in the midst of another nautical impulse buy—flurries of infatuation that have not always turned out well for us.

The Norwalk Islands Sharpie 23 that Noah and I found on Craigslist was in New Orleans, where Jacob, 25, is a professional saxophonist. With both Noah and me far away in New England, we encouraged Jacob to “just go have a look.” This boat could be a gem. The Norwalk Islands Sharpies have a reputation for being extremely fast and able boats.

When Jacob saw POULE D’EAU, his skepticism began melting away. He liked the sleek, hard-chined hull and the raked, unstayed, cat-ketch rig. What truly blew him away, however, was his first sail with her seller, Dr. Peter Sawyer. “It was fast as all hell,” he gushed. Sawyer had written two articles for Small Boats Magazine about adventure cruising in the sharpie along the Gulf Coast and into the bayous. His enthusiasm was catching.

The rest, as they say, is history. After nearly a year of sailing POULE D’EAU, Jacob has become a zealous sharpie skipper. He sails five days a week and has become an active member of the Norwalk Islands Sharpies Facebook group. Like so many sharpie owners before him, Jacob has sailed “down the rabbit hole,” or more accurately, “over the rainbow.” He is far from alone. 

While Norwalk Islands Sharpies have gained a global following, they are especially popular in Australia. There are more than a few sailors there who claim that what they call “NIS boats” are as addicting as the taste of a Vegemite sandwich. The Aussies say that for many seafarers and dreamers, it takes only one sail (as it did for Jacob) in these largely home-built “little busters” to make you want to join a throng of Norwalk Islands Sharpie “mates.”

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