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Why did I choose my Ranger 20 sailboat?

by Ken Wheeler

The simple answer is because Howard Smith, owner of Ranger Boat Co., gave it to me in 1972. How that came about is a longer story.

I started sailing at 8 years of age-about 1931. At the time we lived in Gig Harbor in a house at waters edge right across the harbor from the “Tides Tavern”. At that time it was the ferry dock for the Gig Harbor-Point Defiance Ferry.

One of my “toys” was an old wooden 12 foot flat-bottom skiff.

Since my paternal grandfather was an old time boat builder and expert sailor from the late 1800s and early 1900s he saw to it that I learned to row properly and to rig my skiff with a sail. The sail was an old table cloth of about 48 sq.ft. rigged as a fisherman’s sprit rig, loose footed. A fir sapling was my mast with a similar sapling for the diagonal sprit. The rudder was a spare oar. I soon learned about leeway and sail balance. Grand dad showed me how to rig a piece of 1”x12” flat board as a lee board C-clamped to the lee gunwale. The combination worked and I’d sail and row all over Gig Harbor. For an 8 year old I was in heaven. Sailing and seamanship were an ever-growing love and hobby.

Since those days in 1931 I’ve continued to sail. To various degrees it’s been everything from board boats, catamarans, centerboard class dinghys to 80 foot keelboats.

My job in the military was as a navigator. I was 21 years old when I took a B-17 bomber across the Atlantic to Italy and WWII. I chose navigation because I had a dream of someday sailing around the world so figured I had better learn how to navigate. I already knew how to fly so it was a great choice. I never fulfilled the dream of sailing around the world, but I’ve navigated airplanes around the world.

After 28 years of flying for the military in WWII bombers to four engine transports on worldwide mission I retired from the military and went to work for Ranger Boats. Design, lofting, plugmaking, assembly, demonstrating and selling. All of it interesting and fun.

All the while, whenever the opportunity presented itself, I’d sail. It gave me the chance to evaluate all the compromises that go into sailboat design depending on how it will be used.

I love the competitive aspect of one design class boat dinghys with the ease of launching, sailing and storage. As time went on objectives changed. At first something like Lightnings, Snipes, Mobjacks were great. Then family considerations came into play. The Ranger 24 and Ranger 26 as well the Ranger 8.5 were great. They could be cruised as well as raced. Moorage, of course, became a costly problem. This size could be hauled out on a trailer with a ½ ton pickup truck for annual clean-up and bottom painting at a minimum cost.

When the owner of Ranger Boats presented the criteria for a family cruiser/racer sailboat to the naval architect, Ray Richards, he came up with the 20 foot Ranger 20.

It’s stowable in the family garage, easy to launch and rig, unsinkable, safe, easy to singlehand and capable of sleeping four. The unique aspect of the design is the cuddy cabin. It opens up what is normally a closed cabin for use with the cockpit. Typically nobody sails inside the small cabin-they are all crammed into the cockpit getting in the way of the skipper. On the Ranger 20 the skipper has the whole cockpit with his crew operating in the open cuddy area-out of the way of the skipper. Their weight is centered and amidships. For a closed cabin, the convertible canvas top unfolds for camping overnight. You can sail or race with the convertible top in the up position during rainy or cold weather. The wives or children love this feature.

The queen size berth down below sleeps two. The cockpit will sleep two under a boom tent so it can accomodate an entire family.

The ballasted keel draws 21”. With the centerboard down the boat draws 37”. All the ballast of 550 lbs. is in the molded keel. The centerboard only weighs 28 lbs. All up, the boat weighs 1500 pounds with a sail area of 248 sq. feet. The spinnaker is an additional 260 sq. feet.

I’ve towed the boat behind a ¼ ton pickup but a ½ ton is more comfortable.

Ray Richards the naval architect and I lofted the boat (two weeks on our knees drawing full size patterns). I built the wood plugs for the hull, deck, and interior, assembled the fiberglass parts that the glass shop made from the molds, picked out the hardware to rig it with, launched it in 1971 and sailed it in blustery winter weather. When I first sailed the prototype, sail #1, I knew it was a great sailing compromise of all that can be worked into a sailboat design. It was a great boat on all points of sail, forgiving and wonderfully balanced. It proved to be a winner.

A total of 550 were made before production ceased when Ranger Boats Company was sold.

A great one design class association was formed. The boat was raced as a one design and under handicap rules. It has been cruised extensively.

During prototype testing I filled it completely with water. The interior flotation works perfectly. The boat will float upright with 10” freeboard aft and 3” forward.

I again proved its flotation during one of the annual races on Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho with a wild, out-of-control spinnaker broach. We laid on our side, filled with water, pulled the sails to the down position and slowly came upright- floating as the first test showed. The committee boat then pumped us dry. A great test but quite embarrassing.

My enthusiasm for the design after testing boat number 1, “Ichiban”, was so positive that “Smitty”, owner of Ranger Boats, gave me the boat. He knew that my enthusiastic campaigning of the boat in races would sell more boats. Owners who cruised the boat would do the same. Owner enthusiasm was great.

This is why I’ve owned and sailed my Ranger 20 for the past 35 years.