After falling hard for a Freedom 33, Nic Compton finds out if the love affair will last during a series of shakedown sails in the West Country

Searching for a new boat to replace our beloved Victoria 26 wasn’t easy, writes Nic Compton. During September 2020, after nine months of looking, we placed a Facebook ad that read: ‘Thinking of selling your Freedom 35ft ketch? My wife and I are keen to buy one. Any age and any condition considered.’

We had looked at hundreds of ads online and examined nearly 20 boats in the flesh, including everything from Hillyards to Tahitianas and any number of Sadlers, Saltrams and Standfasts. But the boat that had really excited us was a Freedom 35 we saw out of the water in Plymouth. My wife, Anna, and our children loved the modern (well, ok, 1980s!) interior and I was intrigued by the boat’s rig.

For years, I’d noticed the Freedom range and liked their clean, unfussy lines and bold free-standing ketch rig. But they’d always been out of my budget – until now. We saw that first Freedom on a Saturday, but by the time we called on the Monday to put in an offer, she had already been sold. It was peak pandemic and the boat-buying fever meant anything good was being snapped up very quickly.

We saw two more Freedom 35s in the following weeks, but both needed a lot more work than we were prepared to take on. In desperation, I posted an ad on the Freedom Yachts Owners’ page on Facebook, and two weeks later got a message that an ‘American version’ of the Freedom 35 was coming up for sale in Plymouth.

It turned out that this was a Freedom 33 – exactly the same hull as the Freedom 35, but measured by the LOD rather than the LOA – built by Tillotson Pearson in Newport, RI, in 1982. She was the shallow-keel version (4ft 6in draft) with carbon fibre masts and aluminium booms.

Zelda is like a Tardis inside – with a huge amount of space for a 33-footer. Photo: Nic Compton & Matthew Griggs

The boat had spent six years based near Seattle before being shipped to Scotland in 1988, where she acquired a doghouse. Since then, she had cruised the Celtic fringe, from Scotland to Ireland and then to Cornwall and Devon.

We went to see her three days later and were smitten. Despite the lack of aft cabin, the interior felt like a breath of fresh air after the pokey, compromised interiors we’d seen in the previous months. Anna was delighted with the doghouse, and I was impressed with the boat’s general conditions.

What’s more she had hot water, a large fridge and a cabin heater, as well as all the necessary navigation equipment – all in immaculate condition. Luxury indeed. And so, one rainbow-filled morning, we drove to pick the boat up and sail her the 40-odd miles from Plymouth to our mooring three miles up the River Dart.

As we raised the sails in Plymouth Sound for the first time, I noticed something that would become a recurring theme: people staring. At first I wondered what they were staring at. Had I left the fenders over the side? Was the exhaust on fire?

But then I remembered doing exactly the same thing whenever I saw a Freedom: staring with astonishment and (in my case at least) admiration that such a curious rig should exist and, apparently, work. first sail And work it does, as we soon discovered.

That first trip was a bit of an anticlimax, as we motor-sailed home in a near-calm – though we were delighted to be greeted by a pod of dolphins halfway around. A few days later, we were joined by one of our daughter’s friends for the short trip downriver to Dartmouth.

It was a gusty day and, almost by impulse, I put two reefs in the main and a single reef in the mizzen. Unlike the centreboard version of the Freedom 33, which has almost equal sized main and mizzen, Zelda has a relatively large mainsail (348sqft) and the advice from the previous owners was to ‘reef early’.

Despite this precaution, I was completely unprepared for what followed, as we were hit by a series of sudden squalls, first downwind – when we clocked 5.8 knots on the log – and then on the nose once we rounded the first bend.

Back on her mooring on
the River Dart. Photo: Nic Compton & Matthew Griggs

Yet, even as we short-tacked against the incoming tide, with a novice crew on an almost unknown boat, there was none of the panic caused by the
jib or genoa sheets clacking on the foredeck. We simply swung from one tack to the next, with the occasional adjustment to the mainsail carried out within the calm of the doghouse.

The wind disappeared as soon as we got around the second bend, and we were left to coax the boat through each tack, trying desperately to avoid the many boats on moorings. Coincidentally, a friend who happens to be a wooden boat aficionado was watching at this point, not realising it was us, and later commented on how well the boat carried her way, not missing her stays once despite the challenging conditions.

It seemed the lack of jib combined with the doghouse had turned what might otherwise have been a scary situation into a fun jaunt.

Part of the family

We used that winter to make a few small changes, such as reinstating the step on the forward bulkhead to make it easier to climb out of the forehatch; refitting the foc’sle bunks infill so we could turn the two singles into a (very large) double; fitting handles on the cockpit lockers so the edge didn’t bite your fingers off when it closed suddenly. The biggest alteration was changing the boat’s name from Solo – the name she’d been born with but which had zero appeal for a family boat – to Zelda, which was much more in keeping with us.

It felt like a slightly sacrilegious thing to do, but it was a huge relief to remove the big old lettering off the transom and replace it with the new name. The boat immediately felt more ‘ours’.

And to anyone who still thinks it’s unlucky to change a boat’s name, I’ll say just one word: Enza (Nigel’s Iren’s legendary catamaran which has had 12 names in its lifetime and is still going strong).

Zelda is a hybrid: shallow keel with tall rig – hence the extra lead ballast in her bilge. Photo: Nic Compton & Matthew Griggs

The plan for 2021 had been to sail to Brittany, or failing that, to Guernsey and/or the Scillies. But COVID-19 ruled out going to France, and the expense of all the tests needed for Guernsey, combined with the fact that our 12-year-old would have to self-isolate for two days after we got there, put an end to that idea too.

And, sadly, the weather window never came up at the right time for us to sail to the Scillies. Instead, Easter found us alongside Whitestrand pontoon in Salcombe, waking up to an early morning frost decorating the deck like icing sugar.

By June we had ventured as far west as Fowey. I sailed the boat from Dartmouth with my friend Matt and, as we rounded Start Point, the breeze picked up to about 18 knots and Zelda took off, clocking 7.5 knots on the GPS, the fastest we’d got out of her up until then. It no doubt helped that she had just been antifouled and that we had at least a knot of tide in our favour, but it felt good to finally see her perform as I’d hoped.

After Anna and the children joined me in Fowey, a strong southwesterly blew up and, rather than bounce around at sea, we decided to make the most of our new inflatable dinghy to head up river. We all piled in and pottered up to the village of Golant, where we had a drink at the Fisherman’s Arms followed by a picnic on the village green. It was the right thing to do, as the next day we were treated to an idyllic sail to Salcombe in 8 knots of wind – perfect family sailing.

Solid seakeeping

August found us heading west again, this time visiting Falmouth and the Helford. And again we headed upriver, this time motoring with Zelda up the Fal to Malpas, where we moored up on the visitor pontoon. After a pleasant walk to a playground on the edge of Truro, we headed back to Malpas and were treated to the best meal out of the year at the Heron Inn, with great vegan and vegetarian options.

A happy man sailing around Start Point: the log said 8.9 knots – though the GPS corrected that to 7.5 knots. Either way, her best performance yet! Photo: Nic Compton & Matthew Griggs

The weather again looked unsettled for the return trip to Devon, so I arranged for my friend Laurence to join us in Falmouth while Anna and our daughter drove home. Unexpectedly, my 10-year-old son insisted on staying and joining us on the boat.

It would be his first all-day passage and I was concerned he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for – especially when we discovered the iPad had been left in the car – but he was adamant.

It turned out to be a horrible passage, with a boisterous Force 4-5 crossing an already big swell on our starboard quarter. But it was a great opportunity to test the boat. We had a wild ride to start with, with a full sail set and the boat romping along at 7.8 knots, though the helm became increasingly hard to handle.

We eventually lowered the mizzen and put a reef in the main and she settled down immediately, though it cost us a bit of speed. As the boat surfed awkwardly down the waves, the only person who didn’t get seasick was my son. His reward for a truly stoical performance was seeing dolphins close up for the first time, as dozens of them played under Zelda’s bow early on in the passage.

Even sailing locally on the Dart can throw up its own challenges, as I discovered one day when I set off on my own for an afternoon sail off Dartmouth. No sooner had I raised the sails than the engine conked out, and I discovered to my eternal shame that I had run out of diesel (the first time this has ever happened to me – honest!).

I carried on and enjoyed a long sail out to sea before heading into Dartmouth and back up to our mooring. It took me several hours of tense ducking and weaving between moored boats, as the breeze gradually faded, the tide turned against us and the channel got shallower.

With her shallow draft and tall rig, Zelda proved adept at this kind of sailing, inching her way to our mooring. And I discovered another advantage of her rig, as I goose-winged up the river, with the sails boomed out on either side, catching every last zephyr of wind. It’s early days, of course, and we’ve still got a lot to learn about the boat, but so far Zelda has proven that she’s a comfortable, easily managed family boat, which is exactly what we were looking for.

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