What’s Taking You So Long?

December 3, 2009

Over Thanksgiving, I showed photos of my boat to one of my relatives. She was not impressed. “So you haven’t gotten very far,” she said after looking at the most up-to-date pictures.

Take a good look. When the seats are installed you won't see all the time spent installing the stringers.

I maintained my composure. After all, she’s a kind and loving person. But it was a very deflating comment.

I don’t blame her. In fact, I fully understand why the average person on the street fails to appreciate all the labor involved in boat building. To a casual observer, there is nothing complicated or even impressive about a rough, unfinished plywood hull. The uninitiated can legitimately ask: “What’s taking you so long?”

The problem is that the labor is hidden. A casual observer simply sees the curved box with the crude beginnings of a cabin and cockpit. But the real work is not represented by the boat’s size or even its overall shape. It’s found in the angles that must be measured and cut, the sanding and shaping required to make watertight joints, the tedious work of gluing each piece in place. And, of course, there is all the time spent staring at the plans and rereading the instructions, trying to avoid mistakes.

Even now, nearly nine months into my project, I am still learning that 90 percent of the labor in boat building is preparatory work. I go out to the garage determined to, say, install the seats. How hard can that be? I’ll be done before lunch.

But once there, I realize that I must first install roughly 30 stringers, and each stringer must but cut to length, angled, and trimmed. I must make countless measurement to assure myself that the stringers are properly located on the hull sides, and I must mark and predrill dozens of holes for dozens of screws.

So instead of finishing the seats, I spend an entire morning cutting half of the necessary stringers. A few days later I cut the rest of the stringers. The following weekend, I glue them in place. The day after that I decide to caulk seams that will be hard to reach when the seats are installed. Hours, days and, eventually, weeks pass before the “preliminary” steps are finally finished and I am, at last, ready put the plywood seat bottoms in place.

Of course, when the seats are installed, all of my time-consuming work will be hidden from view. Out of sight means out of mind and I alone will know what was required to make a simple and unadorned plywood bench. My niece will look at the seats and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Now that I am nearing that final step, I am already looking to the next task, which is to install the seat backs, which also serve as the boat’s coaming. That should be easy, I say. How hard can that be?

I will soon find out.

Hurry Up Slowly

November 4, 2009

My newfound enthusiasm tripped me up last week. Determined to make real progress before winter, I rushed into the garage during an unseasonably warm day eager to install the cockpit seating. The result was a pile of miscut lumber and low-grade depression.

seat sides

All's well that ends well--mostly. The second set of seat side boards are now epoxied in place.

In theory, the seats are simple—vertical sides support a plywood bench held together with some stringers and glue. Adding to my confidence was the knowledge that, for the first time, I didn’t need to worry excessively about a perfect, watertight fit. With the hull completed, I’m just tinkering with the interior architecture.

But my eagerness to reach the finish line, combined with a sudden lack of timidity and caution, made me inattentive. Instead of carefully reviewing the plans and—of even greater importance at this stage—carefully measuring the actual cockpit space, I simply rushed to my plywood with a few rudimentary measurements and starting cutting away. In a matter of minutes I had both sides of the seating area ready to install and for a few moments I congratulated myself on my speed and decisiveness. I must be getting the hang of the boat building business!

Then, of course, came the disappointment of discovering that I had mismeasured the length of the cockpit floor. Once I set the boards in place it was painfully clear that both were a half-inch too short; there was a gap between the side boards and the transom wide enough to sail a tanker through. I tried to pretend that the discrepancy didn’t matter—that stringers could bridge the gap and epoxy could hide my error. But the mistake was too galling and in, the end, I am too much of a perfectionist to live with dumb miscalculations. So in a pique of self-recrimination and irritation, I redrew and recut the pieces. But by now I was grumpy and harassed, so I made a couple of new mistakes—small ones (you probably won’t see them)–but they gave rise to a new burst of Job-like lamentations along the lines of “Why me?” and “Well, that figures!” It didn’t help that all my cutting was producing a chaotic pile of wasted plywood that kept getting in my way as I worked.

I left the garage feeling that my time had been wasted and warm weather had been squandered. The next day was even warmer, however, and with some trepidation I went back out to the garage. First, I paid penance by cleaning up the scrap wood and putting away the tools. Then I went back to work—but more slowly and with no particular goal in mind. Of course, I don’t need to point out the obvious: My work was both pleasant and productive. A few hours later I had successfully epoxied the seat sides to the bottom of the hull and everything fit with satisfying precision. My small mistakes from the previous day are still there and they will mock me for years to come, but such things are good for the soul—or so I hope.

Autumn is my favorite season. I like preparing for winter by stacking firewood and cleaning up the yard. With cooler temperatures and a sense of urgency, I often work in a more purposeful way. But I needed this experience to remind myself that boats simply cannot be rushed. Everything I learned during the first weeks of work holds true today: progress depends on the incremental completion of countless small tasks. I keep looking for the moment when the fiddly work is over and I can sprint to the finish line, but it never comes. After completing one tiny task, I simply move onto another tiny task. From one day to the next, I seem to do nothing but cut a notch here and plane an angle there. But, somehow, all this tinkering has gotten me this far, and I have to remind myself that I will eventually get me to a finished boat and the water’s edge.

Autumn Resolutions

October 23, 2009

Autumn came suddenly; it was warm one day, cold the next. Leaves changed color overnight. I was caught by surprise and it left me feeling cheated. I had hoped to get so much more done this summer—in all aspects of my life, but especially with the boat. At the very least, I had hoped to finish the cabin, install the seating, and possibly even fiberglass the hull. From there I hoped to work in a smaller but warmer woodshop on fiddly bits like the rudder and mast.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Completed cabin.

Completed cabin.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Instead, I stood shivering in a large and unheated garage looking at a very forlorn looking hull wondering if I would ever get the boat in the water.

From spring to midsummer I was pleased with my progress and even nurtured the secret hope that I could be finished by fall. I held on to that fantasy into August, even when my initial enthusiasm faded and I was distracted by other household projects. Only with the arrival of morning frost did I admit the truth: Like so many other amateur boat builders, I’ll need a year (or more?) to get the job done.

My first reaction was to admit defeat and close the garage door and announce that the boat building season was over. I don’t like working in cold weather; it’s not fun running a sander when my nose is running and my hands are numb. Lack of comfort leads to sloppy work and shortcuts. Also, plastic resin glue, my glue of choice, requires temperatures above 70 degrees to dry properly.

But after feeling sorry for myself for a week or two, I changed tactics. I know from experience that I can lose interest in projects when they are neglected for too long. I didn’t want to open the garage doors in April and confront a dusty hull that I no longer wanted to finish. So I decided to view off-season boat building as a challenge and try to get as much done as possible. I was going to march on, even if I my progress was minimal.

My first strategy was to switch adhesives. While plastic resin glue needs warm weather, epoxy tolerates much lower temperatures. It takes longer to harden as the thermometer drops, but that’s more of a benefit than a disadvantage; I can work at a more leisurely pace knowing that the mixed adhesive won’t “kick” (to use some jargon) for an hour or more. And as for the problem of comfort: Well, nobody says I need to work in subzero temperatures. I admitted to myself that with warm clothes, it’s possible to work comfortably and carefully on the many winter days that rise to the 40’s and 50’s.

To prove my resolve, I took advantage of a recent warm day to attach the cabin roof, which I had cut several weeks ago but left lying on the garage floor. It now arches elegantly over the curved cabin roof beams, which I had completed in the even more distant past—early September, I think. It was my last major accomplishment and required some precision and experimentation. The first set of rafters were not sufficiently arched and needed to be redrawn and recut.

The result is a boat that finally has something close to its final shape—a finished hull and a nearly complete cabin that allows me to crawl inside and, for the first time, experience my long-held fantasy curling up in the cocoon-like space of my waterborne retreat. The cockpit still looks bare without the seats, but once they are assembled, the “plywood” phase of my project will at last be finished. Maybe I’m not such a slacker, after all.

Interestingly, the boat seems to be getting smaller, not larger, as I continue work. I assumed that it would appear more spacious as it gained volume, but the opposite appears to be happening. Instead, the completed cabin makes me realize just how small the interior space really is. I can sit up (just barely) and there is plenty of room to lie down. But it’s more like a low-slung tent than true living space. I can’t yet decide how I feel about this revelation, but I understand why some people opt for open hulled sailboats, or, alternately, look for boats that are unconventionally designed but offer much larger cabin space (such as Phil Bolger’s birdwatcher design). The simple truth is that it’s hard to provide true living space in a true pocket cruiser so I, like all boat builders and boat owners, must compromise space if we want the convenience and affordability of a small boat.

But in moments of doubt and self recrimination (I should have built a different boat), I remind myself of my guiding mantra (this is an experiment) and my ultimate goal (one successful journey down the Chesapeake). After that, new opportunities will appear, as they always do. But first things first: Keep working and get it done!

Is Smaller Better?

September 21, 2009

After watching me work on my boat for the past six month, Avery, my oldest son, announced that he had the bug and wanted to build his own boat. “Great!” I replied. “What do you have in mind?” I immediately conjured images of him working on a simple plywood canoe or a build-in-a-weekend rowboat.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

The Piccup Squared (taken from the plan's blueprints). Four sheets of plywood and a few squirts of glue are all we need.

But he had other ideas. Opening his computer, he showed me plans for a 23-foot racing yacht from a South African designer. Its sleek lines, ballasted keel, and well-appointed cabin had caught his eye and I could tell that he was imagining the thrill of cutting through the waves in such a stately craft. Because he is sixteen, I also knew that the admiring glances of pretty girls were probably involved in the fantasy.

It was a nice boat, but I couldn’t help notice that it required advanced woodworking skills and tens of thousands of dollars to build. Avery, who is enormously talented in many ways, is still a novice woodworker. He is also incapable of saving a dime. In other words, the chasm between fantasy and reality was wide and deep.

“Very pretty,” I said cautiously. “It looks a little ambitious. Maybe you should consider something less complicated. Why don’t you start with a smaller boat so you can learn the basics?”

“What do you have in mind?” he said skeptically. The recommendations of parents are never to be trusted.

I enthusiastically opened my computer and pulled up plans sold by Jim Michalak, who specializes in simple, but seaworthy, plywood sailboats. Many of his plans are inspired by the work of the late Phil Bolger, who pioneered the techniques of “instant” boat building. I’ve had my eye on Michalak for a while and, had I learned of him earlier, I might have selected one of his small cruisers for my first boat.

For Avery, I clicked on an eleven-foot daysailer called the Piccup Squared. Designed for simplicity, it has a flat bottom, exterior chines (meaning that stringers are on the outside of the hull), and a square bow. I admit that it is boxy, but it’s a reasonable choice for an inexperienced builder working on a budget. I also found it charming and cute. Part of me wished that I were building it.

But Avery was appalled. Compared to his South African racer, it was squat and dull. It was like telling a kid who pined for a Ferrari that he could have a used Ford Astro.

At an impasse, we dropped the subject and several days passed. But within a week, Avery was back. He had clearly spent time mulling over the conundrum of financing his dream boat and reluctantly came to the conclusion that he didn’t have enough money to buy more than two brass screws. In light of this regrettable but temporary lack of funds he would consent to building the Piccup Squared. But he wanted it known that this was simply a warm-up exercise, a way to limber up and be ready for his real project in a year or two. And, by the way, would I pay for the wood?

Fine, I said, entering into the negotiation. I’ll buy the wood, as long as it’s considered the family boat—not your private craft. I’m the financier; you’re the builder. Agreed, said Avery.

So I ordered the plans, which promptly arrived and upon inspecting the bill of materials, I learned something important about boat building: Small, simple boats are surprisingly cheap to build. My fifteen-foot pocket Cruiser requires fourteen sheets of plywood in a variety of sizes. And that’s just for starters. There are also many board feet of pine planking and lots of hardware, not to mention gallons of expensive epoxy. I’m not focusing on cost, but I predict that whole thing will add up to $2,500 by the time its in the water.

In contrast, the Piccup Squared, which is only four feet shorter, requires just four sheets of quarter inch plywood. That, plus a few pieces of pine and some glue, is enough to complete the hull. In the spirit of adventure and economy, we also decided to experiment with less expensive materials. I have been reading about builders who use luan—a plywood underlayment that just happens to use waterproof glue. It’s dirt cheap; on sale at Lowe’s we paid less than $9 per sheet. I also wanted to try Titebond III glue, which looks and acts like regular carpenter’s glue but is also considered waterproof. A gallon costs a modest $25.

So with a simple boat and an eye toward economy, we found everything we needed to get started at the big box lumberyard for about $70. More expenses will come—the seams will need epoxy and fiberglass tape; there’s also hardware and sails. But I predict that the whole thing will cost no more than $250, which is ten percent the amount I expect to pay for my Pocket Cruiser.

And what about time? We have yet to start cutting, but experienced builders like to point out that building time also grows or shrinks exponentially. Time requirements can double simply by adding a few feet to a boat’s length. Likewise, trimming off a few feet can take weeks, months, or years off a project’s calendar. It’s not like house building, where contractors can take advantage of the economy of scale. In the labor-intensive world of boat building, every inch requires hours of work and complexity grows with size. So with a slightly more experienced eye, I see a project that can be in the water long before my boat, if Avery starts this fall and sets aside a few hours a week.

We have yet to start this new project, but there are many lessons here for me. While I usually congratulate myself for picking a simple first time project (and, in the world of boat design, the Stevenson Pocket Cruiser is a small and simple boat), there are still ways to get on the water faster. And after a few outings in rented Sunfish and other daysailers this summer, I also suspect that the thrill of sailing an eleven-foot boat is no less than the thrill of sailing a fifteen-foot craft.

So even if Avery, following the fickleness of the teenage mind, decides that he doesn’t want to build his boat, I have a feeling that it will be built nonetheless.

Sailing Lessons

September 9, 2009

In my fantasy life as a sailor, the weather is always perfect—sunny and warm (but not hot), with a steady breeze blowing from exactly the right direction. In every scenario, my boat is tugged forward with an energetic breeze—thrilling, but never alarming.

Sometimes, I force myself to admit that sailors will encounter rough weather. I remind myself that high winds and rough seas are dangerous for my small, unballasted boat. My unquenchable thirst for sailing literature—with its tales of storms and high seas– helps me stay humble and cautious.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

But what never intrudes into my daydreams (and rarely shows up in the classic tales of sailing adventure) is the tedious reality of less than perfect weather—days marred by rain, cold and, especially, the absence of wind. Yet these are the forces of nature that have bedeviled me all summer. I am starting to realize that the number of truly perfect sailing days—the kind that inhabit my dreams—can be counted on a single hand over the course of a year.

I had a great start with my first outing in a Sunfish in early summer. The day was perfect in every way. But then the mid Atlantic seaboard settled into unseasonably cool weather and, worse, an unending procession of storms.

In July, David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, suggested that we split the cost of a sailing lesson offered by a boat rental concession at a nearby state park. We picked a convenient evening when we were both free.

The long range forecast looked good. But as the day approached, the promise of sun turned to a day filled with clouds and, on the morning of our lesson, I woke to overcast skies and a light drizzle. By late afternoon, steady rain was falling and we reluctantly canceled.

Determined to get our lesson, we rescheduled and, this time, the day was clear and warm. We met, as agreed, at the dock right after work. Our boat was a 14 foot American day sailer—a simple, stable and nearly indestructible fiberglass boat similar in length to our Pocket Cruisers. Our instructor was a very personable fellow named Matt who was young enough to be my son, but exuded an air of self confidence that came from a lifetime on the water. We readily followed his instructions.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

I was eager to get the most out of our hour-long lesson. While sailing the Sunfish, I realized that I tended to follow the path of least resistance and didn’t try to set a course that required any real skill. I hoped to learn more about sailing upwind. Also, I had never used a jib before and, since my Pocket Cruiser has a jib, I wanted to understand its role.

But by six p.m. when we were all in the boat, the light wind died and we more or less drifted into the middle of the small lake. We went through the motions of sailing—David and I took turn holding the rudder and we all practiced unfurling and furling the jib (which was fun, even without a wind), but it was really all for show. By the end of the hour, Matt was using a canoe paddle to get up back to shore. I had a good time, and learned a few things, but drove home wanting a bit more. (A short video clip taken by David captures our cheerful sense of resignation.)

So I started watching the weather and—a month later—found both a sunny day and a free afternoon. This time the whole family came along and I rented the American for an hour’s sail. But—and I swear this is true—the very moment I handed over my credit card to the boat concession attendant, the wind died and the ripples on the lake disappeared. It was so calm it made the previous sailing experience look like a gale.

But I had an enthusiastic family and my twins fought for turns to paddle the boat. Hilary, still skeptical of sailing, announced that this was her favorite outing so far. Becalmed, she merely stretched out on the seat and dragged her fingers in the water. The only one fighting resentment was me; I pointed the boat toward ripples that disappeared the minute we reached them and, in a small fit of frustration, started flapping the rudder, just as I did when I boy, in a futile attempt to make some forward motion.

I eventually gave up and joined the kids in a rousing rendition of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Matthew took the rudder and steered us back to dock while Sophie paddled and Hilary worked on her tan. It was a fine afternoon, even if it wasn’t part of the original fantasy.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

August 19, 2009

Despite my grumblings and self-recriminations, I am making some progress during these hot mid-summer days. An hour here and two hours there added up and I suddenly realized that I am, in fact, ready to attach the side boards—which will complete the hull and mark another important milestone.

First, however, I decided to circle the boat with my camera a take a few photos of the interior before it is hidden behind the side panels. I want to remember why the boat is taking so long to finish and I also decided, with some humility, that future Pocket Cruiser builders would like to see how I solved some of the boat’s small, but nettlesome design problems.

These close-ups aren’t especially inspiring, I admit, which is why most builders like to post artfully composed photos that emphasize the grace and beauty of their craft. I liked looking at these pretty pictures before I started my boat, but right now I am more interested in the blood and guts of boat building. Whenever I hit a snag, I find myself combing the Internet (usually without success) looking for close-ups that help me see how other people constructed their bilge board boxes, attached the transom to the keel, or secured their mastbox—among the dozen or more technical dilemmas that I have encountered over the past few months.

So for posterity and the edification of those who will build the next batch of Stevenen boats, here are a few images, enhanced with commentary and cautionary tales:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 3

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 7

Let’s start at the bow of the boat. Figure 1 shows the front, from the forward bulkhead to the tip of the stem. Once the sides are attached, the many hours of interior work will be almost fully hidden, so before we seal the vault, so the speak, take note of the mastbox, which is attached to

Figure 8

Figure 8

the inside edge of the bulkhead. Figure 2 shows how it is secured with plywood collars at both the top and the bottom. Stringers fill the remaining space.

The mastbox is sized to hold a 4 x 4 inch inch post (which is, of course, actually 3 ½ x 3 ½ inches). To assure an easy fit the box is about an 1/8 inch larger. To my inexperienced mind, this means that water will seep into the box, sit there and, since there is no draining mechanism, rot the wood. There is much discussion among Pocket Cruiser builders about this problem.

One faction advocates drilling small weep holes so that any accumulated water can drain away. Another group promotes encapsulating the inside of the box in epoxy. These are not mutually exclusive strategies, but for the moment, I followed the latter path and took the extra time needed to paint three coats of epoxy on all interior sides, including the boat bottom. For even more protection, I used epoxy when adhering the top and bottom collars. The rest of the boat will turn to oatmeal long before the mastbox will. Figure 3 shows the opening of the mastbox and the liberal use of epoxy.

Moving on to figure 4, please note the ten-inch eyebolt protruding through the stem. The bolt slides through a six-inch hole cut with an auger and secured on the inside of the hull. I fretted about drilling such a long hole, but old-fashioned augers allow for wonderfully precise drilling. The more serious concern was filling the hole after the eyebolt was inserted. I don’t like having a hole in the boat so close to the waterline and I spent a fair amount of time worrying that water would seep in, promote rot and make a puddle in the forward bulkhead. My simple solution was to line the inside of the hole with epoxy (using a small dowel to smear it around), then coat the bolt with as much thickened epoxy as it would hold and shove it in. Finally, I pushed in more thickened epoxy once the bolt was inserted and secured. I don’t know how well it will work, but it was the best I could do.

From here, let’s move toward the middle of the boat and pause at the bildge board boxes (figure 5). As I discussed in detail in an earlier post, I modified the size of the box slightly, making it both narrower and not quite a wide as the plans indicated. Also, I placed the box closer to the bottom edge of the boat. If I built and placed the box according to plans it would not fit underneath the deck. Pete Stevenson told me that I was the first to have this problem, but I suspect it’s more common than he knows. I know of at least two other builders who modified their boxes for one reason or another.

I made one other modification to the bilge board boxes: Based on the recommendation of builder Tom Christensen I angled the top of the box so that it would follow the upward curve of the bow. This allowed for a better fit and helped the deck maintain a graceful sweep from stem to stern.

The boxes were also encapsulated in epoxy and, as added precaution, secured to the boat bottom and deck with epoxy. Following the directions, I had little difficulty cutting out the slots in the top and bottom (see figure 6). Finally, I added two small partitions that attached to the sides of the boxes. They may or may not be necessary structurally, but they are part of the plans.

The tour is nearly complete, but I want to also show a close-up of the transom (figure 7), showing how the outside of the boat’s rear panel sits flush with the end of the keel and the keel’s capboard. The plans are bit vague on this point, but I looks like a flush surface is needed with attached the rudder mount later on, so it’s worth point out.

Finally, figure 8 offers the obligatory “pretty boat” view that shows how all the parts come together and remind me that I am making some progress after all.

I don’t pretend that I solved every problem or made the best decisions when I encountered a problem. But I am always grateful when other builders share their experiences and insights, even if I eventually blaze my own trail.

Summer Doldrums

July 28, 2009

On a transatlantic voyage, there come a point where a sailor travels too far to turn back, but remains a disturbingly long way from his destination. There’s no land in sight, just an endless horizon of water, day after day. Progress is being made, but it doesn’t feel real; despite the effort, everything looks about the same.

That’s what it feels like with my boat right now. I keep working, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Out of habit and a kind of stubborn determination, I spend at least a few hours in the workshop every week, but I don’t really feel that I’m moving forward. The gussets I’m cutting now seem so small and inconsequential when I contemplate all the work that remains.

A few old doubts have reemerged. Why, exactly, am I doing this? Will it really solve all my midlife problems? Never mind that: Will it even float? Some days I survey the boat with pride. On other days, I’m so critical, my eyes practically burn holes in the hull.

It doesn’t help that I turn 45 in a week.

I find myself distracted by other fantasies of adventure. My long held and barely suppressed urge to travel is surfacing again and the time once spent researching online boat building sites has been replaced by fare-shopping on Travelocity (“Hmm, I could get the whole family to Madrid for $2,500…”). We lived in Mexico for two years, but that was nearly four years ago. I’m ready to speak another language and a plane will get me overseas faster than a boat.

It occurs to me that it’s probably at this point that many boat projects slow, stop and quietly disappear—scuttled by the multiple forces of boredom, distraction and a feeling that completion is too far away.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

Avery (in the rear) and his friend Alex built a cardboard boat in two afternoons. It didn't last long, but they had a lot of fun.

These ruminations were reinforced by my son’s successful launch of a cardboard boat in the stream behind our property. Built with a large packing box and several roles of duct tape, it required nothing more than a few hours of work with a friend. Of course, it only lasted a half hour before water seeped in and turned the boat to mush. But the fun to effort ratio was high—higher, I think, than it will be with my Pocket Cruiser.

Try as hard as I might, I can’t really get the hang of being young and carefree.

Bilge Board Boxes, Epoxy Resin, and the Value of Good Friends

July 4, 2009

Ever since my plans arrived, I knew I would need to construct something called “bilge board boxes.” The diagrams were clear enough, but I couldn’t fathom their purpose. For a while, I thought they were some kind of drainage mechanism—a way to get water off the deck. They remained a mystery to me even as I drew closer to the day when they would be built and installed.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge Board Boxes.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge board boxes.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Finally, at the last possible moment, I sat down with the plans and (with the help of some online research) made the simple discovery the bilge board boxes hold two retractable bilge boards, which are just like centerboards—expect they come in pairs and are located near the sides of the hull instead of the center. When the light went on, I threw my head back and laughed at my utter stupidity. The bilge board box is simply a watertight frame that encases the board as it passes through the cabin and enters the water.

Like centerboards, bilge boards help sailboats maintain a straight course by resisting a boat’s tendency to slip sideways. Even now, I recall my early experience with a Sunfish and remember what it felt like to sail without the centerboard inserted; the boat skidded like an inexperienced skater on ice, nearly powerless against the prevailing wind. Once the centerboard was pushed down through the hull, however, it felt like a train that had been put back on its track; the boat bit into the water and could be kept on course.

But why use bilge boards and not the more common centerboard? I don’t know enough about boat design to answer this question with authority, but one reason—a very good reason, in my opinion—is that centerboards take up a great deal of space in small sailboats. They sit in the very middle of the boat and the box housing the centerboard cuts the hull in two halves. In my boat, a centerboard would dominate the already small cabin and monopolize the limited living space. In contrast, bilge boards sit unobtrusively off center. You need two boxes, one for each side, but they don’t get in the way.

So I now know what I’m building and understand why they are necessary. That’s the first hurdle. But I immediately face another dilemma. Despite what the diagrams show, it becomes clear that the boxes won’t fit in the space indicated. My careful measurements show that the boxes will sit too far inside the hull and won’t connect with the underside of the deck. This is a serious problem, since the point of the project is to have the bilge boards slide through slots in the deck and exit out the boat’s bottom.

Once again, I head for the Backyard Yacht Builders Association’s online forum. This small but lively community helped me before when I struggled with the keel and patiently answered questions about plastic resin glue and the placement of the deck. Now they offered quick reassurance that my latest problem is solvable. “Hold on, help is coming,” responded Bud Wilson, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. He said it would be acceptable to narrow the box and move it an inch or two sideways. I rechecked the measurements and replied that his ideas would solve the problem. For the third time in as many months, my fellow builders save me.

I resist the urge to give advice, but after four months of experience, let me offer this one suggestion: When selecting plans for your first boat, seriously investigate how much support you will get from experienced builders. While books and Web sites provide a general and theoretical understanding of boat building, there will come a time—perhaps many times—when you just want a real person at your side to answer a simple question about the next step in the instructions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I bought the plans from Pete Stevenson, I was also buying into a large community of Stevenson boat builders, who don’t charge a dime for their advice and don’t laugh (publicly, anyway) at my questions. I could build the boat without them, but it would be harder, lonelier, and considerably more stressful. Similar support, I assume, is available to those who build some of Phil Bolger’s more popular boats. Several other well-established designers maintain their own forums.


I am now ready to build the boxes, but I’m not out of the woods yet. One more problem remains. The inside of the box will sit in the water and, I decide, needs to be carefully waterproofed since it will be inaccessible after it is constructed. The Stevenson’s take a casual approach to the problem. They suggest painting the inside of the box before gluing. But won’t paint eventually peel? On a hull, this is not a serious problem; sailors simply repaint their boats. Some do it every year, like spring cleaning. But I won’t have an opportunity to repaint the boxes. I won’t even be able to see inside the boxes. I have no expertise on this issue, but for peace of mind I want a more durable coating.

The solution, several builders tell me, is to encapsulate the box’s interior with several coatings of marine epoxy—the very substance I have been avoiding for nearly four months. I had heard that epoxy was messy, toxic, and considerable more expensive than other glues and coatings. But beyond these practical concerns was a philosophical objection. I started my boat on a lark and wanted it be an informal first effort, one that could be completed quickly and economically. When people told me to use epoxy instead of plastic resin glue, for example, I decided that they didn’t share my “get it done” philosophy. I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of using “the best” when “good enough” was, well, good enough.

But as time passes, I find my attitude shifting in small but important ways. I still view my boat as a first time effort, not an heirloom. It is not a boat for the ages and I believe that it will be replaced by a better and more sophisticated effort. But…I also find myself taking pride in my work and wanting the boat to last—if not “forever,” then at least for more than a few years. From this new vantage point, I am willing to go the extra mile when it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg or put me behind schedule. The desire to build truly impregnable bilge board boxes tips the balance and I place my first order for a gallon and a half of epoxy.

But I still had lots of questions about epoxy, and the more I read, the more confused I became. One person talked about using epoxy as an adhesive, while another used it as a gap filler (when smeared along seams it’s called a fillet). It is used when fiberglassing the hull. Sometimes the epoxy is thick; sometimes it is thin and spreadable. Does the same product do all these things?

The short answer is “yes.” Used straight out of the bottle (two bottles, actually, since epoxy comes in two parts that are mixed just before using), it is relatively thin, spreadable goo. But when builders want to use it as an adhesive or as gap filler, they add a thickener. There are many kinds of thickeners, but one of the most common and economical is “wood flour,” which is simply very fine sawdust.

I learned all this from many hours of reading and Web surfing. Additional clarification came from my online informants. But it still seemed confusing and I yearned to see epoxy in action or, at least, chat with someone who has actually used epoxy. My shipment was going to arrive any day and I didn’t want to waste a single, expensive drop.

Just then I received a well-timed invitation to the home of a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. David had stopped by my home a couple of weeks earlier and we shared a pleasant evening in my garage, poking and prodding the still loosely assembled parts. Now I would have a chance to see his boat. Not only that, the whole family was invited and dessert was promised.

David and his wife Cheryl live in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, a region of rolling hills, luxuriant fields, tidy home and manicured farms. Their house sat on a quiet country road, surrounded by knee-high corn. Ladies in cape dresses strolled by and boys scuttled up and down the road on scooters. It was very picturesque.

The house was equally tidy and tranquil. Cheryl teaches music, so we chatted in their music room about pianos and the musical tastes of Cheryl’s Amish students (hymns, of course, but Take Me Out to the Ball Game is the runaway favorite among the boys). But David and I were soon finding our way across the backyard to the boathouse –a neat as a pin shed, perhaps fifteen by twenty-five feet. The Pocket Cruiser just fit inside, although David had to shove his table saw to a corner and hasn’t been able to use it for three years.

I head to the boat like a fly to ointment. Forgetting all of the appropriate preliminary complements (“your making good progress;” “the boat looks great”), I immediately lean over the deck and start asking questions faster than David can respond. We are nearly at the same stage in the construction process, so I notice even the smallest variations. A more confident builder, David made several changes along the way and we discuss each in detail. It’s amazing how long two middle aged men can talk about the angle of a stringer or the wisdom of using pine boards for panel joiners. We stand over the boat like surgeons discussing a particularly difficult operation.

But epoxy is my special concern and I immediately notice that David made liberal use of the stuff. Although the boat is assembled with plastic resin glue, he used epoxy to fill gaps, attach his mast box, and encapsulate his bilge board boxes. His boxes are not yet fully assembled, so I could see inside and immediately appreciate the superiority of epoxy over paint. Two or three coats produced a thick, glasslike coating that completely isolates the plywood and pine boards from the water.

By the time I finished asking questions, the rest of the family is already sitting in the patio eating cake and ice cream. The sun is setting and the yard lights up with fireflies. Cheryl recalls feeding fireflies to small toads as a child and watching their bellies light up. Suddenly, as if on cue, a toad materializes on the patio. Cheryl puts it in a jar while the kids are instructed to catch a firefly. The toad dutifully eats the firefly and, thirty seconds later, his belly flashes like a luminescent bulb. The toad is released, happy for the snack, and we know that we have found some good friends.

We return home and the next day I start building my bilge board boxes—cutting the wood one day, painting a couple of coats of epoxy the next. The work is not hard or time consuming and I proceed with confidence since all the problems have already been solved. The final result will be two small, inconspicuous and unimpressive rectangular boxes. Passengers will not give them a second glance. But written in their construction is the help and good will of many people. Relations were formed and friendships built around these boxes. This, I think, is what the project is all about.

A Boatshed of One’s Own

June 27, 2009

I don’t have any experience building boats and very little experience sailing, but I do have one thing that many builders lack: an enormous workshop. Our house is tiny; the original portion was built in the late 1700’s and even with small additions in the 1920’s and 1970’s, it barely reaches one thousand square feet. But what our house lacks in living space, it more than makes up in outbuildings; we have several, the largest of which is a 1,225 square foot detached garage—what we grandly call the Carriage House.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

When we bought the house, I added some shelves for storage, but most the floor space is empty. I considered the structure a bit of an albatross. It was a convenient dumping ground for boxes and objects that didn’t fit in our house. The children, who used it as an oversized playhouse, kept it in a state of chaos. In exasperation, I threatened to tear it down.

But when I decided to build a boat, the garage finally had a purpose. It was as if it had been waiting all these years for me to make up my mind and lay the keel. I had all the room I needed, and plenty of space to spare. Indeed, I calculated that I could build a boat twice as long. I could even build two boats simultaneously, if I so desired.

Not everyone is so lucky. For many, boat building ambitions are constrained by available workspace. Many builders first take the measurements of their garages, then decide what they can build. Still, I am intrigued by the determination of builders to work with what they have. I occasionally read about kayaks being built in walk-up apartments and Dynamite Payson’s book on Instant Boat Building includes a photo of a rowboat being eased out of a second story window in New York City. In Rascal, A delightful child’s memoir about a turn of the century boyhood in Minnesota, author Sterling North recalled building a canoe in his living room under the gaze of a pet raccoon and a very tolerant father.

Of course, boats can also be built outside. Captain Slocum built the Spray in the open air, as did Henry Pigeon when he claimed a short stretch of Los Angeles beach for the year-long construction of the Islander. Even today, boats are built from Haiti to Indonesia a few feet away from the water.

But it’s no longer possible to stake a claim on beachfront property (just try!) and in the east coast of the United States the weather rarely cooperates—it’s either too wet or too cold for at least half the year. Where there is good weather, there is rarely navigable water. It occurs to me that the high desert of New Mexico would be an ideal place for an open-air boatyard. But launching would be a challenge.

As a result, many people begin their boat building endeavors by first constructing a shelter. The easiest path, I suppose, is to purchase a ready-made Quonset hut-style carport. They’re not very pretty (in my opinion), but they don’t keep you waiting. Others put their carpentry and architectural skills to work and build permanent boatsheds. Fellow builder Tom Hoffman tells me that he’s planning to build another Stevenson design called the Vacationer, but for the moment he’s focusing on the construction of a 1,296 square foot poll barn—what Tom calls his “Dream Shop/Garage/Boat Shop.”

He’s making good progress, but the danger is that construction projects can overwhelm available time, money and emotional energy. The ultimate cautionary tale, I think, comes from architect Witold Rybczynski. In his 1989 book, The Most Beautiful House in the World, Rybczynski recounts his efforts to design a functional and attractive boatshed where he could build a dory ketch. A small living space was also planned so that Rybczynski and his wife could use the shed as a weekend home. He purchased land near his Montreal home and poured a foundation of suitable size.

So far, so good. But the rest of the book recounts the multi-year odyssey to design the perfect workshop-house, one that reflected his evolving philosophy of architecture. At first, he sketched a modest, highly functional workspace with a few rooms on the side. Later, it turned into a modernist structure with sharp angles, a cement block workshop and corrugated metal walls. Worrying that these designs were out of place amid the farms of rural Quebec, he softened the lines and drew inspiration from surrounding barns and farmhouses. He also decided to increase the living space but, since the footing was already poured, he stole space from the workshop—which became too small for a twenty-two foot dory. He decided to build a smaller catboat instead.

To make a long story short, the house grew larger, the workshop smaller. Eventually, it disappeared. The initial burst of boat building enthusiasm dissipated and all the creative energy shifted to the house. “My house had begun with the dream of a boat,” he concluded. “The dream had run aground—I was now rooted in place.” When finally built, his simple country home was christened “The Boathouse,” but it never did—and probably never will–see a boat within its walls.

These are not my dilemmas, but as the months pass, my garage seems to grow smaller. While the hull itself takes up one corner of the garage, nearly an equal amount of free space is needed to cut plywood panels and manipulate ungainly stringers. Of course, a workbench is nearly essential, and there must be space to maneuver around the assembled parts. I am suddenly grateful for every square foot.

Still, part of me misses the challenge of working in a less commodious structure. I like the idea of planing a board under the shade of tree when the weather is good, and there is a romance to assembling the parts in an oversized tent, the light dappling the canvas walls. It would be like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but with a boat instead of a hut. This rough-and-ready approach is more in keeping with the humble nature of my boat and my outrageous fantasies of middle-aged escape.

On the other hand, the garage offers a convenient escape from what has been a very wet spring, and provides an ever-present excuse to work on the boat instead of completing less enticing household projects. When I wake up on Saturday morning to the sound of rain, I smile. It means I don’t have to mow the lawn or weed the garden. But the garage is dry and the boat is waiting.

Getting Ready to Glue the Deck and Bulkheads

June 15, 2009

Dry fitting the completed parts was fun—and easy. A few minutes work gave me a rough approximation of a boat and something to look at for a few days. But it’s not enough to have the pieces “sort of” fit; before gluing the boat together I need to have all the parts really fit—not an inch too long or a quarter inch too short but right on the money—everywhere, at every point. This meant that I had a long day’s work ahead of me, doing things that, for the most part, were not discussed in the plans. I was putting together a fourteen foot jigsaw puzzle and I was on my own.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meet the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meets the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

The first order of business was trimming an inch off the stem. I noticed at the dry fitting stage that the deck rose too sharply at the bow. A rakish upward swoosh is nice, but my deck was practically pointing straight up. I double checked my measurements and knew I had lofted correctly. But I also know what looks right, so with a sudden burst of complete confidence I hacked the stem down to size. Once accomplished, I knew I did the right thing.

Of course, it took me half the morning to make the decision and get the measurements just right.

But that was just the first step. I also needed to mark the precise location of the cabin and forward bulkheads. Each is positioned at its own eccentric angle—the cabin leans forward at 71 degrees; the forward bulkhead at 92 degrees. How did the Stevenson’s decide on such odd numbers? I wonder as I set my angle marker and nudged the cabin bulkhead forward a few more degrees. I suspect they just built the boat, then took the measurements. My task is to faithfully recreate their gut feelings.

But it’s not that easy. Because the deck follows a curve, any change in the angle of the bulkhead affects its position along the outside edge of the boat. Tilting the forward bulkhead to the proscribed 92 degrees pushes the top of the bulkhead toward the boat’s interior and produces a quarter inch gap between the bulkhead and what will soon be the boat’s sides.

Well, that won’t do, so I have no choice but to cut a deeper notch in the bulkhead and move it forward half an inch. This also means the mast will sit a tiny bit closer to the bow, but I decide not to worry about that.

And so it goes. All afternoon I circle the boat, measuring, eying and, occasionally, cutting and planing an inch here, a sixteenth of an inch there. I spend six hours doing this and by dinnertime I’m exhausted.

By the end of the day, my visible work is a few notches and a few pencil lines, but it looks like the pieces line up and everything is square and ship shape. I’m now ready to take the next big step—one of the biggest so far—and glue the parts together. But that will have to wait for another day.


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